Recent Reviews for French Studies

Posted in books, reviews by Editor on April 13, 2010

Excerpts of recent reviews featured at the H-France website:

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H-France Review Vol. 10 (March 2010), No. 49

Raymonde Monnier, ed., À Paris sous la Révolution. Nouvelles approches de la ville. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 2008. 221 pp. Notes. €25.00 (pb) ISBN 978-2-85944-596-6.

Review by Sydney Watts, University of Richmond.

Quoi de neuf sur la Révolution? Raymonde Monnier’s latest publication on Paris during the French Revolution stands out as a valuable collection of fresh ideas and illuminating scholarship, the ongoing work of a number of both young and well established historians from France and abroad. This plentiful compilation of groundbreaking research, taken from conference proceedings held at the Hôtel de Ville in October 2005, reveals the vitality of historical scholarship on this topic over the past two decades. Certainly, one would think after the flurry of publications following the bicentennial of 1789 that the subject of revolutionary Paris has been exhausted. Not so. In fact, the seventeen contributors to this collection open more historical terrain to the interested scholar than they close off.  While each essay is kept brief, close to its conference paper format, many of them point to burgeoning fields of study. These historians have left behind ideological debates to focus on new topics, original historical problems, and open-ended discussion.

The questions around which the conference focused point to the place of Paris under the Revolution, its role as a site of acculturation that transformed its citizens as much as the city was transformed by its citizens. These scholars look to Paris as the center of revolutionary activity, keeping in mind the historical change in material conditions, social life and economic activity. Many of them contend with the fact that Paris was a growing metropolis with its own urban problems that were further challenged under the revolution.  Other participants focus on the political culture that permeated urban life in ways that to a greater or lesser degree demonstrate what Parisians made of this revolutionary world. In turning to clearly delineated objects of study located in Paris (i.e., urban politics related to financing urban projects and policing the city, cultural venues such as the theatre and museums, city businesses such as construction, public transportation the meat trade, and examples of political culture as seen in sermons, engravings and Parisian academies) these scholars aim to untangle Paris from the Revolution writ large. As a result, instead of using Paris as a backdrop to this revolutionary period, Paris–its urban administration, economic life and political culture–is both the subject and object of this historical period. . . .

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H-France Review Vol. 10 (March 2010), No. 57

Stéphanie Loubère, L’Art d’aimer au siècle des Lumières. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 2007: 11. Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 2007. 343 pp. Illustrations, footnotes, bibliography and index. $111 U.S./£65 U.K./€78 (pb). ISBN 978-0-7294-0917-9.

Review by Elena Russo, The Johns Hopkins University.

In this erudite, careful and thorough study, Stéphanie Loubère surveys and analyzes the surprisingly rich story of the translations and adaptations of Ovid’s “Art of Love” in eighteenth-century France. This is a story that is likely to interest the reader more for what it reveals about the vicissitudes of translating and adapting the classics, and for the role they continued to play in French letters throughout the Enlightenment, than for its potential to seduce the senses and captivate the amorous imagination. Indeed, the expectant reader is bound to be disappointed, for never has eroticism felt so dull, dogmatic and pedantic. Certainly, had Ovid written according to the spirit of his French translators, it is safe to assume that he would never have incurred disgrace, exile, or been accused of immorality. Like them, he would have lived and died in dignified obscurity.

Still, it was worth resurrecting those authors, if only for a moment, and we may agree with Loubère’s claim that a study of the minores is likely to yield some interest for those who wish to explore the intellectual context, or better yet, the rhetorical and argumentative underbelly, of libertine literature, from Crébillon to Laclos. As Loubère points out, both in the Augustan empire and in the ancien regime, writing careers were shaped on the benches of law schools; all of the arts of love, to a greater or lesser extent, deliberately parodied treatises on rhetorics, at a time when rhetorics could no longer find an outlet in the practice of politics. The boudoir, rather than the tribune, became the space in which the arts of persuasion were honed and refined. The same may be argued of the Middle Ages, of such works as André Le Chapelain’s “De Amore” in the twelfth century and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s “Romance of the Rose” in the thirteenth century. . . .

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H-France Review Vol. 10 (March 2010), No. 58

Michel Baridon. A History of the Gardens of Versailles. Translated by Adrienne Mason. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.  vii + 296 pp.  48 illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $55.00 U.S. (cl).  ISBN 978-0-8122-4078-8.

Alain Renaux. Louis XIV’s Botanical Engravings. Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vt: Lund Humphries, 2008. 144 pp.  70 illustrations, bibliography.  £30 UK. (cl).  ISBN 978-1-84822-000-3.

Review by Elizabeth Hyde, Kean University.

The last week of January 2009 saw the toppling of one of the last surviving trees planted for Marie Antoinette.  Since 1786 the beech tree had grown in the gardens of the Hameau, the queen’s pastoral retreat (just recently renovated) at Versailles. The tree had born witness to the collapse of the French monarchy and had survived the ambivalence felt towards Versailles and the royal gardens, symbols as they were of Bourbon rule, as France lurched right and left in search of political stability in the century afterwards. The beech had been weakened in the 1999 storms that devastated the gardens of Versailles (and forced a replanting on a scale not undertaken since the 1770s); January’s storm finished it off. Associated Press photos showed gardeners unceremoniously sawing up the arboreal remains of the ancien regime.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, a storm of a different sort swirled around the most public of American landscapes, the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Originally planned by Pierre l’Enfant as a parade ground setting off the federal buildings under construction in the new capital, the Mall has become the space most illustrative of the freedom of speech and participatory democracy in America. It is the space where Americans make themselves seen as they demand equal rights and the place where every four years Americans gather to bear witness to the peaceful transfer of power.  As many as 1.8 million people converged on the Mall to see Democrat Barack Obama sworn in as the first African American president of the United States. The economic stimulus bill proposed by Democrats and President Barack Obama provided monies for the refurbishing of the Mall. Some cried foul, arguing that the $20 million intended for the grounds would not provide sufficient economic stimulus, and the proposal was dropped. That Republicans criticized the Democratic proposal to restore the Mall suggests that landscapes can be partisan, although one suspects that similar outcry would have come from the other party had Obama’s opponent been victorious. Either way, both l’Enfant’s Mall and the trees planted for Marie Antoinette demonstrate that the meaning of landscapes can and does evolve over time, but in ways that evoke both the past in which they are rooted and the present to which they have come.

Michel Baridon explores this phenomenon in his “History of the Gardens of Versailles.” “Gardens,” he argues, “have a different relationship to history from that of buildings alone” (p. 238). “Stone speaks for itself,” he continues. “It is fashioned and put in place by men of another age, drawing visitors imaginatively into the past. Gardens, on the other hand, relate less directly to history. Their foliage and the water in their basins, constantly moving in the unseen wind, remind us of what they really are: a living fabric reacting to the constant changes of their environment” (p. 238). Yet that environment, he acknowledges, is shaped by humankind. In the gardens of Versailles, “we see how this vast expanse of nature has been ordered by human intelligence” (p. 4). In his study Baridon seeks to reconstruct the intervention of human intelligence in the gardens over the course of their creation and perpetual re-creation from Louis XIV’s earliest interests in the hunting park at Versailles to the present day, with an emphasis, of course, on their evolution under the care of André Le Nôtre.

Baridon’s book first appeared in French in 2003. This English translation has been published by the University of Pennsylvania in its Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture series, which is responsible for a growing body of works on the French garden. The series includes both English translations of important French works, such as Thierry Mariage’s “The World of André Le Nôtre” (1998) and original works including, most recently, Claire Goldstein’s “Vaux and Versailles: The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents, that Made Modern France” (2007), and Robert W. Berger and Thomas F. Hedin’s “Diplomatic Tours in the Gardens of Versailles under Louis XIV” (2008).[1]  Like the others, Baridon’s work engages the larger cultural meaning of the garden. He examines the gardens in their political, scientific, and cultural contexts. The book is divided into four parts that examine, respectively, the relationship between the French monarchy and gardens; the role of geometry and the sciences in making the gardens; the importance of the arts in achieving Le Nôtre’s aesthetic; and the gardens from Louis XV to the present. . . .

Baridon offers an eloquent defense of the garden as distinct from the buildings within it, but he gives relatively short shrift to the horticultural elements within the garden. While he addresses the Bourbon kings’ interest in botany, he does not explore the larger history of the flowers and trees within the garden. As other scholars have shown, the trees and flowering plants growing within the gardens tell the story of curiosity and collecting, colonial botanizing, horticultural innovation and agrarian economics, not to mention fashion and aesthetics. Alain Renaux’s “Louis XIV’s Botanical Engravings” reveals part of that history. Renaux’s work reproduces a portion of the engravings created for the Histoires des plantes, a work intended to be a compendium of current botanical knowledge when it was planned in the late 1660s. As Renaux explains, the project was to be the work of the newly created Royal Academy of Sciences. The team charged with its production was led by botanist and physician Denis Dodart and included Claude Perrault, Samuel Cottereau du Clos, Claude Bourdelin, and Pierre Borel, among others, who were all noted for their work in botany, medicine, pharmacology or chemistry. As botanical accuracy was paramount, the selection of illustrators was tremendously important. Commissions for the work were given, among others, to Abraham Bosse, one of the most highly skilled engravers of seventeenth-century France; and Nicolas Robert, who produced watercolor paintings of plants in Gaston d’Orléans’s collection (that would eventually form the core of the Vélins du Roi). The first and only volume of the work, entitled “Mémoires pour server à l’histoire des plantes, Dressez par M. Dodart, de l’Académie royale des Sciences, Docteur en Medecine de la Faculté de Paris,” appeared in 1676.

Renaux’s volume reproduces almost sixty of the engravings from the “Mémoires.” He includes a mix of native European plants, flowers important in the seventeenth-century French flower garden, and rare botanical specimens imported from the Americas and other exotic locales.  Each plate is accompanied by Renaux’s description of the plant. The descriptions variously include the botanical history of the specimen, with particular interest in tracing the introduction of the plant into European gardens, and its appearance in European botanies, as well as the medicinal and other applications of the plant. But Renaux is also interested in exploring the broader cultural history of the plant in its European context. Thus he also describes the mythological origins attributed to the plant, the origin of plant names, and other popular lore associated with the specimen. . . .


[1] In interest of full disclosure, my own book, Cultivated Power: Flowers, Culture, and Politics in the Reign of Louis XIV (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) is part of the same series. See Thierry Mariage, The World of André Le Nôtre, translated by Graham Larkin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Claire Goldstein, Vaux and Versailles:  The Appropriations, Erasures, and Accidents, that Made Modern France (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); and Robert W. Berger and Thomas F. Hedin, Diplomatic Tours in the Gardens of Versailles under Louis XIV (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). . . .

Copyright © 2010 by the Society for French Historical Studies, all rights reserved. The Society for French Historical Studies permits the electronic distribution of individual reviews for nonprofit educational purposes, provided that full and accurate credit is given to the author, the date of publication, and the location of the review on the H-France website. The Society for French Historical Studies reserves the right to withdraw the license for redistribution/republication of individual reviews at any time and for any specific case. Neither bulk redistribution/republication in electronic form of more than five percent of the contents of H-France Review nor re-publication of any amount in print form will be permitted without permission. For any other proposed uses, contact the Editor-in-Chief of H-France. The views posted on H-France Review are not necessarily the views of the Society for French Historical Studies.

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