A new book brilliantly dissects the fraught history of the Anglo-French relationshipby Tim King / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
That Sweet Enemy by Robert and Isabelle Tombs
William Heineman, £25
This book, all 680 pages of it, is masterly. Two authors, husband and wife, one an English academic, the other a French scholar, have researched and synthesised an extraordinary amount of material about one of the world’s most intense, infuriating and important relationships. The bibliography includes 950 books. As the authors say in their introduction, this is not “a parallel or comparative history” of the two nations. Instead it explores in depth everything connected with their mutual contact.
The book starts in 1688—the year William of Orange came to these “weak and turbulent islands” accompanied by the first European task force: 20,000 Dutch, German, Danish, French, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Greek and Swiss soldiers. Their purpose was to “stem the spreading dominance of France.” Although the war William started lasted only 125 years—ending with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo – his purpose continues to this day. The book ends with the “sinking of the European constitution” and with it the most recent incarnation of France’s long-cherished dream of domination.
In between, it covers every aspect of that relationship. The writing is never heavy, though sometimes the story is as bewildering as a children’s game as we try to work out who is on which side this time. Often it is exciting—even tales we learned at our mother’s knee (Wolfe and Quebec) or events whose outcome we know (Napoleon crossing the channel) become compelling reading in the authors’ hands and seem fresh, as they now sit in a longer, wider narrative.
The plot is well known—its major moments burned into the collective consciousness—and a ripping yarn, with infatuations, disappointments, great bravery and skulduggery. There’s even a climactic altar scene, which, like so much of the Franco-British relationship, didn’t quite happen. For a few tantalising hours on 16th June 1940, there was a real possibility that France and Britain would become one. “Like being married to a corpse”, was Pétain’s reaction to the proposed political union, though he was mistaken about which partner was dead. “A myth,” sniffed De Gaulle afterwards, like a jilted bride, for at the time he impressed Churchill with his “unwonted enthusiasm” for the match. But typically in this long-running love/hate relationship, it is the treachery and cowardice shown by the British—at Dunkirk and Mers-el-Kebir—just days before the unconsummated union, which are remembered still in France.
The narrative is interspersed with short biographical cameos—portraits of courtesans, politicians, navvies, travel writers—often amusing, giving useful depth. Some will disagree with the authors’ interpretations, especially post-1945, but they are expressed as evenly as the subject allows. The authors seize every opportunity to show that today’s mutual criticisms—the capitalist British, heartlessly preoccupied with vulgar profit; the French obsessed with destiny and domination, using subsidies to protect clapped-out industry—were around 300 years ago. If it’s amusing that even in 1760 the French sourly attributed Britain’s wealth to “not being hindered by regulation,” it’s also somehow depressing. That we all dance to a (rather boring) tune written centuries ago says little for either Oxbridge or ENA: the most carefully weighed insights of today’s economists are no more than echoes of the past.
But even more than the historical events, it is the book’s insights into social and cultural life that makes it unique. There are mini-essays on cooking, fashion, tourism, gardens, language, sport (“an expression impossible to translate into French,” said the mayor of Pau in 1842), all classics in their own right, packed with details such as the chapel in southwestern France dedicated to Notre Dame du Rugby—complete with stained glass window showing the Madonna and Child holding a rugby ball “and seemingly taking part in a celestial line-out”. There are very good sections on literature and painting: so many founders of modern French thought took Britain as their ideal. Would that were true now. Changing attitudes towards sexuality are central, an ideal illustration of the ambiguity at the heart of the relationship: the Brits have always seen the French as effeminate, the French call homosexuality the British disease. The authors also point out that religion is at the base of much mutual dislike—most obvious in the 17th and 18th centuries, but carried over into our own godless era. Also at the core of the problem is national identity: neither “British” nor “English” has the same visceral resonance as “French,” although Linda Colley has argued that to feel British involves feeling anti-French.
At the end of each section the authors take stock, each stating his or her own opinion. Their disagreements add richness and credibility: “One can understand French fears [in 1918],” says Robert. “But the fact is they did poison the atmosphere… by covert territorial ambitions… by sabre-rattling.” “This is naïve,” returns his French wife. “The problem was not French ambition but self-indulgent British idealism combined with idiotic francophobia and a strong dash of duplicity.” There are no black and white answers, no right and wrong.
Overall though, despite falling over themselves to be fair, there is a bias of Anglo-centricity and, yes, an underlying Anglo-triumphalism. A French historian would probably give more space to ideas, and I doubt would bracket Napoleon with Hitler and Stalin. Would he have been quite so hard on De Gaulle? The authors often refer to French historians’ different view of our mutual history, but it is a shame there is no discussion of the now-recognised French “amnesia” towards some of the events covered on these pages: amnesia which has recently led to disgraceful amnesties (is it an accident that amnestie is so close to amnesie?).
But this is carping. People on both sides of the channel should be grateful for the Tombs’ work, full of erudition, wit and wisdom. Despite its length, it is light but essential reading: for the 200,000 British and French who have swapped countries of residence, but also for everyone who feels uneasy or angry when Jacques Chirac garners votes with his anti-Anglo-Saxon diatribes or English tabloids compare monkeys with our nearest neighbours.