A.J. Howard's Reviews > Vienna 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made War, Peace, and Love at the Congress of Vienna

Vienna 1814 by David King
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's review
Aug 25, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: finished-in-2011, history

The genre of "popular history" is somewhat hard to pin down, over the years I've seen it defined in a number of different ways. The most common definition you'll find is any work of history written for a non-academic audience, but this has always seemed somewhat limiting to me. After all, can't a work accessible to the general populace also advance scholarship? This dichotomy between popular and academic history results in having the former type be almost overwhelmingly broad while the latter type is restricted to only nearly unreadable articles in academic journals.

Bit of a tangent I know, but having said that, know that Vienna 1814 isn't just pop history, it's bubblegum history. (You might want to put a "not that there's anything wrong with that after all sweeping subjective opinions I make in this review.) A word of explanation: I ordered this used off Amazon, and only realized afterwords that I had gotten it confused with, Adam Zamoyski's Rites of Peace, published one year before this one, a book that I had flipped through at a book store shortly after it came out. Normally not a big deal, right? It's not like I have read any Zamoyski before, or had heard anything remarkable about that book. I just had wanted to read a history of the Congress of Vienna for a few years, and that one happened to pick my eye.

My first hint of warning was that there were no maps. This alone left me pretty disappointed because, ever since My Father's Dragon I rather enjoy having a nice map to consult when I'm reading a book, especially when what's being discussed is some semi-obscure principality that I'm not 100% sure I can pronounce. After all, if any topic cries for at least a few handy reference maps, it's the multi-power conference that had to determine the fate of a continent full of semi-obscure republics formerly known as semi-obscure principalities.

However, it turns I didn't need to be worried about the lack of reference materials, because David King isn't so much concerned with our friends the semi-obscure principalities. Instead he's interested in who was getting fucked. And not fucked in the Poles in the 17th century or Kurds in the 20th century sense (ahh Peace Conference humor), but fucked in the Real Housewives of the Hapsburg Empire sort of sense. The Congress of Vienna serves as a mere backdrop for King to describe lavish parties, profile fabulous nobles, and pass on tawdry gossip. It's not social history, it's tabloid history. (Again, not that there's anything wrong with that.) But that was absolutely not what I was looking for.

I should say that King doesn't neglect the actual Congress itself at all. He even manages to artfully weave in an account of Napoleon at Elbe and his breathtaking escape and final hundred days in France. But it's all fairly bare bones. There's no real context to the events at all. When King gives the reader a closer look at important figures, there's a real sense that he's only relating what the general reader will find colorful or intriguing, not trying to build even a decent understanding of the individual.

I finished this thing several months ago, so I'm going to refrain from going into much greater detail. To be fair, King obviously didn't set out to write the definitive history on the subject. He probably set out to write a entertaining history that happened to enlighten. I was just looking for something that attempted to do the same thing, I just prefer the other way around. However, if your interested in an incredibly readable, sometimes engaging, often titillating, and always professionally told account of atmosphere surrounding the Congress of Vienna, I can easily point you toward this book. Unfortunately, if you want any depth of understanding, I recommend you start elsewhere.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Kelly So much fun, isn't it??

message 2: by Kelly (last edited Jan 18, 2012 04:49PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly Zamoyski is definitely the best academic treatment of it of the last ten years. He's incredibly insightful, though I'm not sure if I agree entirely with his blistering denunciations.

This.. tabloid history is exactly the right way to put it. And as you say, it's definitely meant to be that way. I think there is value to showing how much of the era of personal politics turned on this sort of thing, though. Some of this absolutely had bearing on how things turned out- again, that's totally not the point, the point is ohnoshedidnotsaythatohsnap!- but nonetheless it is true. Metternich's obsession with his mistress at this time definitely made him less effective, Alexander's posturing about and presentation of himself was his own buisness of feeling out who he was, how he felt about the West and how much he wanted of it for his country.. there's more like that. He's one of the most successful historians I've read at bringing people to life and showing how history is made by people who are tired in the morning and horny at night and all that comes in between. There's value in that. A lot of historians, frankly, suck at that.

... aw, who am I kidding, I give up. It's just a really shiny, historical US Weekly. But the most amazing issue ever! :)

A.J. Howard Great points Kelly. King definitely deserves credit for exposing the more humane and fallible sides of towering presences like Metternich, Talleyrand, etc. And I agree with you that this is something that few historians even attempt, much less accomplish. However, and maybe I feel this way because I haven't read that much on this era, King's focus on these mortal failings almost seems to create caricatures rather than illuminate.

But I might be too harsh. I would probably be easier on this book if I had read more on this era. Before this, all I had was background knowledge and maybe a day spent on it in a 19th century European History class several years ago. There's probably a good amount of insight and 'world building' here that is not highlighted in other accounts. I guess my final recommendation is not to avoid this book altogether, just start elsewhere.

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Jan 19, 2012 10:15AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly That's a fair diagnosis. I'll concede to you that if you're looking for the military/strategic events of the time, a more straightforward x battle leading to y battle leading to z treaty and b alliance sort of thing this definitely isn't it. Largely because that sort of history on this period has been done to death in the two hundred years since the events. This is an attempt to try to write something fresh on a topic where it's hard to find something fresh- so that might be the trouble. If that's what you're after- Kissinger wrote a book on it you might be interested in, BTW, as did Harold Nicolson, both of which are classics. I'd still recommend Zamoyski though because he's the most up to date, and he's absolutely magisterial in his depth of detail, as well as having a pretty great authorial voice.

I don't think that King created cariactures at all. These were men (and women, which King is also one of the few people to highlight) of towering accomplishment, it's hard to avoid seeing that, and you can't take that away from them no matter how many nieces they screwed or bad poetry they wrote. :) Then again, this might again be for the reason you say that we're speaking from different perspectives on the era.

I hope this doesn't put you off reading more about it!

message 5: by A.J. (last edited Jan 20, 2012 05:03PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

A.J. Howard You're right to say that King doesn't create caricatures. I was originally going to put that his focus on back room affairs caricaturizes, i.e. makes the main figures at times read like caricatures, but made an edit because I'm pretty sure that caricaturizes is not a word. The spellcheck cost me some precision in what I was trying to convey.

I'm definitely going to revisit the subject, I'm just not sure when. So many books, so little time. I appreciate the recommendations. Your right that there's plenty of stuff out there that offer more scholarly views on the subject. I usually hate it when people criticize something solely for not being something else, and I probably did that here. But I don't feel too guilty for punishing this book for failing to meet my expectations because King (or more likely, his publishers) chose a title that consciously, at least in my mind, Margaret MacMillan's superb, at least in my recollection, Paris, 1919, and then failed to deliver.

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