FROM JIM'S SHELVES: Two on the Revolution
Having picked up various books on our period over the last few years, I've finally gotten to reading a few. Currently, I'm on the second work I've read by Claude Manceron: Their Gracious Pleasure 1782-1785.
For those who don't know Manceron, he began as a novelist but got seduced by the historical research he was doing for his creative work (imagine such a thing...). HIs books reflect his experience in building stories by showing us various figures close up as human beings in very specific situations, with the major historical roles many of these people will play still a distant echo up ahead. He has a lively, witty style and distinct point of view that is beautifully captured (or partly created?) by Nancy Amphoux, his translator. The whole structure of each book is free-wheeling, almost casual, yet carefully organized to show how events were building and personalities were emerging. Each book is packed with notes and references, yet reads more gracefully than many novels.
For those who would like to learn about the period before the Revolution, but don't care to struggle through anything like a textbook, the books in this series (Age of the French Revolution) might be just the thing.
Before that I read another book translated from French, this with the plain vanilla title of The French Revolution, originally compiled by Georges Pernoud and Sabine Flaissier. This English language edition appeared in 1960 and appears to be out of print, though it's readily (and cheaply) available on Abebooks.
The title suggests a kind of plodding textbook, but the work in fact consists almost exclusively of eye witness accounts from every side of most (not all) of the important events in the Revolution. This is history up close and personal: a man defending himself against the charge that he paraded the Princess of Lamballe's genitals around on a pike; a member of the Convention, accompanying the royal family back from Varennes, convinced that one of the princesses has the hots for him; a mother hiding (from the Revolutionaries) under straw feeling her beloved little boy die of smallpox in her arms; Marie-Antoinette forced to squat behind a half-partition with a gendarme watching as she
"answers nature's calls"; Robespierre struggling to staunch the blood from his shattered jaw as he sits up all night, waiting to be guillotined the very next day.
If these examples seem raw and shocking, well, much of what happened in this period was, and this book tells it to you in the words of those who were there, famous or obscure. Better books of the sort may have appeared since, but, if you want this stretch of history from a deeply human perspective, this small paperback - a short 300 some pages - will certainly do the job.