This is the first in a six-volume series announced by Longman on the hist-ory of France. It augurs well for the rest. Who since Alfred Cobban in the early 1960s has produced such a magisterial assessment, written with so light a touch? There are five parts, the first three thematic, ranging over social and economic change and political culture. The fourth and fifth parts courageously survey French political history.
Robert Tombs has made an impressive synthesis of recent scholarly research on 19th-century France, particularly by French, British and American historians. His great strengths lie in daring to ask all the big questions, and in his humorous and balanced judgement.
Part one covers "obsessions". First comes the French love-hate relationship with revolution, then their absorption with military matters. Next Tombs throws new light on one obsession historians have been inclined to take for granted - the preoccupation of politicians and theorists with a search for "order". The motto of the July Monarchy (1830-48) was "liberty and order", but, asserts Tombs, Orleanists were only one element in an unending quest. Here is a range of conflicting conceptualisations of "order", from Catholic to socialist, the two brands of monarchism being subsumed in religion or liberalism.
Second-Empire Bonapartism (1852-70) is proposed as the synthesis of these diverging interpretations of "order". Tombs's over-arching conclusion on a half-century of revolution and repeated changes of regime, is that volatile political conflict made the French prepared to harmonise their commitment to democracy with a need for authority, manifest in Bonapartism. So Louis-Napoleon, in common with all his failed 19th-century predecessors, was always aware of the fragility of his throne. In the 1860s he was careful to comply with pressure from liberal critics and to modify the authoritarian character of his parliamentary regime. He was superseded by a republic solely because of his defeat and capture at Sedan.
A Bonapartist philosophy was revived by de Gaulle in the ethos and institutions of the Fifth Republic. This interpretation is favoured by a number of contemporary French specialists, including Jean-Francois Sirinelli, Odile Rudelle and Serge Berstein but is it a passing fashion, bred by the defeat of Marxist aspirations and the viability of a Gaullist-style constitution? If that should founder, will historians be less inclined to regard this somewhat authoritarian democracy as the "end of the revolution"?
The final chapter in part one puts French paranoias under a microscope. The conspiracy theory favoured at times by the left, that Jesuits were constantly trying to undermine the consequences of 1789, is despatched along with the fears of the right that 1789 and 19th-century revolutions were plots hatched by freemasons, Protestants and Jews.
Part two is entitled "power", which allows the author to move from brilliant, succinct snapshots of political systems and economic change to the powerlessness of the poor, women, children and the insane. His contention that female suffrage was delayed by the fear of priestly influence might have been strengthened by greater emphasis on the role of women in church, charitable and educational formations. Part two concludes with a convincing summary of imperial attitudes.
Part three focuses on "Identities". Given the French view of their own past, much of this section might equally have appeared under "obsessions". Tombs moves effortlessly and elegantly, as always in full and judicious command of recent scholarly monographs, from private to collective identities. The church is seen as a success story, recovering well from the revolution, but was that the case in the cities whose ugly new churches he deplores? Students will be particularly grateful for part three; the deftness of comparative analysis in the questions of "class" and nationality will be well thumbed and photocopied.
The final two sections focus on politics, where the author is perennially knowledgeable and fair minded. In tune with the thinking of the 1990s and the revival of liberal values, he prefers to look optimistically at the growth of parliamentary institutions before 1870 and to gently ridicule the messiness of revolution and the rhetoric of Marxists. As a consequence, untidy popular insurrections, such as the early 1820s, Lyon in 1831 and 1834, and Paris during May 1839, earn less space than I would have liked to see. When he reaches the Third Republic, Tombs rightly notes the falsity of traditional republican claims that the regime of the 1870s was the "natural" heir of 1789, for by then much of the revolution had long since been accepted.
There are excellent cameos of the Boulanger and Dreyfus episodes, particularly acute in conveying the balance of regional attitudes and the tone of politics through vivid miniatures of political figures, often presented in no more than a dozen words.
This book will be an inexhaustible mine of pithy quotes for eager undergraduate essayists, yielding, for instance, a verse from a song and other brief, telling phrases. Their tutors will also thank the author for his excellent, clear maps. The breadth of his knowledge is impressive; novels, music and paintings are woven into the story. The bibliography has both thematic and alphabetical sections and should be a model for all authors.
The book will deservedly become the standard work of reference for undergraduate and MA students. In addition, the author's ability to sweep from 1914 to present-day problems will recommend his text to those involved in the academic and practical consideration of contemporary France. Finally, no reader can fail to notice that two books are here smuggled in under one set of covers. Longman should consider a new edition of this indispensable work, divided at the end of part three, which could then be sold at a price more appealing to students, if possible with more illustrations of the quality of the front cover.
Pamela Pilbeam is professor of Frenchhistory, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Author - Robert Tombs
ISBN - 0 582 49314 5
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.99
Pages - 539