Children of the Revolution: the French, 1799-1914, by Robert Gildea

I hasten to say that I haven’t read this book yet. But I received one of those unsolicited Amazon emails informing me of its publication (crafty Amazon seems to have figured out that I have an interest in the French Revolution!) I also came across this review on the Christian Science Monitor book blog, which includes a recorded interview with the author, Professor of Modern History at Oxford.

A few startling statements in the review, and the interview itself, caught my attention. I learned, for instance, that in rural 19th century France, “courtship might take the form of squeezing hands until the knuckles
nearly broke, in order to test the strength of the intended, and beauty
was actually seen as a negative quality.” I guess that, if you had roamed the French countryside then, you would have recognized the girls who were a’courting by their horribly swollen fingers. So much for the much vaunted (and apparently totally overrated) technique of the French lover…

But that’s not all! In the interview, Professor Gildea implies that Joan of Arc had fallen into some kind of black hole in the popular consciousness of the French from shortly after her death until the early 20th century. Never mind Voltaire’s Pucelle d’Orléans, right in the middle of the 18th century, and Die Jungfrau von Orléans, by Schiller, the great German writer, in 1801. Certainly Voltaire’s work was deliberately offensive, but he wouldn’t have bothered to satirize a figure he would have deemed insignificant.

I also take issue with Professor Gildea’s broad statements about what “the Revolutionaries” thought and did, in particular about the status of women. What is striking about the French Revolution is the extreme difference of opinions among Revolutionaries on every possible topic. Some of them, like Condorcet, advocated female suffrage. The Revolution vastly improved the legal status of women. Their participation in politics, though short-lived, was extremely active.

Finally, why “1799-1914?” Did the heritage of the French Revolution become irrelevant with the onset of World War I? I don’t think so. It is still very much part of the collective psyche of the French nation. Like Joan of Arc.

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6 Comments to “Children of the Revolution: the French, 1799-1914, by Robert Gildea”

  1. Catherine Delors says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Robert.

    Regarding Jeanne d’Arc, I was looking at images to illustrate an upcoming post since her feast, May 30, is just around the corner. Her iconography shows that she was revered as a saint long before her canonization in 1920. See for instance the famous “portrait” by Ingres (1854) which shows her with a halo. Also the series of paintings by Lenepveu (1880s) at the Pantheon. And the reverence of Therese de Lisieux (died 1897) and her entire family for Jeanne. The canonization marked the long overdue recognition of a popular belief.

    As for the deal you propose, I am all for it!

  2. Robert Gildea says:

    Catherine – I have just come across your comments on my book. I’m sorry to disappoint you about the skills of French lovers, but I was talking about peasant society. There’s more encouraging stuff in the book about how aristos and artists did it, not least George Sand. I don’t think that the cult of Joan of Arc was absent before 1900 – see the section on Joan in my previous ‘The Past in French History’, which goes back to Voltaire. But there was a boost around her beatification and canonization in 1920. And 1914? blame the publisher. The book is one of a trio and the third, by Rod Kedward, starts in 1900 – so I trespassed 14 years into his zone, for history’s sake.
    Here’s the deal: you read my book, and I’ll read yours.

  3. Catherine Delors says:

    Agreed, Richard!

  4. Richard says:

    The dates don’t make sense to me, and of course I havent read it yet, (if ever) but the end of one Revolution to the end of what, an era,(?)the old order? Surely the end of the Commune, or the end of the Russian revolution would be more appropriate.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Oh sure, Richard, the choice of these dates is usually charged with the author’s prejudices.
    Here 1799 makes perfect sense: Bonaparte’s 18 Brumaire coup certainly marks the end of the Revolution. But 1914? Maybe Prof. Gildea explains this choice in a satisfactory manner, but it comes across as artificial. Not that the start of WWI was not of major – and catastrophic – import for France, but I don’t see any logical relationship between it and the legacy of the Revolution.

  6. Richard says:

    Catherine there are people who date history by their memory of an event. For example, there are many in this country who date history by the civil rights movement, and many who date theirs by the civil war.

    It only matters when you have an agenda to espouse.

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