The best books on Louis XVI

1 authors have picked their favorite books about Louis XVI and why they recommend each book.

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When the King Took Flight

By Timothy Tackett,

Book cover of When the King Took Flight

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 native Austria, and Europe was engulfed in a generation of bloodshed. The great American historian of the Revolution, Timothy Tackett, recounts the engrossing story of the botched flight and its repercussions for a cast of unforgettable characters.    


Who am I?

I have spent much of my adult life studying the French Revolution with students who, like me, are engrossed by the drama, successes and tragedies of the Revolution, and the scale of the attempts to arrest or reverse it. Why and how did an apparently stable regime collapse in 1789? Why did it prove to be so difficult to stabilize a new order? How could claims to “liberty” and “equality” be balanced? And why was there a period of “terror” in 1793-94? When the Revolution was finally over, how had France and other parts of the world been changed? The answers to those questions remain open and continue to fascinate. 


I wrote...

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution has fascinated, perplexed, and inspired for more than two centuries. It was a seismic event that radically transformed France and launched shock waves across the world.

In this new history, I sought to create a fresh account of one of the world’s great revolutions—its origins, drama, complexity, and significance. Was the Revolution a major turning point in French—even world—history, or was it instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives? We also need to examine the varying experiences of most French citizens who lived outside the gates of the city: the provincial men and women whose daily lives were overwhelmed by revolution and war. The stories of individuals who struggled to cope in such unpredictable times enable us to enter the social and cultural world of the eighteenth century which was transformed by France’s age of revolution. Life would never be the same again for anyone.

The Oxford History of the French Revolution

By William Doyle,

Book cover of The Oxford History of the French Revolution

Bill Doyle is the leading British interpreter of the French Revolution and this is a subtle account of its causes and course. Very good on the need to look for specific political causes rather than any supposedly inevitable pattern of socio-economic conflict.


Who am I?

I am a historian with wide-ranging interests and publications, including, in European history, histories of Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, eighteenth-century Europe, Europe 1550-1800, Europe since 1945, and European warfare.


I wrote...

France: A Short History

By Jeremy Black,

Book cover of France: A Short History

What is my book about?

This is an accessible, up-to-date, illustrated history of France and the French that captures the absence of any inevitable pattern of development, and also the interactions of the geography of France with political circumstances. While taking an essentially chronological approach, there is an engagement with important continuities. A helpful guide to understanding France today.

Napoleon

By Philip Dwyer,

Book cover of Napoleon: The Path to Power 1769 - 1799

Napoleon Bonaparte brought a decade of revolutionary upheaval to an end when he seized power with the army in November 1799, but he had been made a general by the Revolution and was one of its most celebrated soldiers. The Revolution opened up opportunities for this Corsican “outsider” which would have been impossible before the Revolution: he grabbed them. Dwyer’s prize-winning account of Napoleon’s checkered rise to power at the age of thirty is also a gripping narrative of the unpredictability and drama of the revolutionary decade. It reveals the making of a man whose brilliance, military genius, and vision was qualified by his cynicism, cruelty, and vanity. 


Who am I?

I have spent much of my adult life studying the French Revolution with students who, like me, are engrossed by the drama, successes and tragedies of the Revolution, and the scale of the attempts to arrest or reverse it. Why and how did an apparently stable regime collapse in 1789? Why did it prove to be so difficult to stabilize a new order? How could claims to “liberty” and “equality” be balanced? And why was there a period of “terror” in 1793-94? When the Revolution was finally over, how had France and other parts of the world been changed? The answers to those questions remain open and continue to fascinate. 


I wrote...

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution has fascinated, perplexed, and inspired for more than two centuries. It was a seismic event that radically transformed France and launched shock waves across the world.

In this new history, I sought to create a fresh account of one of the world’s great revolutions—its origins, drama, complexity, and significance. Was the Revolution a major turning point in French—even world—history, or was it instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives? We also need to examine the varying experiences of most French citizens who lived outside the gates of the city: the provincial men and women whose daily lives were overwhelmed by revolution and war. The stories of individuals who struggled to cope in such unpredictable times enable us to enter the social and cultural world of the eighteenth century which was transformed by France’s age of revolution. Life would never be the same again for anyone.

Marie Antoinette

By Dena Goodman (editor), Thomas E. Kaiser (editor),

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen

This collection of articles offers an intriguing approach to the topic of women, power, and sex by focusing on the many uses of Marie Antoinette. The essays, by prominent historians, art historians, and literary scholars, examine Marie Antoinette as a “site of history” where political and cultural contests occurred. The authors analyze pamphlets, archival materials, portraits, French Revolutionary pornography, and modern films to consider the central questions Marie Antoinette raised about her identity as a foreign queen, woman, wife, mother, and political figure.

She embodied the contradictions in old regime politics, culture, and gender identity and has been used subsequently to address political and gender issues to the present. Each essay offers a distinct, intriguing perspective on the reciprocal influence of this queen and the history of France. The collection reveals the wealth of purposes this queen served and the rich variety of interpretations she provoked.


Who am I?

As a historian of early modern France and a professor at Southern Methodist University, I have taken students to Paris on a study abroad program for more than twenty summers. Students were invariably intrigued by the relationship of Henry II, Catherine de Medici, and Diane de Poitiers. The young prince married Catherine de Medici at the age of fourteen but the thirty-six-year-old Diane de Poitiers became his mistress when he was sixteen and remained so for the rest of his life. The complexities of that relationship and the significance of both women led me to conclude that the history of the Renaissance could be told through the lives of the queens and mistresses.


I wrote...

Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

By Kathleen Wellman,

Book cover of Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France

What is my book about?

This book treats a series of intriguing, influential women from Agnès Sorel, designated as an official favorite in 1444 to the death in 1599 of Gabrielle d’Estrées, a mistress Henry IV had promised to marry. The queens and mistresses of the intervening years included, among others, Anne of Brittany who married two successive kings of France and remained duchess of Brittany, Catherine de Medici who was not simply queen when her husband reigned but also influential queen mother during her three sons’ reigns, and Diane de Poitiers who cast Henry II’s reign as a chivalric romance.

The queens and mistresses this book treats were significant to the politics of the period. They are, I contend, far more interesting and important than the much more familiar six wives of Henry VIII of England.

The Life of Louis XVI

By John Hardman,

Book cover of The Life of Louis XVI

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.


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.

Marie Antoinette

By Evelyne Lever,

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

I am perhaps more familiar with – and fonder of – Marie Antoinette than I am of any other historical personage. Emersed in French history since an early age, I have had a near-lifetime fascination for this complicated woman – who never said, “Let them eat cake!” 

Having researched Antoinette exhaustively (most recently, in connection with her periodic appearances in my own books), since first reading Evelyn Lever’s masterful, beautifully-written work some twenty years ago, I have found myself frequently returning to it. I am drawn to it for its depth and detail, as well as her balanced treatment of an, in many ways, controversial figure. I recommend it as it is a perfect introduction to the life of a captivating woman, as well as presenting a highly satisfying experience for any lover of fine biography. 


Who am I?

Whilst I was born in America, growing up in an old Irish family with a long history and a powerful sense of its past, I learnt a great deal of Irish, British, and European (especially French) history from an early age – proving valuable in both of my careers – one, as an international business lawyer, the other as a full-time writer of historical fiction. As a result of a “very Irish” numinous connection with the Gaelic poet, Eileen O’Connell, I frequently find myself drawn to books about strong, courageous, and memorable women – particularly those who lived in interesting times, such as the tumultuous days of Sixteenth and Eighteenth-Century Europe.  


I wrote...

Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

By Kevin O'Connell,

Book cover of Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

What is my book about?

As Bittersweet Tapestry, the third volume of Kevin O’Connell’s continuing Derrynane Saga opens, Eileen O’Connell and her husband, Arthur O’Leary, an officer of the Hungarian Hussars, have departed Vienna – where she served for almost a decade as governess to Maria Theresa’s youngest daughter, now Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France. 

Their life in Ascendancy-ruled Ireland is in stark contrast to what they left behind, as well as to that of Eileen’s brothers, officers in the Irish Brigade of France, her youngest one, Hugh, now wed to the French Princess Royal. The Irish story evolves into a dark, violent, and bloody tale...ultimately involving an epic tragedy – which results in what has been called, “The greatest poem written in (Ireland and Britain) in the whole Eighteenth Century.”

Citizens

By Simon Schama,

Book cover of Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

There are so many good books on the Enlightenment era, but my favorite ones have tended to deal with events in France. Among my preferred reads is Simon Schama’s Citizens, which I first breezed through in graduate school when it appeared in 1998. Citizens not only provides stunning, jaw-dropping insight into the events of the revolution, it confers an unforgettable texture to the main characters. (The images I have of Danton and Robespierre still come from the pages of this book, despite having read many other works on the same subject.) In recent years some critics have taken the author to task for being “against” the revolution. This still doesn’t bother me a bit. Regardless of the supposed politics or leaning of the author, this is an extraordinary book.


Who am I?

Andrew Curran is passionate about books and ideas related to the eighteenth century. His writing on the Enlightenment has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsweek, Time Magazine, The Paris Review, El Païs, and The Wall Street Journal. Curran is also the author of three books and numerous scholarly articles on the French Enlightenment. He is currently writing a new multi-person biography that chronicles the birth of the concept of race for Other Press. Curran teaches at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, where he is a Professor of French and the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities.


I wrote...

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

By Andrew S. Curran,

Book cover of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

What is my book about?

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely is a spirited biography of the life of France’s most famous Enlightenment-era atheist. For those people who have never heard of him, Diderot was the consummate Enlightenment polymath, the type of thinker who might write on ancient Chinese and Greek music first thing in the morning, study the mechanics of a cotton mill until noon, help purchase some paintings for Catherine the Great in the afternoon, and then return home and compose a play and a fifteen-page letter to his mistress before going to bed. This book chronicles Diderot’s amazing life, including his tormented relationship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, his curious correspondence with Voltaire, his passionate affairs, and his often-iconoclastic stands on art, theater, morality, politics, and religion.

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