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"On every generation to which it gave birth the French Revolution left its mark,” writes Robert Gildea at the beginning of this fine, wide-ranging survey of French political and cultural history after 1789. His aim is to account for the seemingly perpetual oscillation between the rival political orders of republic, monarchy and empire, from the end of the 18th century to the Great War.

In the 19th century, the century in which the children of the Revolution grew up, Reason became an ugly pastiche of what it had seemed in the age of Enlightenment, the century of the philosophes. We perhaps need to turn to Rousseau, scourge and whipping-boy of Voltaire, but idol of the revolutionaries, to understand why. His name is oddly absent from Gildea’s account ? oddly, not just because his novel Emile ultimately transformed the education dispensed to the children of the Revolution, but also because Rousseau’s other visionary works, The Social Contract and the sentimental/sermonising novel Julie, or the New Heloise, similarly demonstrate how political maturity should not be sought where it cannot by definition be found, in the gratification of egoism posing as fraternity. This lesson reverberated through the tumultuous years around 1789, yet the caution Rousseau sounded was repeatedly ignored. This goes a fair way towards explaining the crazed political see-sawing that Gildea’s book traces.

How was it that every fresh beginning came to resemble its predecessors, discredited almost as soon as the fighting was over and the requisite blood shed? Not simply through contamination by the ordinary human tendency to be dissatisfied with whatever human agency has achieved, but also as a result of the inherent limitations of human idealism, to which were added, as the 19th century unfolded, real horror at the desecration brought by social models of “progress” that had initially seemed to offer tangible social benefits. French revolutions came and went, with the restoration of the monarchy after Waterloo, via the July Revolution of 1830, to the new cataclysm and consequent social reordering of 1848, and beyond. Marx would eventually come to seem more relevant to newly industrial France than to the more advanced economy of Britain.

The efforts of the philosophes to provide a rational justification for morality in a dechristianised world would be challenged less by amoralists like the Marquis de Sade ? whose novels attempt to show the naivety of believing that virtue “pays off” in happiness ? than through the sickening examples of capitalism unchecked, as it appears in novels by Balzac and Zola. Gildea discusses both pertinently, but perhaps underestimates the paradoxical and systematic worsening of female rights at the end of the 18th century, an age which according to contemporary observers such as the portraitist Mme Vigée Le Brun and to the Goncourt brothers had until then been the age of women.

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