DiVanna on Wesseling (2002)

Wesseling, W. L. Certain Ideas of France: Essays on French History and Civilization.Westport: Greenwood, 2002. Pp. xvi + 205. ISBN 0-313-32341-0

Wesseling, W. L. Certain Ideas of France: Essays on French History and Civilization.Westport: Greenwood, 2002. Pp. xvi + 205. ISBN 0-313-32341-0

Isabel DiVanna, Wolfson College, Cambridge.

Wesseling is better known amongst scholars as a historian of nineteenth-century imperialism. In Certain ideas of France, however, Wesseling offers readers a series of perspectives on France, French identity and civilization from the Third Republic to the 1970s. The title of the book is inspired by the famous opening words of Charles de Gaulle's Memoirs of the Second World War: "All my life I have thought of France in a certain way." The collection of essays presented in this volume (some having previously been published as journal articles and book chapters) consider a variety of subjects such as culture (academic and not), society, politics and diplomacy and offer insight into how famous French characters have thought of France in very different ways.

The book is indeed a survey of notions of France put forward—not necessarily explicitly and consistently—by great exponents of Frenchness such as Ary Scheffer, Emile Zola, Pierre de Coubertin, Agathon, Raymond Aron, Charles de Gaulle, Charles Péguy, Gabriel Hanotaux and the representatives of the Annales school. Wesseling shows how their ideas of France were constructed in reaction to modern politics and political events (the Dreyfus Affair, the debate around the New Sorbonne in the pre-World War I context, the historiographical revolution of the Annales, World War II, 1968 and the 1980s). The book’s main attraction is Wesseling’s non-prescriptive approach. Instead of showing how French identity is problematic because it is not harmonious, Wesseling argues that this disharmony is greatly advantageous. There is no typical France; there is no typical Frenchness.  The nation, its culture, institutions, academic and political life are constantly open for interpretation and reinterpretation. The fact that there is unity in France, but that it cannot be defined in a single term, phrase, building, poem or song, represents both the versatile character of French nationalism and the great tolerance towards diversity that the French have demonstrated over the past 150 years.

The book’s main shortcomings are the lack of original research explicit in some chapters (those on Zola, Coubertin, the Dreyfus Affair and De Gaulle in particular) and shortage of dialogue with modern-day scholarship (especially on chapters about the dispute over the Sorbonne, Gabriel Hanotaux and the Annales). It is unexpected that Wesseling discusses late-nineteenth-century historians and intellectuals without mention to Charles Olivier-Carbonell, Pim den Boer and Christophe Charle, all having done pioneering work on the field over the past three decades. That said, the book is a welcome addition for those who are interested in French nationalism and self-image, especially the hostile Franco-German relations. Read in conjunction with Robert and Isabelle Tombs’ That sweet enemy, Wesseling’s Certain ideas of France offers readers an excellent portrait of, and historical context to, many of the most prominent and recognizable French self-image stereotypes, disputing how true, pervasive and accurate they are. In conclusion, Wesseling’s Certain ideas of France presents compelling insight into the nature of Frenchness from a variety of perspectives, the result being an eminently readable book for a wider audience.

Volume 37