Top 10 French Rev novels

We know how the French Revolution begins, in proclamations and riots and the storming of the Bastille, how it develops into tumbrils and terror, and ends with the rise of Napoleon; or perhaps, years later, on the battlefield of Waterloo. How the later restoration of the Bourbons (who in Talleyrand’s words famously, learned nothing and forgot nothing), simply led to the Revolution of 1848, which led to Napoleon III and history repeating itself as farce. At least that’s what we know if we take our history from novels!

Years ago, at school, I saw a photograph of a barefoot and filthy Russian child in a ragged dress in front of a log cabin. The caption said she was a countess, indistinguishable from the rest of the poor. The image stayed with me, as did memories of being made to eat my way through a fifteen course meal in France. The Last Banquet opens in the early 1700s with Jean-Marie d’Aumout sitting beside a dung heap in the ruins of his father’s chateau eating beetles, and ends after endless feasts, in the shadow of the Terror. In between it takes in Voltaire and de Sade,  European and American politics and Jean-Marie’s obsession, food… 

There is - for me at least - something haunting about historical novels that deal with points where we say the world changed. The novels below, given in date order, because anything else effectively announces this chalk is better than that cheese, deal with the changing of the world, why it changed, how it changed, and what came after. 

Les Liaisons Dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Morality tale, shocking expose of aristocratic corruption or tragic love story? Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous 1782 novel featuring Vicomte de Valmont, the Marquise de Merteuil and perversity at war with innocence exposed to an avid French public the squalor and malice of court life (and may or may not have helped bring the revolution closer). In 1985 Christopher Hampton reworked it as play and it’s been the basis for several films.

The Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ One of the most famous historical novels ever written, and, with 200 million copies sold, probably the most successful, Dickens’ dour 1859 A Tale of Two Cities unfolds the story of dissolute English barrister Sydney Carton and honest French aristocrat Charles Darnay, doppelgangers, whose fates become fatally linked. Les Mis without the songs (Les Mis is the 32 revolution or it would be on this list.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel - Baroness Emma Orczy
Sir Percy Blakeney has a secret from his estranged French wife Marguerite and the rest of high society. He’s a handkerchief waving wealthy fop to those who don’t know him; to the very few who do he’s the steely-eyed leader of a group of English aristocrats dedicated to saving their French counterparts from the dreaded guillotine. Baroness Orczy’s 1905 bestseller was followed by other Pimpernel titles, none quite so wonderfully ridiculous, overheated or successful as the original.

The Duel – Joseph Conrad
‘To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage….’ Based on a real series of duels fought with swords, rapiers and sabres over the course of 19 years beginning in 1794, Conrad’s 1908 novella brilliantly mirrors the absurd rise and fall of Napoleon. Ridley Scott’s 1977 film is almost as good.

Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini
The accidentally perfect existential pot boiler is pretty niche but Sabatini nails it perfectly with this 1921 historical novel. Andre-Louis Moreau is a swashbuckling young lawyer who becomes a revolutionary to avenge a friend’s murder, using his dead friend’s words to whip up the crowd, and promptly finds himself on the run. The novel’s opening line, ‘He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,’ is carved on Sabatini’s grave.

The Glass Blowers – Daphne du Maurier
Most novels of the French Revolution take place at the centre, in Paris or Versailles. Du Maurier’s heartfelt 1963 reworking of her family history concentrates on the War in the Vendee, the brutal Royalist counter-revolution that raged in the mid 1790s. Told through the eyes of Sophie Busson, the daughter of a master craftsman, it deals with a family excitedly swept up in revolution and the heartache of trying to rebuild life afterwards

Napoleon Symphony – Anthony Burgess
Bad breath and genius… Structured around Beethoven’s Erocia, which the composer originally dedicated to Napoleon, believing him to embody the virtues of the French revolution, Burgess’s ‘misunderstood’ 1974 novel in four parts covering Napoleon’s early victories, rise to first consul and coronation, empire and fall is obviously an experiment. In what is never quite explained.

A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel
If you’re planning to write the definitive French revolutionary novel then grabbing Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre as characters is a good place to start. Mantel’s 1992 work introduces them as newly arrived provincials and uses the originals’ own words as dialogue.  Although not as great as her later work, the greatness is already there.

Our Lady of the Potatoes – Duncan Sprott
If Boucher hadn’t painted Irish immigrant Marie-Louise O'Murphy naked on a bed when she was fourteen it’s unlikely she’d be even a footnote to history. Duncan Sprott’s elegant 1995 novel brings the young Irish girl and the tawdry glamour Versailles to life, outlines her rise to Louis XV’s mistress and takes her and us through the last days of court life and into revolution.

Pure – Andrew Miller
In his 2011 novel that folds the corruption of the ancien regime into the corruption of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris, Andrew Miller has his hero, Breton engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, clear the rancid graves as a metaphor for what will have to be cleared when the revolution comes; brilliantly making the political personal for his characters.

Not Another Bloody Chateau

'Don't be ridiculous. How do you know you don't like it unless you try?'

One of the best - at the time, worst - memories of my childhood is a fifteen course banquet in a crumbling French chateau at which, as a smallish boy, I was required to eat frogs legs, garlic snails, shaved truffle and foie gras, and a slab of clafoutis riddled with cherry stones. I have no idea what the meal cost or how my mother knew it was on offer, but I remember us being delivered through sun-lit French countryside, and persuading my sister to slide down a grass bank. (Into the moat.)

My relationship with my mother was non traditional. She found motherhood tiresome, and was driven by a need to keep moving and try things that were new. (She once persuaded my father to drive home from the Far East via Afghanistan because she was bored.) She also drank like a fish and had no trouble with us trying various wines and spirits so we would recognise the taste and be able to distinguish good from bad. There can't be many families where all three children have been stomach pumped by the age of ten.

Mostly she wanted us to ‘know things’. She taught me silver marks, how to tell Georgian glass from early Victorian, how to tell the quality of bone china by holding it up to the light, how to tell if supposedly antique ivory was real and whether a Regency table was original or had been restored. She explained that loving Limoges with its gilding and brightness was fine in a child but I'd grow out of it. And she made us eat. 

Roquefort as well as cheddar, quail as well as chicken, blood sausage as well as Walls. She fed us thousand year old eggs (actually 40 days and soaked in horse urine), and told me once I’d just eaten dog. She couldn't cook to save her life and regarded my forays into the kitchen with amusement, bemusement and occasional contempt, as if cooking should be left to those professionally trained. She would, however, happily taste anything and was ruthlessly determined we do the same.

(Family life was made easier by an aunt who renegotiated the food rules to the point that a hated taste or texture such as tapioca or aspic could be dismissed after one mouthful, new foods we genuinely disliked, asparagus and offal, after two, while tastes or textures we were simply uncertain about had to be finished. A better set than in my wife's childhood. Forced at an early age to remain at the table until she finished a gristly sausage, she vomited immediately afterwards, because a vegetarian as soon as she was old enough to get away with it, and still refuses to have sausage in the house.)

We ate our way round the world. Snake and who knows what cooked over converted oil drums at roadside stalls in the Far East, whale, fermented herring and reindeer in Scandinavia, frogs and snails and wild boar in France, rabbit stew, with the rabbits killed at our table, in Sicily. My sister, aged four, was appalled. At seven I simply wanted to watch them skinned. Later, I scored points for returning to school with a tin of ants in chocolate. It was a strange and nowadays impossible childhood, with little mothering and an emphasis on knowing the capitals of the world, the ten longest rivers and the wine districts of Germany and France. What we shared were not emotions but adventures, markets, tastes and a willingness to try the new. 

There was always a landmark to see, another thing to eat, somewhere else we should be. The 'not another bloody chateau' of the title was my comment, aged about nine, on being bundled into the car to go to the crumbling country house where we were to eat the fifteen course meal. Afterwards, exhausted, and feeling sick, we, the children, reluctantly agreed that it was probably worth it. 

Looking back I'm sure it was.


I’d love to claim this was a simple paparazi snap of the man engrossed in my book. Truth is, it was thrust into his hands - and not by me, I hasten to add - while it was in the kitchens somewhere with Heston B, who then had the book thrust into his hand for a similar shot. (Publishers are shameless.)


© Jonathan Grimwood