Citizens, by Simon Schama

July 20, 2010 at 01:59 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , , )


Schama is an excellent historian, and even when he wears his bias and his elemental distaste on his sleeve, he still has great insight into his subject matter, with an especial eye towards irony, hypocrisy and the absurd, subjects that are unsurprisingly abundant in this chronicle.

His penchant towards entirely omitting vastly important events simply because he personally disdains them is refreshingly limited in this book, and if his stubborn literality leads him to break off his account where he deems the revolution to have ended, then at least he tells his readers in no uncertain terms when France (in his opinion) went from being a failed experiment in representative anarchy to squaring with itself and honestly admitting to being a dictatorship.

Schama’s obsession with telling historical stories solely from the viewpoint of a few “typical” yet insignificant bystanders survives into this book, but is much less invasive than in his History of Britain, which cannot but be a good thing. Above all, readers will choose Simon Schama for his easy style and adventurous prose, which is fresh and exciting without pretending to be a novel, and describing “every flake of frost on the morning of 9 Thermidor”, or “every vulture in the sky watching the guillotine”. That sort of thing can get tiresome, and Schama avoids it while still managing to be witty and enjoyable.

To accusations of undue revisionism, it seems that Schama’s intention is not to demonise the Jacobins, but rather to draw the Revolution itself out of the black and white starkness in which it has typically been caricatured, pointing out the evidence of reformation in the government of Louis XVI in contrast to the incredible participation of aristocrats and clergy in the Revolution itself, and even in the midst of the Terror.

His central precept then, buried as it might be beneath lurid accounts of Jacobin excess, seems to be to describe the Revolution as primarily an economic affair, with all the veneer of class warfare serving to disguise the fact of legions of subsistence farmers led to the guillotine by their formal feudal lords. An interesting premise well laid out, and perhaps why his account faces so much abuse from today’s so-called social historians.


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