Histories of France have been written from many points of view. Emmanuel Todd’s The Making of Modern France: Ideology, Politics and Culture (1988), Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (1976), and Robert Darnton’s Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968) have all brought a distinctive perspective to their interpretations of France. Each provides an approach that minimizes the goals of traditional narrative and instead focuses on the problematics of identity and culture.
Theodore Zeldin’s writings on France are equally original and provocative (A History of French Passions 1848-1945: Volume I: Ambition, Love, and Politics, France, 1848-1945: Politics and Anger). Like these other scholars, he is not an historian who focuses on a chronicle of events. Instead, he wants to capture some threads of emotion, personality, and ordinary social life that begin to add up to something “French”. Here is how he frames the project in the preface to the first volume, Ambition and Love (the second volume is titled Politics and Anger):
France 1848-1945 may be read in the same way as one would a series of novels, each of which tells the story of a family or a community from a different point of view. Each chapter and each volume may be read independently. Each has its own surprises, for I aim to show that France was not what it seemed to be; each has its own constellation of heroes or anti-heroes, because I do not see France as dominated by one man, one class or one set of principles. Taken as a whole, however, these portrayals of the many faces of the French are designed to make it possible to judge anew, and less partially, the idiosyncracies, the poses and the torments of a nation that has always irritated its neighbours, even when it has won their admiration and sometimes indeed their affection. (vii)
Since I believe that behaviour is muddled and obscure, and cannot be presented truthfully as simply a search for some ideal, like glory, justice or liberty, and since I do not presume to be able to prove anything when it comes to discussing human motivation, I have not written a general national narrative, held together by a more or less plausible string of causes. Instead, I have made the individual my starting-point, and have tried to show him beset by a multitude of pressures, internal as well as external. I have grouped his struggles around six passions: ambition, love, anger, price, taste, and anxiety. (vii)
My method is to hold up a multitude of mirrors around the French, so that they may be seen simultaneously from different angles; and my other volumes pursue these themes into other recesses of their personalities. To adapt to the kaleidoscopic vision I offer, the reader must, of course, be willing to put aside temporarily the expectations that he has of history, in the same way as he must put aside his traditional expectations when looking at the paintings of the Impressionists or the Cubists. I hope the experience will modify his attitude to the French, and to the past, but also that it will tell him something he did not know about himself. (viii)
So it is the ordinary individual rather than the iconic powerful leader; and it is the emotional setting rather than the deliberative process, that most interest Zeldin. But Zeldin also thinks that this study leads to the discovery of important commonalities across the French — “the common beliefs, attitudes and values of Frenchmen, which often cut across ideological and class lines” (2). So there is an historical point to writing about “the French” which will lead to different findings than “the British” or “the Germans.” Careful study and interpretation permits the historian to tease out a “style” or “persona” that distinguishes various national groups.
Zeldin clarifies this goal in these words:
I do not mean by this that I am seeking to define the immutable French soul, mind, or character. But this is something many people talked about and I have tried to investigate why they came to believe that there was such a thing. (3)
This goal runs squarely up against the historiography of difference that Emmanuel Todd advocates in considering the French; Todd’s view is that France was constituted through a very specific and intentional process of identity shaping (post), and that there was great diversity of thought and institution across the territory that became France. But the two perspectives are not flatly contradictory; instead, Zeldin’s approach can be understood as a kind of historical ethnography, while Todd’s approach emphasizes processes and structures of nation formation.
Is this goal of discovering characteristic ways of thinking and feeling for a national population a credible one? I think it is, once we take a material and institutional view of the formation of personality. The human being is socially constructed; this means that his/her psychology and mental and emotional frameworks are inflected by specific institutions and experiences. And it is entirely believable that there might be enduring differences in the traditions and institutions through which English school boys and girls and French children absorb formative ideas about — family, morality, anger, comportment, and nation.
How does Zeldin turn this historiographic goal into a workable program of research? One key strategy that he pursues is to identify a handful of central categories of actors in French society — doctors, notaries, the rich, bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, peasants, workers — and to trace out the specifics of how these categories functioned in France. How were doctors educated? How were they compensated? How did they compete for clients? What level of prestige did they enjoy? Zeldin believes that each of these social categories represents a distinctive matrix of characteristics, relative to the analogous social groups in other countries. So by taking the measure of these great social groups, Zeldin believes that he is also able to delineate some of the distinctive elements of French attitudes and social relations.
And what about the most numerous group — the peasants? How were they regarded in the nineteenth century? Zeldin argues that peasants were essentially invisible to cultivated French society:
The peasants are not studied in Balzac’s universal portrait of French society. Though he called one of his novels Les Paysans and devoted several volumes ostensibly to painting scenes of rural life, Balzac could not describe the peasants, because he was full of contempt for them. They were savages, like Fenimore Cooper’s Red Indians, and he was concerned with them only as subjects for his schemes to improve them. (131-32)
So contempt is one French attitude towards the peasant; another is the romanticized view that seems to trace back to Rousseau:
The romantics, the Catholic revivalists, the believers in a conservative and hierarchic order, all held him up as a model of a human unspoilt by progress. George Sand wrote books about him or rather books about how she would have liked him to be, inaugurating a whole genre of rustic novels. … Napoleon III inaugurated his reign with an inquiry into popular poetry forgotten ‘because of a thoughtless contempt by our rather too worldly literature’. Folklore societies were formed. (133)
After surveying these elite attitudes towards peasants, Zeldin turns to an extended effort to decipher some of the social reality of the peasant in the nineteenth century. And he finds that the stereotypes that French society applied to the peasant, from left to right, were unfounded.
These generalisations about the innate conservatism of the pesant need to be interpreted carefully in the context of French history. The observance of traditional routines, agricultural and social, should not obscure the fact that conflict was part of those routines, and that the pressures involved in preserving them add up to a situation which is far from being one of stagnation. The peasants were neither satisfied nor contented. They were constantly trying to improve their lot, to enlarge their farms, to raise their status. Their world was torn by deep divisions, and by animosities both of interest and of pride. (135)
The sense of community depended also on the way the land was worked. The common generalization that the peasants were innately individualistic and independent is another bourgeois myth. It is important to remember that though individual peasant property had developed before the Revolution, ownership did not imply complete liberty to work the land as one pleased. When the strips and plots were tiny, it was essential to co-operate in sowing and reaping. No man could reach his plot without going through those of his neighbours. (139)
Much of this material on the professions and the major social groups falls under the heading of “ambition” — competition and striving for one’s betterment. This first volume ends with an extended discussion of “love” — the family and children.
The family, as organised in France in these years, had an effect on people’s lives as profound as any political regime or any economic force. It was a powerful institution which resisted change with remarkable vitality. (285)
But here again, Zeldin finds that the realities of nineteenth-century France contradicted the common stereotypes of marriage, family, and children.
Zeldin’s writing makes one think of a gifted interpreter of literature or art, more than of a traditional historian. He is very sensitive to telltale nuances, and very creative in building an interpretation of the French based on a series of such insights. In this regard it is “humanities-inspired history” rather than “social-science history.” Zeldin appears to affirm this point in saying that his historical writing does not aspire to the “objectivity” and neutrality of the sciences:
Historical study is a personal experience, and the subjective elements in it deserve to be valued, when so many other branches of knowledge are becoming largely technical. To admit that historians solve their problems of colour and light, that they create their compositions for reasons which are ultimately subjective, because these seem to them to be coherent and true, is not to admit a fault, but to assert that each individual historian can express himself in his work. (7)
So Zeldin’s project is a broad one: to attempt to discern some of the important strands of mental and emotional framework through which historical French men and women thought and experienced their history. It is a kind of personality psychology for a whole historical population. And Zeldin affirms, as a literary critic would do as well, that there alternative tellings of this story.