Books interview with John Julius Norwich: “Most British people know practically nothing about French history”

Ellie Cawthorne speaks to John Julius Norwich about his new book on the history of France

John Julius Norwich pictured at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2014. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Profile: John Julius Norwich

Historian and travel writer John Julius Norwich is the author of several historical books including The Normans in Sicily, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean, A History of Venice and a three-volume history of Byzantium. He has also presented more than 30 historical television documentaries.

Your latest book is a whirlwind ride through 2,000 years of French history. Can you tell us about your own connection to the country?

My own connections to France go all the way back to 1936, when my mother took me to France for the first time, aged seven. I vividly remember the wonderful moment when I arrived in Paris for the very first time. I came out of the Gare du Nord and saw these policemen directing the traffic with little white batons, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I was so excited I remember it as if it were yesterday, and ever since then, I’ve loved the place.

Later, I was one of the first of my generation to visit France after Paris was liberated from German occupation in August 1944. We arrived just three months later. My father, Duff Cooper, was Britain’s first ambassador to France after the liberation. I remember it being pretty uncomfortable: it was the coldest winter for 50 years. Nobody had any fuel or heating, except – thank god – for the British embassy. There it was warm as toast, so no one ever refused an invitation. It was also the only place in Paris that had unlimited gin and whisky, which made us even more popular.

You argue in the book that the average British person has a pretty poor understanding of French history. Why do you think that might be?

Most British people know practically nothing at all about French history. Even living in France, I knew very little about it. At school we are taught about the four battles that we won – Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt and Waterloo. Then we hear a little bit more about Napoleon, and maybe Louis XIV, but that’s it.

From the very beginning, France has always had a very up and down relationship with Britain. The French have never been easy neighbours, but in our particular case, I think there’s been a curious lack of sympathy. Although we’re close neighbours, there has always been this awkward stretch of water down the middle, and I think one is always conscious of that gulf running between us. It’s quite extraordinary that two countries that are only 20 miles away from each other should be totally different. But I think that makes us more interesting to one another rather than less.

Can you tell us about some of the interesting incidents from French history that you came across that we might not be familiar with in Britain?

All the lesser-known stories that spring to mind are rather scandalous!

I came across a marvellous scandal from the 14th century, when King Philip IV’s three sons were married to three ladies. Now, these three ladies were secretly having a tremendous time with three other chaps in a medieval tower in Paris, called la Tour de Nesle. Their sister-in-law, the queen of England, discovered what they were up to and told the king. There was a big enquiry, and they were all imprisoned. One of them was murdered – probably by her husband – soon after, while another remained in a cell until she eventually joined a nunnery. So that was a rather salacious story of knightly trysts and spooky towers.

Much later on, there was the very unfortunate case of Félix Faure, who served as president at the end of the 19th century. He died of an apoplectic stroke when in full flagrante with a lady right on top of the presidential desk. She started screaming and his hand became tangled in her hair. The president’s secretaries – who knew full well what was going on – ran in and chopped a chunk of hair off to free her, before sneaking her out the back way. The whole thing was beautifully hushed up: the newspapers had these lovely woodcuts of the president on his deathbed looking very respectable in full evening dress, surrounded by his weeping wife and dutiful children. But we all know it wasn’t like that at all.

Another character who caught my eye was President Paul Deschanel, who in 1920 became the only French president to go straight from the Élysée Palace to the sanatorium. Deschanel was a very promising leader, and everything was going swimmingly for about six months until a delegation from a girls’ school arrived with a big bouquet of flowers for him. To everyone’s surprise he began pelting the girls with the flowers. A few days later, he gave an interview to the British ambassador wearing nothing but his decorations, and fell out of the window of the presidential train. They found him in his pyjamas wandering around hopelessly with no idea where he was. Finally, he walked into a lake fully clothed. So eventually they realised he had to go.

Another French statesman you discuss in the book is Charles de Gaulle. Can you describe your own experience of meeting him?

Yes, I think I’m one of the few people who had a conversation with de Gaulle – admittedly a very short one – that ended up on friendly terms! He was the most difficult man in the world. Absolutely insufferable. Nobody could get on with him. On the second anniversary of the D-Day landings there was a big ceremony on the Normandy beaches. I was 17 at the time. I got hopelessly lost driving there, and eventually arrived just as lunch was finishing. I was ravenously hungry, but all the food was gone.

Someone introduced me to de Gaulle, who stood up to shake my hand, but I was really only thinking of my stomach at that point. Suddenly, I saw this untouched plate of apple pie in front of him. There was an internal tussle between fear and greed, and greed won, so I asked him whether he intended to eat the pie. He smiled – no one ever saw de Gaulle smile – and told me to take it, apologising that there was an awful lot of cigarette ash on it. I replied that it would be an honour to eat his cigarette ash, which went down terribly well. That was the only conversation I ever had with him, but at least it ended on a happy note.

One of the figures that looms large over French history is Napoleon. What’s your opinion of him?

That’s the hardest question to answer in the world. Was he a blessing or a curse? One day I think one thing, the next, another. Either way, he was one of the greatest men who ever lived. He may have only been five and a half feet tall, but he clearly radiated charisma. People who had never put pen to paper before wrote all about Napoleon the moment they met him, because he had such an extraordinary personality, such magnetism. Not only that – he also had boundless energy, immense self-confidence, and huge courage. Napoleon had conquered most of Europe and crowned himself emperor while still in his 30s. Admittedly, his career was relatively short: 20 years at most. But in those 20 years, he redrew the entire map of Europe and changed the world.

On the other side of the medal, he was certainly responsible for the deaths of a couple of million soldiers who would otherwise have remained alive. And he twice deserted his army in the hour of need. Firstly in 1799 on the Egyptian expedition, when he abandoned them to return to Paris. He didn’t even tell anyone he was going, he just wasn’t there in the morning. In 1812, he did the same in Russia: left his entire army in the freezing cold in order to come back and further his own career. That wasn’t very nice.

One thing I still find very curious and mysterious is Napoleon’s sudden collapse. By the battle of Waterloo in 1815, he was a shadow of his former self. I think that if Napoleon had been in good nick he would have made mincemeat out of us at Waterloo, and Britain would probably have become part of his empire. Even Wellington admitted it was a damn close-run thing.

Of course, no history of France can be complete without the revolution. What’s your take on how it unfolded?

There’s no question that the revolution was a disaster. I’m not saying that all the old values should have been maintained: King Louis XVI was a very stupid man, who was unbelievably indecisive. He was a pretty good disaster, and Marie Antoinette didn’t help either. Things clearly had to change. But they didn’t have to change quite the way they did, with such an immense amount of bloodshed.

Nobody could have foreseen the horrendous consequences of the king’s execution. Thousands were guillotined, it was absolutely unbelievable. And eventually, of course, the revolution devoured its own children – many of its major leaders ultimately ended up on the guillotine.

The revolution made France absolutely miserable, to the point that small revolts carried on almost all the way through the 19th century: there were uprisings in 1830, 1848 and 1870. For very nearly a century after the revolution first began, France was still in a mess. In fact, the whole story of 19th-century France was much more violent than I expected – I was very surprised to discover just how much blood was shed in the post revolutionary years.

You say in your introduction that this might be the last book you write. If that were the case, what would you want people to take away from it?

Yes, I do think it’s the last book I’ll write, simply because I’m 88 years old and I haven’t got much time left. Or enough energy.

But what I want readers to take away from France: A History is nothing to do with it being my last book. It’s exactly the same as what I want people to take away from every other book I’ve written – to have enjoyed a thundering good story and say: “Gee whiz, how fascinating! I never knew that before.”

That’s what I’ve tried to do all my life: seek out a really good story and tell it as amusingly and accurately as I possibly can. It’s been as simple as that. But who knows, I might start another book. Just to keep myself occupied!

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France: A History, from Gaul to de Gaulle by John Julius Norwich (John Murray, 400 pages, £25).