History Comes Alive

Even when you’ve got your day-to-day bearings in Paris and feeling finally like your head is staying above water, there’s still plenty to learn.   Whether it’s knowing the significance of the street names in your quartier, keeping all those King Louis straight, or understanding better why French society operates the way it does, reading a bit of history may be just the ticket.  Here are a few of our favorites.   Most of these titles can be found in the English language bookshops in Paris or at The American Library in Paris.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Want to know everything there is to know about the French Revolution? A good place to start is Harvard history professor Simon Schama’s tome published on its 200th anniversary.  The events leading up to the Revolution, the accidents of fate and circumstance that could have rendered a completely different outcome, and the players large and small who were at its center are all laid out for the reader to savor in a very accessible style.  Don’t be put off by the 875 pages of text (and an additional 75 for notes and index) — it holds up extraordinarily well.

The Discovery of France:  A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War is an inquiry by Graham Robb, author and historian of France, into the disparate regions, languages, and customs that comprise France.  He takes the reader on a journey through France, wondering aloud along the way how it managed to be a country at all, given how isolated and insulated many of its parts have been for much of the past 200 years.  At the time of the Revolution, Abbe Henri Gregoire set out to establish a common tongue for France, which although dominated by French and Occitan, was also a country where Basque, Breton, Flemish and Alsatian were the primary regional tongues.  If the peasants were “too ignorant to be patriotic,” how could the Revolution hope to hold?  Yet in 1880 the percentage of inhabitants of France who felt comfortable speaking French was estimated to be only about 20 percent.  A great read for the curious Francophile with access to a good regional atlas.  

The Four Queens:  The Provençal Sisters who Ruled Europe.  Once upon a time, when the country of France as we know it today did not yet exist, there lived four beautiful princesses in a magical kingdom known as Provence. Not one of them pricked her finger on a spindle, kissed a frog, or was locked up in a forgotten tower. Actually the true story of their lives, chronicled by Nancy Goldstone in this book turns out to be more fascinating than pretty much any fairy tale. Marguerite, Eleanor, Beatrice, and Sanchia found themselves at the center of all the political and religious intrigue of the 13th century, eventually becoming queens of France, England, Sicily, and Germany. I wouldn’t say they all lived happily ever after but there’s plenty of juicy stuff here: trips to exotic lands, ransoms, wars, contracts made and broken, scheming mothers and uncles, family feuds, and heaps of treasure. If you thought the Middle Ages were dull, think again. Goldstone paints a vivid picture that has pretty much any fairy tale beat.

Is Paris Burning?   If you think that the credit for the liberation of Paris goes to the Americans, who after invading Normandy, motored their way up to Paris, down the Champs Elysees, kissed a few girls, and called it a day, you have some reading to do.   And for that, I highly recommend Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The book was a best seller and then a hit movie in the 1960s, not surprising because it reads more like a novel than a history. There’s the tension within the French resistance (the Communists versus de Gaulle’s Free French), the battle of wills between the commanders of the Allied Forces and the French fighters, the heroism of ordinary citizens and soldiers, and the sad character of Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of German forces in France, who after laying waste to Rotterdam and Sebastopol, in the end, decided to surrender Paris rather than destroy it according to Hitler’s orders. There are some dark stories here about the bravery and suffering of those who risked all for France and the shameful treatment of those considered collaborators after the Germans were gone. But there are also light hearted moments, tales of family reunions and marriages made from chance encounters.

Sixty six years is not such a very long time, particularly for a place like Paris. But imagine what it would have been like had the war gone the other way or even if the Nazis had lit the fuses on their way out of town. Happily, that didn’t happen. Read this book and you’ll discover a cast of thousands who deserve some of the thanks.

Marie Antoinette, the biography by British historian and novelist Antonia Fraser, was the inspiration for Sofia Coppola’s film of the same name.  And that should tell you that this is no dusty, musty text.  Fraser doesn’t hide her affection for Marie Antoinette , sketching a portrait of a young girl ill-prepared for her role and ill-served by those surrounding her.  Also worth noting is another one of Fraser’s books, Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, which dishes up all the details on his relationship with his mother, wife, and multiple mistresses.

Napoleon and Egypt by Paul Strathern offers up a great story as well as some insight on the man who later would become emperor.  Napoleon’s sojourn in Egypt was pretty much a debacle — his entire fleet was sunk in Aboukir Bay by the British, both cutting off his supply lines and stranding him in the Middle East; he lost soldiers by the thousands to massacres, the plague, and other privations; and he was unable to hold onto any of the military victories he had there. He even lost the Rosetta Stone, deciphered by a Frenchman, to the British Museum. But the man was a genius when it came to public relations. He came back to a France hungry for a military hero and its people, worn out by revolution, corruption, and war, pretty much ended up handing him the empire. His adventures there became legend and the fascination with all things “oriental” defined styles in furniture and fashion. And his decision to bring along a team of savants, experts in science, mathematics, and the arts, meant that there was a lasting legacy of new knowledge about a world long mysterious to Europeans.

Napoleon’s Women by Christopher Hibbert picks up after the flight from Egypt.  This biography focuses of course on Napoleon’s two wives, Josephine and Marie Louise, and his many mistresses but also chronicles Bonaparte’s own rise to power and eventual fall. At first, Hibbert can scarcely contain his contempt for Josephine, pretty much calling her a slut and a spendthrift, but later softens. It’s a good way to learn about the Napoleonic era without having to spend too much time on the battlefield.

Seven Ages of Paris by British historian Alistair Horne begins in the time of Julius Caesar and from there, it’s full steam ahead straight through to the student revolutions of May 1968.   Horne is a great storyteller and brings to life many of the great personalities of French history –  Henri IV,  Louis XIV, Napoleon, de Gaulle.  And yet this book is much more than a catalogue of famous men; he also vividly captures sweeping social and political movements.    The New York Times Book Review called it “consistently bewitching”, not words normally used for a history book.

Any titles you’d add to this list?

Special thanks to David Stonner for his contributions to this post.

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3 responses to “History Comes Alive

  1. I loved Antonia Fraser’s Marie-Antoinette and oddly I find myself thinking about it all the time as I walk around Paris. It’s definitely a book to read and reread!

  2. Graham Robb has a new book out, Parisians; An Adventure History of Paris, which is every bit as interesting as The Discovery of France, and specifically about the capital.

  3. My husband, daughter and I are getting ready to move to Paris. This list is great. Thank you!

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