Review: War and Society in Revolutionary Europe, 1770-1870, by Geoffrey
Best (Oxford University Press, 1982).
Society in Revolutionary Europe is
Geoffrey Best's contribution to the Fontana 'War and Society' series. It suffers from all the defects of a
solicited book, with very few compensating strengths. Best, professor of history at the University of Sussex,
apparently wrote the book off the top of his head. It has that feel at least -- it is conventionally organized, the
prose is very sloppy, and no original thought appears to have gone into
it. The footnotes are so sketchy as to
be almost useless, and the short bibliography is equally unhelpful.
The most damning weakness of all is that the book
entirely lacks a coherent thesis, or in fact any clear statement of what the
book is about. In the Preface, Best
describes what regions of Europe he will be focusing on, but fails to give any
hint just what exactly "war and society" means to him. The closest he comes is his statement,
"It is no part of the business of a 'war and society' book to provide a
general socio-economic history as well.
This series has its work cut out, first to ascertain, and then to keep
in focus, the military dimension of the social story, a story much less
known." What exactly
he means by "the military dimension of the social story" remains
unclear. This continually leads to
trouble, as when he casually states at the beginning of the second chapter,
"The men of Europe near the end of the ancien
régime (we need not concern ourselves with the women, who had very little
part in our story) knew themselves to be socially ordered in a series of strata
. . ." This may be
true, depending of what exactly "our story" is about, but he leaves
the impression that a book with "war and society" in the title
automatically excludes women from the picture.
J. J. Hale's book from the same series, on Renaissance Europe, makes it
clear that this is not necessarily so.
And in fact, Best's vague perception of what "war and society"
means appears to include many aspects which bring women directly into the
picture: for instance, he completely ignores the role of women in the people's
wars and insurrections which take up a large part of his book.
This kind of flat statement, without justification,
explanation, or evidence, characterizes the entire book. Best covers the period in some detail, but
he deals entirely in generalizations or cliches. He says of British lower-class radicalism from 1796-1810:
"So effective in general was the repression of the late nineties and so
well-camouflaged in the opaque, not to say muddy, waters of lower-class life were
the revolutionaries, that we know nothing more certain that, despite continual
French encouragement and the natural alliance of the United Irishmen, they
achieved nothing." Another
example, from his discussion of Napoleon and France: "Everything he did to
French government and society was cut after the military pattern. There is no evidence that the French people
found it uncongenial." Best simply
lacks the credibility to make such statements believable, and I am inclined to
think that this supposed lack of evidence is at least partly due to his clear
lack of interest in getting below the surface of any of these subjects.
Overall, I found the book to be intolerable. Poorly written, poorly supported, and full
of clichés and gross generalizations, it finally falls down completely because
of its lack of a unifiying principle.
Even the concept of 'war and society,' which Best believes is so clear
as not to need any explicit definition, provides only the most nebulous
coherence. Best may truly believe, as
he states in the preface, that he has "operated an unusually wide-angled
lens," but this width is of the most narrow breadth -- he includes naval
matters, criticizing those close-minded scholars who believe that 'war and
society' is limited to 'armies and society.' The
shallowness of Best's book will be frustrating to the serious scholar, who will
look in vain for any original thought within, and similarly dangerous as an
introductory work. Those in need of a
book covering this time period are strongly advised to look elsewhere.