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.
If you’ve ever (as an english speaker) listened to someone speaking dutch, you might be surprised to find much common links between the two countries. In the 17th century however, there was a huge crossover of ideas and culture – eventually culminating in William of Orange taking the British throne. Lisa Jardine argues in Going Dutch that William’s Glorious Revolution was more of a hostile military occupation than the standard portrayal. William brought tens of thousands of men, his personal guard patrolled the streets of London. He was easily assimilated however, because of a long recent history of shared culture between the two nations.
Jardine goes through each aspect of this shared culture in detail – letters and collaboration between scientists, taste in artwork, styles of landscaping gardening, and the roles of prominent families like the Huygens family. The detail is fascinating, if often overwhelming, occasionally repetitive and sometimes over-reliant on the aforementioned Huygens family (and on Robert Hooke, who Jardine had also written a biography of).
I did have a few other issues with the book, the tone suggests a groundbreaking change in how we should view the Glorious Revolution but the actual content is much more grounded. While the extent of the dutch connection might be forgotten, I’m not sure anyone really believes William’s propaganda as fact. The subtitle “How England Plundered Holland’s Glory” is also over the top, and not really justified by the content of the book.
Ignoring this, it’s an enjoyable overview of cross-channel culture during the 17th century. There’s plenty to enjoy and it does point towards art, architecture*, landscape and more for anyone wanting to explore their dutch heritage.
*It reminded me of this documentary by Jonathan Meades, which investigates the same topic with a slightly different tone.
I’m reviewing the book of this ambitious project from Neil McGregor and the British Museum. Throughout 2010, in 15 minute slots on BBC Radio 4, the director of the British Museum presented objects from the museum that tell the (or, possibly, a) history of humanity. I was aware of the project at the time, but managed to miss the radio show and never quite got round to checking out the website.
The radio shows are still on the BBC website, now in the form of a podcast. The book has a very “podcast” feel to it. Every object is in a short self contained chapter – just the right size for a short train journey to work. The book is clearly meant for this sort of episodic approach to reading, taken in longer doses it could appear a bit disconnected. There is a overarching theme to the book – one of shared humanity and tolerance – but it’s not hammered home. Above all, it is a very pleasant read – even on tough topics like slavery or colonialism, McGregor strikes an optimistic and open tone.
While there are the expected big names (the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Sutton Hoo, the Lewis Chessmen), other items are often obscure. They come from locations around the world (though all have now ended up in London by one route or another). There is a reasonable sense of balance of coverage between cultures and regions around the world (obviously restricted by the collection at the Museum), and the items are loosely themed to show a commonality. Contributions from experts are interesting, and often from an unexpected angle – Grayson Perry drafted in to comment on ancient pottery, Ian Hislop on Lutheran broadsheets.
One disappointment with the book, is that the photos included don’t come close to the descriptions that McGregor gives. He brings these objects to life in three dimensions with all their details and changes, but this is sometimes hard to appreciate without being able to look closer or from different angles. The website does list which objects are currently on display in the museum, and where, so I do have the chance to rectify this. And I am very much looking forward to doing so!
This is my fiftieth post on this blog. I’d wondered if I should do anything special here, but in the end have decided to just note a couple of small things. Firstly, the History of England podcast is going on to a (hopefully brief) hiatus. It has been one of my favourite podcasts for a few years now with its mix of amateur dramatic, sheds and the ladybird book of Kings and Queens. However, David Crowther has been doing it more or less non-stop for four years and has decided to break until early next year to help keep things fresh. Here is the relevant post from his facebook group.
Continue reading Post 50: Web comics, podcast news and other things.