Review Corner: “The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction”

21 Sep

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. William Doyle. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2001. ISBN 0-19-285396-1. Illustrations. Index. Further Reading. Timeline. Table. Pp. ix. 135. $8.95.

Reviewed by Simon S. Sundaraj-Keun


The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction is an academic and compact analysis on the French Revolution. The author, William Doyle is a British scholar who studied extensively on the subject and a close associate of Norman Hampson at York, England. Doyle’s main objective is to guide the reader through this pinnacle historic event by emphasizing the importance of the French Revolutionary principles which shape today’s nations of the world.

            Doyle elaborates that the French Revolution was a result of a series of late 18th century events and as set of ideas, images, and memories in the minds of posterity. This is a powerful argument for the importance of history, as well as a striking example of its complexity. In this book he is more concerned with why the French Revolution mattered and has continued to matter, that with a retelling of what happened.

            The book begins with a discussion of the familiar images of the French Revolution, and the author carries on to a concise survey of the old regime and how it collapsed.  The author acquired thoughts from Dickens, Baroness Orczy, and Tolstoy, as well as the legends of let-them-eat-cake,” and tricolor. He leads the reader to the realization that present day society is still living with developments and consequences of the French Revolution such as decriminalization and the whole ideology of human rights.

Doyle continues explications how the revolution ensued: why the revolutionaries squabbled with the king, the church and whole of Europe, why this produced the Jacobin Terror, and finally how it consummated the rule by Napoleon. This persuasive book gazes at how this ancient regime that the revolution destroyed had become so ingrained and also examines instances in which revolutionary accomplishment failed to match its aspirations. Doyle investigates the legacy of the revolution in judicious public affairs and conscientious government, finishing his examination with a dialogue as to why this event has been so controversial.

            There are few events in history that have been so scraped over and analyzed as the French Revolution. The material regarding the latter is often, at times, frantic and perplexing. It is for this reason that Doyle’s short introduction, accommodates not only to the event itself, but the historiography of the affair, and is so refreshing and extremely instructive and explanatory. The author presents a clearly written and complete account of the entire matter, whilst delving at times, into the historiographical deliberations which have, over the years, become part of the history of the revolution itself.

The book is easily divided into causes and effects, allowing a clear understanding of not only the period in question, but those preceding and following. The book follows a non-chronological approach; the six chapters of this book give the reader six different perspectives on the same event. Each chapter adds depth in understanding the event and its place in history. The introductory chapter is a great example, in which Doyle links the events of the Revolution with its representations in literature and the contemporary viewpoints which exist till this day.

Chapter one is called Echoes and it relates how this great cataclysm was perceived by the rest of the world not only in the newspapers of the day but in fiction and drama. The Importance of Being Earnest, A Tale of Two Cities, and The Scarlet Pimpernel are discussed. The complete text of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens is incorporated in this chapter as well. In the second chapter, “Why It Happened,” the author discusses the reasons for the Revolution. This is mainly a description of the Ancient Regime’s government and society during the reign of Louis XVI.

The third chapter, How It Happened discusses the Revolution as a series of events that stretched over a number of years. The violent excesses of the guillotine are much more comprehensible in context. In the fourth chapter, “What It Ended,” we see the impact that the Revolution had, not only in France, but throughout the world. Before the Revolution there was a world of Divine Right, religious authority, slavery, peasants, and aristocracy. While this doesn’t change instantly, the fact that the people can revolt and change the social order becomes established without a doubt. Once changed, society seems unwilling to go back and is changed forever.

The next to the last chapter, “What It Started,” deals with the effects that the Revolution has had on the world. It also discusses the reaction to the Revolution and the dynamic tension of radical and conservative forces in modern history. Finally, “Where It Stands” is dedicated to the schools of academic thought on the Revolution. The classic elucidation of the Revolution and its critics are outlined with a succinct history. The chapter ends with an outline of contemporary belief about the Revolution.

The book ends with a timeline, a revolutionary calendar, a list of further readings, and an index. The calendar of twelve 30-day months and five complimentary days that began on September 22, 1793 is especially interesting and insightful. It also contains a full bibliography in the further reading that is subdivided into general surveys, interpretations, origins, topics, people, and legacies, which enable individuals to read up on the subject in more depth.

This book acts as an excellent introduction to anyone who is interested or curious about the French Revolution. It not only presents facts and history, but also analysis of the causes and effects of the revolution in the annals of human political and social development. The critics and admirers of the revolution were given equal deliberation, and the result is a balanced analysis of different opinions on the topic, particularly in light of the recent bicentennial celebrations.

However this book differs from recent books on the French Revolution which highlight the revolution, but fail to delve deeper in the true implications of its effect on the world. Doyle’s book assumes almost nothing and lays out for the reader not only a very clear and concise picture of the Revolution itself but also the ancient regime that preceded it, and the restorations, republics, and empires that succeeded it. The author makes interesting claims in the introduction and conclusion as to why the Revolution mattered to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as an intellectual and political event.

The French Revolution as the cause and source of seemingly innumerable political and governmental structures the world over, yet would simultaneously have difficulty describing the essential elements and personages involved in the actual event. In this sense, Doyle’s book well serves the introductory reader by orienting, categorizing, and providing discourse to make the subject accessible, as well as helping develop a basic structure of understanding that will allow further meaningful study.

This is a great introduction into the events and meaning of the French Revolution. It will satisfy the reader who wants just one book on the topic as well as the beginning scholar who is looking for a place to start his or her research. To conclude, I would strongly recommend the book to anyone, student or the general reader, who wishes to gain insight into this momentous event in history. Personally, the importance of the French Revolution after 200 years still remains to be seen in the 21st century.


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