The best books on the French Revolution 📚

Browse the best books on the French Revolution as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

By J. Cohen, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Why this book?

The granddaddy of literary autobiography and biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions was written in 1769 but published posthumously in 1782. Rousseau, whose pioneering Romantic political philosophy was by then already influential, was setting out to do something equally new when he decided to study human nature, taking as his experimental model the human he knew best – himself. The rollicking result, sometimes self-flagellating, occasionally exhibitionist, deviates from its own model, St Augustine’s fourth-century religious-philosophical Confessions, in being chock-full of what nowadays we call emotional intelligence.

From the list:

The best literary biographies

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Book cover of Fashion in the French Revolution

Fashion in the French Revolution

By Aileen Ribeiro

Why this book?

Ribeiro is the author of numerous books on beauty and fashion, but this is the one I always come back to. Here, she explicitly connects social and political trends to changes in dress, beginning in the 1780s to the rise of Napoleon. The analysis is straightforward and compelling, although she also acknowledges the nuance. It’s a terrific introduction to the political importance of fashion during a period when fashion could not have been more politically salient.

From the list:

The best books on beauty and the politics of fashion

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Book cover of Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

By R.R. Palmer

Why this book?

There is a reason why this book, published during the darkest days of World War Two, is still in print eighty years later. It is a profound study, deeply informed by Palmer’s own experience of living through a time of war, crisis, and fear. It focuses on the twelve men who served on the Committee of Public Safety and together played a leading role in revolutionary government throughout the critical period of the Year II (1793-94).

This was the first book I ever read on the period of existential crisis known as ‘the Terror’, and it helped me make sense…

From the list:

The best books on the French Revolutionary Terror

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Book cover of The Gods Will Have Blood

The Gods Will Have Blood

By Anatole France

Why this book?

I have read no better evocation of how the mechanics of the Terror actually proceeded and intruded on the populace. The story is compelling, the characterisation vivid, the overall effect to make the reader shudder with disbelief that such disgusting activity should have been fenced round with nay, enshrined in, the supposed legitimacy and defence of law, the very safety of a government’s measures to protect the public. Cicero invoked, here: the supreme point of law is the safety of the people. The reference of the title is to the human sacrifices in the Inca culture. At one point, such…
From the list:

The best books to understand the terror of the French Revolution

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Book cover of When the King Took Flight

When the King Took Flight

By Timothy Tackett

Why this book?

At the celebrations on 14 July 1790 for the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Louis XVI took an oath to work with the National Assembly as a constitutional monarch. Less than a year later, on 20 June 1791, the royal family tried to flee the Revolution. The king’s flight convinced masses of French people that he was a perjurer: the monarchy never recovered its mystique.

In contrast, his capture near the border with Luxembourg convinced the crowned heads of Europe that the royal family was in mortal danger. Ten months later France was at war with Marie-Antoinette’s…

From the list:

The best books to understand the French Revolution

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Book cover of Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

Pauvre Bitos ou Le Dîner de Têtes

By Jean Anouilh

Why this book?

Anouilh shapes his play in parallel reference to two of the most traumatic periods in French history: the immediate aftermath of the 1945 Liberation and the end of the Terror with the death of Robespierre. In post-war France, a group of friends hit on a plan to explore what twisted logic shapes the individual who gets caught up in the violence of oppression. They invite a local man, one Bitos, to attend a masked dinner where each of the guests will take on the role of a prominent figure of the Revolution, Bitos himself, who has greatly profited by collaboration…

From the list:

The best books to understand the terror of the French Revolution

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