It is first of all as an historian, but secondly as an attentive and involved witness, that I have read Theodore Zeldin’s new book France 1848–1945. footnote1 As a budding parliamentary journalist, I had personal experience of three French Parliaments, from 1919 to 1924. The last Chamber of Deputies of the 19th-century pattern, elected in 1914, was still sitting in 1919. It was dissolved and replaced by the famous Bloc National in November of that year. Then in 1924 began the episode of the Cartel des Gauches. One of my tasks was to loiter in the corridors and follow the sessions of the Socialist group in Parliament, which allowed me to meet politicians of the Third Republic, both Socialists and non-Socialists, young and old, and on occasion to listen to their reminiscences. In particular, I absorbed an atmosphere which was diverse yet common to them all—in groups, meetings and demonstrations. I was no less familiar, in the course of my early ‘committed’ years, with the slow atmosphere of French provincial life, of a whole epoch of very gradual change, that both conserved and evoked the past: a society, in fact, that I have rediscovered again in certain passages of this book. By and large, the first volume of France 1848–1945 in fact comes to a close precisely at 1914 (although some of its analyses extend down to a much more recent past). Frontiers within history, where collective forces play such a large part beyond the role of individuals, can never be impermeable. But in this case, it was right to mark a basic break in 1914. Zeldin’s book stops on the threshold of the years of disaster, before the onset of the terrible triad of War–Crisis–War. At the same time, the chronological framework of the whole work, of which only the first volume has so far appeared, is well-chosen. Although the book bears no resemblance to a history of institutions or a political narrative, Zeldin’s theme is the France that was born in 1848, and lasted nearly down to the end of his projected period—the France of universal suffrage, and the France of permanent pressure (with variable success) of the ruling-classes weighing on this suffrage. This was also a country being transformed by industrialization, by a general yet unequal economic growth: unequal between regions, between social or professional groups, between categories and ranks within these groups. An essential and far-reaching structural change was finally accomplished, in and through dramatic conjunctural vicissitudes. Thus the end of the Second World War saw the dawn of a new political and economic epoch in French history. Zeldin’s choice of the 1848–1945 period is therefore amply justified. This was a crucial century in the history of France.

If we are to judge by the first volume, the French economy and problems of its periodization do not have pride of place in Zeldin’s impressive enterprise. But the general orientation of his study did not demand that they should. The same holds for other objections which might spring to mind. Might one have wished for a greater effort to conceptualize the subject of the bourgeoisie and of social classes? Yet the contribution of the book to the topic is very subtle and accomplished in its own right. No general interpretation of the epoch yet emerges at the end of the twenty-three chapters, logically grouped into three parts, of Volume I. But it is promised in the advance notice for Volume II, and I have no doubt that the impatient reader will find it at the centre of the second volume, and to be of a scientific level with the first. The truth is that, as it stands, the present work is a formidable achievement, both in the ambition of its aims and the competence of its means. Its goal is nothing less than a reinterpretation of the whole history of France throughout the period. Zeldin presents us with a new political and social history, in which—refreshing rarity—the latter never loses sight of the former. His work is also a history of the daily life and conduct of the French, and in this sense an ethnological study: it covers the family, husbands and wives, and children. It is based not only on the work of other historians, but also on contemporary comments on marriage (contract or sacrament), newly-weds, women, love (conventional or experimental), adultery, syphilis (scourge of the time), irregular habits, well-behaved or badly spoilt infants, duties of children to their parents, education of girls, and so on. Throughout the book, in fact, contemporary views of contemporary problems (quite apart from the insights of literature) are one of the author’s most constant sources of evidence. Commerce in ideas is more prominent here than commerce in goods—not only they, but also inherited attitudes and traditions, and the discordances between them in regions and in men. The wealth of this contribution to our knowledge of France is manifest. Let me take the risk of trying to add a little to it, by conceptualization or juxtaposition, in a criticism that may bear directly on the work, or develop alongside it.

By and large it can be said—Zeldin would not disagree, I think—that for the duration of that 19th century which ended in 1914, a bourgeois France dominated and governed the France of universal suffrage, the country of the three or four revolutions that shook Europe. On the one hand, revolution in this period was a French specialty, with a world clientèle: not indeed that France exported revolution itself, but it did transmit ideas and examples, which after some delay characteristically proved explosive abroad. On the other hand, in France itself the dominion of the bourgeoisie was exercised, as might be expected, in diverse guises, and involved diverse components of the bourgeoisie itself. It further rested on short or long-term alliances with various other classes, which sometimes imposed numerous compromises on it. But in principle the bourgeoisie always controlled the levers of power; and with the exception of the Vichy period, it did so with the consent of the country. Like Louis-Philippe, it reigned—if not by the grace of God—at least by the ‘will of the people’, now enlarged to the scale of a national electorate: in other words, beneath the various bourgeoisies, there existed a whole population of floating or passive voters that moved in their wake and sustained their ‘eternal’ economic order.

The meaning of the equivocal words ‘bourgeois’ and ‘bourgeoisie’ must naturally first be defined, and Zeldin indeed raises this issue at the very outset of his study. The word, of course, matters less than the object itself. But among a confused welter of connotations and usages, the word was in the end not without certain convergent and redolent meanings. It included, among others, the associated and tranquillizing notions of a certain type of conformism; of a stable existence, occasionally involved in entrepreneurial adventure; of loyal commercial practice, which did not exclude tricks of the trade; of acknowledged solvency, a kind of businessman’s respectability; of peaceful comfort, sometimes spiced with leisure amusements; but also, in most cases, of average character of inborn mediocrity and vulgarity.

These initial connotations condensed into a kind of symbol of stability. The bourgeois was never a vagrant or a migrant like so many wageearners; he was sedentary, established in town or city—fixed, identifiable, locatable, with visible means of support, already noted and ‘notable’ in his way, at his level in the social hierarchy. If he was at all wealthy, he was a ‘notable’ in the traditional sense, without necessarily belonging to any special category or profession. Under the Ancien Régime, on the other hand, there had been juridically defined categories of ‘bourgeois’, membership of which depended, for example, on length of residence and other conditions. The new order at first preserved the possibilities of social promotion afforded by these rules, although they by now had lost any legal foundation. The financial notion of the caution bourgeoise, or economic surety, lived on much longer in our language. Lawyers, legislation and experts in money matters still use the term in France to mean, in effect, guaranteed solvency. The common image of the bourgeois, according to Siegfried, was also that of a man ‘with a bank-balance’. A small-town or city bourgeois, who personally or hereditarily originated in the numerous ranks of entrepreneurs (whose socio-economic function was precisely to work, to be ‘enterprising’), would typically abandon any enterprise once he had reached the apex of his success, and retire to live ‘like a bourgeois’ (bourgeoisement) on a rentier income. To live ‘like a bourgeois’ or ‘like a noble’ conjured up parallel types of comfortable leisure in that epoch. A building was said to be a ‘bourgeois’ residence, where no profession could be practised. Leases often specified just such ‘bourgeois’ habitation as a contractual condition—but jurisprudence then exempted the practice of such bourgeois professions as doctor or lawyer from this interdict.