I always have a lot of respect for writers of non fiction whose preparation involves a lot of research and who can nonetheless produce a final work that is concise. Norman Stone wrote a brilliant short history of the First World War, Neal McGregor a superb but short history of Germany and now John Julius Norwich a history of France under 400 pages. It must be difficult exercise to boil down all that detail and research and some writers are reluctant to do so but equally the reader can find a long detailed tome indigestible.
John Julius Norwich is well equipped to wrote on France as his father Duff Cooper was the British ambassador there and he is renowned historian in his own write and right. He writes with clarity and elegance often dropping in a bit of gossip or trivia in a footnote. General Weygand , the rather hapless commander of the French armed forces in 1940 that capitulated swiftly to the Wehrmacht ‘s fast moving columns may have been the illegitimate son of the Empress Eugenie. The story that most summed up France for me related to de Gaulle. De Gaulle was for want of a better description a royal pain in the ass during the war based in London. He was driven there by Sir Edward Spears. His wife gave the French army an ambulance that took care of 20000 French wounded. At a military review on June 1940 De Gaulle saw the ambulance flying small Union Jacks. De Gaulle immediately ordered its disbanding. So what does this tell you? Not only was he ungrateful, he was petty and small minded.
On the bigger picture Norwich guides the reader through the turbulence from 1789-1918 with much clarity. This period witnessed the end of the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons; Napoleon and the dynasty he established; Robespierre and Richelieu; the commune; the Franco Prussian War and the siege of Paris; the First World War, Battle of the Marne, where 3000 French combatants were taken to the battle by taxi whose drivers charged and Verdun; the Treaty of Versailles that led ultimately to Nazism. It’s never a dull read. John Julius Norwich is not prim, how could he be when he fathered an illegitimate child by the wife of John Huston? He informs us President Felix Faure died in flagrante and that Marshall Petain could be located quickly to be summoned to the battlefield of Verdun as someone was aware of his whereabouts by knowing the address of his favourite mistress.