British Radicals and Revolutionary France

Historiography, history and images

Authored by: Pascal Dupuy

The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History

Print publication date:  October  2015
Online publication date:  September  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415820561
eBook ISBN: 9781315686011
Adobe ISBN: 9781317413875


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English-language historians have a long tradition of interpreting the radical movements of the late eighteenth century as a response to the shock waves created by the revolution in France. As Hedva Ben-Israel observes,1 English historians were drawn to the Revolution from its beginnings in 1788. Eager for information and sensational copy, the daily and periodical press reported and analysed events in France as they unfolded, and was soon followed by a mass of hostile pamphlets and political works, many of them sifting through the history of the period. There was to be no let-up in the nineteenth century, which saw the publication of English translations of the memoirs of many revolutionary figures, as well as the seminal writings of William Smyth, the first historian to study the course of the French Revolution as a whole. With Edmund Burke and Germaine de Staël as his ideological mentors, Smyth attached particular importance to political forms and to the early stages of the Revolution. His works also reflected his own political preoccupations, which caused him to fear the radical movements and social unrest of the 1830s. Similar motivations lay behind Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History, published in 1837, which was imbued with an alarmist vision of the revolutionary tendencies of the Chartist movement in England.2 The book made a huge impact in the English-speaking world and inspired Charles Dickens’s popular novel A Tale of Two Cities. Mention should also be made of the essays and biographical sketches of John Wilson Croker (who died in 1857). These were based on a three-part collection of documents and original printed sources acquired by the author between 1817 and 1856, and which, with close to fifty thousand items, makes up the bulk of the French revolutionary collections in the British Museum.3

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