April 4, 2009


Becoming France: a review of Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914 by Robert Gildea (David A Bell, New Republic)

The history of France in the "long nineteenth century" is bookended by slaughter. At one end stand the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and at the other, World War I, both of which left the country traumatized, exhausted, and grieving for a lost generation. Remarkably, though, these two exercises in exsanguination have failed to overshadow the years in between as heavily as one might expect. France between 1815 and 1914 seems almost to belong to a different, and considerably happier, dimension of history.

Seen from the outside, the reason lies mainly in literature and the arts. The names suffice to tell the story: Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Zola, Proust, Ingres, Delacroix, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Rodin, Berlioz, to cite only the most obvious. Rarely, if ever, has a century in the life of a nation seen such a dazzlingly intense series of artistic achievements. The French are all too painfully aware that in the ninety years since World War I they have achieved nothing comparable; and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to J.M.G. Le Cl?zio did nothing to change this fact.

In other respects as well, nineteenth-century France can be seen as something of a success story. In politics, it is certainly true that the years from 1800 to 1871 saw the country lurch back and forth between empire, monarchy, and republic, the transitions punctuated by vicious civil unrest--but the unrest was mostly short-lived (even the bloody Paris Commune of 1871 lasted only a few months), and had correspondingly small death tolls, at least in comparison with the earlier bloodletting of the French Revolution. And after 1870, France managed to transform itself into a relatively stable republic that arguably did a better job than any other nineteenth-century democracy in securing the rights and the liberties of its citizens (certainly better than the segregated, post-Reconstruction United States, or Great Britain dominated by wealthy landed and industrial interests).

Economically, the country remained relatively undeveloped.

...the murderous Revolution, the rise of Communism and Nazism it fostered, the economic retardation, and the decline as a world power and focus on the rapidly declining art and literature it was a spiffy century for France?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 8:33 AM
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