Eyewitnesses to Revolution. SOUNDS AND SCENES
VOICES OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION Edited by Richard Cobb and Colin Jones
Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House, 256 pp. Illustrated. $29.95
AS the introductory note to this popularizing, yet scholarly, volume points out, many of the words and concepts of today's political language - anarchist, terrorist, aristocrat, bureaucrat, reaction, terror, ancien r'egime, indeed, the very terms left and right as applied to the spectrum of ideology - derive from the French Revolution.
Whether as romanticized myth or cautionary morality play, the story continues to be relevant. A revolution whose early leaders saw themselves as following in the liberal footsteps of the American Revolution, English parliamentary democracy, and Enlightenment principles, the French Revolution went on to become the prototype of all revolutions that devour their own. It even featured a revolutionary calendar, introduced in 1793, retrospectively dating Sept. 21, 1792, the day the Republic was declared, as the first day of the Year 1, an idea that, in more recent times, recurred to the Khmer Rouge.
Despite the paradigmatic status and its long-lasting effect on the world's political imagination, the French Revolution was a complicated tangle of events that resists the attempts of historians to unravel a coherent storyline of causes and effects, although populist, Marxist, liberal, conservative, royalist, and other interpretations abound. But the order imposed by hindsight may be deceptive. By presenting the French Revolution in the words of its eyewitnesses, participants, victims, and participants who became victims, the editors of this volume have attempted to convey a sense of the excitement, fear, joy, and, above all, the sheer uncertainty of the revolution as it happened.
The documents - excerpts from letters, journals, official declarations, and newspaper articles - include many never before published in English translation, as well as news of the revolution as reported in American and English newspapers. These documents are set in context by an explanatory text that clearly and succinctly provides enough background information to make sense of the ``voice.'' The editors succeed in addressing the needs of the average reader without oversimplifying complex ideas and events.
Some two dozen experts have contributed to this project under the editorship of Colin Jones (author of ``The Longman Companion to the French Revolution'') and the general editorship of the historian Richard Cobb, a former Oxford don who is also a Chevalier de la L'egion d' Honneur.
With 200 illustrations (100 in color) and artfully composed page-spreads that juxtapose pictures, documents (``voices''), and explanatory text, ``Voices of the French Revolution'' looks rather like a coffee-table book. Designed with browsers in mind, a flip of the page brings a fresh topic into view: ``The Third Estate,'' ``Fads and Fashions,'' ``The Tennis Court Oath,'' ``The guillotine,'' ``The Marseillaise,'' ``Freemasons,'' ``The Jacobin clubs,'' ``The sans-culottes,'' ``The jeunesse dor'ee,'' even ``Thermidor, restaurants and haute cuisine,'' which got a boost around this time as skilled cooks left the ch^ateau for the storefronts of Paris.
Each entry offers rapid immersion in a given topic. Read cover to cover, however, the story in this history becomes choppy at times, even though the editors have arranged the topics as chronologically as possible. But the level of scholarship and accuracy is high, the style lucid, and the illustrated format enticing enough to outweigh the drawbacks of a topical, collage approach, which, in any case, helps convey how unpatterned and unpredictable these events must have seemed to a contemporary.