Will & Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution
Journal de ma vie: Jacques-Louis Ménétra, compagnon vitrier au 18e siècle
Sir Edward Spears tells the story of Winston Churchill in a bathrobe bursting on a group of French officers in the breakfast room of the Château du Muguet early in the morning of June 12, 1940, when the French and British governments were about to meet in a desperate effort to stop the fall of France: “An apparition which they said resembled an angry Japanese genie, in long, flowing red silk kimono over other similar but white garments, girdled with a white belt of like material, stood there, sparse hair on end, and said with every sign of anger: ‘Uh ay ma bain?’ ” There was something reassuring about the bad French. Civilization may have been hanging in the balance, but the prime minister wanted his bath.
English French often has a refreshing, no-nonsense quality to it. In fact, French history with an English accent can be more original than the native variety. It tends to be ironic and empirical, well informed and disabused, attentive to facts and suspicious of theory, especially the fashionable theories that drift across the Channel from the Left Bank.
Of course, the British response to France has been too complex to fit into a single pattern. After Burke and Carlyle had taught generations of Englishmen how to disapprove of French history, Richard Cobb and Theodore Zeldin showed them how to identify with it. But between those extremes runs a strain of professionalism that has been especially influential for the understanding of the French Revolution, whether viewed from the right, as in the work of Alfred Cobban, or from the left, as in the writings of George Rudé.
This strain goes back to J.M. Thompson (1878-1956), a clergyman turned don, who left his mark on a distinguished line of historians trained in Oxford: Norman Hampson, Richard Cobb, John McManners, Albert Goodwin, and John Roberts. Thompson insisted that his students stick close to the evidence, a key term in the British historian’s lexicon, which the French sometimes misread as positivisme. Although he never ventured into the archives and rarely even crossed the Channel, Thompson published a documentary history of the French Revolution that became an almost Biblical text in Oxford. His influence is still felt in questions that he set for tutorials and that have been handed down from tutor to tutor for half a century: Why did the Revolution break out in July 1789? Why did the attempt to create a constitutional monarchy fail? What was the difference between the Girondins and the Montagnards?
Norman Hampson inherited those questions and dealt with them so successfully in a series of books and articles that he now stands at the head of Thompson’s line of descendants. His latest book, Will & Circumstance: Montesquieu, Rousseau and the French Revolution, shows the English historical intelligence at its best. It addresses a classic problem: what was the connection between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the politics of the Revolution? In order to reduce the problem to manageable proportions,…
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