Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy so I decided to expand my reading circles. I got a copy of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle. I am a big fan of the Very Short Introduction series, they are usually a great overview for stuff you would like to know more about but have limited time or a short attention span.

I found the book well written and over all easy to follow, however the prose was slightly heavy in places. The book details the underlying causes, the specific events in chronological order, the aftermath and rise of Napoleon, giving some context to Napoleon's reign, which as an ignorant Australian I had never quite understood.

There were two main things I found interesting. Firstly, the causes were largely economic, France was burdened with crippling debts and its people were suffering due to rising food prices. The leadership of the day was an absolute monarchy, seen to be isolated and out of touch with the travails of day to day common life. The country was experiencing a financial crisis due to protracted wars. This  remained unresolved as the monarchy was beholden to the nobility and clergy, preventing any chance of effective resolution. In practical terms this would have meant tax reform, which the both the nobility and the church were opposed to. I just can't think of a modern parallel.  

The second was its impact on the subsequent 200 years. It gave rise to the concept of the sovereignty of a nation of people, rather than a monarch. It is a reminder that the political structures we have today are still relatively new, and perhaps have not yet reached some optimal maximum. It also showed how the concepts from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen have found their way into places like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and formed the basis for many of the liberal democracies we enjoy today.

I really enjoyed reading it, and at 150 pages is not too great a commitment.

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