The best books on the French Revolution and Napoleon

Munro Price Author Of Napoleon: The End of Glory
By Munro Price

Who am I?

I’m a historian who has been researching and writing on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars for thirty-five years now. Since the age of ten I have been fascinated by these years, partly through childhood holidays in France, but also because of their sheer drama. British history in the same period has nothing to compare with the storming of the Bastille or Napoleon’s meteoric career. Specializing in this turbulent era has made me particularly interested in how regimes fall, and whether under different circumstances they could have survived.

I wrote...

Napoleon: The End of Glory

By Munro Price,

Book cover of Napoleon: The End of Glory

What is my book about?

Most people think Napoleon’s fall came in 1815 at Waterloo, but my book focuses instead on the crucial yet neglected two years that came before, between his disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812 and his first abdication and exile in 1814. Even after the Russian disaster, I argue, Napoleon still had a good chance of keeping his throne and much of his empire, but instead rejected compromise peace offers from his opponents, and preferred to gamble on total victory at the risk of total defeat. Why he chose this fatal path has always been controversial, but in my book, based on new archival discoveries, I set out answers of my own.

The books I picked & why

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Interpreting the French Revolution

By François Furet, Elborg Forster (translator),

Book cover of Interpreting the French Revolution

Why this book?

This is not an easy read, but it is a seminal work by the greatest modern historian of the French Revolution, which made an enormous impression on me when I first read it as a student in the 1980s. It marked a decisive break with what up until then had been the standard view of the Revolution as a class struggle. For Furet, the Revolution’s real importance lay elsewhere, as the first modern experiment with democracy – in his eloquent words, "a beginning and a haunting vision of that beginning."

To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

By Ambrogio A. Caiani,

Book cover of To Kidnap a Pope: Napoleon and Pius VII

Why this book?

Well over 200,000 books have been written about Napoleon, but this recent work actually manages to say something new by focusing on an aspect of his reign that has been oddly neglected – at least in the English-speaking world – his tense and turbulent relations with the Pope, Pius VII, which ended with the Pope’s kidnapping from Rome by French forces in 1809 and imprisonment in France. Though bullied, browbeaten, and even once physically manhandled by Napoleon, the elderly Pontiff steadfastly refused to make the concessions to the secular power that his captor demanded from him. Ambrogio Caiani not only brings vividly to life an extraordinary clash of personalities, but also a key episode in one of the great conflicts that has shaped the modern world: the rivalry between church and state.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow

By Adam Zamoyski,

Book cover of 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow

Why this book?

When I first read this book I found it unputdownable. It is a riveting account, based on a huge number of original sources and testimonies, of the watershed defeat of Napoleon’s career: his invasion of Russia, capture of Moscow, and the disastrous winter retreat that destroyed his army of half a million men. Its evocation of the accompanying horrors is often harrowing, but underlines one sobering and always relevant fact: the amount of human suffering the folly of one man can bring about.

The Life of Louis XVI

By John Hardman,

Book cover of The Life of Louis XVI

Why this book?

The great strength of this book is that as well as offering a major reinterpretation of Louis, XVI, it is also a pleasure to read. John Hardman has pioneered the reappraisal of Louis that has been underway over the last twenty years. The unfortunate king has traditionally been portrayed as either reactionary or incompetent (or both). In place of this caricature, Hardman convincingly presents the monarch as a man of high intelligence who was prepared to make many more compromises with the Revolution than historians have allowed. In his view, Louis’ real weakness was not intellectual but psychological: crises of depression that paralysed him at crucial moments after 1789.

The Glass Blowers

By Daphne du Maurier,

Book cover of The Glass Blowers

Why this book?

When most English readers think of a novel about the French Revolution, they come up with A Tale of Two Cities. In contrast, Daphne du Maurier’s The Glass Blowers is almost forgotten. This is unfair, because it is both a marvellous read and a painstakingly researched and remarkably balanced evocation of France’s upheavals from 1789 right through to the 1840s. It is a fictionalized history of Daphne du Maurier’s own ancestors, the glass-blowers of the title, and the divisions and tragedies the Revolution brought to them. A remarkable and moving book.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the French Revolution, France, and Napoleon Bonaparte?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the French Revolution, France, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French Revolution Explore 73 books about the French Revolution
France Explore 544 books about France
Napoleon Bonaparte Explore 54 books about Napoleon Bonaparte

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb, and Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799 if you like this list.