La Belle France is a sweeping, grand narrative written with all the verve, erudition, and vividness that are the hallmarks of the acclaimed British historian Alistair Horne. It recounts the hugely absorbing story of the country that has contributed to the world so much talent, style, and political innovation.
Beginning with Julius Caesar's division of Gaul into three parts, Horne leads us through the ages from Charlemagne to Chirac, touring battlefields from the Hundred Years' War to Indochina and Algeria, and giving us luminous portraits of the nation's leaders, philosophers, writers, artists, and composers. This is a captivating, beautifully illustrated, and comprehensive yet concise history of France.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
June 04, 2006
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from La Belle France by Alistair Horne
When Occupied Vichy's Admiral Darlan was assassinated by a young French zealot in Algiers in December 1942, Winston Churchill observed to the House of Commons--in exasperation moderated with great sympathy--that the "Good Lord in his infinite wisdom did not choose to make Frenchmen in the image of the English." Some, on both sides of the Channel, may shout "Bravo!" or "Hear Hear!" but the fact is incontrovertible. With even less likelihood of challenge, the same could be said of the two nations. Geography, as much as history, though hand in hand, is what creates a nation. Over the centuries, while England lay protected from the invader (often, indeed, from outside influence) by the Channel, the North Sea and the Atlantic, France had nothing to guard her from the "barbarian at the gates." As Guderian and Rommel proved in May 1940, not even her great but sleepy rivers like the Meuse, the Oise, the Somme and the Marne could prevent an invader from sweeping across the boundless flat plains of northern France to threaten her capital city, Paris--any more than the Vistula and the Niemen could preserve Poland, with a geography that was so similar. (And see what a deal history dealt to the Poles!) West of the Rhine, all through her history, France had no topographical boundaries on which she could rely.
Thus much of her first two millennia encompasses an eternal hunt for security, on the one hand through strengthening herself at home; on the other, by aggressively pursuing expansionism abroad--often under the slogan of la gloire. In the pursuit of security, opposing instincts of the libertarian versus the authoritarian would repeatedly vie against each other.
In the beginning, France consisted of little more than an embattled island in the middle of the River Seine, surrounded by bristling palisades, in what is now Paris's ile de la Cite. The Romans founded
"Lutetia," as they called it, at a time when, as readers of Asterix know, Gaul was divided into three parts under Julius Caesar. (The word "Lutetia," romantic as it sounds, in fact derived from the Latin for "mud"
--appropriately enough, as its long-suffering denizens would discover over many successive centuries.)
Fortunately, Emperor Julian (ad 358) found Lutetia, with its vineyards, figs and gentle climate, so thoroughly agreeable that he refused a summons to lead legions to the Middle East. Surprisingly, he even found the Seine "pleasant to drink, for it is very pure and agreeable to the eye." Already in Roman times Lutetia became prosperous and alluring enough for it to be worth assault, and burning, by marauders from across the Rhine. About the same time as Nero watched Rome burn, the whole of the wooden settlements on the left bank were razed by fire. The city contracted, the Parisians withdrawing, once again, into the highly defensible fastness of the ile de la Cite. One of the first of many Germanic invasions was seen off by Emperor Julian, after the Alamanni had come to within only twenty-five leagues away--roughly the same spot as their grey-clad kinsmen reached under the Kaiser in 1914. The prayers of Sainte Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, reputedly caused Attila the Hun to swing away from the city in 451, and over the ages intercessions to her were to be made to save Paris from latter-day Huns--with varying degrees of success.
Rome gave Paris her first revolutionary martyr, Saint Denis, decapitated at what became the "Mons Martyrum"--or Montmartre. The fields around his place of execution were said to have "displayed a wonderful fertility." Ever after, the Roman tradition would run like a vital chord all through French history, summoned up and referred back to at crucial moments. In his godlike splendour, the "Roi Soleil" tapped into it, content to see himself portrayed as Hercules on the Porte Saint-Martin. The Great Revolution and its heirs reinvented such artefacts as consuls and senators, tribunes and togas. Napoleon I had himself crowned Emperor, then emulated Trajan's Column to vaunt his victories over his foes at Austerlitz in the Place Vendome; Napoleon III, also assuming the title of Emperor, reverently clad the statue of his great uncle atop it in a toga, and when things were going badly for him in 1869, went to seek inspiration at the Roman ruins of Lutetia.
Equally, the Seine was, and is, and always will be, Paris. From earliest days the navigable river