Children Of The Revolution, by Robert Gildea

Salut to middle-class France
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'Henri IV est sur le Pont Neuf." This, so the fustier kind of textbook used to claim, is a phrase that the French use to respond to a statement of the obvious. Robert Gildea's wide-ranging and erudite book on the French from 1799 to 1914, however, reminds us that many things that seem obvious about the country should not be taken for granted. The equestrian statue of Henri IV has not stayed on the Pont Neuf in Paris since its construction in the 17th century. It was pulled down during the Revolution and rebuilt in 1818, when ministers wanted to celebrate a king who reconciled the French after a period of conflict, and to suggest that Louis XVIII, the Bourbon restored to the throne, might serve the same function.

Much of what we now take for granted about France is, in fact, a creation of the 19th century. This is true of urban geography. The Ile de la Cité, by the Pont Neuf, is now a rather grand area. In the 1820s, before Baron Haussmann "disembowelled" Paris, it was a place of crowded narrow streets that housed the poor and criminal. Before education and military service had done their work, large numbers of French people did not even speak French. It was only after 1870 that what we now think of as the immutable symbols of French political life – the tricouleur flag and Bastille Day on 14 July – began to seem secure. Between 1799 and 1889, France was governed by a republic, then an empire, then a monarchy, then a republic again, an empire again and finally a republic (though one that did not seem destined to last).

France in the 19th century saw wars, revolutions and the convulsions of the early Third Republic. Few historians would have the courage to take on such a story. Indeed, the most exciting books on 19th-century France have often sprung from attempts to avoid having to write an overall political narrative. Theodore Zeldin produced his extraordinary essays on the "passions" of the French. Alain Corbin wrote about church bells and unpleasant smells before he produced the ultimate micro-history – the biography of an "unknown" man. Eugen Weber turned Paris-based history on its head to describe how "peasants became Frenchmen".

Gildea, by contrast, flinches at nothing. He tells the whole story of France in the long 19th century in a book that mixes political narrative with thematic explorations of culture and society. The result is, in many ways, a triumph. There are, however, moments when Gildea's diligence is his own worst enemy. Every page is loaded with details and statistics. We learn that all the copies of Zola's La Débâcle, if piled up, would have reached 11 times as a high as the Eiffel Tower, and sometimes I felt as though I was at risk of being crushed under a tottering edifice of fact.

Gildea draws on his extensive knowledge of literature, but it might have been more useful to give readers a bibliographic essay and then let them set off on their own rather than providing them with so many plot summaries. For all the detail, his account is sometimes oddly bloodless.

He is an expert on education and uses the scholar Jean Guéhenno as an example of how academic success could take a poor boy from the provinces to the Académie Française, but we get little sense of what all this meant in emotional terms. What was it like to cry oneself to sleep in the freezing dormitory at Louis-le-Grand? To face the horrifically difficult examination for the Ecole Normale Supérieure knowing one's future hinged on its result?

Gildea is too scholarly for easy generalisations, but it seems to me that two general points emerge. The first concerns social class: 19th-century France belonged to the bourgeoisie. They were the big economic winners from the Revolution. Increasingly, they became the new ruling class as the aristocracy retreated. There was, however, a melancholy quality to this middle-class victory. Young men were painfully conscious of how their own lives were overshadowed by the great dramas of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars through which fathers or grandfathers had lived.

Alfred de Musset, "conceived between two battles", was the son of a soldier. When his generation spoke of glory, love or ambition, they received the same answer: "become priests". The fact that, later in the century, young men were advised to become doctors, lawyers or professeurs agrégés rather than priests did nothing to diminish their sense that they were missing out on some great drama.

This partly accounts for the horrified fascination with which the bourgeoisie regarded the "dangerous classes". Balzac's Vautrin and Milady de Winter in Dumas' The Three Musketeers, both branded criminals, are two of the most seductive characters in 19th-century fiction. Their immorality makes them the antithesis of respectability but there is a sense in which both – marked by intellectual clarity and iron self-discipline – are very bourgeois.

The second generalisation concerns nostalgia. Gildea ends his story with the poet Charles Péguy going to his death as an officer during one of the first battles of 1914. This episode goes some way to telling us why the French still use the phrase "belle époque" without irony. For all its horror, the French see the Great War as a justified defence of national territory, and the courage of their troops as a vindication of a patriotism forged in the 19th century. The English look back on the Victorians through the eyes of Lytton Strachey, who saw the Great War as the product of hypocrisy. The French are different. No one, not even that great Balzacian cynic François Mitterrand, laughed at Péguy. Charles de Gaulle (born in 1890) did more than anyone to drag France into the gleaming modernity of the late 20th century, but his appeal was based partly on the fact that he was so obviously a man of the late 19th century – one who, as he put it, still regretted the age of "oil lamps and the fleet at sail".

Richard Vinen's 'The Unfree French' is published by Penguin

France 1799 - 1914

1799: Napoleon appoints himself First Consul of France after a coup d'état
1804: Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France.
1815: after a year's exile on Elba, Napoleon is finally defeated at Waterloo.
1830: For "three glorious days" in July the French rebel against the monarchy – Charles X abdicates.
1848: further revolution leads to Louis Philippe's abdication and the start of the Second Republic.
1870-71: the devastating Franco-Prussian War
1914: France, Russia and UK at war with Germany