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That unfortunate movement

Thursday, 12 December, 2019
Olympe de Gouges
Olympe de Gouges, pioneer of women's rights, here pictured handing Marie-Antoinette a copy of her ‘Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne’. Engraving by Desrais and Frussotte, c. 1790. (BnF/Gallica)

The French Revolution: A very short introduction was one of the earliest titles to be commissioned in what has become a very successful series – the nearest equivalent in English to the celebrated Que Sais-je? volumes published by Presses Universitaires de France. It appeared in 2001 and has enjoyed very healthy sales, both in English and in translation into a number of other languages. For this reason alone, after half a generation of new research a second edition to bring readers up to date seemed increasingly overdue. The problem with any new edition is how much to change, short of rewriting the whole thing. A lot of new research, though impeccably scholarly, is at a level of detail impossible to reproduce in a short volume, although some can be silently incorporated. A revised bibliography can point in the direction of more. But the most updating that a very short introduction can do is to indicate some overall trends.

The first edition, written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989, was able to conclude and neatly culminate with the great debates among historians and others which that occasion provoked, and which were still echoing when the new millennium began. Historiographical discussions since then have been far less acrimonious and more nebulous. While the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the so-called ‘popular movement’ of the sans-culottes has faded, the Revolution has increasingly been studied as a symptom of deep cultural changes. Feminist scholarship has brought extensive reappraisal of the role of women, and the failure of overwhelmingly male revolutionaries (and historians!) to give them their due.

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence. Artist unknown, c.1796-1799. (BnF/Gallica)

There has also been renewed interest in links with other contemporary revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and above all with the overthrow of black slavery in the former French colony which became Haiti. These changed perspectives are introduced and appraised in the concluding historiographical chapter. With a largely English-speaking readership in mind, the first edition also gave plenty of space to the supposed contrast between a violent, unstable France and a peaceful, evolutionary England. The second edition expands on that perception with more on the clash between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. Recent years have brought curious echoes of this in the debate over Brexit, reminding us that issues first raised by the French Revolution can still resonate.

And whereas a prime function of an introduction is to impart accurate and reliable knowledge, another is to dispel misinformation. Nothing is more difficult. The world will always want to remember that Marie-Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake’ - even though she didn’t, as I emphasise in the book’s very opening pages.

Zhou Enlai

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

The world is also in danger of remembering that in 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the French Revolution had been. I invoked this myself in the preface to the first edition. But in the intervening years it has emerged that Zhou was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. The second edition makes this clear. Whether it will stop people invoking the old version is perhaps too early to say.

– William Doyle

(‘That unfortunate movement’ – from act I of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, speech by Lady Bracknell.)

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