Friday 11 October 2002 23:00 BST

Global power, free debate, great shopping – why did 18th-century France need a revolution, asks William Doyle

The French did not begin to call themselves the Great Nation until a couple of years before Colin Jones’s story ends. But he believes they deserve the name for the whole of the period from the death of Louis XIV to the advent of Napoleon. After all, they inhabited the most extensive, most populous, most prestigious and – he comes close to claiming – most prosperous and successful country in western Europe. So why did they need a revolution?

He seems unsure that they did, and is certain that they neither foresaw nor desired the one they got. The real problem was that the absolute monarchy perfected by Louis XIV was unable to adapt itself to long-term changes in the French economy, society and, above all, culture. Commercial expansion on an unprecedented scale had broadened French appetites for material and cultural gratifications. Among the latter was participation in public life or, as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has taught historians to call it, the « bourgeois public sphere ».

This was the site (a favourite word with Jones) where men of education, and a few high-flying women, learned to discuss freely everything that happened, and form an opinion about it. In Louis XIV’s heyday the state, in close alliance with the church, laid claim to control all channels of opinion. By Louis XVI’s time, public opinion had escaped from the clutches of absolutism. In many areas, in fact, the state felt obliged to follow public opinion wherever it led.

The one thing an absolute monarch could not concede was representative institutions which would allow the public to dictate state policy. Yet the crown’s own conduct of that policy proved capricious, unpopular and ruinously expensive. Eventually, financial collapse opened the way for an increasingly impatient intelligentsia to take over the state and try to implement dreams forged over half a century of Enlightenment.

It was, Jones insists, a bourgeois revolution. He finds clear evidence for a rising bourgeoisie over the 18th century in its rampant commercialism and what he calls the Great Chain of Buying. He finds that « the middling sort – a variegated group, which could reasonably be called the bourgeoisie » were best placed to benefit from the revolution, and did so.

This baggy (another favourite term) group is no Marxist class of capitalists; but nor is it the declining, non-commercial collection of lawyers and professionals proposed almost half a century ago by Alfred Cobban. Jones and his publisher have set out to replace the earliest of Cobban’s three-volume History of Modern France (1957) as the first port of call for anyone wishing to become acquainted with this period. They have done so magnificently, and at much greater length than the original.

But the subject is now scarcely recognisable as that outlined by Cobban, Only the time-span, which unusually takes in the old regime as well as the revolution, is the same.

Over the decades which separate the two books, both sides of the 1789 divide have commanded intense scholarly interest, and produced enormous controversy. So vast is the literature that Jones feels obliged to refer his readers to a separate website for his bibliography. But, as a participant in many of those investigations and exchanges, he knows their ins and outs, and nobody is better qualified to present the results to non-specialists. This is now the fullest and most reliable history we have of 18th-century France as a whole.

Writing it has involved incorporating and making accessible some formidably complex scholarly ideas. But the central methodology is very simple, not to say old-fashioned. It is to tell the story of how kings, their ministers and their mistresses tried, and ultimately failed, to meet the challenges faced by an 18th-century state. The political story of the revolution is quite familiar and continues, as here, to be retold regularly. That of the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, by contrast, had too often been scorned, and therefore neglected, as a meaningless succession of petty intrigues in boudoirs and bedrooms, unworthy of serious attention when there were economic cycles, demographic fluctuations, rising and falling classes, and deep-seated shifts in cultural values to analyse.

Jones neglects none of these aspects so favoured by 20th-century historians, inserting them artfully at pausing-places in the narrative. Yet telling the story dominates his approach; and it will be an amazingly well-informed specialist who will learn nothing new from his account. Sometimes the style jars: not much of the elegance of 18th-century expression has rubbed off, even in translated quotations. But 21st-century readers will be left in no doubt that the factional struggles of Versailles mattered, and will be shown clearly how they helped to precipitate the most important series of upheavals in modern history.

Jones is not one of those who believes that the French Revolution was foredoomed to bloody failure. Nor is his account one of unrelieved disaster. He is plainly in sympathy with a recent trend towards viewing Jacobinism as more than a movement of doctrinal coercion, and he lays none of the usual gory emphasis on the terror. But he is too clear-eyed to overlook the colossal disruption the revolution brought to most people’s lives, and he can see why so many welcomed the rule of Napoleon.

While he has little time for selfish counter-revolutionaries and bitchy émigrés, there is a palpable pang of regret for the untidy reassurance of the old regime. Two thirds of his text is devoted to it, and the cover features a handsome image of Louis XV robed in glory.

Next week, a lavish exhibition on Madame de Pompadour will open in London, and Colin Jones has written the book that will come with it. Prolonged exposure, it seems, to the glittering, privileged world of Louis XV’s most sumptuous mistress has won over a historian whose earliest researches were on the plight of the poor.

William Doyle is professor of history at Bristol University

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