La Belle France: A Short History
by Alistair Horne
Knopf; 512 pp. $30
As a true-born Englishman, I took Francophobia in with my mother's milk — or, at any rate, with my mother's reflex response, when anyone mentioned our neighbors across the Channel, that "they let us down in the War." This settled in my infant mind as a sort of Homeric epithet: the French who-let-us-down-in-the-War. My father was even more astringent. He spent his declining years writing furious letters to the editor opposing British membership in the European Common Market, which he believed to be a French attempt to pick the pockets of honest Englishmen, and to obtain by guile what Napoleon had been unable to gain by force. Some years of experience in the world naturally broadened my outlook, but I still came to Alistair Horne's La Belle France bearing a good load of ancestral prejudice, that load fortified most recently by my colleague John J. Miller's book, a splendid Francophobic rant titled Our Oldest Enemy.
I cannot say that La Belle France left me feeling any better disposed towards the French, whose history appears to have been even more of a catalogue of massacres, miseries, and betrayals than I had previously thought. The book is, though, beautifully done. It is literate, fluent, informative, and often very funny. Above all, it displays the "iceberg effect" that one wants to see in a book of this sort. I mean, its effortless style of presentation quickly convinces the reader that the knowledge on display is the merest fraction of the author's stock. As an introduction to the history of what has been, however much we may deplore the fact, an important nation, Alistair Horne's book could hardly be better.
It is not an easy thing to encompass a millennium and a half of history in roughly 500 pages, and one expects that a certain amount of the earlier record, which is in any case pretty grim, will be skipped over lightly, in the interest of providing full coverage of the modern period. Yet Horne manages to give a fair account of all the important medieval rulers, with 15 full pages on King Philippe Auguste (reigned 1180—1223), a person previously known to me only indirectly, from Bellini's lovely opera about the monarch's sequestered wife. Henri IV gets a whole chapter, as of course does Louis XIV. From the Revolution onwards, nothing of importance is omitted.
Though the author is writing narrative history, not political science, he is illuminating about the differences in development between France and her rival across the Channel. Why did the French never develop a robust parliamentarianism? Conversely, why did absolute monarchy "take" in France, but not — never, not really — in England? One key factor was the sheer size of the French population. Horne notes that in the early years of Louis XIV, France had 18 million people, compared with England's 5½, Spain's 6, Austria's 6½, and Russia's 14. Another was what the author calls France's "prodigious combination of climate and incredibly fertile land," which permitted her to bounce back quickly from national misfortunes. (Horne quotes Sully: "Tilling the soil and keeping flocks — these are France's paps, the real mines and treasures of Peru.") The rulers of a nation endowed with great natural wealth simply have less need of their people, or of their people's approval, as the history of the modern Middle East illustrates. They can be more detached from mere facts, and may display positive astonishment when flashes of reality dawn on them, like socialist president François Mitterand's sudden insight, in 1984, that "it is the firm that creates wealth, it is the firm that creates employment." Quelle révélation! (Though it is not clear that the rulers of France, even now, really believe this.)
How quotable the French are, though! Most of the best apothegms are well enough known, even to us Francophobes, but it is satisfying to see them placed in their historical context, and the author never lets us down by missing one. Here is Louis XI sighing that "knowledge makes for melancholy." Here is the Marquis d'Ancre's widow at her burning exclaiming: "What a lot of people to see a poor woman die!" It turns out that Henri IV may not have said that Paris was worth a Mass, but it is pretty certain that Talleyrand did scoff at the the Bourbons for having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. (And the old cynic was still at hand 15 years later when the beleaguered Charles X groaned: "I see no middle way between the throne and the scaffold." Talleyrand: "Your Majesty forgets the post-chaise!") Here is Napoleon describing sexual love as "an exchange of perspirations." Here is an anonymous guest at the grand ball held to kick off the Algerian conquest, telling the Duc d'Orléans that "we are dancing on a volcano." Here is Charles de Gaulle wondering how he could be expected to govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese … And so on. Seeing these quotes in context is the milder sort of pleasure, the pleasure of the familiar, but Horne was right to put them all in.
You can't please everyone, of course. My own pet peeve is that the author did not give over a page or two to France's brilliant mathematical tradition — the principal reason, so far as I am concerned, for thinking that France has not been a complete waste of time and space. Until the rise of the Germans in the 19th century, France practically owned math. Augustin-Louis Cauchy's entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography covers 17 pages, the same as Gauss's. (And Cauchy was a great reactionary, as well as a great mathematician.) This magnificent tradition reaches far back, too. The flamboyantly gay Henri III, who reigned 1574—89, cannot be counted one of France's more serious-minded monarchs, given as he was to showing up at court functions in drag; but he enjoys the imperishable glory of having employed François Viète, the greatest trigonometrist of the age, and the inventor of modern algebraic symbolism. A brief mention wouldn't have gone amiss.
All in all, though, this is a fine book, the perfect thing for anyone whose knowledge of French history is fragmentary, and who would like to see the fragments set in place in an instructive and entertaining narrative. La Belle France is a most enjoyable read, written by a scholar filled with love for his subject, who yet wears his learning lightly.