The writer, broadcaster and popular historian John Julius Norwich died on 1 June 2018, aged 88, just after publishing “France: A History from Gaul to de Gaulle”. Poignantly, the author says in the preface:
“I know I have said it before, but this is almost certainly the last book that I shall ever write. I have loved every moment of the work on it, and see it as a sort of thank-offering to France for all the happiness that glorious country has given me over the years.”
I had booked to see the author talk about his new book at Daunt Books Marylebone. I knew him to be a great raconteur, appreciated by many for his ability to make history accessible, and I anticipated a few good yarns. When Daunt Books cancelled the event at short notice, I felt a shiver of anxiety that the 88-year-old’s indefatigable energy might have begun to run out.
I bought the book on Amazon instead. Although I was familiar with his cut-glass accent from Radio 4, I had never read any of his books before. I wanted an easy overview of the sweep of history in France, and thought this might do the trick.
“France: A History from Gaul to de Gaulle” is indeed an entertaining gallop through French history, and I can recommend chapters nine to eleven as a brief, lucid primer on the emergence of the Huguenots. A complex period in history is told in plain and simple terms. For example, Norwich explains the Huguenot refugees’ economic significance:
“The result [of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes] was a mass exodus of some four hundred thousand French men and women, most of whom fled to England, Switzerland, Prussia and the Dutch Republic. Not only did this irrevocably damage the reputation of Louis [XIV] abroad; more serious still, it dealt the national economy a serious blow by depriving France of many of her most skilled craftsmen.”
That paragraph describes the flight of the people from whom I am descended. To have such a direct connection to a decision made by Louis XIV is breath-taking, and not something I could ever have envisaged when I was studying his glittering reign at school.
I loved reading about the Sun King as a child - it pleased me that I could speak his language, and I identified with his cultural desires, and his love of glory.
Louis XIV is, as I learnt from John Julius Norwich, still Europe’s longest-reigning monarch – it remains to be seen whether Elizabeth II of England can out-reign him. The court of Versailles was renowned for its luxury and extravagance; its art, fashion, fireworks, dance. How could my family, huddled miserably together in a tiny, chapel-owned cottage, have had any connection at all with such a monarch?
I think these days history teachers are better at pointing out connections to their students’ own lives and heritage: I certainly hope so. It would have helped me, as a poor kid in a posh school, to have heard my own family history honoured.
Unlike the history books I studied for A-Level, Norwich’s book borrows, it seems to me, from the style of “1066 And All That”, or the hugely popular “Horrible Histories” series of children’s books by Terry Deary: it’s full of weird facts, kings with funny names and/or huge noses, and footnotes giving rather prurient detail. For example, on Louis XVIII’s mistress, a footnote reads:
“It was rumoured that he inhaled snuff from her bosom, a fact which earned for her the nickname of la tabatière – the snuffbox.”
Terry Deary however is heavily on the side of “the common people” – whereas John Julius Norwich (second Viscount Norwich) staunchly represents his own class: the aristocracy; and his own gender: male. As far as women are concerned, this is the tits and bums version of history: French rulers had, it would seem, countless mistresses whose physical attributes are listed with glee. Norwich does concede that royal mistresses were often the power behind the throne; but this also perpetuates the myth of women as witchy manipulators, cunningly using sex and the dark arts to serve their own ends. I think few women readers of history would want to identify with that.
He perpetuates, too, the stereotype of rebellious, outspoken women as tarts – these days such denigration is known as “slut-shaming”. Here is his description of the start of the Storming of the Bastille:
“On 5 October, in pouring rain, some six thousand working women – fishwives, cleaners, market-stall holders, prostitutes – marched on Versailles.” Later, he gives a more respectful description:
“They left that same afternoon…the remainder of the market women marching behind in the continuing rain.”
Fishwife, prostitute – Norwich doesn’t think much of the courageous women joining that “mob” and effecting ground-breaking political change; he highlights the most disreputable of their multifarious trades.
His teasing schoolmaster approach occasionally feels patronising, although perhaps I should cut him some slack given his great age when he wrote the book. This footnote grated on me:
“Auguste Rodin’s magnificent sculpture The Burghers of Calais…stands in front of the Hotel de Ville. Another of the twelve original casts can be seen in Victoria Tower Gardens, London, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. McDonald’s, in the city centre, has not changed its name as I suggested.”
It’s notable, too, that a chap called Duff Cooper seems to have had a decisive role in Britain’s success in the Second World War, rivalling that of Churchill. Bizarrely, the reason for his starring role in the book is never clearly spelt out, but obfuscated. Well, doesn’t the reader know who he was? He was the author’s father, ennobled as Viscount Norwich a couple of years before his death in 1954.
Other minor French characters are given undue prominence because the author, or someone he knew, met them. It feels as though they are shoe-horned into history - while more deserving candidates are elbowed out.
This style reminded me very much of Gyles Brandreth’s Charles and Camilla, a biography of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, published in 2011. Brandreth is an inveterate name-dropper, and peppers his writing with asides like: “Mind you, when I asked the Princess about this, she said…” Such a gossipy, intimate style is alluring, like “Hello” magazine, perhaps because of its devil-may-care flamboyance.
Most of the time, Norwich gets away with it through sheer good writing; but he could have done with more editorial direction from professionals attuned to modern cultural sensitivities. He says very little about the country’s colonial history. Vietnam, for example, is name-checked twice, with no details at all and no entry in the index. An extraordinarily offensive quote is chosen to illustrate the early use of poison gas by German forces in the First World War:
“A British rifleman remembered:
I saw…the dusky warriors of French Africa; away went their rifles, equipment, even their tunics that they might run the faster. One man came stumbling through our lines. An officer of ours held him up with a levelled revolver. ‘What’s the matter, you bloody lot of cowards?’ says he. The Zouave was frothing at the mouth, his eyes started from their sockets, and he fell writhing at the officer’s feet.”
Why did the author select that quote? Why did his publishers let it through? So many men from countries which had been occupied and colonised then gave up their lives in a war that had nothing to do with them or their families; most governments now thank them retrospectively for their service. Why the lack of respect here?
“France” is such a curate’s egg that I feel ashamed to have enjoyed much of it. And yet I did. As an old-fashioned “Boy’s Own Adventure” version of history, it works pretty well. Norwich includes a great deal of English history, with wry remarks about the kings and queens who are familiar to us. This goes some way towards offsetting the impenetrable tangle of Italian and German aristocrats whose tiny principalities had a bearing on the fortunes of France - and whose names are instantly forgettable.
Thought has gone into clear signposting for the reader: each right-hand page has a heading which summarises the content of the spread. Thus page 301 has the heading “Eugenie escapes, 1870”, followed by page 303 with the heading “The Prince Imperial in Zululand, 1879”. This is a very useful reference device for the reader. The black and white maps at the front of the book are also well-chosen, although I would have loved them to be paper fold-outs.
Once I’d reconciled myself to its faults, I enjoyed reading “France: A History”, and it did indeed, as the author intended, fill in some gaps in my knowledge of French history. I’m grateful, too, for the shock of recognition when my ancestors appeared in its pages, claiming their role in history.France, A History: From Gaul to de Gaulle