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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 wounded American spirit like the famous ‘two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun ...

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 ordinary man or woman? We have become so accustomed to this usage that it is something of a shock to be reminded by Sophia Rosenfeld that ‘common sense’ once had a very different set of political connotations, and that 200 years ago asserting a belief in ordinary people’s common sense could see you branded as a radical democrat ...

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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... 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 ...

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 Norman aristocrat arrived in New York City with an assignment 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 Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan ...

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 National Assembly when he encountered a group of ultra-right-wing militants who had gathered at the intersection of the rue de l’Université and the boulevard Saint-Germain for the funeral procession of Jacques Bainville, one of the founders of Action française, a reactionary political movement as well as a newspaper ...

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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... century was the great age 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 as a result of a surging ...

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 adoration from their countrymen that Americans give to the secular canon of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy? Napoleon himself is today remembered as a vainglorious tyrant who squandered his achievements ...

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 to the gilded cage of the royal court, and the elegant salons of Paris ...

I wanted to rule the world

David A. Bell: Napoleon’s Global War, 3 December 2020

The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History 
by Alexander Mikaberidze.
Oxford, 936 pp., £25.99, April 2020, 978 0 19 995106 2
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... ambitious and independent-minded black governor Toussaint Louverture when Napoleon dispatched a military expedition to reassert full French control over the colony. The French forces, commanded by Napoleon’s brother-in-law Charles Leclerc, had some initial success. They captured Louverture, and shipped him back to France, where he died in captivity in ...

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 energy that contemporaries repeatedly reached for that newly hatched adjective ‘electric’ to describe him; the other was sickly, pallid and had a club foot ...

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 ...

When the barracks were bursting with poets

David A. Bell: Napoleon, 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 life, and had real talent for it (Sainte-Beuve called him ‘a great critic in his spare time’, while Thiers elevated him to ‘greatest writer of the century ...

Further, Father, Further!

David A. Bell: ‘The Wanton Jesuit’, 17 November 2016

The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion and Politics in 18th-Century France 
by Mita Choudhury.
Penn State, 234 pp., £43.95, December 2015, 978 0 271 07081 0
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... In the autumn​ of 1730, a 20-year-old woman in the southern French port of Toulon claimed that her spiritual director, a middle-aged Jesuit, had repeatedly forced her to have sex with him. When she became pregnant, he made her drink a potion that induced an abortion ...

Shameless, Lucifer and Pug-Nose

David A. Bell: Louis Mandrin, 8 January 2015

Contraband: Louis Mandrin and the Making of a Global Underground 
by Michael Kwass.
Harvard, 457 pp., £35, April 2014, 978 0 674 72683 3
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... The 18th century​ was a great age for criminals. Western European countries were awash with more private wealth than ever before, but their police forces remained weak, at least by modern standards. Communications were slow and unreliable, and only the most rudimentary means existed for tracking individual malefactors ...

Un Dret Egal

David A. Bell: Political Sentiment, 15 November 2007

Inventing Human Rights: A History 
by Lynn Hunt.
Norton, 272 pp., £15.99, April 2007, 978 0 393 06095 9
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... but 18th-century fiction. The path she follows is not obvious, by any means – particularly as she has not chosen the fiction that most directly confronted issues of injustice (Candide, say, or Montesquieu’s Persian Letters). Instead, Hunt draws attention to epistolary novels of private lives and loves, above all Richardson’s Pamela and ...

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