Michael O’Callaghan reviews A History of Modern France, Volume 1, 1715 – 1799 by Alfred Cobban
This vivid narrative of 18th century France is written in a powerful , dense and authoritative style that demands concentration from the reader. It is a model of beautiful English, communicating intense meaning with intricate sentences and a large vocabulary.
In the interests of speed, Professor Cobban occasionally introduces characters or concepts without detailed explanation. Maybe this foible, more common in British textbooks than in American ones, explains why an Amazon reviewer found this book unreadable (it isn’t).
The Internet has given this book new life and made it more accessible. Although Cobban can pack 140 years into one scintillating sentence, sometimes non-historians like me might wonder what, for example, a Jansenist is. I know now, partly from supplementing my reading with Internet lookups.
Everyone can enjoy Cobban’s memorable descriptions, like this one:
‘The Duc de Bourbon was ugly, blind in one eye, bandy-legged, and stupid, but as the next prince of the blood he succeeded to Philip of Orleans. The best thing about him was his mistress, Mme de Prie, pretty, intelligent, and ambitious, as was the way of mistresses, daughter of a financier and moving in financial circles, as was also often the way of mistresses in the eighteenth century. ‘
The 1700s was the age of the libertine. The king and other male aristocrats were distracted by “lascivious little beauties”. There existed a job title, I can only call it that, of Offical Mistress to the King. Madame de Pompadour in this role was in effect a government minister, and one of the better ones. The events and people of this period are remarkable and to understand them is to gain a deep education in power and politics.