Jones breaks new ground, revealing that the so-called "Old Regime," which held power up to 1789, was neither as old nor as doomed as historians have often claimed. The implosive events of 1789 become all the more remarkable in light of Jones's brilliant exposition of the vitality of the Bourbon reign, and of the complex of social forces, dynamic personalities, and unpredictable moments of chance that brought down a colossus.
Historian Jones (The Cambridge Illustrated History of France) has written an exhaustive account of 18th-century France, emphasizing political and economic history. He paints a portrait of a nation opposed to Bourbon absolutism throughout the century, not just at the time of the Revolution. Beginning in the waning years of Louis XIV, philosophers, Jansenists, taxpayers and especially the Paris Parlement, which saw itself as the defender of fundamental law, all criticized the Bourbon regime, pointing to its unwise, revenue-draining wars; persecution of religious dissidents; and ruling in a manner unresponsive to the public will. As Jones convincingly points out, the French Enlightenment changed everything, bringing to the fore a concept of "popular opinion" that would lead the French to believe they had a voice in how their nation was governed. Increasingly after 1750, public opinion became a powerful antiabsolutist influence. Jones devotes an excellent chapter to the Encyclopedie, which he says symbolized a crucial change in French culture and politics. Jones also details the intricate politics of the century, explaining how the monarchs' principal ministers attempted to prop up Bourbon authority and revenues. On the Revolution, Jones is first-rate, especially in depicting the bloody factional feuding between the Jacobins and Girondins. He finishes his book with the Directory and the 1799 coup of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is an outstanding book for academics and students looking for a one-volume overview of the century, but perhaps too dense for the general readers other than those devoted to French history. Two maps. (Mar.)