Two Recommendations from Kevin Michael Derby

December 8th, 2008

Kevin Michael Derby, about the only person, it seems to have noticed my post about the works of historian Kenneth S. Davis, wrote with two recommendations for books worthy of rediscovery:

• The Age of the French Revolution, by Claude Manceron, consisting of the following five volumes:

        • Volume 1: Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778

        • Volume 2: The Wind from America, 1778-1781

        • Volume 3: Their Gracious Pleasure, 1782-1785

        • Volume 4: Toward the Brink, 1785-1787

        • Volume 5: Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789

“Manceron was a unique historian who decided to chart the French Revolution through a hundred lives of key individuals. This leads to a vivid and often over the top narrative which offers little in the way of analysis and often proved incoherent in the way of descriptions. Manceron is all over the place and his narrative reminds me of Eliot’s “heap of shattered images.” Now he takes us to Rome for a papal election. Next stop is outside Philadelphia where General Washington retreats from Howe’s redcoats. Now to Versailles where Marie Antoinette is dancing. Meanwhile in the country, Robespierre studies law. Manceron makes no secret of his biases. He is a fan of the revolution and even dedicates volumes to modern day leftists like Allende and Mitterrand. Manceron also felt the need to jump out from behind the curtains and interrupt his narration with odd asides and comments, often shaking his fist at the leaders of the Church and other reactionaries. Still other times, he smugly asserts that the lead players of the Revolution were more heroic and had more dynamic adventurers than nomads and explorers. Manceron promised there would be at least ten volumes. He died after writing five, just as the Bastille was captured. While I can not claim to know more about why the Revolution occurred, I know the lead characters and their various motivations better having read the five volumes. These books really deserved better than to be forgotten despite the flaws. They make the French Revolution accessible.”

Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, by Francis J. Huddleston.

“Perhaps the strangest biography that I have ever read. While attempting to offer a life of the losing commander of the battle of Saratoga and a celebrated playwright of his times, Huddleston makes a number of asides including all of the following: there are too many scholars attempting to prove Shakespeare did not write his plays; whether or not actresses should take to the stage in skimpy night attire; what happened to French soldiers after the Great War; why they should not sell snacks on trains despite the declining quality of full meals served on trains; how horses from Spain are overrated by gamblers and equestrians alike; why the Prince of Wales both then and now-both George IV and the future Duke of Windsor-needed to find better mentors; why the British needed to adapt khaki uniforms sometime in the 1870s or 1880s; thoughts on what an Irish military museum should include; speculations on the exact nature of the Gulf stream; advice that if you are going to recite a limerick at the table with old friends and the first line is sexually suggestive, make sure the second line is too otherwise it will be a severe letdown for your companions; yelling “Are we downhearted?” is not a good way to convince your boss that your team does not have low morale; and many more comments, all of which have nothing to do with the life of General Burgoyne.”

Thanks for the recommendations, Kevin–I’ve already sent off for the first of Manceron’s volumes and am looking forward to reading it.

As always, readers are encouraged to provide their own recommendations–especially when they’re as interesting as these.

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