France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte by William Doyle (review)
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France and the Age of Revolution: Regimes Old and New from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte. By William Doyle. (International Library of Historical Studies, 91.) London: I. B. Tauris, 2013. viii + 323 pp., ill.

This is a sparkling collection of essays, yet further evidence of William Doyle’s very special combination of great lucidity, hard-headed pragmatism, and historical imagination. These pieces provide multifarious insights into that crucial period in the history of France from the decline of the Ancien Régime to the Bourbon restoration, while often extending their gaze to the rest of Europe, where the aftershocks of the French Revolution also forced fundamental changes. Much pleasure derives from Doyle’s instinctive reaction to grand narratives about revolution, which is to cut them ruthlessly down to size; a degree of Schadenfreude is hard to avoid as hot air is heard hissing from numerous deflated balloons. Yet he is very adept at incorporating the valuable elements of such theories into his own interpretations, which in no way understate the drama or significance of this great age of revolutionary change. He is surely right to warn against all versions of historical determinism, especially in the context of a revolution whose radical developments came as a horrendous shock to almost everyone who had helped bring it about. Doyle convincingly insists on the role of contingency throughout the whole long drama, while demonstrating how almost every choice was deeply conditioned or limited by past history and received ideas. A first group of essays provide afterthoughts to the author’s classic 1996 study of venal office. The standout contribution here is a brief but compelling comparison of the ways in which both France and Britain came to take a radically different approach to public corruption over the decades from roughly 1770 to 1850. Typically, Doyle insists that various forms of corruption had been essential tools for governments in the early modern period, especially when they wanted to fight wars; criticism, which had been vehement from the start, met with success only when the rulers discovered that these practices were now impeding efficiency. In his second section the Revolution itself is central, with shrewd criticisms of claims that the French monarchy had been desacralized before 1789, accompanying explanations for why the rule of a single male leader soon came to look so attractive. Of course, the Bourbons muffed all their chances, even after 1815, whereas Napoleon took full advantage of the hunger for firm government and stability. Nevertheless, in his final essays here Doyle emphasizes just how far the Emperor carried through the work of the early Revolution, and exported much of this even to the stubbornly enduring royal states in the rest of Europe. In a typically thought-provoking aside he reflects that the Girondins were far more constructive reformers than the Jacobins. When it came to their legacy, however, Napoleon rejected one strand, that of greater freedom and broader roles for women. In a psychologically alert study Doyle suggests that Napoleon ultimately feared women and wished to confine them in traditional roles. Here as elsewhere the context is skilfully evoked — part of the way in which all these essays make the reader think. The whole collection will be ideal reading for students as well as experts. [End Page 396]

Robin Briggs
All Souls College, Oxford