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Reviewed by:
  • The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution ed. by David Andress
  • Sanja Perovic
The Oxford Handbook of the French Revolution. Edited by David Andress. (Oxford Handbooks in History.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xii + 683 pp.

At 683 pages and thirty-seven chapters, this collection far surpasses the ordinary definition of ‘handbook’ as a concise book for ready reference. Rather, it is a collection of critical essays by established and emerging scholars on old and new ‘problematics’ in Revolutionary studies. As the editor notes, the challenge is to attract the ‘prospective but jaded reader’ (p. v), solicited by several competing guidebooks to the French Revolution, featuring many of the same contributors. That said, the volume’s coherence is amply ensured by its focus on method. Each contribution begins with an exposition of the main problem and methodological challenges posed by a given topic—which also serves as a historiographical introduction to the Revolution itself. This simultaneously general and particular approach means that almost all the chapters can be assigned for advanced or postgraduate-level classes while serving as excellent starting points for independent research. A number of contributions begin by rehearsing the Marxist versus ‘revisionist’ debates of the 1970s and 1980s. But the overall sense one gets is of a field rethinking some of the assumptions of the ‘“reactionary”decade of the 1980s’ (David Andress, p. 402). This includes a more pluralistic understanding of such established categories as the bourgeoisie, nobility, popular violence, sans-culottes, ‘history from above’, and ‘history from below’, not to mention the thorough-going rethinking of the ‘Terror’ as a clear chronological or political label (see Dan Edelstein, Marisa Linton, Ronen Steinberg) or for that matter Thermidor (Laura Mason). The volume also makes the case for retaining a focus on the European Revolution, as distinct from the Atlantic or Global Revolution. This is evident in Annie Jourdan’s article on how shared social networks of Dutch, Swiss, and American patriots in pre-Revolutionary Paris altered the ‘horizon of expectation’ of the French Revolutionaries; Michael P. Fitzsimmons on the Revolution’s constitutional legacy (800 constitutions written worldwide since 1789); Mike Rapport on European Jacobinism; Manuel Covo on the colonial context underpinning metropolitan debates on freedom, equality, and property. In terms of literary scholarship, Simon Burrows confirms what readers of this journal may know. There was a huge spike in creative literature, mostly novels, between 1793 and 1799. The most widely read pre-Revolutionary authors remain those read and taught today (Voltaire, Rousseau, Louis-Sébastien Mercier), although Mme de Genlis and Mme Leprince de Beaumont also feature prominently. For those querying the curious (non-)status of Romanticism in France, Jean-Luc Chappey’s account of how the emerging élite under the Directory and the Consulate regrouped around new notions of intellectual superiority offers clues. As he notes, both literary and scientific production were implicated in the overall hardening of boundaries by [End Page 633] which the new élite distinguished itself against the people and popular culture. For readers outside the field, the overall impression may be of the entrenched nature of these debates, mostly written by historians for historians, with relatively little space given over to the dramatis personae or those elements that have ensured the Revolution’s visibility in the popular imagination. Initiates will no doubt relish the wide perspective and latest permutations of both established and new debates.

Sanja Perovic
King’s College London


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pp. 633-634
Launched on MUSE
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