I got this book in the lead up to the French presidential election, and although it sat on the “To Read” pile until after Macron’s victory, I was hoping to pick up a sense of the forces involved in that election. The French presidential election seems increasingly like a free for all with a baffling number of candidates; hardy perennials that turn up each time, and spin offs from the main parties. I have tried to get an understanding of France before, with Graham Robb, but was just even more lost in the number of regions, subcultures, personalities and quirks of history that make up the country. To misquote De Gaulle: how can you understand a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?
This history starts with a quick review of Napoleon and the Revolution before taking the reader chronologically through French history. Starting with the Restoration and July Monarchy (which I was vaguely familar with from histories of the 1848 revolutions), on to Napoleon III (similar), then the Third Republic between the Franco-Prussian and First World War (my prior knowledge began and ended with the Dreyfus Affair), then on to the Second World War and the Fourth Republic, before reaching the Fifth Republic that exists today. The tone of the book is straight faced and to the point, but the pacing is quick and it is remarkably accessible. Single page biographical asides are dotting throughout the book, adding some colour.
Some parts that were initially obscure to me before reading remain clouded (the presidents and prime ministers of the third republic for instance); but Fenby has helped me rationalise that. Lack of stability has often been a feature of France, as politics becomes fragmented and discontent with the system grows. Fenby finds this tension running throughout the history, not just between left and right, but between shades of the left or the right. Under exceptional leaders like De Gaulle or Mitterrand, these can be unified, but eventually the same tensions rise again.
Many of the candidates for the recent election feature in the book, but Macron possibly the least of them – relegated to a footnote on the PS picking an investment banker as an economic minister. The conclusion to the book does stress the need for some innovation in French politics, a move away from the entrenched party politics and old battles, but it is not clear that Macron is that move. With the elections for the French parliament coming up and Macron’s new party polling well, it will be interesting to see where things go from here.
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.
With the ease that the internet allows, many people who run blogs or podcasts (even very good ones) will be amateurs making the most of their spare time. However, time can be limited and running things can cost money – so podcasts will sometimes consider ways to raise funds. Some of these methods work better than others, but there’s plenty of room for inventiveness.
Some like the History of Byzantium podcast may sell occasional special episodes. Others like Hardcore History may sell large parts of their back catalogue (at a fairly decent price too, given the length – they’re worth checking out). Many like David Crowther’s History of England podcast, may just have an option for donations. Peter Adamson at the History of Philosophy gets a grant. And some like The History of Iran podcast are even funded via Kickstarter.
Continue reading Post 63: History of Rome/Revolutions Fundraiser