Book Review: “La Belle France: A Short History” by Alistair Horne

La Belle France book cover

In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip later this summer, I picked up this book with the express purpose of having an overview. I wasn’t disappointed. The book starts with the invasion and conquest of Julius Caesar and ends with the presidency of Francois Mitterrand.

The book was published in 2004 and written by a British historian who specializes in early modern French history. He has written books on topics ranging from the age of Napoleon to the war in Algeria in the 1960’s. “La Belle France” is a sweeping narrative where Horne gives an overall view of the history along with a special look at particular details which I assume he finds to be of noteworthy interest. The early chapters are a little dismissive. He doesn’t tell us a lot about the Franks and the chapters on medieval history are sparse on detail. By the time of the Renaissance he gets into full swing.

I was a little disappointed in Horne’s attitude toward women in this book. He calls Eleanor of Aquitaine “oversexed” and refers to Marie de ’Medici as fat, blond and stupid. However, a little later he does give some examples of important women in French history so I’m not really sure where he is coming from in regards to this topic.

I really enjoyed the sections on King Henri IV and his extended siege of Paris, Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII, the age of Napoleon, the reign of Napoleon III and the First World War. Horne’s writing really shines here. He also has insightful comments in the section on WWII with the occupation of France by the Nazis and Vichy France, the collaborators and the Resistance and also on the modern era under the presidents Pompidou and Mitterrand.

Nothing really is black and white about French history and this book illustrates that very well. Other than the comments on women, Horne is really balanced in his approach to the subject and well versed on the sections where he has expertise. I sought a review of two thousand years of French history and this book delivered. I recommend it.

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