Thursday, June 30, 2011

That Sweet Enemy, by Robert and Isabelle Tombs

The authors, a Franco-British married couple, are both serious historians but this 800-page account of the intertwining fortunes of their two countries, from Louis XIV and William of Orange right up to the Blair and Chirac era, is a page turner.

It demonstratively does not ‘take sides’ in Franco-British rivalry but delicately unravels the hundreds of years of stereotyping, prejudice, mutual admiration and hatred, competition and cooperation, in war and peace, in industries and culture, politics and language.

Throughout their story, double-titled in French as Cette Exquise Ennemie, the authors examine how the love-hate relationship has been a startlingly productive force throughout modern history.

It is full of little known, sometimes paradoxical details, like the fact that Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s plays were the starting point for the Bard’s international fame, or that style anglaise in clothes in France were a mark of free-thinking and that English economic and humanistic ideas hugely influenced the great French philosophers who laid the ideological foundations for the revolution.

It is often underestimated how much English ideas (or rather the French idea of them) of naturalness, self-reliance, enterprising, individualism and personal liberty influenced French thinking in C18th. The 'pursuit of happiness' was originally introduced by John Locke, picked up by the great French philosophers – and then adopted by the Founding Fathers of the USA.

An intellectual treat.

That Sweet Enemy, by Robert and Isabelle Tombs.
Pimlico/Ransom House.

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