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Simple Facts and Plain Truths

David A. Bell: Common Sense

20 October 2011
Common Sense: A Political​ History 
by Sophia Rosenfeld.
Harvard, 337 pp., £22.95, 0 674 05781 3
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... Readers of the LRB probably don’t have a lot of common sense: this, after all, is a journal of the ‘chattering classes’. Some of its contributors are Marxists, feminists and postmodern philosophers. Could anything be more at odds with the no-nonsense common sense of the ordinar...

A Long Silence

David A. Bell: ‘Englishness’

14 December 2000
Englishness Identified: Manners and Character, 1650-1850 
by Paul Langford.
Oxford, 389 pp., £25, April 2000, 9780198206811
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... have ‘der deutsche Sonderweg’. The English, on the other hand, have no equivalent catchphrase: it seems they take their exceptionality so much for granted that they don’t even bother putting a name to it. Does such a thing as ‘Englishness’ really exist? Most current thinking on national identities suggests that it doesn’t. Apparently innate and immutable national characteristics, the ...

Ruling the Roast

David A. Bell: A Nation of Beefeaters

25 September 2003
Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation 
by Ben Rogers.
Chatto, 207 pp., £17.99, April 2003, 9780701169800
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... At moments of stress, depression or grief, my thoughts turn irresistibly towards the golden arches of McDonald’s. Usually, I find the food repellent, but there are times when nothing can soothe my ...

A State Jew

David A. Bell: Léon Blum

5 November 2015
Léon Blum: Prime Minister, Socialist, Zionist 
by Pierre Birnbaum, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Yale, 218 pp., £14.99, July 2015, 978 0 300 18980 3
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... The​ newspaper Action française habitually referred to Léon Blum, France’s Socialist leader, as the ‘warlike Hebrew’ and the ‘circumcised Narbonnais’ (he represented a constituency in Narbonne). On 13 February 1936, Blum was being driven away from the NationalAssembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at the intersection of ...

Revolutionary Yoke

William​ Doyle: Le Nationalisme

27 June 2002
The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism 1680-1800 
by David A. Bell.
Harvard, 304 pp., £30.95, November 2001, 0 674 00447 7
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... Recording the moment Samuel Johnson startled his friends in 1775 by declaring patriotism to be the ‘last refuge of a scoundrel’, Boswell felt that the definition needed to be glossed. Johnson ‘did not mean’, he assured readers, ‘a realand generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so ...

One Does It Like This

David A. Bell: Talleyrand

16 November 2006
Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand 
by David​ Lawday.
Cape, 386 pp., £20, September 2006, 0 224 07366 4
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... Napoleon Bonaparte and his chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, are usually seen as the oddest of history’s odd couples. One personified boldness, ambition and overblown operatic passion; the other, subtlety, irony and world-weary cynicism. One displayed such restless physical ...

He wouldn’t dare

David A. Bell: Bloodletting in Paris

9 May 2002
Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945 
by Richard D.E. Burton.
Cornell, 395 pp., £24.50, September 2001, 0 8014 3868 3
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... Of all the elements which go into making Paris such an exquisite object of desire, not the least is the memory of bloodshed. It adds a note of danger to the city’s frivolous pleasures, a sombre colour to an otherwise oppressively light palette. No other city’s history can offer such an extraordinary mixture of luxury and savagery, and the visitor who delights in the first also ...

Handsome, Charming …

David A. Bell: Beaumarchais

22 October 2009
Beaumarchais: A Biography 
by Maurice Lever, translated by Susan​ Emanuel.
Farrar, Straus, 411 pp., $26, May​ 2009, 978 0 374 11328 5
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... The 18th century was the greatage of the European parvenu. Social hierarchies were rigid enough to make a sudden leap up the ladder not just unusual but shocking. Yet even before the French Revolution these hierarchies were coming under unprecedented pressure asa result of a surging commercial economy ...

Come and see for yourself

David A. Bell: Tocqueville

18 July 2013
Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty 
by Lucien Jaume, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Princeton, 347 pp., £24.95, April 2013, 978 0 691 15204 2
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... On 11 May 1831, a fastidious 25-year-old Normanaristocratarrived in New York City with anassignment to report on American prisons for the French Ministry of Justice. Over the next nine months he travelled up the East Coast, down the Mississippi and through what was then the wild west of ...

Who mended Pierre’s leg?

David A. Bell: Lourdes

11 November 1999
Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular​ Age 
by Ruth Harris.
Allen Lane, 473 pp., £25, April 1999, 0 7139 9186 0
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... On the surface, no two people in 19th-century France had less in common than Louis Pasteur and Bernadette Soubirous. Pasteur, the great icon of modern biological science, wasa French national hero, a pillar of the academic establishment: the very embodiment of modern, rational, liberal civilisation. Soubirous wasa miserably poor, tubercular peasant girl, illiterate, unable to speakanything other ...
6 September 2001
Napoleon the Novelist 
by Andy Martin.
Polity, 191 pp., £45, December 2000, 0 7456 2536 3
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... Andy Martin is unlikely to convince many readers that Napoleon conquered Europe only as compensation for his inability to write a sentimental novel. His attention to the Emperor’s literary ambitions is, however, not unreasonable. Napoleon dreamed of literary as well as military glory, wrote copiously at various moments in his ...

Fallen Idols

David A. Bell

23 July 1992
The Fabrication of Louis XIV 
by Peter Burke.
Yale, 242 pp., £19.95, May​ 1992, 0 300 05153 0
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... The French, a people normally not plagued by a lack of national pride, revere very few of their past leaders. Consider the following list: Richelieu, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Clemenceau, De Gaulle. Which of them enjoys anything like the ...

Mother’s Boys

David A. Bell

10 June 1993
The Family Romance of the French Revolution 
by Lynn Hunt.
Routledge, 220 pp., £19.99, September 1992, 0 415 08236 6
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... It used to be that historians searched for the causes of the French Revolution in the manner of detectives on the track of a master criminal. Over the years, unfortunately, they dragged such a bewildering variety of suspects into the historical station-house that one would be forgiven for thinking a posse of bumbling Inspector Lestrades had been let loose in the archives. Sometimes the ...

Enlightenment’s Errand Boy

David A. Bell: The Philosophes and the Republic of Letters

22 May 2003
Calvet’s Web: Enlightenment and the Republic of Letters in 18th-Century France 
by L.W.B. Brockliss.
Oxford, 471 pp., £55, July 2002, 9780199247486
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The Great​ Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon 
by Colin Jones.
Allen Lane, 651 pp., £25, August 2002, 0 7139 9039 2
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... The French Revolutionaries identified the Enlightenment as the work of a small, brave band of 18th-century philosophes, whom they rushed to entomb as heroes in the gloomy crypt of the Panthéon. In the corrupt and desolate wasteland of the Ancien Régime, the Revolutionaries proclaimed, the philosophes had cast welcoming rays of light and reason ...

Twilight Approaches

David A. Bell: Salon Life in France

11 May 2006
The Age of Conversation 
by Benedetta Craveri, translated by Teresa Waugh.
NYRB, 488 pp., £17.99, October 2005, 1 59017 141 1
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... There is a fable about the French past that goes as follows. Sometime in the 17th century, the country’s proud noble caste was humbled and tamed by imperious ministers and kings. Where once it had swayed the destinies of Europe, it was now confined ...

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