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Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914

To understand the French, study the revolution.

By / October 20, 2008



At the heart of Robert Gildea’s Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914 is a vast project: not just a history of France during those astonishing years – from Napoleon to the killing fields of Verdun – but a history of the French themselves.

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There’s a sea of books on the French Revolution and its fallout. There’s another sea of books on French cultural history –  its edgy Parisian salons, its sun-drenched villages in Provence. It’s rare to try to fuse both, rarer still to do it well. He does.

(A cautionary note: You will need a simple French history text with a good index, no matter how much you think you know about France. A timeline will also help. Really.)

Gildea, a professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, runs through the big political narrative, albeit in abbreviated form: Revolution; First Republic; Terror; Empire; war, restored monarchy, Revolution, the rerun; Republic, the rerun; Empire, the rerun; Franco-Prussian War, Third Republic; and World War I.

These are the events, punctuated by murderous civil conflict over issues ranging from religion to workers’ rights. But what interests Gildea is how the French – especially five key generations – understood these events and, at length, came to find common ground in the “grande patrie” of the French nation.

“Each generation wrestled with the legacy of the Revolution, marked by it but also contributing to the long process of laying to rest the ghosts of division and destruction and recovering what was constructive and unifying about it,” he writes.

It’s not just the generals and politicians who count in this narrative.

It’s everyone: the peasants quitting ancestral fields to sweep floors in a hospital, the typical first city job; writers and artists seeking the right cafe to make the contacts needed to market their work; women breaking into 19th-century professions or out of loveless marriages; the parish priest trying to “rechristianize” France after the Revolution, one confession at a time; and textile workers and coal miners navigating “the industrial reserve army of the unemployed.”

Promises of the revolution
These stories are the heart of the narrative and it’s a great read, no matter whether or not you are convinced in the end by Gildea’s five-generation scheme or by the notion that total war a nation makes.

A memorable factoid: to keep a family farm intact in rural France required a strictly gendered division of labor – and lots of hard work. So, “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,” he writes.

The French Revolution promised a new order: liberty, equality, fraternity, the abolition of privilege and the opening of careers to talent, freedom of the press, the status of citizen (for men, anyway), and new social options for women, including divorce by mutual consent.

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