The Discovery of France, revisited and concluded, with a sense of wonder

January 18, 2008 at 12:04 am (France, History)

discovery.jpg I have finished reading Graham Robb’s majestic slow-moving epic of French history, or as the subtitle more precisely defines it, “A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War.” The massive research that went into this project, the effort involved in shaping huge amounts of minutiae into a coherent form – I am awed by the scope of this author’s achievement.

In the first part of The Discovery of France, Robb describes the ethnic and linguistic diversity of basically tribal people who in no way thought of themselves as belonging to a single nation. In the second part of the book, regions are mapped, travel and tourism become increasingly common, and the inhabitants of the towns and villages of the pays are dragged forcibly into the twentieth century. Robb offers a candid assessment of what was gained and lost in the process.

Inserted between Part One and Part Two is a chapter entitled “Interlude: The Sixty Million Others.” These “others” are the animal populations of France: livestock, horses, bears that dance and smuggler dogs. Well, I told you it was an unusual book…

Highlights from Part Two: the “discovery” of the Verdon Gorges, the longest, deepest canyon in Europe. Robb explains that until 1905, this natural wonder “…was known only to a few woodcutters and carvers who saw no reason to share their knowledge of the local inconvenience with the outside world.”


In the penultimate chapter, “Journey to the Centre of France,” we’re treated to a delightful – and insightful – disquisition on the role played by the bicycle in the French countryside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Robb makes a strong case that the importance to regional history of this basic mode of transport has been vastly underrated. He provides examples of bike rides of seemingly heroic lengths undertaken routinely by ordinary people. And of course, from these humble beginnings came the Tour de France, which turns out to have a fascinating history of its own. (Robb did much of his research using this time-honored conveyance!)

stilts.jpg Still, nothing quite matches for sheer strangeness the picture of the shepherds in the Landes hanging out on stilts! This photo is cropped; the one in the book shows four additional “stilted shepherds” in a group farther back in the fields and to the right of these two individuals. (As I was Googling “French peasants on stilts,” I came upon an article on “Sylvain Dornon, Stilt Walker of Landes” stilts2.jpg from an 1891 issue of Scientific American.)

Julian Barnes, a lifelong Francophile, was frankly amazed at the wealth of anecdote and obscure nuggets contained in The Discovery of France. In the November 30, 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement he named it one of the year’s best books and went on to suggest a more descriptive subtitle: “How cartographers, bureaucrats, and tourists discovered that Paris was not the same thing as France, that most of the country never regarded itself as being part of France, and how the nation was created only by destroying or homogenizing those aberrant regions, whose singularities, once suppressed, were then celebrated as typically French.”


  1. Madame de Genlis « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Travel is one of the many aspects of life in the French countryside written about by Graham Robb in The Discovery of France. In a number of instances, the author refers to a singular little […]

  2. Favorite nonfiction of 2008 « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Discovery of France: A Historical Georgaphy from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. This book, a sort of anthropology of post-Revolutionary France, had me flabbergasted. Farmers, men and women, walking around in their fields ON STILTS?  This is too weird. And that’s just one of the singularities uncovered by this amazing dogged and resourceful reporter. Strange customs, odd landforms, archaic traditions…all there, all observed and described with grace and perspicacity. How I long to make the journey into “La France Profonde” – with Graham Robb as my guide! […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft – Ulirch Boser The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography – Graham Robb American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, […]

  4. “Those were happy times, Bruno. That’s how I fell in love with my Annette, treading the grapes together.” – The Dark Vineyard, by Martin Walker « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] For a closer look at La France Profonde, I highly recommend The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. […]

  5. Christopher Clarke said,

    I share your delight in Graham Robb’s book. Completely fascinating in a thousand different ways. I wonder if you know of an similar book on the history and development of Italy which may be even more diverse than France?

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