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Book Review: The Discovery of France

I picked up Graham Robb’s book, “The Discovery of France” at the St Pancras Station bookstore in London before returning to Paris on the Eurostar in January. I was sold on the stellar reviews it received from all the major British newspapers. On the back cover I read, “It’s a book that reveals the ‘real’ past of France to tell the whole story — and history — of this remarkable nation.”

How could I resist? Robb, a professor of French history and literature, who already wrote books on Balzac, Rimbaud, and Victor Hugo, starts off his introduction with: “Ten years ago, I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority.” He spent four years in the library and 14,000 miles on his bicycle researching “The Discovery of France”. And it shows. This is no fluff peice written just for tourists, but a true scholarly work that’s not only entertaining, but utterly fascinating to anyone (like myself) who thinks they “know” France.

I’ve been driving my French friends nuts with all of my newly-acquired knowledge about their homeland that even they didn’t know. The reason is because this book is about the French country outside of Paris, from the Revolution through WWI.

Part One describes the population, their many languages, beliefs and daily lives, their travels and discoveries, and the other creatures who shared the land with them. Did you know many peasant families actually hibernated in the winter to survive (many in the troglodyte caves), sleeping beside their farm animals for warmth? Did you know there was a whistling language spoken among French shepherds that survived through WWII when the Maquis Resistance used it to outsmart the Nazis? Did you know that most French citizens didn’t speak French until the State forced them under the First Empire? My favorite part of this section quotes helpful French phrases for carriage travel from a 1799 German guidebook to France:

“I believe that the wheels are on fire. Look and see.”

“The coach has overturned.”

“The horses have just collapsed.”

“The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.”

“Gently remove the postillon [driver] from beneath the horse.”

“There is a large lump on his head. Should we not apply a coin to the lump in order to flatten it?”

Part Two of the book describes the adventures in accurately mapping the country, the arrival of new rulers and tourists, how the countryside was physically altered for political reasons, and how modern France was finally born. Did you know the early cartographers were often beaten to death as sorcerers by suspicious villagers? That the largest canyon in Europe wasn’t mapped until 1905? Or that as late as 1846 there was a dangerous slum right where the Pyramid du Louvre now stands?

I especially appreciate how Robb buts to bed many popular myths about French history, such as “Napoléon planted plane trees on French country roads to provide shade for his marching troops.” Those trees were simply planted to make the road look pretty. They were actually a hasard because bandits could hide in them and the fallen leaves made wet roads even more slippery.

I highly recommend this book for anyone fascinated with French history, especially anyone who happens to live or travel extensively in the country outside of Paris. There are hard back and soft cover editions, with different covers.


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  • I read this last year. My favourite bit was about Lourdes and the myths that have grown up around it. I never knew there had been a Holy Cave further up the river that the Lourdes townfolk were jealous of or that Bernadette initially claimed to have seen a fairy before being "persuaded" otherwise.

  • "I began to explore the country on which I was supposed to be an authority." Like this line. It is quite true with tour guides as well. They are expert of a city, but needs to keep learning about the place.Interesting about the myth of plane trees. There are lots of plane trees planted by French in the colonial time of Shanghai, and remained as they were.