Children of the Revolution: The French 1799–1914 by Robert Gildea - review by Sudhir Hazareesingh

Sudhir Hazareesingh

Vive La Republique

Children of the Revolution: The French 1799–1914


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 560pp £25

During the long nineteenth century, the French learnt to ‘give time its just preponderance’, in the words of the positivist philosopher Emile Littré. This did not come easily or naturally. As the first part of Robert Gildea’s elegantly written book shows, the French struggled repeatedly to lay to rest the painful conflicts provoked by the 1789 Revolution. From 1799 onwards, when Napoleon Bonaparte captured power from a corrupt and decaying Republic, the country experimented with a variety of regimes, none of which managed to sustain enduring public support. After living through the rise and fall of the Napoleonic empire, two constitutional monarchies, and the short-lived and chaotic Republic of 1848, the liberal thinker Alexis de Tocqueville lamented: ‘I wonder whether the solid ground we have so long sought really exists, or whether our destiny is not rather to sail a storm-tossed sea forever.’

This political turbulence was exacerbated by social divisions and class conflict: Parisians held the provinces in contempt; religious and anticlerical groups battled with each other over material and metaphysical issues; the Code Civil (largely reflecting Napoleon’s wishful thinking about Josephine) stipulated that ‘the wife owes her husband obedience’; working-class revolts

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