French revolution

This thriller is as good as anything by Hilary Mantel

A few years ago, after a lifetime of wearing white shirts through which the straps of my white bra were plainly visible, I discovered a remarkable fact: if you wear a pink or even a crimson bra underneath a pale shirt, it doesn’t show. For several weeks I passed on this gem of truth to all my women friends. Was my enthusiasm met with relish, gratitude? It was not. They all said the same thing in response: ‘Oh, didn’t you know? I’ve always known that.’ I expected it would be the same in the case of Andrew Taylor. While reading The Silent Boy I was so overexcited by its brilliance

The queen, the cardinal and the greatest con France ever saw

You usually know where you are with a book that promises the story ‘would violate the laws of plausibility’ if it appeared in a novel, and that’s in deep trouble. In the case of How to Ruin a Queen, however, this is a boast with a surprising amount of substance to it. You could make it up — just about — but you’d probably have a very sore head afterwards. In 1786 Cardinal Louis de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France and scion of one of the country’s leading families, went on trial accused of having stolen a 2,800-carat diamond necklace. This was serious enough, but what was far more serious

Where did the Right and the Left come from? 

What is the origin of left and right in politics? The traditional answer is that these ideas derive from the French National Assembly after 1789, in which supporters of the King sat on one side and those of the revolution on the other. Yuval Levin in The Great Debate, however, argues not for seating but for ideas: that left and right enter the Anglo-American political bloodstream via the climactic public clash in the 1790s between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, the prime movers in a pamphlet war that convulsed opinion and engaged readers on two continents. If this is right, then the touchstone of modern political debate in Britain and

The men who invented Napoleon

Writing about Napoleon is a risky business. It exposes the author to the brickbats of the blind worshippers for whom he is a numinous hero and the equally challenged detractors who see in him only the petty tyrant. By the same token, most historians find themselves negotiating a slippery path between approval and censure of this most controversial and somehow still very relevant figure. It is one of Philip Dwyer’s great merits that he remains so detached from his subject that he makes the reader forget his own prejudices. He approaches it with the discipline of a chemist in his laboratory: he is understanding of his protagonist but not sympathetic.

Patriot or traitor?

The mighty convulsion that was the French Revolution has stirred the blood of historians from Thomas Carlyle to Simon Schama and consideration of it still inflames opinions. At its centre stood Maximilien Robespierre — 5’ 3”, stern, unaffacted in manner or dress, Spartan in his domestic habits — deified by his followers as the ‘Incorruptible’ and vilified by his opponents as a traitor to the ideals of 1789, bent on dictatorship. Peter McPhee spares us speculation (Robespierre left no memoirs or diaries) on his subject’s ‘inner life’. Relying chiefly on Robespierre’s voluminous speeches and articles for the press, he calmly follows his progress, from crisis to crisis, in an austere

A nation of meddlers

If you thought that bust of Lenin you had on your desk as a teenager was the ultimate in radical chic, think on. Infatuated with the French Revolution, Lord Stanhope proclaimed his solidarity at a banquet at White’s Club. Announcing that he was thenceforth to be known as Citizen Stanhope, he ordered the coronets to be removed from the iron gates of his estate, Chevening. Despite its title, David Pryce-Jones’s new book isn’t just, or even especially, about traitors. It’s a high-speed survey of prominent British citizens who have taken up foreign causes. Fellow-travellers, war-tourists, flauters of the Foreign Enlistment Acts and romantic propagandists take their places here alongside your