So, just how French was the French Revolution?

Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee
Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee
  • Liberty or Death: The French Revolution by Peter McPhee
  • Yale University Press, £25
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Peter McPhee’s scrupulously researched book poses a question I had not beforehand considered: just how French was the French Revolution? It is a question that has to be approached from numerous angles.

Intellectually, its origins lay in the American Revolution, the philosophy of the Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the British creation of a constitutional monarchy after the events of 1688.

Then there is the difference between Paris and the rest of France. Was it a Parisian Revolution, foisted on the rest of the country? Perhaps even more telling than, say, the resistance in the Vendée is the fact that during the counter-revolutionary Terror, Marseilles was renamed “Sans Nom”, “Without Name”.

What had united France? Technically, the monarchy, although more influential was the Catholic Church. McPhee discusses the requisition of church bells for armaments, and evokes a suddenly silent French countryside. The statistics are astonishing. A quarter of all priests – as many of 40,000 – emigrated.

McPhee is particularly good on popular culture during the Revolution. The explosion of newspapers and songs further bound together the often disparate groups with competing grievances.

It is almost de rigueur for histories of the Revolution to quote Zhou Enlai’s maxim about it being “too soon” to know its influence; and McPhee wisely forgoes it for Mao: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous.”

McPhee has a keen eye for the telling anecdote. My favourite was the production of Calderon’s Life is a Dream in Bordeaux, where the audience became furious when the actor Auroch spoke the line: “Long live our noble king!” All 86 members of the company were arrested, and Auroch sent to the guillotine, all the while maintaining “But it was in my part!”