William Doyle is one of the leading English-language experts on the French Revolution, and his book from Oxford University Press is what you’d expect: A concise, clear overview of about three decades in France, concentrating on 1788 through 1799. Having just read his Origins of the French Revolution, much of the early parts was very familiar to me, but not duplicated. Doyle has different emphases in this book.

As a general one-volume history this is mostly a recounting of events, and largely constructs a chronology of the forces at play. There’s not a lot of close examination of the people involved, which would help… but the book’s pretty big already. As befits a ‘first stop’ book, there’s no real thesis, or spin to the book… nor much emotion either. The horrors of the Terror are downplayed fairly notably here. Possibly with a fair amount of justification, as he does take a brief look at the statistics of how many people were executed (many more outside of Paris, than in, where the Terror resides in the imagination). Similarly, Robespierre comes off fairly well compared to popular imagery. I imagine the look he gives is more fair to both than many accounts, but at the same time, it is an extremely detached view, and does not go into the emotions the Terror evoked in those caught up in it.

I also note that he has a nice essay on the history of thoughts on the French Revolution buried in Appendix 3. This is not as long as the one that leads Origins of the French Revolution, and it is much more general, as he starts with nearly contemporaneous writings reflecting on it, instead of in the 1930s. He identifies three general lines of thought among historians, and traces them through two centuries. It’s a handy guide to the intellectual environment almost any prominent history of the Revolution was written in. He ends with a look at current scholarship, and recommends a number of biographies of principle figures, and other subjects.

This book really does demand some knowledge of the general period, as Doyle does not spend much time looking at many of the people involved, so if you don’t know of them already, you can get lost. This is true of the period as a whole as well, but he does do a good job introducing a lot of the forces at work, and giving some sense of the state of France under Louis XVI, so that is more solid ground, though he also skims over the internal politics of the Revolution, which is easily the biggest omission. Essentially, it’s a central reference work where you can find where more detailed treatments fit in the whole.