The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon : The New Penguin History of France France from Louis XV to Napoleon, Paperback Book

The Great Nation: France from Louis XV to Napoleon : The New Penguin History of France France from Louis XV to Napoleon Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


There can be few more mesmerising historical narratives than the story of how the dazzlingly confident and secure monarchy Louis XIV, 'the Sun King', left to his successors in 1715 became the discredited, debt-ridden failure toppled by Revolution in1789. The further story of the bloody unravelling of the Revolution until its seizure by Napoleon is equally astounding. Colin Jones' brilliant new book is the first in 40 years to describe the whole period. Jones' key point in this gripping narrative is that France was NOT doomed to Revolution and that the 'ancien regime' DID remain dynamic and innovatory, twisting and turning until finally stoven in by the intolerable costs and humiliation of its wars with Britain.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 688 pages, maps, notes, index
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: European history
  • ISBN: 9780140130935

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

I read the pre-1774 sections of this book as part of my basic background reading for an undergraduate-level university course on France, 1715-1774. Setting out a narrative of events and dealing with major historical issues, Jones provides factual information that is relevant, illustrative and very useful. For example, nuggets of detail like the size of the <I>Encylopedie</I>'s print run, French literacy rates and their geographical distribution, and (outside of my area of study) why <I>La Marseillaise</I> became the French national anthem are well-worth knowing, and it is convenient to be able to build a good basis of understanding from a single work. While my course notes, essays and personal opinions were chiefly founded on more specifically-focussed historical works, <I>The Great Nation</I> was a source of great utility and -- particularly for exams -- I exploited much of its content. Reading on past 1774, the book did seem a bit too concerned with following the political narrative of the French Revolution in order to reach the ' Napoleon' destination of its subtitle. While the narrative would be of use to a student of post-1774 French history -- which I am not -- I was disappointed that many of the important (or at least famous) events of the 1780s and 1790s were given very brief treatment in the account: Louis XVI is executed in a few sentences, Marat is murdered with similar brevity and I don't remember reading about Marie-Antoinette saying (or not) 'Let them eat cake'. Jones does talk about socio-economic and cultural aspects, but it's a shame that these are mainly isolated in a 1789/1799 comparison rather than integrated into his narrative. Although my post-1774 method of reading was very different to my study before Louis XV's death, the first 2/3 or so of the book did seem of better quality than the remaining third.Also, as the book is already 688 pages long it wouldn't have hurt to include Colin Jones's bibliography within the work rather than forcing the reader to download it (if they are able to) from the author's personal website. I make no accusations, but one gets the impression that Penguin wished to economize by not printing it and/or make the book seem like a 'popular' work of history: whatever the reason, <I>The Great Nation</I> is poorer because of it.

Review by

Jones is at his best when tracing the forces that hollowed out the French Bourbon state; the Enlightenment, the economic pressures impacting French society, the growth of social consciousness, and the weakening leadership of the Bourbon kings themselves. While one appreciates the desire to demonstrate what happened after the culminating point of all these trends was reached, the portion dealing with the French revolution is certainly much weaker then what comes before. This is seeing as the concatenation of events is such that the narrative becomes confusing. That's another thing, the assumption here is that you already have your personalities straight before you wade into this work. If you don't, you'll rapidly lose patience with the whole enterprise.

Review by

The Abbé Siéyès, when asked what exactly he had done during the Terror, famously replied, <i>J'ai vécu</i> (‘I survived’). Part of me wants to say something similar about getting through this book, which, despite being repeatedly interesting, turned into something of an endurance test for me.The problem is one of density, both of style and of content. Dealing with an action-packed century full of artistic innovation, philosophical endeavours, war and revolution, I admit I was expecting a narrative generously larded with eye-catching historical anecdotes. But instead, Jones's approach is resolutely academic – and surprisingly dry. There are very few actual events in this book, and there is a reliance on economic evidence and statistics that – while undoubtedly historically sound – left me feeling increasingly distant from the real people purportedly being described.This issue is compounded by a prose style which, at best, is compact and witty, but which far too often simply reads like a PhD thesis. Instead of <i>adventure</i>, we have <i>adventurism</i>, instead of <i>voluntary</i>, we have <i>voluntaristic</i>, instead of <i>lax</i>, <i>laxist</i>, instead of <i>misery</i> <i>miserabilism</i>. A priest is described as an ‘ambulatory and seemingly invulnerable oasis of redemptive sanctity’. At one point, when something is happening, Jones says it's ‘in the process of volitional actualization’.On the level of the paragraph, this is absolutely representative:<i>On the one hand, there was a desire for change within the corporative framework, in ways which respected social hierarchy and vertical ties of dependence. [...] On the other hand, alongside this corporative discourse within the armed forces, there also developed a more overtly civic discourse of professionalism, which drew on both the equalizing rhetoric of enlightenment absolutism and the more democratic values of the public sphere and which stressed horizontal and egalitarian bonds of mutual interdependence between citizens.</i>I flipped to the back of the book, where a blurb from <i>The Economist</i> mentions ‘fast-paced and lucid prose’. Are we reading the same thing? This is efficiency at the cost of legibility – or of reading pleasure, at the very least. (The academic-paper feel is reinforced by Jones's grammatical bugbears – a horror of ending a clause with a participle leads to such ugly formations as, ‘Yet accepting advice on financial matters, even from his <i>parlements</i>, was something to which the king found it hard to warm.’)This is not nit-picking for the sake of it – my feeling was increasingly that Jones was genuinely losing touch with the reality of what he was describing. I certainly was. It's all very well to go on about ‘evolving discourse’ and the ‘corporatist parameters of the state’, but I want to know what actual people were literally saying and doing. Give me fewer postmodern social theories and more diaries, journals, letters. When, eight chapters in, a page and a half is given over to a minor scandal involving a diamond necklace, I fell upon the action like it was a battle scene from <i>Return of the King</i>. Unfortunately, the approach more often is to make oblique mention of something potentially fascinating (‘the notorious bandit and highway robber Cartouche’), and then give no further details on it whatsoever.This is connected to a more general feeling that Jones is often writing for those already in the know. Consider a sentence like this: ‘Napoleon Bonaparte's subsequent comment that the French Revolution dated not from the fall of the Bastille but from the first performance of <i>The Marriage of Figaro</i> was wrong.’ Most lay-readers, I maintain, will react much as I did: <i>Napoleon said what?!</i> But Jones angles things so as to argue his own case first, rather than establish some of the juicy facts which he apparently considers old-hat. This situation, writ large, is the problem with the whole book.Having spent several paragraphs getting this off my chest, though, I have to say that <i>The Great Nation</i> grew on me. Unlike other reviewers, who found the book weakest when it reached the Revolution, I enjoyed that part the most. The assumption of a little knowledge here was something I could cope with, and Jones's usual obsession with agricultural statistics and legislative events this time seemed genuinely different and enlightening. Plus, even he couldn't stop a few beheadings creeping in at this point to enliven the narrative, though he certainly makes a point of not lingering on the details. I did find myself reconsidering my ideas about the Revolution in the light of such surprising statistics as the fact that a mere one percent of nobles were executed, and only a slightly larger number emigrated: the vast majority stayed in France and not just survived but often found ways to prosper. There was also a coherent overview of the 25-year period from 1789, after which, despite the Revolutionaries' hopes, France would not just have lost its lucrative colonial empire, but would have made no new territorial gains at all.Here again I'm tempted to make a comparison with my week and a half with this book. That would be unfair – but while I did come out with a richer understanding of France's fascinating 18th century, I'd have to say that the fascination occasionally seemed to be gleaned in spite of, rather than because of, the work in question.