'France: A History from Gaul to De Gaulle', by John Julius Norwich - Review

By Womack, Philip | The Spectator, May 5, 2018 | Go to article overview

'France: A History from Gaul to De Gaulle', by John Julius Norwich - Review


Womack, Philip, The Spectator


When John Julius Norwich was a boy, his father was British ambassador in Paris.School holidays were spent in the exceptionally beautiful embassy which had been purchased by the Duke of Wellington from Pauline Borghese. He would mix dry martinis for Jean Cocteau, and sing songs to the dinner guests which he had been taught by his father's mistress, the poetess Louise de Vilmorin, who got on famously with his mother, Diana Cooper. It makes you long to have been there. This warm, delightful short history of France, aimed convivially at the general reader, is his love letter to the country he knew so well: and, he writes, most probably his final book.

In energetic style, we are transported from the primitive stockades of the Gauls ('carnivores through and through'), via the boorish, dissipated and exceptionally complicated Merovingians; in France, Norwich drily notes, the dark ages 'were very dark indeed'. We gallop past Charlemagne and his five legitimate and four 'supplementary' wives, who invested the previously bickering kinglets and princelings with the grandeur of empire; we wave at Hugh Capet, whose name 'sounds remarkably plebeian, as indeed it is'. It was Capet who constructed France as a nation -- 'although inevitably, he left the job unfinished'.

The chapters on early modern France are well contextualised and full of delicious fodder, especially those on the Crusades and the interactions of the French with the Byzantines. I had not known that in 1216 Louis VIII not only claimed the kingship of England, but landed at Thanet, took Winchester and ended up controlling more than half the country. It is so easy to forget how impermanent national boundaries are; and how closely France and England have been intertwined over the centuries. Later on, of course, our own Henry VI was crowned King of France in Paris: the service, however, was 'poorly attended'.

We learn that Louis X preferred to play tennis with his friends, neglecting his 'feisty and shapely wife'; and that tennis plays a significant part in French history. Louis XII married Princess Mary of England, Henry VIII's sister: she was 15, he much older. Less than three months after the marriage, in 1515, Louis died, 'exhausted, it was generally believed, by his exertions in the bed chamber'.

With the arrival of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the glory of Versailles is well evoked -- and its tedium and discomfort. Apart from lacking sanitation it was also bitterly cold. Norwich's account of the Revolution is exciting and poignant, particularly the attempted escape of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. When they were captured, they were confined to their carriage and forced back on a long journey to Paris. The king helped his little son pee into a silver cup, unbuttoning his breeches himself. In later chapters, Napoleon and his successors, the surprisingly successful Louis-Philippe and the charmless Charles de Gaulle, all come alive. …

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