The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, 1715–99
by Colin Jones
Columbia University Press, 651 pp., $34.95
The reviewer of Colin Jones’s new history of eighteenth-century France is faced with a problem. Readers of a review might have hoped that it would deal with history, and the reviewer too might have liked this; but, instead, it has to be in large part about historiography. There is no avoiding this. In his introduction, Colin Jones is insistent about his aims and the novelty of his approach, and throughout his long and learned book we are never allowed to forget them.
He argues that “the hegemony of social history,” of the Annales1 type, has continued long enough. It has involved a “neglect of high politics” and “a certain disdain for diplomatic history,” and moreover a disparagement of l’histoire événementielle and of narrative as a mode of description.
Jones, in this last, is echoing a well-known essay by Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History.” As for his own book, he is explicit that “a thread of political narrative provides the work’s organizing principle.” He has “highlighted political history, which provides an essential framework for understanding both the achievements and the problems about French society over the period as a whole.”
Let us pause to make a distinction here. Stone writes as if historical narrative were much the same sort of thing as fictional narrative, which it is very far from being. A novelist is free to invent whatever events he or she may choose, thus being in a position to suggest causality. (Novels indeed are imaginary exercises in causality.) By contrast, the facts that a historian has to deal with are “given” and recalcitrant to manipulation, and any serious effort to arrange them in a causal sequence is likely to come to grief. But this does not mean that a historian cannot employ other storytelling devices: vivid scene-setting, appeal to the emotions, suspense, peripeteia, climaxes, and poignant ironies. They did so in the days of Michelet and Macaulay, and Simon Schama still does so in Citizens (1989), with all sorts of new and imaginative devices. But these are out of place in Jones’s conception of “political history.”
Jones complains, very rightly, of the habit of past historians of telling the story of eighteenth-century France proleptically, i.e., from the perspective of what happened in 1789. This is not because of any objection to searching for the “cause” or “causes” of the Revolution, for he says that they “constitute an important historical question,” but rather because it does not pay sufficient attention to France’s achievements, its “acknowledged strengths,” in the pre-Revolution period. It is to listen too credulously to what the Revolutionaries had to say. Jones sees it as symbolic of this prejudice that historians cherish the term ancien régime, as though the social and political system of pre-Revolutionary France were a recognizable unity (whereas by ancien all that was meant by the Revolutionaries, who coined the phrase, was “former”). Accordingly, in his present book, Jones makes …