French revolution

What on earth has happened to Simon Schama: The Romantics and Us reviewed

‘You may think our modern world was born yesterday,’ said Simon Schama at the beginning of The Romantics and Us. If you do, though, I can only imagine that you’ve never seen any history documentaries on television — where, as a rule, the modern world is born in whatever period the documentary happens to be about, from Ancient Rome to the 1980s. After all, how can the past possibly be interesting if we can’t see ourselves reflected in it? As the title indicates, Schama’s choice, this time, of an era important enough to lead to us was the romantic movement. But as it soon turned out, the ‘us’ he had

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV

I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course, but if one was drawing up a shortlist of men who might qualify as exceptions to the rule, then Philip Mansel’s ‘King of the World’, Louis XIV, would surely be very near the top. Louis XIV came to the throne in 1638 at the age of four with the monarchy ‘on a knife edge’ and

Wickedness in wax

The reader of Edward Carey’s Little must have a tender heart and a strong stomach. You will weep, you will applaud, you will wonder if your nerves can take it, but most of all you will shudder. In this gloriously gruesome imagining of the girlhood of Marie Tussaud, mistress of wax, fleas will bite, rats will run and heads will roll and roll and roll. Guts’n’gore galore: I bloody loved it. Carey, author of the children’s Iremonger Trilogy, tells his tale with gusto. If this is a fairy story then Marie is more Rumpelstiltskin than Rapunzel. Her nose is hooked, her chin pointed, her eyes short-sighted. Even in womanhood she

A vanishing vision

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were undergraduates when they met in June 1794, Coleridge at Cambridge university and Southey at Oxford. One of their earliest conversations concerned the political implications of the passions. A month later, on 28 July, the French Revolutionary Terror climaxed in the guillotining of the Incorruptible, Maximilien Robespierre. Evidence from across the Channel notwithstanding, Coleridge and Southey were certain that the passions are not vicious — ’tis society makes the indulgence of them so. They resemble an assemblage of waters, destructive if they run wildly over the country, but the source of abundance if properly guided. With youthful utopian optimism they theorised an imaginary community

Police force

I’ve often thought that a good idea for an authentic TV cop show would be to portray the police as neither dazzlingly brilliant (the traditional approach) nor horrifically corrupt (the traditionally subversive one) — but just a bit hopeless at solving crimes. There is, though, one thing that prevents the idea from being as original as I’d like: this is how the police already come across in many true-life dramas. Take, for instance, the harrowing and — given its high-profile scheduling — extremely brave Three Girls (BBC1, Tuesday to Thursday), which provided an unsparing and wholly believable account of the Rochdale child-grooming scandal. The first episode opened in 2008 with

Perilous times

Helen Dunmore’s new novel concerns lives, consequential in their day, that pass away into utter oblivion. Appropriately, the ‘solitary and no doubt rather grim middle-aged man’ of the opening pages is unnamed and never appears again, once he discovers a forgotten grave near the pathway of the title. Bearing the image of a quill, the headstone commemorates a radical 18th-century writer, Julia Fawkes, who died in Bristol in 1793. The stone was ‘Raised… in the Presence of her Many Admirers’. But who was this Julia, wife of an equally obscure pamphleteer, and what is left of the works that, the stone optimistically proclaims, ‘Remain Our Inheritance’? The historically minded 21st-century

The road to catastrophe

France’s problems today should lessen the condescension of posterity towards Louis XVI. Presidents of the Republic have proved just as incapable as the King of reforming privileged corporations — stemming the flight of skills and capital — and winning popular confidence. Louis XVI’s failure to manage France after 1789 is easier to understand after reading John Hardman’s complex , well-researched, gripping 500-page biography . Louis XVI’s greatest problem was the French national debt. It had reached four billion livres — accumulated over many wars — and there was an annual deficit of 100 million livres. As a result, Hardman points out, in the 1780s, whereas the British government could borrow

A clash of two cultures

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ Philip Larkin’s most famous line has appeared in the Spectator repeatedly, and there has even been a competition devoted to its refutation. Steve Jones, though, thinks it too coarse to be quoted in what he himself describes as a popular science book. This is just one of many indications of the way in which this book is haunted by C.P. Snow’s two cultures. I was a bit shocked to see Jones describe his book as popular science because I had been under the impression that he thought it was, in part at least, a history book. As a popular science book, it’s

Northern lights | 28 January 2016

Opera North continues to be the most reliable, inspiring, resourceful and enterprising opera company in the United Kingdom, and all that without taking account of its extremely limited budget. From April through July it will be presenting its remarkable interpretation of Wagner’s Ring cycle in various cities, including London, so it may not be surprising that before that it is mounting much more modest fare — as indeed everything else is. Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896) seems to be undergoing something of a revival, and this new production in Leeds is the first time it has ever been performed in the north of England. It is normally mounted to satisfy the

Moving statues

One of the stranger disputes of the past few weeks has concerned a Victorian figure that has occupied a niche in the centre of Oxford for more than a century without, for the most part, attracting any attention at all. Now, of course, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is demanding that the sculpture — its subject having been posthumously found guilty of racism and imperialism — should be taken down from the façade of Oriel College. The controversy is a reminder of the fact, sometimes forgotten by the British, that public statues are intensely political. This was clear — until quite recently, at least — when one drove into the

Death watch | 19 November 2015

At the beginning of the summer of 1715 Louis XIV complained of a pain in the leg. In mid-August gangrene set in and by 1 September he was dead. He’d been on the throne for 72 of his 77 years. A new exhibition at Versailles looks at the elaborate rituals that followed. The Sun King died as he had lived — in public. Despite his illness, he carried on his daily routine until two days before his death, a decision made easier perhaps by the fact that he’d always conducted a good part of the affairs of France from his bedroom. It was no ordinary bedroom, and what went on

To the ends of the earth

What’s in a name? The identity of the author offers a clue to one of the themes of this intriguing novel: Naomi, a good Hebrew name; Williams, a stout Welsh name; born in Japan; lives in California. The earth is spanned. Landfalls charts the voyage of two French frigates exploring the world at the end of the 18th century, after Cook but before the Revolution. Based on true events, the story unfolds in discrete episodes, short stories indeed, told from a variety of points of view, in changing cases and in differing person. The dramatis personae remain more or less constant; they cross-inform each others’ stories. In its work as

One événement after another

The great conundrum of French history is the French Revolution, or rather, the sequence of revolutions, coups and insurrections during which the nation was repeatedly destroyed and recreated. How is it that a heap of cobblestones, furniture and overturned vehicles — handcarts in 1848, 2CVs in 1968 — erected at particular points on the Left Bank of Paris can bring down a régime whose domain extends from the North Sea to the Mediterranean? As Baudelaire observed when Napoleon’s nephew conducted a coup d’état in 1851 and installed himself as supreme leader, it seemed that ‘absolutely anybody, simply by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, can govern

Pet rescue

I adore Andrew Roberts. We go back a long way. Once, on a boating expedition gone wrong in the south of France, we had a bonding moment almost Brokeback Mountain-esque in its bromantic intensity. Roberts had hired an expensive speedboat for the day (as Andrew Roberts would) and we’d left very little time to get it back to harbour and avoid being stung for a massive surcharge. Problem was, the seas had got very rough and our anchor was stuck fast. We manoeuvred the boat this way and that to no avail. There was nothing for it. Someone would have to dive down to free it. It wasn’t easy. The

Not-so-evil genius

It is almost inconceivable that there could be a more densely detailed book about Napoleon than this — 800 crowded pages to get him from his birth in 1769 to his acclamation as First Consul for life in 1802. When completed in three or more further volumes, this will be an extremely comprehensive study. As only French biographers can do, every conceivable motive and alternative scenario is presented at every stage in the astonishing rise of the subject from the petty and parvenu and rather impecunious nobility of Corsica to a greater position of power than anyone had exercised in Europe since Charlemagne, if not the greater Roman emperors. The

When the money ran out, so did the idealism in post-Revolutionary France

For his holiday reading in the summer of 1835, the literary and political journalist John Wilson Croker packed the printed lists of those condemned to death during the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France. The several thousand guillotined in Paris after the establishment of the Revolutionary Tribunal (10 March 1793) and before the fall of Maximilien Robespierre (27 July 1794), were accused of crimes ranging from hoarding provisions or conspiring against the republic to sawing down a tree of liberty or declaring ‘A fig for the nation!’ In horrified disbelief Croker asked the question that has never gone away: how could this have happened? How could the progressive revolutionary optimism

Andrea Chénier, Royal Opera House, review: like a Carry On – but without the jokes

Who on earth could have predicted that a hoary old operatic melodrama set in revolutionary France would find resonance in the present where the pen as a weapon against bigotry and hypocrisy has suddenly achieved iconic status. But hold up, let’s not get carried away. We’re talking about Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Though its eponymous poet does indeed extol free expression at the service of love, the sentiments — the voices of reason in a time of high anxiety — don’t run too deep. And so we’re back where we started, with a hoary old melodrama. So how to stage something that only gets staged in the first place if you

Andrea Chénier, Royal Opera House, review: like a Carry On – but without the jokes | 21 January 2015

Andrea Chénier Royal Opera House, in rep until 6 February Who on earth could have predicted that a hoary old operatic melodrama set in revolutionary France would find resonance in the present where the pen as a weapon against bigotry and hypocrisy has suddenly achieved iconic status. But hold up, let’s not get carried away. We’re talking about Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Though its eponymous poet does indeed extol free expression at the service of love, the sentiments — the voices of reason in a time of high anxiety — don’t run too deep. And so we’re back where we started, with a hoary old melodrama. So how to stage something that only

How the smile came to Paris (briefly)

In 1787 critics of the Paris Salon were scandalised by a painting exhibited by Mme Vigée Le Brun. The subject was conventional enough: a self-portrait of the artist cradling her small daughter. The problem was that Vigée Le Brun was depicted smiling. You could even see her teeth. This was, as one critic put it, ‘an affectation which artists, connoisseurs and people of good taste are unanimous in condemning’. These outraged art lovers must have been rather out of touch with current trends. For, as Colin Jones shows in The Smile Revolution — his revealing history of 18th-century French smiling — the full-on, lips-parted sourire had been increasingly visible in

Terror plots, threats to liberties, banks in crisis: welcome to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars

In our own troubled times it is useful and comforting to recollect that ’twas ever thus.  Violent threats against prominent politicians? Jenny Uglow reminds us that in 1802 Colonel Edward Despard, a British officer turned radical agitator, was the last person in England to be sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, for a plot to kill King George III and the cabinet; while in 1812, the wildly unpopular hardline Tory Spencer Perceval became the only prime minister (so far) to be assassinated, the victim of John Bellingham, a deranged bankrupt. Threats to civil liberties? The first Defence of the Realm Act was passed in 1798 by the younger William