The Great Nation is hailed by its publisher as the first single-volume history of 18th-century France in English in 40 years. That’s a pretty remarkable claim, but it’s not the reason I bought the book. I bought it because it was written by Colin Jones, whose delightful history of the city of Paris I read and praised earlier this summer.
As scholarship, The Great Nation represents an even more impressive achievement than Jones’ history of Paris. Every blurb on the back of the jacket is true: The book is learned, magisterial, utterly authoritative. It synthesizes a generation of new research into one accessible, readable narrative. It deservedly takes pride of place in Penguin’s projected new multivolume history of France.
I read The Great Nation in paperback, but I have now bought a hardcover edition to keep on my actual, non-digital bookshelf. I know I will be referring to it for years to come. So I am truly very sorry to have to say also that The Great Nation is alas not only far less enjoyable than Jones’s history of Paris, but oddly, far less useful.
Over the past four decades, French history has turned away from high politics to a close study of local social realities. Under the influence of the structuralist “Annales” school, recent French history writing has tended to emphasize the supposedly unchanging (or only very slowly changing) dynamics of everyday life rather than dramatic events in far-off capitals. Marginal persons Ñ slaves, poor peasants, subordinated women Ñ have been spotlighted as central characters.
This kind of work can add to our understanding. It can also be very, very boring. (Like those place-setting international features that used to appear on page 3 of the New York Times: “Nothing new in Nigerian village.”)
Colin Jones has set out to incorporate the insights of the new structuralist history into a narrative of a more old-fashioned kind. From his structuralist predecessors, he has wrested some genuine gains. The best sections of The Great Nation gather revisionist work on the 18th-century French economy into a new consensus view. For example: Far from the stagnant subsistence regime depicted in older accounts, the Bourbon economy grew dynamically in the 18th century. Even if wage growth slowed after about 1750, family incomes probably continued to rise thanks to the ability of many peasant families to find new additional lines of work in the slack seasons of the year.
On other hand, the accumulation of monographic research seems in other cases to have paralyzed the historian’s ability to reach any general conclusion at all. Jones variously suggests that 18th-century France was dechristianizing and rechristianizing, basing his conclusions in each instance on particular studies of particular places.
The author of a great work of synthesizing history like this plays the role of a host of a large dinner party, who must work furiously hard to ensure that every guest is given his or her chance to shine. The unfortunate consequence: the host must efface himself and his own views Ñ even when they are more interesting than those of the invitees. Jones repeatedly sacrifices his own voice in order to yield the microphone to the profession as a whole.
Here’s Jones’s most interesting point: We read 18th century French history conscious of the impending revolution, aware that the story will end in catastrophe. But the 18th-century French did not know that. They lived in the aftermath of Louis XIV, not in the apprehension of Robespierre.
More problematically though Jones then extends this important insight into a passing claim that the French revolution was not inevitable, that 18th-century France was in many respects a strong and successful polity that contemporaries had every reason to expect to continue along its accustomed courses. Yet Jones’s own telling of the story presents a very different picture: of a society careening from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, unable to finance the wars it felt compelled to fight. Although France was a much richer society than England, the French state could not mobilize its resources anywhere near so effectively as the English state Ñ and the interest groups that clustered around the Bourbon monarchy thwarted all attempts at reform that might have enhanced the state’s effectiveness. If Jones is correct, then the revolution may not have been “inevitable” in the sense of unavoidable Ñ but the alternative to revolution was not monarchical stability, but a gradual decline of the French state in the face of better organized neighbors … as had happened to Spain in the previous century and would happen to Austria in the next.
Instead, the revolution demolished the Ancien Regime, tore down the barriers subdividing France’s internal market, instituted effective taxation and conscription policies, and transformed France an all-conquering power for the first (and last) time.
One fascinating detail: the most committed reformer of the pre-1789 chief ministers, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, passionately opposed French support for the American revolution. France (Turgot argued) was struggling to pay the debts bequeathed by the war that had ended in 1763. Support for the Americans would provoke another war with England that France could ill afford. Turgot was overruled and dismissed. To save the United States, the Bourbon monarchy started a war that lead to its own financial ruin and eventual overthrow. One wonders: Had this economic technician prevailed on this then seemingly minor diplomatic issue, would he have inadvertently prevented two of history’s greatest revolutions with one small act of parsimony?