Sure, the Sun King was a putz. But did things have to end so badly for the French monarchy?
Perhaps not, writes Jones (History/Univ. of Warwick) in this ambitious, overstuffed examination of France’s 18th-century political elite and the tangled process of statecraft. The revolution of 1789 was by no means inevitable, Jones writes contra generations of Marxist historians; taking the long view, Jones suggests that the “revival of political history” in the profession allows a kind of “flattening-out” of the century and even a de-emphasizing of the centrality of that revolution in the great narrative of Western history. Jones assesses the comparative strengths of France at the time—when, he reckons, perhaps one in every six Europeans was French and much of Europe’s economy was governed by the nation—and then ticks off, one by one, the many accreted missteps and errors in judgment that squandered that strength, from the enormous cost of building fabulous palaces to the failure of France to maintain a credible North American empire or “to show the flag in the New World in any meaningful way.” The time saw an intense concentration of power in the hands of the monarchy: Louis XIV insisted on ruling without ministers and in his own name, for instance, which, Jones writes, made the “rhetorical ploy of ‘rescuing’ the ruler from ‘evil’ ministers difficult to sustain.” The lessening of the powers of the nobility that followed formed an imbalance that would affect French politics up to and during the time of the Revolution, weakening civil government, and paving the way for Napoleon’s rightist coup, at which point it was impossible for the government to “gauge the extent of popular discontent because it had destroyed most channels of independent expression,” a recipe for bad times indeed. Throughout thickets of data and quotation, Jones is lucid and even entertaining, though he is fond of some curious turns of phrase (remarking here that “it would prove extremely difficult to wash the Sun King out of the French nation’s hair,” there that the Enlightenment was a “sociological boom-box”) that may make some readers despair.
Still: a novel approach to the study of 18th-century French history.