48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
The French Revolution is one of the most important events in modern history, went on for the better part of a decade, involved a large number of significant personages, has complex political, social, economic, and ideological dimensions, has generated a huge literature, and interpretation has been controversial often. This list gives an idea of the challenges involved in producing a good one volume overview. Despite these obstacles, William Doyle succeeds with a lucid and enjoyable book that seems not to neglect any important areas and is generally evenhanded in dealing with controversial issues.
Doyle presents the Revolution as a highly contingent event precipitated by the fiscal collapse of the French Monarchy, exacerbated by recent history of economic difficulties due to irregular and often poor harvests in France in the decade prior to the Revolution. Doyle is very good also on the long term trends - the increasing size of the bourgeosie, the rising literacy and importance of public opinion, the Enlightenment influenced disillusion with the sometimes arbitrary nature of traditional government - that set the stage for the Revolution and had a large effect on its outcomes. Still, Doyle's emphasis is on the basis narrative and he does very well in telling the story of the Revolution without either getting too bogged down in details or sliding over important issues. I recommend, however, that the first half of this book be read in conjunction with Doyle's concise (about 200 pages in a paperback edition) book on the Origins of the French Revolution. There is some redundancy in the narrative when reading both books but the Origins book stresses the underlying structural features in a complementary manner.
Doyle goes on with a sustained narrative to Napoleon's seizure of power. Doyle covers very well the achievements and common disastrous mistakes of the Revolutionary period. Some of these mistakes, like the disastrously mistaken policies towards the Catholic Church, were responsible for generating implacable hostility, both within and outside France, to the Revolution. A consistent theme is that war against internal and external enemies was a powerful radicalizing force, often responsible for many of the serious errors and crimes of the Revolution. Many sections are excellent; his discussion of revolutionary imperialism, for example, nicely explores the apparent paradox of a liberation movement becoming a ruthless exploiter. Doyle's description of the oscillations of the Revolution and the corrupt behavior of the last Revolutionary government, the Directory, give a very good sense of why so many people must have welcomed the dictatorship of Napoleon.
Doyle concludes with an interpretative chapter on the Revolution. In common with many recent historians, he sees the Revolution as a social disaster precipitated by good intentions. Among other causes, he cites the overconfidence of the original revolutionaries that they could remake society on rational grounds. This is both conventional and contains a lot of truth. For example, the attack on the Church essentially destroyed France's largest educational institution and its largest source of poor relief, both with severe adverse consequences. Doyle doesn't mention, however, that the Revolution engendered (largely under Napoleon) educational institutions that made French science and mathematics the world leader well into the 19th century. It is also possible to argue that one of the defects of the initial revolutionaries was not that they were too radical but that in important domains they weren't radical enough. In finance, the Revolution maintained the traditional French aversion to a strong state central bank like the Bank of England, something that might have mitigated the financial problems of the revolutionary governments. In the newly founded USA, the first Bank of the United States did play an important role in putting our governments on a firm footing. In religion, the initial revolutionaries attempted to rationalize and democratize the Church, with disastrous consequences. But, they wished to maintain a state sponsored Church, another traditional French approach. What if they had taken the really radical step of disestablishing religion and simply left religous practice alone?
In summary, this is an excellent book to begin study of the French Revolution.
62 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2008
William Doyle's Oxford History of the French Revolution is a scholar's history. If anyone is looking for a single volume history of the French Revolution, this one has everything. Doyle exhaustively chronicles the the fate of France's social classes, the economic impact of the Revolution, the impact of near constant warfare, various political experiments, etc. There is virtually no aspect of the French Revolution that is left untouched.
I call this "the book that wouldn't die" because it took me almost a year to complete it. I would read, then along the way, I would find something more interesting, and consume that instead. Then I would try reading it again, and the process would repeat itself...
Doyle's history is exhaustive, scholarly, and a labor to read. It lacks the anecdotes and personal accounts that make history interesting and fun. If you need to complete a term paper, then this is the book for you. If you want entertainment (even a little bit) then you better look elsewhere.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2006
"The Oxford History of the French Revolution", by William Doyle is among the best books that I have read on the French Revolution. It is comprehensive (some would say it is dense) and covers in about 420 pages all the most important events of the Revolution. The author tells the chilling story of the French Revolution, stressing the roles of the leading characters that shaped events during this period. Among these people were Robespierre, Murat, Danton, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, Napoleon Bonaparte and others as well as the external and internal forces that were attempting to crash the Revolution.
The book gives a grim account of the complete and utter chaos of the time, including the dreadful description of how things went out of hand, the reign of terror, senseless executions including the beheading of the King and Queen of France. The shocking mistakes, for example with respect to the Catholic Church, and the attempt to establish a State sponsored church are highlighted. One gets the feel of the impact of mob rule and what happens in the absence of the rule of law.
William Doyle meticulously researched the book resulting in a minefield of information that students of the French Revolution will find useful and important. The book is full of non-stop action.
This is a well written book that is interesting to read. Those who wish to get a comprehensive study of the French Revolution should enjoy reading this book. However, the book is too long for someone without previous knowledge of the French Revolution.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2005
Professor Doyle captures the intricacies of France leading to the French Revolution. His piece can be somewhat dense in parts which further detracts from the subject when mixed with the several grammatical and spelling errors contained within. While the style and format could be improved, the book is filled with useful information. Worth the read if you can get past the mildly annoying inaccuracies.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2012
My understanding of the French revolution prior to reading this book was pretty dismal. I knew the relative dates, the location, and some vague notions of "fraternity" and democracy, and Marie Antoinette, and the guillotine. However, I've been reading some 19th century novels that were hard to grasp without a decent understanding of the French revolution. This book is clear, and extremely well-written. It provides enough detail to understand more than a wikipedia article, but in general not so much that the reading is too dense. It was easy to understand without any prior knowledge. However, this is definitely a history, not a novel-like narrative, so it is denser than just casual reading would allow.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2014
Imagine a country where the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the rich surround government and lobby successfully against paying more taxes or any taxes at all (the elite escaped most taxes unless they worked). Imagine a rising cost of living but flat wages for workers, a middle class engaged in a bidding war to educate and launch the careers of their children, and a government groaning under massive debt, most of it generated by military expansion and war. Imagine funds to help feed and shelter the poor or provide them healthcare being cut off from a fear (expressed only by those who need none of these services) that charitable aid will only foster dependence among the poor who are poor because they are lazy and idle.
No, it's not America in the 21st century but France in the 18th, and it's a riveting story, whose echoes in the present are uncanny.
Usually my best reads are serendipitous, but this was deliberate and planned. After visiting Paris and reading a fictional diary of Marie Antoinette ("Marie Antoinette, journal d'une reine" (French) by historian Evelyne Lever), I realized there are big holes in my knowledge of the French Revolution, holes I wanted to fill. Mr. Google returned several hits for Doyle's "The Oxford History of the French Revolution" to the question "what is the single best book on the French Revolution?"). Click, click, download, and voilà! Many of the reviews here encouraged me to buy the book.
The introductory chapter alone (which spans almost 10% of this 496 page book) makes it worthwhile reading, with an outstanding overview of French history, region-by-region, with excellent explanations of legal terms and titles I admit I was always pretty fuzzy about.
The French Revolution often serves as a metaphor by people who do not understand its complicated nastiness (or how it was a process that occurred in waves and counter-waves over almost a century rather than a single storming of an almost-empty Bastille). France was (and remains) a much more complex place than outsiders (including myself) want to admit, but Doyle does an excellent job of pulling us into this world using facts, figures, primary sources. He is long on empirical observation and mercifully short on unsubstantiated speculation. He is a bit hard on Marie Antoinette who is also far more complex than the (misquoted) "let them eat cake" insensitive materialist most of us learned somewhere along the way, but this is forgivable because he makes his case in a compelling way. His writing style is concise, to-the-point, at times wry; think the Economist meets the New Yorker. If you liked reading David McCullough (John Adams, 1776), you should enjoy reading William Doyle.
If you want a great single-volume overview of the French Revolution, one that reads in parts like a novel (albeit a very heavily footnoted one), read this book. I found it difficult to put down.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2014
of the several histories of the french revolution that i have read, this is in my estimation the most comprehensible and at the same time the most detailed. the narrative synthesizes a large number of facts with a cause and effect rigor, and unfolds the narrative with a lapidary succinctness that requires careful, slow reading. effort in this case is fully rewarded.
contrary to what other reviews have said, this book is absolutely and in no sense of the term "an introduction" or "an overview" of the topic, and reviewers who claim as much probably have not read the book cover to cover. of the many "introductions" to the topic, the book by norman hampson is in my view the most coherent and rewarding, and tocqueville's remarkable mid 19th century analysis is unsurpassed for insight. there is also doyle's own "very short introduction" in the paperback series by that name.
the french revolution is among the few historical events where the "fractal" nature of history is unavoidable and tremendously inconvenient. historians must approach any period by deciding at each step where the text will depart from the representation of facts and freely interpret their meaning or speculate about undocumented events. with the french revolution there is so much complexity -- in revolution and counterrevolution; international and civil war; faction and ideology; property, rents and famine; monarchy, church and state; commune, assembly, committee, club, mob, national and revolutionary army; and continually shifting alignments across ranks, parties, regions and sections of the capital, all struggling through hedged decisions and unintended consequences -- that the historian is confronted at every step by the temptation to conjecture or simplify. doyle in my view (and whatever may be the currently accepted historical status of each fact or event he presents in this updated edition) leaves out the least circumstantial information, makes the fewest interpretive leaps, most successfully relates conflicting events (for example, between paris and the localities, or the sections of paris and the assembly), and as a result asks the most attention from the reader in order to follow the causal argument and keep track of all the elements in play. this is in my view a merit.
by comparison, sutherland is less circumstantial, often frankly interpretive or even judgmental, and includes fewer statistics or metrics with more reliance on factional or social group labels and the dominance of personalities to connect the dots. schama goes further and is avowedly journalistic, devoting several pages to the grisly forensic details of corday's murder of marat or a gossipy dissection of the diamond necklace affair, and providing many photos and illustrations of contemporary artifacts, historical paintings and personality portraits. the differences among these historians will spring most sharply into view if you read for example their accounts of the transition from estates-general to the national assembly, the end of the monarchy and the september massacres, the purging of the girondins, or the fall of the montagnards in thermidor. schama is entertaining and vivid, and sutherland draws many trenchant conclusions, but doyle seems most consistently to arrange the facts so that the reader can judge for himself.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 2012
One of the most interesting, and telling, parts of this book comes at the end: an appendix on how historians have treated the French Revolution over the past two centuries. The revolution has meant so many things to different people, and has been deployed (in either a positive or a negative light) in support of so many political movements, that it might serve as the prime example of why a search for "objective" history may be fruitless.
In that context, this is a good introduction to the events leading up to 1789 and those that followed it until Napoleon became emperor. There seems to be a conscious aim to note the different interpretations that have been placed on events by historians of different persuasions and an effort to steer a neutral course (to the extent that this is even possible). For the reader who is not greatly familiar with the subject, this book introduces the cast of characters and the key dates and events. One comes away with a basic knowledge of the period and, very likely, a desire to read further into particular events or individuals or to look into other histories that have taken a more radical or conservative line.
The style is engaging and clear, making the book a pleasure to read.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2007
Lucidly detailed and comprehensive from Louis XVI's reign through Napoleon's Consulship, this is the best introductory survey of the Revolution written in English. In a spare 425 pages Doyle manages to encompass formidable amounts of material into tightly constructed paragraphs each worth a whole chapter unto themselves. The effect of this dense presentation might have resulted in a dry read. Instead the book is plotted like a narrative history in its academic presentation making for a rare wedding of entertainment and erudition. Doyle includes a useful historiagraphy chapter to help the reader with the notorious minefield of Revolution scholarship. The only caveat, one must read the book carefully as information is presented succintly and quickly and if skimmed will make related info seem obscure. Especially the narrative of the always confusing Directory era.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2015
This the second book I've read on the French Revolution. It's well written and not bombastically academic so that most reasonably educated and literate persons will be able to follow it.
The book I read over 10 years which I also found to be a page turner inspired me to pick up my interest in this historical event, which indeed had an impact throughout the world and one which I think continues today, though not for the betterment of mankind. Being retired now, I've returned to pursue my interest in an event that often seems like you're reading a horror/suspense novel rather than a real life occurrence. And there are certainly periods throughout this revolution in which you wish it were a novel if only because of the brutality the Revolution set off between those who understood what liberty actually meant and only those who were looking to impose a new despotism upon others more to their liking. Chaos offers wonderful opportunities for the worst of mankind along with the best.
There are a lot of players in this history and the author does a good job of providing some detail as to who they are, the status they held and what role they played but not enough to bog down the reader and lose the chain of events.
I found myself using Wikipedia a lot when reading this simply because some of the major players and events I found myself wanting to know much more about. Wiki is an excellent source for clear, consise material of this nature since the book itself is not what I would call a highly detailed account of every event and all the players, societies involved. This is not to say the book is lacking. Quite the contrary. It's a very good introduction to the event from beginning to end. Moreover the difference would be several hundred pages more were you looking to know absolutely everything about every event and every player. This is something that I found Mr. Doyle's book to inspire in me. Wanting to know more. In my opinion, that's a good teacher and a well written book. Then again, I'm not a person who complains if a book is a few hundred pages having read many well over 900. It doesn't irritate me at all if it's well written and academia doesn't become bombastically verbose to the point of diverting themselves from history to focusing in on their own opinions, intelligence and academic vocabulary. It always reminds me of the legalese I was always typing up for lawyers. Blah, Blah, Blah. Can we please leave out the wherefore, to wits, etc., that make this a headache to type much less to receive? Mr. Doyle does a splendid job of avoiding writing to academia and addresses the audience to which it's intended.
I tend to enjoy most Oxford History publications for this reason. Most, though not all, write to the audience and not fellow academia.
If there was ever an event that should put the "there is no conspiracy behind history - or politics" meme to it's well-deserved death, this one does. And it surely hasn't ended with this event. As the old communist and socialist, FDR, once said, "nothing in politics happens by accident". And history since this revolution, has shown that to be so. Where there's chaos, there's always opportunity and not often for the betterment of most of those participating despite what they feel at the time.
I would also recommend Gustav Le Bon's "The Crowd" for a good read on the crowd's herd mentality. It's certainly apparent within this book and one can only shake their head at opportunities thrown away had they not been so swayed by emotion, rumour, propaganda amongst factions and the blathering of political leaders whose foremost cause is always self-serving...power and acquiring the wealth of the majority. The crowd, their "subjects".
With but a brief interim from then to now, I wouldn't say the political spectrum or the crowd has changed much despite modernization, technology and presumably education. The politican grows more powerful, the special interests get richer, and the crowd remains as stupid today as they did then from one election to the next. Promise the crowd anything, and your a king with willing subjects. It's all about power & control on the one side and self-serving greed, not need, on the other. A pack of wolves deciding who they can agree on to eat for lunch.
Whoever said "those who don't know history, are bound to repeat it" certainly hit the head on the nail of that coffin.
If you like history, you'll enjoy this book. And If you've been paying attention to, and reading about world events, not just listening to soundbites from the talking heads in the mainstream media or amusing yourself with entertainments, it will give you much pause for reflection many times over.