Review: Vive la Revolution:
A Stand-up History of the French Revolution
By Mark Steel
Before reading “Vive la Revolution” by Mark Steel, I knew a little about the French revolution — King Louis and Marie “let-them-eat-cake” Antoinette, Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, the Bastille being stormed, the guillotine, Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday — but it mostly came from various films (Peter Brooks’ 1967 “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade” — usually shortened to “Marat/Sade” — Bud Yorkin’s 1970 comedy “Start the Revolution Without Me,” Ettore Scola’s 1982 La Nuit de Varennes,” Sofia Coppola’s 2006 “Marie Antoinette” and various iterations of the Scarlet Pimpernel) and literary fictions (including “Thermidor,” a surprisingly informative issue of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic book).
Then I stumbled upon this book, first published in 2006, at Barnes and Noble last month. After checking how it treated some of the obscura I did know — Thomas Paine, American revolutionary and author of “Common Sense” was imprisoned and awaiting awaiting execution — and enjoying the writing style, I decided to buy it. That the style is less ponderous and pompous than most histories, and more entertaining, is only natural, because Mark Steel is a stand-up comedian by trade.
I’m less sure he's gotten his history right. Some reviews on Amazon criticize him for allegedly making dumb mistakes, such as confusing Louis XVI with Louis XIV. And he is a biased reporter with a true socialist viewpoint (not what right wing pundits call socialism), but he’s open with that bias, so you can factor that in with what he says and decide with how much salt to take it. He’s a Palestinian sympathizer also.
When Steel focuses on the French revolution, however, he offers a refreshing take on historical personages who are almost universally reviled. Among other things, he argues that the excesses of the Reign of Terror took place during a time of war, when most of the surrounding countries didn’t take kindly to regicide and wanted to restore the king — or any king, after Louis XVI was executed. There was even dissension from factions within France (which wasn’t a unified country in the sense we think of today). Even many of the revolutionaries themselves didn't want to do away with the monarchy or kill the king. France before the revolution was in bad shape, corrupt, with food held back from the public to drive up prices, and Louis' excesses helping to drain the nation's purse. So, while some of their acts were appalling, Steel argues the revolutionaries weren't necessarily power-hungry or evil.
Steel's history is not complete or comprehensive — in particular, I'd have liked more about the revolutionary calendar — and I wouldn't take it as gospel, but I enjoyed spending a few days with it. Now maybe I'll try a book by a conventional historian.