Monday, June 8, 2015

Holiday History Reading Roundup


One of the nice things about being on holiday is that I usually get chance to catch up on some big reading of big books, the sort of thing I often put off because I don't get that much reading time normally and I fear losing the flow of a longer work. So far this year I've been caught up in history again, filling in some gaps especially around the late 18th and early 19th Century. Whilst not a period I'm ignorant of, it is a period where my knowledge ebbs and flows a little, and the joined up linkage between events is a little sketchy, so getting a couple of good, solid books that ranged about a bit was really what I after. In the end, I got two books - the first on the French Revolution, and the second on the momentous year, 1848. 

Citizens, by Simon Schama
I've been a big fan of Simon Schama's Television work, but to be honest I've been a little lax at reading his books. He's an open and friendly presence on page, confident with the usual method of pop-historical narrative that dives down to personal anecdote and then up to helicopter summaries and back again, that give context and lived experience to the machinations of "great men" strutting on the large stages of History. Citizens is his history of the French Revolution, covering roughly the summoning of the Estates General in 1789 to the Thermidorian Reaction in 1794, which may only be 5 years but what a 5 years it is. 

This is now the third book (plus one podcast) on the French Revolution that I've read this year, so I'm starting to get a decent grasp of the basics now. The events of the French Revolution seem, in the popular consciousness, to be focused on the Terror, and a strange grab-bag of other events, and any narrative quickly sinks into a barrage of factions, sub-revolts and, as it turns out, the fact that the French Revolution has become a sort of ur-revolution, into which many future battles have back-filled their own prejudices.

Schama in particular is interested in this last point. Citizens is full of small asides that attempt some "mythbusting" on the Revolution, especially the post-Marxist analysis that frames it as a classic bourgeois-led, "tide of history" event. Strangely some of these myths I'd not actually seen presented, but Citizens was written in 1989, and in the intervening 25 years some of his analysis may well be more mainstream and accepted than the slightly defensive tone makes me think it was back then. There is probably a good book in the battle within Historians about the "how history works" but it's never more than a subtext here, and doesn't really get in the way. 

As as a sweeping primer for the French Revolution, Citizens is really excellent, and takes care to not get too bogged down in the fine detail whilst covering all the big events and personalities. With the caveat that Schama isn't above making his own points about the failings of the Revolution - chiefly about it's relationship to bloody violence - it's also largely even-handed and thoughtful about those involved, including the strange affection for Lafeyette that seems common to any non-French historian. So if you're in the position where you don't really know much about the French Revolution other than the odd bit of TV, than this is an excellent place to start. 

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport
One of the things that late 19th Century historians are fond of throwing out there is a phrase like "after 1848..." and assume that their readers will know what that is. As someone pretty familiar with the late 19th and early 20th Century, I'd managed to pick up some bits and pieces about it being a year when most of Europe went up in flames, and from an anglo-centric point of view it's the year associated with the Chartists and when The Communist Manifesto was published in London. But the rest of it? No so much other than a vague sense that Les Miserables was involved?*

So Mike Rapport's 1848: Year of Revolution is an attempt to tell whole story of the events of 1848-1849, where mass uprisings sweep Europe and threaten to tear down the post-Napoleonic settlement before badly flaming out and crashing across the landscape. Starting with another French Revolution - this time kicking the monarchy out for good - and spreading through Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany, this is a sprawling, complex tale of interlocking factors both pushing for and, reacting against, what is broadly call "liberal reform". Something that means different things in different countries, helpfully. 

So what we have a series of branching narratives, broken down roughly chronologically and geographically, attempting to make sense of it. It paints the picture of a Europe where, in the east, Serfs still toil the fields under feudal landlords, but troops move to war on railways, with mass-produced artillery and muskets. Modern-sounding concerns about representation, industrial unrest and economic reform mix with peasant revolts, religious oppression and nascent nationalist strife. Great names of the past walk off-stage, and great names of the future - Marx, Bismarck, Garibaldi and more, take their first steps out into the limelight. 

Its still, having read the books, bloody confusing, but at least thats because I now understand that it's a confusing time. There probably are no simple books on the events of 1848, no simple answers to the questions that remain unanswered once the dust settles. It's crazy, complex and fascinating, and I'm not sure it could be done better, at least under one volume. It does get away from Rapport at times, and I felt like taking notes on more than one occasion, but it's still well worth a read to get a feel for the importance of that monumental year.

* Yes I know that is 1832 really.