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Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

by Simon Schama

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Simon Schama has a wonderful way of injecting passion into writing about history without descending into pop sensationalism, and this to my knowledge, is one of his best.

If you're a veteran of history books in general you're probably the sort happy with long reads which which this is. For those of you not don't panic as the pages fly once the words start to pull you in. Take your time and remember that this is covering a fairly epic subject in social history.

On a single down note, despite having read this several times over I've never been very comfortable with the first chapter. Not sure why myself as it's not badly written, but that's only a few pages. About time I gave it a re read when I get chance I think.
( )
  Hubster | May 12, 2013 |
Simon Schama has a wonderful way of injecting passion into writing about history without descending into pop sensationalism, and this to my knowledge, is one of his best.

If you're a veteran of history books in general you're probably the sort happy with long reads which which this is. For those of you not don't panic as the pages fly once the words start to pull you in. Take your time and remember that this is covering a fairly epic subject in social history.

On a single down note, despite having read this several times over I've never been very comfortable with the first chapter. Not sure why myself as it's not badly written, but that's only a few pages. About time I gave it a re read when I get chance I think.
( )
  Hubster | May 12, 2013 |
This has been on my nightstand for ages. The original plan was to read a chapter every Sunday night, and somewhere along the way I fell off that horse... but I fully intend to get back on. I love Schama's writing, and I really want to know my French Revolution inside and out.
  lisapeet | Mar 31, 2013 |
I've been immersed in this history of the French Revolution, and the period immediately leading up to it, for nearly two months, 875 pages of dense, albeit readable and often witty, prose, enlivened by many contemporary illustrations. Schama announces in his preface that he is taking a revisionist approach to the history, and that he is reverting to a 19th century style and writing it as a narrative. I am not sufficiently versed in the history of 18th century France (actually, I'm not versed in it at all) to evaluate his analysis, except to say that it seems to make sense as he tells it, but I definitely appreciated the chronological (as opposed to thematic) organization, even though I sometimes completely lost track of who people were, as Schama brings in dozens, if not hundreds, of secondary characters. In the end, although I enjoyed and learned a lot from the book, I often felt as though there were lots and lots of trees and it was hard to see the forest.

So what is Schama's revisionist approach? It takes a variety of forms. He argues that the prerevolutionary period, far from being only a deadening morass of ancient customs, was actually a time of great change. spurred by news of the American revolution, enlightenment philosophy, the writings of Rousseau, scientific exploration and experimentation (including, dramatically, hot air balloons), early steps towards manufacturing and industrialization (which upset the guild system), and more frequent and rapid transportation of goods around France. Often nobles, more than the bourgeoisie or the peasants, were the ones behind these advances (after all, they had the time and the money). He also argues that "a patriotic culture of citizenship was created in the decades after the Seven Years' War, and that it was thus a cause rather than a product of the French Revolution." In fact, he spends so long on the prerevolutionary period that it takes him 368 pages to reach the storming of the Bastille.

Schama believes that violence was built into the revolution from the beginning, that "it was not merely an unfortunate by-product of politics, or the disagreeable instrument by which other more virtuous ends were accomplished, or vicious ones were thwarted. In some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the revolution itself." Some examples: the "September massacres" of some 1400 Parisian political prisoners, the brutal repression of the brutal uprising in the Vendée and elsewhere, and later, during the Terror, with perhaps one-third of the population killed in certain regions, and with some of the revolutionary military leaders coming up with ideas (unused) that were "sinister anticipations of the technological killings of the 20th century."

Another of Schama's ideas is "the problematic relationship between patriotism and liberty, which, in the Revolution, turns into a brutal competition between the power of the state and the effervescence of politics." Indeed, the chaos of the Estates General and its successors soon turns into absolutism and the need to exterminate enemies. "Revolutionary democracy would be guillotined in the name of revolutionary government." The analogy with the Russian revolution is obvious.

Economically speaking, the Revolution didn't really help the peasants or the poor in the cities, and the revolutionary government still had to deal with bread prices; indeed, in some ways the revolutionary years were harder on the poor than the prior old regime. Schama also makes a convincing argument that "the "bourgeoisie" which Marxist history long believed to be the essential beneficiary of the Revolution was, in fact, its principal victim" because of the attacks during the Terror on mercantile and industrial enterprises in port towns on the Atlantic and Mediterranean and in textile centers in northeastern France.

Perhaps most importantly for the way he tells the history, Schama argues for the importance of individual actions as opposed to theories of the inevitable progress of history. As he writes in the preface, "Nor does the Revolution seem any longer to conform to a grand historical design, preordained by inexorable forces of social change. Instead it seem a thing of contingencies and unforeseen consequences . . . For as the imperatives of "structure" have weakened, those of individual agency, and especially of revolutionary utterance, have become correspondingly more important." Throughout the book, Schama uses quotes from people involved in the actions to illustrate what they were thinking.

I only knew the broad outlines of the revolution before reading this book, and became interested in reading it after I read Hilary Mantel's novel about Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton,A Place of Greater Safety, several years ago. So there was much I didn't know anything about, much I learned that was quite fascinating (the origins of the Marseillaise, for example), and much I learned that was quite depressing, especially when Schama focused on the widespread and obsessive violence.

This is such a complex book that I really can only touch on some on the major themes. Schama weaves together a vast number of contemporary sources: philosophical musings, letter-writers, records of speeches, newspaper articles (the revolutionaries were prolific writers), diaries, and more, in a remarkably impressive way. The illustrations of contemporary artists and political cartoonists add immeasurably to the book. Finally, Schama also has a wonderful way with words.
24 vote rebeccanyc | Sep 23, 2012 |
I had this book for a number of years before I got around to reading it. I shouldn't have been so lazy. I thought that this was a very good book. The author has a nice literary style, like Barbara Tuchman. He is a university professor, more of a scholar than Barbara Tuchman. In the preface he emphasizes two points. He went out of his way to write a narrative history of the French Revolution as opposed to a social history and he disagrees with the standard historiography on the causes of the French Revolution. Schama's review of the facts takes him to the actions of the aristocrats as a prime cause of the Revolution. It is my understanding that he was one of the first of a group of historians that were moving in that direction.
In France the world was changing and things were getting very tight and competitive for everybody. Anyone with privilege was squeezing all the money they could from it and at the same time asserting it's protection from the State, like not paying taxes. If the Parlement of Paris would have cooperated with Louis XVI instead of refusing to pay any taxes he would not have had to call the Estates General which began the revolution. The Estates General brought together the future leaders of the revolution. The political rhetoric of those men brought about the violence and drastic change that characterized the revolution.
The French Revolution is often portrayed as the victory of the bourgeoisie which created the modern nation state. Schama portrays it as a one of a kind, unique event. Since all history is different, he is right. Still there are at least some trends and some very distinct changes take place in the political landscape.
Schama cites to Rousseau a lot as the philosophical Father of the Revolution. Schama is very specific about the doctrine of the general will and its' use by the leaders of the Revolution. LaFayette is one of the prime action figures. His experience in America made him a natural and he grabbed at the power immediately. Little did he know.
Schama does an extensive portrayal of Louis XVI. He comes across as a nice mediocrity. He did have some interests and liked to work with his hands. Still the royal flight to Varennes was not very well done. Louis just couldn't give his wife an order. It got pretty savage and the speeches of Danton were very good.
I have this on audio so I can listen to it again. I sure that I could learn some more from it. ( )
3 vote wildbill | Aug 7, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Recumbent readers beware. Those who like to do their poring lying down will scarcely rush to take up this book. It is monumental. Once hefted, however, and well balanced on lap, knee or chest, ''Citizens'' will prove hard to put down. Provocative and stylish, Simon Schama's account of the first few years of the great Revolution in France, and of the decades that led up to it, is thoughtful, informed and profoundly revisionist. Mr. Schama, who teaches history at Harvard University, has committed other large and readable tomes. But nowhere more than here does he challenge enduring prejudices with prejudices of his own. His arguments, though, are embedded in narrative. Above all, he tells a story, and he tells it well.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Eugen Weber (Jul 19, 1989)
 
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German translation has title "Der zaudernde Citoyen : Rückschritt und Fortschritt in der Französischen Revolution"; Hungarian translation has title "Polgártársak : A francia forradalom krónikája"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679726101, Paperback)

Instead of the dying Old Regime, Schama presents an ebullient country, vital and inventive, infatuated with novelty and technology--a strikingly fresh view of Louis XVI's France. A New York Times bestseller in hardcover. 200 illustrations.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:00:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Explores the French Revolution in terms of the vitality and infatuation with technology that motivated French citizenry toward change and the conflicting, strained economics frustrating their visions for France.

» see all 3 descriptions

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