Magazine article The Spectator

Return of a Forgotten Historian

Magazine article The Spectator

Return of a Forgotten Historian

Article excerpt

THE HISTORY OF CIVILISATION IN EUROPE by Francois Guizot, translated by William Hazlitt, edited by Larry Siedentop Penguin Classics, 8.99, pp. 255

Guizot was minister of Foreign Affairs in France from 29 October 1840 to 26 September 1847 when he officially became Prime Minister (although in practice it was he who had all the time been the directing force of the government). Maurice Couve de Murville was Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1 June 1958 to 10 July 1968, when, like Guizot, he became Prime Minister. Thus, in June 1965 he had served as Foreign Minister for seven years, thereby breaking Guizot's record, and becoming the longest serving Minister for Foreign Affairs since the Revolution. In order to commemorate this distinction his colleagues presented him with a prize, which was a first edition of Guizot's Histoire de la Civilisation en Europe.

This was a doubly significant gesture because Couve de Murville is married to a descendant of Guizot and, like him, they are Protestants. But above all, said Couve, showing a rare enthusiasm, this is one of the greatest works of French history - a statement echoed by Larry Siedentop, the editor of this English translation of the work. In his stimulating and perceptive introduction he says that this is the most intelligent general history of Europe ever written. Both these 20th-century judgments themselves echo Sainte-Beuve who simply said that Guizot was the greatest professeur d'histoire' that France had ever known.

This leads Larry Siedentop to ask the natural question. How was it that by the end of the 19th century, and until very recently, Guizot's historical work had largely dropped out of sight? One can put the question another way. How is it that Guizot is so neglected that in Paris there is only an obscure appendage to a street called `Villa Guizot' usually and typically known as the `Impasse Guizot', whilst Thiers, for example, has both his street and his square, eminently placed by the thoroughfare named after Victor Hugo? No one would suggest that Thiers was the greater historian. Guizot himself, when he had been ill and when a friend enquired if he was feeling better, replied that he was much better. `Look,' he said, 'I am reading novels', and he held up a volume of Thiers' History of the Revolution. The late Sir Denis Brogan, not an admirer of Guizot, always countered this story by telling how Disraeli, when asked if he was the first Prime Minister to have written novels, replied that Guizot had written novels, although he had entitled them Meditations on Christianity).

Siedentop suggests that it was because of his political career that Guizot fell out of favour as an historian. People saw him as the obstinate and foolish man who had not withstood the revolution of 1848. This is undoubtedly true, although it is ironical that his History of the English Revolution remained a set-book for the Oxford special subject on the English Civil War, it being said that, in addition to its historical qualities, the author was someone who had a special knowledge of revolutions.

But the question should be framed in a wider sense. Guizot was not alone in being forgotten (although as the historians showed that the Orleans monarchy was particularly corrupt and reserved for an unattractive bourgeoisie, he was probably the most despised). Michelet was dismissed as a romantic and Benjamin Constant, Victor Cousin, Mignet Thierry and many others passed into oblivion. …

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