Matt's Reviews > Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Citizens by Simon Schama
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Apr 26, 2016

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bookshelves: french-revolution

I wanted to read about the French Revolution. So I searched on Amazon for the biggest, cheapest book that I could find, to give me an overview. Now, the French Revolution is complicated. It makes the start of World War I seem simple and inevitable. This book will not help clear that up. Which is not to say that this is a bad book. Rather, it's not a starter book. You should probably know a little bit about what's going on before you crack the covers. I am ashamed to say I had to use Wikipedia to get the chronology straight.

This isn't a retelling of the French Revolution from start to finish. Indeed, historians still argue about when it started, and when it finished. Rather, this is more of an impression of the Revolution, as told through participants, through literature, and through art. Schama does not take the normal historian's route of moving from one Historical Event to the next Historical Event. Instead, he works to give the impression of how these things must have felt, rather than focusing on a step-by-step retelling of what happened. As I said, this makes it hard for a newbie to the FR (that's what the kids are calling the French Revolution these days). The chapters are broken up chronologically, but Schama has a tendency to jump around a bit, so it's hard to keep things in order. He also will mention something, such as the Diamond Necklace Affair, but won't explain what that is until fifty pages down the road. Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if I knew anything about the FR beforehand, but still, Schama is a popular historian, not an academic, so it's not totally okay with me that he expects such a high level of pre-knowledge on the subject.

The best parts of the book are his mini-biographies on some of the leading characters, such as Necker, Robespierre, Malesherbes, Lafayette, Voltaire, Delacroix, David, Marat, etc. For whatever reason, he skimps on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. In fact, he barely mentions how Marie came to France, even though her Austrian relations proved important to events in the Revolution. Schama does spend inordinate amounts of time on the libelous pornography devoted to portraying poor Marie as a whore, a lesbian, and an eager participant in orgies. Some of this is interesting, especially in the way that these contemporary portrayals still hurt her reputation (she NEVER said "Let them eat cake"), but I would've liked a bit more on her character, rather than its assassination.

All in all, my troubles with the book mostly stemmed from my own unfamiliarity with the subject (I got especially bored with Schama taking potshots at other FR scholars). His analysis and conclusions, that violence was the fulcrum of the Revolution, rather than an aspect of it, might not be readily accepted, especially since his account is so anecdotal, though I will reserve judgment until I read something else on the subject.

While the anecdotal nature of the book may detract from its scholarship, it certainly brings the period to life. Even if you don't know for sure why the Bastille is being stormed, you'll be caught up in the account of its fall.

I especially enjoyed the story of Talleyrand, the (in)famous diplomat with nine (or more) lives. Apparently, while Talleyrand was making his escape to America, he arrived at a foreign port where he had a conversation with none other than Benedict Arnold, America's most famous traitor, who was on his way to England. The two of them had a conversation then parted ways. One alleged traitor talking to another. Now that is a great historical moment. The stuff you can't make up, history has already provided.
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04/26 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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A.J. Howard Matt, I read this book in college for the same reasons you did and my reaction was nearly identical. I couldn't keep the figures straight and I was generally lost. It took me months to get through it, and I only finished for completions sake.

A few years a later I picked it up again. I rarely re-read nonfiction, but I've enjoyed other stuff Schma had written so I thought I'd give it another chance. I kept expecting to get lost or frustrated, but it never happened. It all seemed fresh and I couldn't put the thing down. I'm not sure if it was having a firmer grasp on the broad outline of the historical events or the particular nature of rereading something but it now ranks as one of my favorite historical narratives.

I hate to advocate rereading a 900 page book that you don't have a great opinion of, but since your initial reaction was so similar to mine, I couldn't help putting my two cents in. Something to keep in mind, at least.

message 2: by Ben (new) - added it

Ben Thank you for the review. You led me to reconsider if this is the right book for a dummy like me to learn about the French Revolution.

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