One of the quotes from the back of my second edition copy is “…if you believe in drowning freshmen in significant works, then by all means drown them in this one.” Which is pretty much how I got it, as it was one of three things assigned in a course on the French Revolution. I don’t remember the other two, but held onto this as it was easily the best book of the lot.

This relatively small book is broken into three pieces of unequal size. The first is more of a (very) lengthy essay, that talks about the historiography of the origins of the French Revolution, starting with Georges Lefebvre’s work in 1939 which solidified opinion on the subject for about two decades. There’s a good run down of how the extremely classist/Marxist view got chipped away, and then finally overturned… with a lot of ‘it’s far more complicated than that’ analysis. In all, it’s interesting, and one of the reasons I’ve kept the book. (This introduction is also apparently updated in the third edition.)

Then the main part of the book breaks down into two parts, with the first covering the attempts of the French monarchy to deal with a financial crisis caused by massive debts and a period of unstable harvests, through the collapse of its credit during 1788. Jacques Necker is called back in as finance minister, but he acts as more of a caretaker, deciding that only the Estates General can have the authority to solve the crisis.

This causes a power vacuum that various factions try to fill, and the book ends with looks at the Estates General, Paris, and the peasantry. It finishes with a look at the work of the National Assembly and the principles it promoted, showing that they are not the aspirations of any one group, and addressed issues far from the complaints that had been registered during the election of the Estates General. It doesn’t offer any central thesis beyond that no one had planned for this situation, and had little in the way of coherent ideas of how to proceed in the face of a collapse in positive central power. Which was largely the point of the introductory essay as well. Trying to treat the ‘estates’ as coherent wholes ignores the internal divisions where large chunks of the nobles or bourgeoisie had more in common with each other than with the rest of their supposed class.

It’s a short, coherent book that makes a great guide to about a three year period, and the various pressures France was facing, and an excellent introduction to the subject.