by Frederick Brown
This is a history of ideas and of culture in France between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the end of the nineteenth century. It encompasses events ranging from the influence of the Catholic church on politics to the building of the Eiffel Tower and the unsuccessful attempt of De Lesseps to build the Panama Canal. One theme is scandals and there is a Banking scandal that rivals any in history.
Starting with a chronology provided that lists the principal figures and events from the Paris revolts of 1848 until the death of Dreyfus in 1908 the book jumps into a morass of scandals. The Paris Commune in the Spring of 1871 is discussed, but there was also the longer-range political threat to the Republic came from the right leading to the tragicomic tale of the populist hero “on horse,” Gen. Georges Boulanger, whose monarchist supporters urged him to lead a coup d’état. Instead, he fled to Belgium and in 1891 committed suicide at the tomb of his mistress.
The events depicted also include the crash of the Union Generale, the disastrous Panama Canal adventure, and a chapter on the famous tower and its engineer, Gustave Eiffel. (Eiffel’s mother, he tells us, had to get him his first job, “seeing in the person of her son an inert object that wouldn’t move unless pushed.”) Brown makes clear just how high the political and cultural stakes were in the construction of this “ogre of modernity”; its architectural (and ideological) rival was the wedding-cake basilica rising on the other side of the Seine, the Sacré-Coeur. But the culmination of the book and the moment that defines France more than any other as it moves forward into the next century is the Dreyfus Affair.
With a chapter devoted to each of the events chronicled Frederick Brown's cultural history of France in the second half of the nineteenth century is an excellent introduction to the forces that shaped France in this period. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in French cultural history.
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