I think there are a few ways one can approach the French Revolution. One is a biographical focus on the main characters – Schama does not do this, although he does cover Lafayette and Talleyrand in some detail. Another is to deal with it thematically – Schama does not do this, although he deals with themes as and when they show up in the narrative. Another still is do give a blow by blow account of the Revolution – this, for me, is what Schama does (the book is even subtitled ‘A Chronicle of the French Revolution‘).
It isn’t a light book. Schama’s background leads him to show a particular focus on art. The work of Jacques-Louis David is ever present. And this pads out the book to an extreme length with detailed descriptions of the art and culture of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution. The benefit of this is that one gets a feel for the atmosphere, the motives and the aesthetics of the participants. The downside is that this isn’t necessarily an easy introduction to the topic – with action dispersed among lengthy commentaries on art. particularly in the early part of the book. Some institutions just seem to pop up, while others are given solid explanations.
Another uneasy thing here for an introduction is Schama’s judgement on the Revolution. He thinks it was a lot of violence, horror and disruption to very little benefit. He might reluctantly admit that the focus on rights changed the direction of post-Revolutionary France, but it had little positive material benefit. With all this focus on the personal loss and violence of the period 1789 to 1794, he doesn’t actually spent that long on the longer term effects of the revolution. Never mind the revolutions of 1848, 1830 or Napoleon, he doesn’t even get to the Directory.
For all that, Schama does write very well and the sections on art and culture add something different, more visual, to the history of the revolution. Maybe it doesn’t stand alone as an unbiased record, but there’s so much to the period that it would be hard to find a book of substance that does. Perhaps, as Schama is currently on TV reworking an old Kenneth Clark BBC series, this could be thought of in similar terms as The French Revolution: A Personal View.