11 Best Books on the French Revolution for Les Amoureux de l’Histoire

The best books on the French Revolution bring to life some of the most interesting events, not just in French history, but in the history of the world.

The eighteenth century was an eventful one, and the French Revolution made sure it ended that way too. The revolutionary ideas that it gave birth to, the dissolution of the French monarchy, and the rise of Napoleon all irrevocably changed the world.

To help bring the French Revolution to you, we’ve put together this list on some of the best books on the French Revolution you can find.

Without further adieu, let’s get to the books!

1. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

Cover image for "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution," one of the best books on the French Revolution

Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, offers readers an enthralling and comprehensive account of one of the most pivotal events in history. Spanning over 800 pages, Schama’s book delves deep into the complex and tumultuous period of the French Revolution, providing a meticulously researched and vividly narrated exploration of the political, social, and cultural upheavals that shaped the destiny of a nation.

Counter to most works on the French Revolution, Schama presents the reign of King Louis XVI as period of technological, scientific, and philosophical innovation. Far from the stagnate absolutism usually associated with the latter years of the ancien régime, Schama presents the France of Louis XVI as one of the leading lights of Enlightenment-era Europe.

The approach Simon Schama’s Citizens takes to the rest of the Revolution helps to set it apart from other works on the French Revolution, as well. Rather than weighing the good against the bad (and the French Revolution had both in spades), Schama homed in on the Reign of Terror and the events leading up to it. According to Simon Schama, “From the very beginning… violence was the motor of revolution.”

While this focus on the gratuitous violence of the Terror has brought Simon Schama under some heat from fellow historians, it allowed him to write one hell of a story. By highlighting the struggles, hopes, and fears of individuals from all walks of life, he brings the revolution to life in a way that few other authors have achieved. The narrative unfolds with cinematic intensity, capturing the drama and tension of each momentous event.

2. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Cover image of "Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution."

Ruth Scurr’s Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution offers a captivating exploration of one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures of the French Revolution. In this meticulously researched biography, Scurr delves deep into the life and ideology of Maximilien Robespierre, shedding new light on his rise to power, his role in the revolution, and the lasting impact of his ideas.

Unlike many other works on the French Revolution, Scurr’s focus on Robespierre provides a unique and intimate perspective on this complex historical period. By unraveling the layers of Robespierre’s character and motivations, the author unveils the complexities of his political ideology, his passionate commitment to the revolutionary cause, and the tragic consequences of his uncompromising beliefs.

What makes this book so captivating is the balancing act Scurr pulls off. She shows, in equal measure, the two sides of the same coin that mde up Robespierre.

On the one hand, he was a brilliant lawyer how worked his way up from the provinces to the seat of revolutionary government in Paris; he helped outline the revolutionary ideas of equality that drove the French Revolution; and for several years he lead the charge of making France into a true republic.

On the other, he masterminded the Reign of Terror, the bloodies period of the revolution by far; his natural paranoia (which only intensified as he grew more powerful) led him to betray his republican values and become, for all intents and purposes, the first dictator in modern history.

But, through it all, Scurr’s meticulous attention and evocative writing style bring Robespierre and the turbulent era he inhabited to life.

3. Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Cover image of "Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life," one of the best books on the French Revolution

Now that we know that Maximilien Robespierre was one of the most important revolutionary leaders, it should come as no surprise that two of the best books on the French Revolution are about him!

In Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life, historian Peter McPhee presents a comprehensive and insightful biography of Maximilien Robespierre, offering readers a nuanced understanding of this influential figure and his pivotal role in the French Revolution. McPhee meticulously examines Robespierre’s life, from his humble beginnings to his ascent as one of the most prominent leaders of the revolution and, ultimately, to his downfall.

McPhee presents a balanced and empathetic portrayal of Robespierre. Rather than reducing him to a one-dimensional villain or hero, McPhee delves into the complexities of Robespierre’s character, exploring his motivations, principles, and personal struggles. McPhee’s meticulous research and thoughtful analysis allow readers to grapple with the contradictions and dilemmas faced by Robespierre on his rise to the top of the revolutionary government.

McPhee delves into the intellectual and political influences that shaped Robespierre’s thinking, illuminating the evolution of his beliefs and his pursuit of a vision for a just society as he made his way from the fringes of the provincial world to the very heart of French society.

Rather than the obsessive wannabe autocrat, McPhee paints Robespierre as a man, potentially with an anxiety disorder, who suffered numerous nervous breakdowns as a result of the pressure he was under. McPhee grapples with what Robespierre actually intended to do with the Reign of Terror, the Committee of Public Safety, and other actions now associated with Robespierre the dictator.

Whether you are a history enthusiast or simply seeking a compelling biography, Robespierre will captivate and enlighten readers with its rich and nuanced exploration of a revolutionary life.

4. The Old Regime and the French Revolution

Cover image of "The Old Regime and the French Revolution," one of the best books on the French Revolution.

Even though it is one of the oldest works to attempt to unravel the causes and effects of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville still stands as one of the best books on the French Revolution, if not the best.

Originally published in 1856, this seminal work explores the social and political structures that prevailed in France before the revolution and examines how these factors contributed to its eruption.

Notably, Tocqeuville dives into the three estates of the ancien régime: the clergy, nobility, and peasants (i.e., everyone else). He argues that, as France had left the Middle Ages behind and become less feudal and more authoritarian, the ties that once bound the nobility to the peasants were severed. The lords no longer looked after their own estates, instead flocking to Versailles to win favor with the Bourbon court.

Add to that the desire for political equality among a growing middle class and the overstepping of the French church and you had a nation ripe for revolution.

Tocqueville’s ability to astutely trace the historical roots of the revolution and argue that its underlying causes were deeply ingrained in the social and political fabric of France have given this book staying power.

Tocqueville, living just a generation or two after the revolution, created our entire basis for understanding the revolution’s origins and its transformative impact on French society.

5. A Place of Greater Safety

Cover image of "A Place of Greater Safety" by Hiliary Mantel.

I don’t usually put works of fiction in my reviews of history books, but Hilary Mantel is an absolute master of historical novels. Known for her Wolf Hall trilogy on the English monarch, Mantel brought her A-game to this stunning tale of revolutionary France.

A Place of Greater Safety is a sweeping and immersive historical novel that brings the French Revolution to life through the intertwining stories of its three protagonists: Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. Set against the backdrop of one of history’s most tumultuous periods, Mantel masterfully captures the ideological fervor, political intrigue, and personal dramas that shaped the course of the revolution.

Mantel’s novel adds a unique and captivating dimension to the body of literature about the French Revolution. Through her meticulous research and vivid storytelling, she transports readers into the hearts and minds of her characters, from the idealistic Robespierre to the passionate and audacious Desmoulins. The narrative unfolds with rich detail and historical accuracy, providing a deep understanding of the complexities and contradictions of the revolution.

Though her prose can be a pit complicated, Mantel is one of the most eloquent writers working today and a true master of historical fiction.

6. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution

Cover image of "Queen of Fashion: What Narie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution," one of the best books on the French Revolution.

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber offers readers a fascinating exploration of the role of fashion in the life and downfall of Marie Antoinette. Weber delves into the queen’s fashion choices, their cultural and political significance, and the ways in which they shaped public opinion leading up to and during the French Revolution.

When she was 14, Marie Antoinette was brought from her native Austria to the French court. There, she dutifully played the part of queen for many years, even adapting to the rib-crushing whale bone corsets of the French aristocracy.

Eventually, though, as she became more grounded and confident in her new life, Marie Antoinette began to seek out ways to gain a modicum of freedom in the gilded cage she occupied in Versaille.

Queen of Fashion illuminates the intersection of fashion, power, and identity. Weber reveals how Marie Antoinette’s extravagant and controversial style became a powerful tool for her self-expression, as well as a lightning rod for criticism and political backlash.

While she probably never said, “let them eat cake,” her fashion became a symbol for the opulence of court life.

7. Hero of Two Worlds

Cover image of "Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution"

Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by Mike Duncan offers readers a captivating and in-depth exploration of the life and legacy of the Marquis de Lafayette, a prominent figure in both the American and French Revolutions. A master of narrative history, Duncan delves into Lafayette’s early life, his pivotal role in the American Revolution, and his subsequent involvement in the French Revolution.

While many works focus primarily on the major figures and events of the revolution, Duncan highlights the lesser-known story of Lafayette, emphasizing his commitment to liberal ideals, his struggles for political moderation after the death of Louis XVI, and his evolving relationship with the revolutionary movement.

Readers will enjoy Duncan’s engaging narrative style, honed through years of podcasting, which combines meticulous research with a knack for storytelling and dorky humor. He brings Lafayette to life, capturing his bravery, idealism, and political maneuvering against the backdrop of two major revolutions. Additionally, Duncan provides historical context and analysis, enabling readers to better understand the complexities and significance of Lafayette’s actions and impact.

8. The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny

Cover image of "The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny"

The French Revolution: From Enlightenment to Tyranny by Ian Davidson offers readers a comprehensive and accessible overview of the entire French Revolution – no easy feat!

Davidson explores the origins, key events, and lasting impact of the revolution, providing a nuanced understanding of its political, social, and cultural dimensions.

What sets this book apart is its focus on the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of the revolution. Davidson delves into the Enlightenment ideals that influenced the revolutionaries, examining the transformative power of ideas and the ways in which they shaped the course of events. By highlighting the intellectual context, the author offers readers a deeper appreciation of the ideological foundations and debates that drove the revolution forward.

But, this is book does not just focus on the intellectual history of the French Revolution. Davidson’s book offers a more holistic perspective, showing that the revolution was a multifaceted phenomenon that played out differently as the struggle continued. This approach provides readers with a comprehensive understanding of the revolution and its far-reaching consequences.

9. Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

Cover image of "Liberty or Death: The French Revolution," one of the best books on the French Revolution.

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution by Peter McPhee offers a captivating and comprehensive account of the French Revolution, exploring the political, social, and cultural aspects of this tumultuous period, while giving a nuanced and accessible narrative.

McPhee delves into the motivations and experiences of the revolutionaries, exploring the ideological fervor, the struggles for power, and the social upheaval that defined the era. His attention to detail and ability to contextualize the events within broader historical trends provide readers with a comprehensive understanding of the revolution’s complexities.

But, unlike the other best books on the French Revolution, McPhee took his narrative global. Looking at the French Revolution’s impact on European history and the Atlantic world as a whole, McPhee brings a fresh perspective to these historically important events.

10. The Scarlet Pimpernel

Cover image of "The Scarlet Pimpernel"

The second (and last) work of fiction on our list, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a true classic.

Written by the fictitous Baroness Emmuska Orczy, it’s a thrilling and suspenseful adventure novel set during the French Revolution. The story follows the enigmatic and elusive Scarlet Pimpernel, an English nobleman who leads a secret network to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. As the revolutionaries tighten their grip on power, the Pimpernel risks everything to save lives, outwitting his enemies and leaving behind a signature red flower as his calling card.

By blending romance, adventure, and espionage, The Scarlet Pimpernel offers readers a thrilling escape into the dangerous world of the revolution.

I personally found myself engrossed in the fast-paced plot, filled with daring rescues, narrow escapes, and unexpected twists. The characters, particularly the enigmatic Scarlet Pimpernel, are richly developed and full of intrigue. The vivid descriptions and evocative writing style transport readers to the tumultuous streets of revolutionary France, immersing them in the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.

I even began to feel some pity for the aristocrats of the old regime!

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a timeless classic that continues to captivate readers with its rip-roaring tale amidst one of the bloodiest periods of the French Revolution.

11. Napoleon: A Life

Cover image of "Napoleon: A Life"

I wanted to end our list with the man who ended the French Revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts is a monumental biography that provides readers with a comprehensive and engaging account of one of history’s most influential figures. Roberts delves into the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his humble beginnings in Corsica to his meteoric rise as a military genius and Emperor of France.

Roberts adds immense value to the body of literature about the French Revolution by offering a detailed exploration of Napoleon’s role and impact during this pivotal period.

By contextualizing Napoleon within the French Revolution, Roberts presents a nuanced understanding of the political, social, and military dynamics of the time. He examines Napoleon’s ambitious reforms, military campaigns in the Napoleonic Wars, and complex relationships with other key figures, shedding light on the lasting consequences of his actions.

With its compelling storytelling, meticulous research, and insightful analysis, Roberts’ biography stands as a definitive account of Napoleon’s life and adds a significant contribution to our understanding of the French Revolution and its aftermath.

This also made our list of best books about Napoleon!

Why Read Books on the French Revolution?

The French Revolution was not just one of the defining moments of the eighteenth century, but of all European history. And, the best books on the French Revolution open up this fascinating era in a way few others have.

From the intrigues of the court of Louis XVI to the early, peaceful struggles for political freedom by men like Lafeyette, to the radical period of the Reign of Terror, these books paint a vivid picture of the revolutionary period in France.

And, who knows, with the French Revolution, would republican government have come to France? Though the revolution ultimately failed to throw off the chains of absolutist government in the short term, the shock waves it sent through the French political system reverberated for decades to come, informing yet more revolutions and struggles for freedom until the French state finally got a more democratic system to stick.

Without understanding the French Revolution, I would argue that it’s impossible to truly understand the history of the French people or, for that matter, modern world history and intellectual history.

So pick up one, two, or ten, and start reading!

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