Liberty or Death. The French Revolution

Peter McPhee

Yale University Press, £25

Review by Jonathan Wright

MANY histories of the French Revolution seem reluctant to stray more than a few miles beyond the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. At times it can seem as if nothing much of consequence happened outside Paris. This is regrettable. As Peter McPhee reminds us, in the 1780s only 650,000 out of a population of 28 million were Parisian, and this was primarily a "land of villages and small towns." Every corner of the nation was touched by the cataclysm. Events in the capital were pivotal but it was often Paris that had to react to developments in Nantes, Toulouse, or 100 humbler places. The crucial lesson of McPhee's superb book is that the passion in the pays was just as passionate, and the tragedy no less tragic.

Even before news of the Bastille's fall reached the mountainous areas east of Lyon, for example, châteaux were being menaced. Soon, peasants in the region were burning feudal registers and, on July 25, 800 people from 12 villages attacked the abbey of Saint-Sulpice, near Bourg. The monks narrowly escaped being hanged from a gibbet in their cloister and the abbey was set alight. Such radicalism endured in many corners of the nation.

McPhee tells such stories in wonderful detail but he reminds us that not everyone in the provinces was quite so delighted by the revolution's trajectory. One regional event that does makes its way into almost every narrative was the counter-revolutionary rebellion in the Vendée region, south of the Loire. It claimed as many as 200,000 lives and McPhee aptly describes it as a "visceral rural rejection of a revolution that had brought nothing but trouble." It was, however, only the best-remembered articulation of resentment and reaction. Across the nation, there was fury when the Catholic faith came under siege and attack. Political developments were sometimes just as unpopular. When in 1793 Spanish anti-revolutionary troops crossed the Pyrenees some of the townsfolk of Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans were sufficiently disgruntled by the Parisian yoke to join up with the invaders.

McPhee traces all these tensions and divisions and puts the France – not to mention its far-flung colonies – back into the French Revolution. He also tackles the thorniest question of all: what did the revolution mean and what was its legacy? The initial sense of shock is wonderfully captured. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, of all people, predicted that "infinite happiness will result from this everywhere, the end of injustice, wars, conflicts, and arrests." Little did he, or anyone else, know how chaotic the revolution would become: "an irresistible combination," McPhee writes, "of regenerative idealism and violent retribution."

Small wonder, then, that the French are still torn over how to interpret their revolution. It was the wellspring of bold, transformative political and philosophical ideals, and it brought truly beneficial reforms to the law, education and local governance. Its darker side, by contrast, inspires regret and pity more than pride. Perhaps we should find some reassurance in the fact that many, even most, of those who had to live through these turbulent years were simply bewildered. One might imagine that a national referendum in the crucible of 1793 would have produced a record turn-out at the polls. Not so. When the new constitution came before the electorate, the participation of eligible voters did not top 50 percent in any region. In Brittany, only 10 percent of people bothered to cast their ballots. Was there a sense of simply not wanting to fan the flames of political tribalism, or of pure exhaustion and confusion? In any event, it is easy to sympathise with one of the most memorable, if nameless, characters in these pages. He came across a child reciting articles from the aforementioned constitution but he did not launch into patriotic rhapsodies about the revolution changing the world and inspiring the next generation of citizens. He simply announced, and who can blame him, that he "preferred a bottle of wine to all that." It was, to be sure, a good time to drink a little too much.