4ème de couverture
There can be few more mesmerising historical narratives than the story of how the dazzlingly confident and secure monarchy Louis XIV, ‘the Sun King’, left to his successors in 1715 became the discredited, debt-ridden failure toppled by Revolution in1789. The further story of the bloody unravelling of the Revolution until its seizure by Napoleon is equally astounding.
Colin Jones’ brilliant new book is the first in 40 years to describe the whole period. Jones’ key point in this gripping narrative is that France was NOT doomed to Revolution and that the ‘ancien regime’ DID remain dynamic and innovatory, twisting and turning until finally stoven in by the intolerable costs and humiliation of its wars with Britain.
Deux premières pages
In many senses, the eighteenth century was France’ s century . The long reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) was widely viewed as France’s Grand Siècle (‘great century’), yet by the king’s death, the country had been reduced by European war and domestic circumstance to a wretched state: its economy was shattered, its society riven by religious and social discontent, its population reduced by demographic crisis, its cultural allure contested and found wanting, its political system in the doldrums. Yet the country was able to bounce back from misfortune and imprint its influence on every aspect of eighteenth-century European life. Demographically, France was the largest of the great powers -indeed between one European in five and one in eight was French. Socially and economically, the century witnessed one of France’s most buoyant and prosperous periods: though the benefits of economic growth were far from evenly distributed, the quality of life as measured by life-chances, income levels and material possessions marked a considerable improvement. Culturally, France was the storm-center of the movement of intellectual and artistic renewal known as the Enlightenment: for most contemporaries, the lumière of this siècle des Lumieres shone from France. In terms of politics and international relations, France remained the power that other states had to take into account, to worry about, to keep if possible on their side. Although the monarchical system failed to adapt to the domestic strains and international pressures which the period produced, French courtly and administrative structures were very widely emulated down to 1789. Nor did the shift to a republic in 1792 halt the catalogue of achievement -as was widely anticipated by European statesmen. Indeed, by 1799, France had vastly extended its frontiers and its influence over much of Europe.
To think of eighteenth-century France as ‘the great nation’ did not rule out criticism. Indeed, writing a volume with this title invites dispassionate rather tha neulogistic scrutiny of the criteria by which ‘greatness’ is judged. By the end of the period, for example, as the Revolution of 1789 was taking a more militaristic and expansion ist turn, the phrase la grande nation was used in quite opposing ways. For many it highlighted the world-historical achievements of republican France.
Yet for others, both within France and without, it signified something altogether more sinister. The universalist rhetoric of human emancipation spouted by French administrators and generals contrasted strikingly with the narrowly materialistic, self-seeking and indeed pillaging activities which French armies were inflicting on other Europeans. The Rights of Man of 1789 seemed to be focused largely on the claims of the French to feather their own nest, and the phrase la grande nation often had a critical, grudging and ironic tinge.
There was, moreover, a deeper, historical irony in the use of the term by that time too. For by then the very criteria of international greamess were shi fting in ways which would k nock France off its perch -and instal England in its place. This was not readily apparent in 1799: indeed, while France was brilliantly constructing a European empire, England’s political system was under strain, its financial strength seemed fragile, and its social fabric looked under pressure. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the British were by then establishing a lead in terms of economic growth, commercial strength, industrial force and political stability which would make them the world’s dominant power for much of the following century. And in 1815, France would be rolled back to its 1792 frontiers in a manner that smacked of national humiliation. But that is another story.