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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