Name: Christopher Hibbert
Profession(s): Writer, biographer, historian
Books: The French Revolution (1980)
Perspective: Narrative historian, mainly liberal
Christopher Hibbert was a prolific modern historian and biographer who wrote about many periods and contexts.
Born in Leicestershire, Hibbert was educated at Oxford then served with distinction as an officer in World War II. He worked a desk job until the mid-1950s before turning his hand to writing, focusing on popular histories and biographies.
Hibbert’s first and only foray into the French Revolution was his 1980 book The Days of the French Revolution (also published as The French Revolution). It is pure narrative history that takes the form of a colourful, swirling novel, not unlike a 20th century Thomas Carlyle.
Hibbert’s ideological perspective isn’t always clear, though for the most part, his position is politically liberal. At times, Hibbert seems fixated with the blood and gore of the Paris mobs, the sans culottes and the Terror, though this may be for vivid effect.
It is clear in Hibbert’s narrative that he sees the revolution as an out of control force, a chain of spontaneous actions, expediencies and decisions, rather than a natural, logical or controlled event. He is more sympathetic to characters like Marie Antoinette than leftist historians but is quite harsh on the self-obsessed and inflexible Robespierre.
“The new king, Louis XVI, was 19 years old. Although kind and generous by nature, his manner was usually brusque, cold and formal, marked by fits of ill humour and sharp retorts… He had clear blue eyes and abundant fair hair but his mouth was over full and flabby and his chin was pale and fat.”
“Many noblemen were far less well off than the increasingly prosperous urban middle class, whom they considered as great a threat to their privileged existence as royal absolutism. Yet most of the bourgeoisie – whether in business or in the professions, manufacturers or merchants, doctors or lawyers – were for the most part anxious to break down the barriers that excluded them from aristocratic preserves, rather than to destroy the aristocracy.”
“The bourgeoisie, looked down upon by the high born, copied them as best they could. It has therefore often been thought surprising that this class whose spirit was far from democracy, should have been so imprudent, in attacking the aristocracy, as to strike at the very principle of social hierarchy itself. But the bourgeoisie had its reasons… The limitations imposed upon the talents of the bourgeoisie, particularly upon those of ambitious lawyers, were to make them the aristocracy’s most formidable opponents.”
“It was the common opinion in Paris… that Necker was a financial genius. It was an opinion with which he himself would not have quarrelled. Silent, ponderous and ruminative, with half-closed eyes in a pallid, yellowish face, he seemed to be constantly lost in thought. If any man could bring order to France’s economy, it was maintained, surely it was he. After all, he had made a fortune for himself as a banker in Paris – and a self-made millionaire could scarcely be other than an improvement on the noble finance ministers of the past.”