A Tale of Two Cities
It was the best of books, it was the worst of books… Okay, it’s neither, but it is a classic, and an excellent one at that. You’re probably familiar with some variation of the famous beginning, but what many don’t know is that A Tale of Two Cities is actually a kind of early historical novel, where he imagined what the French Revolution was like. The two titular cities are Paris and London, where two men, accidental doppelgangers, get confused for one another with circumstances neither would have foreseen. More importantly, Dickens looks at the French people and their dire circumstances, their reasons for revolt, and compares their lives to those of the poor in London at the time—Dickens never emotionally escaped the poverty of his own youth, so his depictions of the hardships of the time are painfully rendered.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Taking a different approach where the sympathies lie elsewhere than Dickens’, Orczy wrote a series of books about an English aristocrat bent on saving his French aristocratic friends from the jaws of the guillotine—a kind of reverse Robin Hood who steals the rich from the hands of the poor. He keeps his identity secret even from his own wife. But when she’s charged by the new French envoy to England to help figure out who the Scarlet Pimpernel is or else her brother’s life will be in danger back home in France, she needs to unearth the secret of her seemingly airheaded and dandyish husband and then decide what to do about it.
The Ancien Régime and the Revolution
Alexis de Tocqueville
This 1856 history of the French Revolution by de Tocqueville, a French historian, goes into what he calls the ancien régime (the old regime), by which he means the society in France prior to the beginning of the revolution and how it led to the breakdown. One of the earliest historical works on the subject, de Tocqueville’s main theory is that there was a kind of inevitable continuity. Though part of what sparked the French Revolution is believed to be religion and a desire for anarchy, de Tocqueville argues that this is not so—that religious institutions were part of the ancien régime, and that was what made them targets for revolutionaries, just as anarchy was not actually a goal but rather a byproduct of a movement towards political and social reform. The ultimate conclusion he comes to, however, is that despite the attempt to change government structure, the French ended up with another centralized governing body similar to the one they’d had.
This 1989 book was a NY Times bestseller, possibly because it focuses on exactly what it says in the title: the citizenry rather than the big-picture regime. Schama argues in this book that French culture was already patriotic prior to the French Revolution and its violence. He paints a picture of a vibrant society during Louis XVI’s reign, which was then destroyed by an elite class of theorizers who believed they could control the violence and create a functional government at the same time. While Schama’s reading of the time is different than some other historians’, it’s a fascinating way to look at the bloodbath that resulted in the revolutionaries’ actions. This book is mostly a narrative of various stories, many of them negative portrayals of the revolution that don’t focus on the very real parts of it that included activities meant to rebuild, but its value lies in the narrative focus it brings, making the book readable even to non-history-buffs.
Happy 14th of July, known to most of us as Bastille Day! On this day in 1789, the French citizenry stormed the Bastille as part of the revolution that had begun two days earlier and which was a landmark moment in said revolution, when the masses brought about wide and far-reaching change. Bastille Day also marks the day exactly one year later, in 1790, when the French people celebrated their unity and, just as importantly, a time of peace (the revolution didn’t actually end until nine years later, but it was a symbolic moment nonetheless).
We’ve put together a reading list for you to celebrate this day along with the French—vive la France!
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