Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Penguin, London and New York 2004. First published 1989.

Weighing it at 740 pages, excluding preface and endnotes, this is a magisterial volume. For all its size, however, it is surprisingly easy to read. Schama has a directness and a grasp of narrative that carries the reader along, from the last years of the reign of Louis XV through the reign of the ultimately-doomed Louis Seize, to the execution of a moaning Robespierre on the guillotine. Schama doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the Revolution, nor from the failings of the monarchy beforehand. He also considers the social and cultural context – even if he doesn’t cover nearly as much as I wanted to know about everything. (Which would probably make the book unmanageably long.)

One day I’ll read a history of the Revolution that takes the narrative all the way through the Directorate and the coup of Consul Napoleon, but I have yet to find that book. This book, however, is excellent, detailed, and readable – and I want to read more about the Revolution now.


  1. I love Simon Schama, he writes so beautifully. His book “scribble scribble scribble” contains this brilliant passage in which he describes his decision to study History over Literature at university. Apparently his literature teacher felt so betrayed he didn’t speak to Schama for months. :)

  2. Hmm, I tried to read this one and couldn’t get through it at all. And my opinion was confirmed when someone on tumblr pointed out that he misattributes stuff from Danton’s Death (a fictional work written decades later) to the revolutionaries themselves. So I never went back and tried again, as that is a pretty big howler.

    And yes, not enough Directory related stuff out there.

    If you’re taking French Revolution history recs, Timothy Tackett is quite good. I just read When The King Took Flight, but you might find the one I haven’t got to yet, Becoming a Revolutionary (about the deputies of the National Assembly and how they, well, became revolutionaries) more interesting.

  3. Well, I knew nothing about the revolution before reading it, and I know some things now! Next up is the poetry trade in Early Modern England, though. When it comes to non-thesis reading, I tend to skip around a lot. :D

    PS: Thank you for the recommendations!

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