William Doyle: The Oxford History of the French Revolution

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The French Revolution is often posed as a key moment in the creation of the modern world but, to many, it is little more than a few disparate snapshots: Marie Antoinette and cake, the storming of the Bastille, some enthusiastic usage of guillotines and Napoleon Bonaparte’s mysterious rise to First Consul. In his book ‘The Oxford History of the French Revolution’, William Doyle, Professor of History at Bristol University, attempts to guide his reader through this confusing period, beginning with background to the tumult of 1789 and ending with Napoleon’s ultimate triumph in 1802.

It is a daunting task, but the product is largely impressive. The reader leaves this book with relatively comprehensive knowledge of the revolution’s key phases, understanding of the role played by influential figures, an interesting historical interpretation of the period as well as insight into the revolution’s longer-term significance.

Whilst reading Doyle’s book, the reader will perhaps identify Doyle’s sympathy for the ideals the revolution fought for: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Indeed, Doyle contends that without the French Revolution furthering these ideals, ‘the contemporary world would be inconceivable’ and it was very much the ideals which were failed by the revolution rather than vice versa. However, it is questionable whether Doyle’s clear admiration for the revolution’s purpose – he labels it ‘the greatest revolution in the history of the world’ – leads him to underemphasise some of its more troubling aspects. This is not to say they remain unmentioned; conversely, Doyle goes as far to revise the death toll of the ‘Terror’ between 1793 and 1794 to 30,000 from 17,000. Nonetheless, Doyle’s subsequent comparison of this figure to massacres elsewhere in Europe, such as in Ireland, attempt to make this number seem insignificant and the Revolution’s bloodlust too prominent in our modern memories.

Further, despite occasionally acknowledging the American War of Independence of 1776, Doyle makes it seem insignificant against the later French Revolution. Much of Doyle’s conclusion centres on the French Revolution’s importance in furthering libertarian and egalitarian ideals essential to modern Western societies. Yet it is worth remembering that the Americans had fought for very similar ideals during their own revolution and the Declaration of Independence urged the necessity of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ just as France demanded liberté, égalité, fraternité. Also, whereas France was undemocratically being ruled by a military dictator in 1802 following numerous failed governments, America had already peacefully inaugurated its third President after the success of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. If Doyle is looking for a pioneer of Enlightenment ideals then he should perhaps look towards the American Revolution rather than its French successor. Nonetheless, this criticism is merely subjective and does not discredit Doyle’s interpretation, which he consistently consolidates with a wide array of evidence.

In fact, a reader relatively new to the French Revolution, as I was, will probably find the greatest issue with Doyle’s work not to be his argument but the sheer volume of characters and factions present throughout. For such an important moment in history, the French Revolution has left us with few ultra-memorable names. Besides Napoleon, key figures, such as Marat, Robespierre or Brissot, are hardly as well-known as key figures from the other famous revolutions. Perhaps this is because there were so many of them. The reader will regularly find themselves flicking through previous pages to try and work out what these individuals did and whether they were solely a Jacobin or also a Girdondist, Montagnard, Sansculotte, Dantonist or something else altogether. It would have been useful for Doyle to have dwelt slightly longer on some of these figures and factions to ensure the novice reader can fully understand where they sit in the revolutionary narrative.

Nonetheless, Doyle’s history remains a superb text for anyone who wants to get to grips with the basics of the French Revolution and some of the ideas it was integral in promoting. What’s more, his subtle argument, which is notable for not overly dominating the history, only makes it more interesting.

Rating: 4/5