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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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... writes, ‘the figure of a martyred, often decapitated human body, male and female, that dominates French history, literature and painting from the Terror to the Liberation.’ He is particularly concerned with the religious resonances of Parisian violence. Perpetrators and poets alike, he argues, saw bloodshed as expiatory and cleansing. In case after ...
Cross Channel 
by Julian Barnes.
Cape, 211 pp., £13.99, January 1996, 0 224 04301 3
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... there will be no such easy answer, he is forced to realise, to questions such as whether, if the French were shorter in Flaubert’s day, they needed to be less fat in order to be called ‘fat’. Nor, presumably, will it matter in the slightest if there is not. Barnes’s tone is blithe, because the question, what can a novelist’s life and relics tell ...

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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... of modern France, spectacular anti-Semitic violence coexisted with remarkable successes for French Jewry. As Pierre Birnbaum writes in the introduction to his new book, part of a series called ‘Jewish Lives’, France ‘is virtually the only country in the world, apart from Israel, that has several times chosen as its leader a Jew openly proclaiming ...

Regeneration

David Garrioch: Making peasants into Frenchmen, 3 November 2005

The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism 
by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall.
California, 341 pp., £35.95, April 2005, 0 520 24180 0
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... be apocryphal – France has far more than 246 cheeses – but it captures a central dilemma in French history. How could such a diverse collection of peoples be forged into a single nation? The question remains pertinent. Despite an apparent unity, regional differences and identities remain strong. There are Breton, Occitan, Basque and Corsican ...

A Few Pitiful Traitors

David Drake: The French Resistance, 5 May 2016

Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance 
by Robert Gildea.
Faber, 593 pp., £20, September 2015, 978 0 571 28034 6
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Occupation Trilogy: ‘La Place de l’etoile’, ‘The Night Watch’, ‘Ring Roads’ 
by Patrick Modiano, translated by Caroline Hillier, Patricia Wolf and Frank Wynne.
Bloomsbury, 336 pp., £18.99, August 2015, 978 1 4088 6790 7
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... Two political forces​ dominated post-Liberation France: Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French and head of the provisional French government until January 1946; and the French Communist Party (PCF), at that point the biggest and most popular party in the country ...

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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... 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 commercial economy, Enlightenment philosophy and absolute rulers who sought to twist traditional elites into new forms. Thus more people than ever before ...

Out of this World

David Armitage, 16 November 1995

Utopia 
by Thomas More, edited by George Logan, Robert M. Adams and Clarence Miller.
Cambridge, 290 pp., £55, February 1995, 0 521 40318 9
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Utopias of the British Enlightenment 
edited by Gregory Claeys.
Cambridge, 305 pp., £35, July 1994, 0 521 43084 4
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... is, in every sense, unapproachable and, for the present, inimitable. More might have approved David Hume’s epitaph on utopianism: ‘All plans of government, which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind, are plainly imaginary. Of this nature, are the Republic of Plato and the Utopia of Sir Thomas More.’ However, for More this would have ...

Sans Sunflowers

David Solkin, 7 July 1994

Nineteenth-Century Art: A Critical History 
by Stephen Eisenman, Thomas Crow, Brian Lukacher, Linda Nochlin and Frances Pohl.
Thames and Hudson, 376 pp., £35, March 1994, 0 500 23675 5
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... much of the most innovative work has tended to concentrate on the modern period, and especially on French painting from Courbet to Cézanne. Here the writings of T.J. Clark have been particularly influential: starting with two books on Courbet and the art of the Second Republic – Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois (both 1973) – and more ...

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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... But for common sense to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions, it also needed philosophical justification. Rosenfeld’s story is about this justification, and the intellectual background to Paine’s deceptively straightforward arguments. She shows how the concept actually worked in revolutionary ...

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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... One​ of the strangest stories from the Napoleonic Wars involves several hundred soldiers from the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. Some of these men had originally arrived in chains from Africa, and nearly all of them had lived in slavery until the massive, dramatic slave revolt of 1791. In 1801, they were serving under the charismatic, ambitious and independent-minded black governor Toussaint Louverture when Napoleon dispatched a military expedition to reassert full French control over the colony ...

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 ...

The Amazing Mrs Charke

David Nokes, 1 June 1989

The Well-Known Troublemaker: A Life of Charlotte Charke 
by Fidelis Morgan.
Faber, 231 pp., £19.95, November 1988, 0 571 14743 7
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The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama 
by David Roberts.
Oxford, 188 pp., £22.50, February 1989, 0 19 811743 4
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The Complete Lover: Eros, Nature and Artifice in the 18th-Century French Novel 
by Angelica Goodden.
Oxford, 329 pp., £32.50, January 1989, 0 19 815820 3
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... yet does so in a jaunty tone that turns somersaults over despair. Such energy is sadly absent from David Roberts’s book The Ladies: Female Patronage of Restoration Drama, though, like Charke, Roberts is more concerned with events behind the scenes and in the auditorium than with those on the stage. Determinedly old-fashioned, this study clearly betrays its ...

The Potter, the Priest and the Stick in the Mud

David A. Bell: Spain v. Napoleon, 6 November 2008

Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War 
by Ronald Fraser.
Verso, 587 pp., £29.99, April 2008, 978 1 84467 082 6
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... he insisted on the continuing relevance of this struggle by Spanish and British forces to expel French invaders from Spanish soil: the War of Independence, he declared, marked the beginning of a key form of modern warfare – ‘guerrilla’ or ‘partisan’ war, in which combatants refuse to recognise each other’s legitimacy, fight without ...

Added Fashion Value

David A. Bell: Capitalism’s Rosy Dawn, 7 October 2021

Capitalism and the Emergence of Civic Equality in 18th-Century France 
by William H. Sewell Jr.
Chicago, 412 pp., £28, April, 978 0 226 77046 8
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... these words in the 1830s, few people in the West doubted that the event he was describing, the French Revolution, counted as among the most important in human history. Some saw it as a deliverance, others as a catastrophe, but they agreed that it had changed everything. For the next 150 years, this verdict stood more or less unchallenged.No longer. The ...

At the Villa Medici

Peter Campbell: 17th-Century Religous Paintings, 30 November 2000

... assembling Le Dieu caché: les peintres du Grand Siècle et la vision de Dieu, a collection of 63 French 17th-century religious pictures which can be seen at the Villa Medici in Rome until 28 January, Olivier Bonfait and Neil MacGregor challenge us to take theology as seriously as aesthetics. They also prove that it requires more than a sensitive eye and a ...

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