The Best Books About France Through Foreign Eyes

The Books I Picked & Why

The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince: From Contemporary Letters, Diaries and Chronicles, Including Chandos Herald's Life of the Black Prince

By Richard Barber

The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince: From Contemporary Letters, Diaries and Chronicles, Including Chandos Herald's Life of the Black Prince

Why this book?

Richard Barber gathers together and translates letters written by, among others, the Black Prince and his steward, and the work of two contemporary chroniclers. Between them, these sources constitute an extraordinary collection of first-hand accounts of military campaigns in 14th-century France, including the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, and the 1355 expedition when the Black Prince rode through the area where I live – the Lauragais, between Toulouse and Carcassonne – and ordered his army to destroy and loot most of the towns along its route.

Sometimes verging on propaganda aimed at convincing those back in England that the war was worth fighting, and at others full of anecdotes from military life such as the time the Black Prince’s men were passing through an area so dry, they had to give their horses wine instead of water, this book paints a vivid picture of daily life in a marauding medieval army.


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Thomas Jefferson's European Travel Diaries

By Thomas Jefferson, Persephone Weene, James McGrath Morris

Thomas Jefferson's European Travel Diaries

Why this book?

This book is based on notes made by Thomas Jefferson when he was US ambassador to France. For me, their highlight is his account of a journey south to examine the operation of the Canal du Midi which links Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Jefferson travelled down from Paris in his own carriage and when he reached the mouth of the canal near Agde he saw no reason to abandon it. He hired a barge to take him to Toulouse and loaded his carriage on deck.

During his eight-day journey, he recorded his impressions in notes and letters written while he was travelling, and he made observations on aspects of daily life which his French contemporaries rarely thought worth recording: agriculture, architecture, the price of goods and labour, the condition of the people, technical aspects of the canal, and where he could find the best wine.

This book is hard to find, but his original text is also available free from the Founders Online website, along with letters he wrote during his journey and addressed to his wife and secretary (here is the link).


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Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes: And Other Travel Writings

By Robert Louis Stevenson

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes: And Other Travel Writings

Why this book?

In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson came to the Cévennes, a remote, mountainous part of southern France where Protestantism was still the main faith. ‘The best that we can find in our travels is an honest friend,’ writes Stevenson in his introduction, and throughout his 12-day journey, his stubborn companion and beast of burden was a donkey called Modestine whom he never quite managed to master and whom some readers may at times pity.

His route is now waymarked as a long-distance footpath, the GR70, or Le Chemin de Stevenson, and having walked some of it myself, the area remains almost as wild and overflowing with rural charm as it was in Stevenson’s day. And yes, you may meet a few nostalgic hikers who have hired a donkey for their journey.


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A Moveable Feast

By Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast

Why this book?

Written in the last years of his life, Hemingway revisits his time in Paris during the 1920s when he was young, poor (most of the time), and struggling to transform himself from journalist to writer. As well as capturing the mood of an era when Paris was arguably the cultural capital of the world, Hemingway reveals numerous snippets about his early development as a writer, culminating in the kind of event which is any writer’s worst nightmare: the story of how his wife put all his original manuscripts and their carbon copies into a suitcase and promptly lost them on a train at the Gare de Lyon.


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Suite Francaise

By Irene Nemirovsky

Suite Francaise

Why this book?

This is the only work of fiction on my list, and the story of the book is perhaps even more moving than the story in the book. Conceived as a symphony, but in five movements, only two were completed, and the unfinished work’s journey between 1942 and its eventual publication in 2004 is another story of a manuscript in a suitcase, but this time with a very different outcome.

Irène Némirovsky arrived in France in 1919 after fleeing the Russian revolution with her Jewish family. Irène began writing fiction in French, and within ten years, she was a celebrated writer in her adopted country. She began Suite Française in 1942, telling the story of the fall of France, the chaotic exodus to the countryside, the beginning of collaboration with the enemy, and the denunciation of neighbours. In July 1942 she was arrested, and perished a month later in Auschwitz. Her husband met the same fate later the same year.

Her two children and their governess went into hiding, moving several times, always accompanied by a suitcase which contained family papers and the unfinished manuscript of Suite Française. Sixty years later, it was published, the last work of a great author.


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