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The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to…
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The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (New Penguin History of… (2002 original; edició 2003)

de Colin Jones (Autor)

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This volume explores the story of how the confident and secure monarchy that Louis XIV left to his successors in 1715 became the discredited, debt-ridden failure toppled by revolution in 1789.
Títol:The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon (New Penguin History of France)
Autors:Colin Jones (Autor)
Informació:Penguin Books (2003), 688 pages
Col·leccions:La teva biblioteca
Etiquetes:No n'hi ha cap

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The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon, 1715-99 de Colin Jones (2002)

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Back in the 1950s, Alfred Cobban wrote the first of what became a three-volume "History of Modern France" for Penguin Press. Together these books provided a primarily political history of France from the death of Louis XIV to the withdrawal from Algeria in 1962 and survived for decades as a standard English-language introduction to modern French history, thanks in no small measure to the readability and insights contained within the trilogy.

As time went along, however, Cobban's books increasingly suffered from the their inability to incorporate the ever-growing body of research into French history and the changes in our understanding which this has brought about. As a result, Penguin Press commissioned a new three-volume series designed to supplant Cobban's volumes. As is increasingly the case the task once entrusted to one historian was now divided amongst three specialists, with Colin Jones writing the volume covering France in the 18th century. While generally emulating Cobban in focusing mainly on political history, Jones gives more attention than his predecessor to social and cultural developments during this period, creating a more well-rounded overview as a result. Because of this, the book is chock full of insights absent from Cobban's book, with Jones's integration of the Enlightenment and his explanation of its influence on political developments a particularly notable improvement over Cobban's work. It's easy to see why it has supplanted Cobban's earlier volume as a standard history of 18th century France, one that will likely maintain that title for as long as its predecessor did. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
The Abbé Siéyès, when asked what exactly he had done during the Terror, famously replied, J'ai vécu (‘I survived’). Part of me wants to say something similar about getting through this book, which, despite being repeatedly interesting, turned into something of an endurance test for me.

The problem is one of density, both of style and of content. Dealing with an action-packed century full of artistic innovation, philosophical endeavours, war and revolution, I admit I was expecting a narrative generously larded with eye-catching historical anecdotes. But instead, Jones's approach is resolutely academic – and surprisingly dry. There are very few actual events in this book, and there is a reliance on economic evidence and statistics that – while undoubtedly historically sound – left me feeling increasingly distant from the real people purportedly being described.

This issue is compounded by a prose style which, at best, is compact and witty, but which far too often simply reads like a PhD thesis. Instead of adventure, we have adventurism, instead of voluntary, we have voluntaristic, instead of lax, laxist, instead of misery miserabilism. A priest is described as an ‘ambulatory and seemingly invulnerable oasis of redemptive sanctity’. At one point, when something is happening, Jones says it's ‘in the process of volitional actualization’.

On the level of the paragraph, this is absolutely representative:

On the one hand, there was a desire for change within the corporative framework, in ways which respected social hierarchy and vertical ties of dependence. [...] On the other hand, alongside this corporative discourse within the armed forces, there also developed a more overtly civic discourse of professionalism, which drew on both the equalizing rhetoric of enlightenment absolutism and the more democratic values of the public sphere and which stressed horizontal and egalitarian bonds of mutual interdependence between citizens.

I flipped to the back of the book, where a blurb from The Economist mentions ‘fast-paced and lucid prose’. Are we reading the same thing? This is efficiency at the cost of legibility – or of reading pleasure, at the very least. (The academic-paper feel is reinforced by Jones's grammatical bugbears – a horror of ending a clause with a participle leads to such ugly formations as, ‘Yet accepting advice on financial matters, even from his parlements, was something to which the king found it hard to warm.’)

This is not nit-picking for the sake of it – my feeling was increasingly that Jones was genuinely losing touch with the reality of what he was describing. I certainly was. It's all very well to go on about ‘evolving discourse’ and the ‘corporatist parameters of the state’, but I want to know what actual people were literally saying and doing. Give me fewer postmodern social theories and more diaries, journals, letters. When, eight chapters in, a page and a half is given over to a minor scandal involving a diamond necklace, I fell upon the action like it was a battle scene from Return of the King. Unfortunately, the approach more often is to make oblique mention of something potentially fascinating (‘the notorious bandit and highway robber Cartouche’), and then give no further details on it whatsoever.

This is connected to a more general feeling that Jones is often writing for those already in the know. Consider a sentence like this: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte's subsequent comment that the French Revolution dated not from the fall of the Bastille but from the first performance of The Marriage of Figaro was wrong.’ Most lay-readers, I maintain, will react much as I did: Napoleon said what?! But Jones angles things so as to argue his own case first, rather than establish some of the juicy facts which he apparently considers old-hat. This situation, writ large, is the problem with the whole book.

Having spent several paragraphs getting this off my chest, though, I have to say that The Great Nation grew on me. Unlike other reviewers, who found the book weakest when it reached the Revolution, I enjoyed that part the most. The assumption of a little knowledge here was something I could cope with, and Jones's usual obsession with agricultural statistics and legislative events this time seemed genuinely different and enlightening. Plus, even he couldn't stop a few beheadings creeping in at this point to enliven the narrative, though he certainly makes a point of not lingering on the details. I did find myself reconsidering my ideas about the Revolution in the light of such surprising statistics as the fact that a mere one percent of nobles were executed, and only a slightly larger number emigrated: the vast majority stayed in France and not just survived but often found ways to prosper. There was also a coherent overview of the 25-year period from 1789, after which, despite the Revolutionaries' hopes, France would not just have lost its lucrative colonial empire, but would have made no new territorial gains at all.

Here again I'm tempted to make a comparison with my week and a half with this book. That would be unfair – but while I did come out with a richer understanding of France's fascinating 18th century, I'd have to say that the fascination occasionally seemed to be gleaned in spite of, rather than because of, the work in question. ( )
  Widsith | Jun 11, 2012 |
Jones is at his best when tracing the forces that hollowed out the French Bourbon state; the Enlightenment, the economic pressures impacting French society, the growth of social consciousness, and the weakening leadership of the Bourbon kings themselves. While one appreciates the desire to demonstrate what happened after the culminating point of all these trends was reached, the portion dealing with the French revolution is certainly much weaker then what comes before. This is seeing as the concatenation of events is such that the narrative becomes confusing. That's another thing, the assumption here is that you already have your personalities straight before you wade into this work. If you don't, you'll rapidly lose patience with the whole enterprise. ( )
  Shrike58 | Sep 19, 2006 |
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This volume explores the story of how the confident and secure monarchy that Louis XIV left to his successors in 1715 became the discredited, debt-ridden failure toppled by revolution in 1789.

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