Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The United Kingdom of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Corsica

Book reviewers say that a book is funny by saying that it made them emit embarrassing noises on public transport. The equivalent test for interestingness is presumably making the reader want to read bits out to whoever is within earshot.

That Sweet Enemy is precisely such a book. It is a history of relations between Britain and France, and therefore a history of everything of most importance in Britain's culture, politics, empire, foreign policy etc etc - and of certain of France's fads and foibles. Perhaps that's a bit harsh on my own country. At any rate, it is consistently one of the most entertaining and enlightening books out there. I find it hard to read without wanting to quote bits out loud: I now only read it while I'm on my own. I will not make a habit of blogging bits of it.

The prompt for this blog title is an incident from the war against Revolutionary France. You will recall that a young Napoleon Bonaparte made a name for himself by re-taking Toulon from some anti-revolutionary French supported by the British (who took the opportunity to destroy a lot of French vessels - the equivalent of the victory at Trafalgar - and to burn Toulon's stocks of shipbuilding timber). But I hadn't heard of what happened next. I quote:

"The loss of Toulon increased Corsica's importance as a naval base. Under their old leader Pasquale Paoli, the Corsicans asked to join the British empire on the same basis as Ireland, with George III as king of Corsica. This plucky wartime experiment in Enlightenment nation-building - with a parliamentary constitution, trial by jury, religious toleration, and habeas corpus - was realised in 1795. Despite good will on both sides there were predictable disagreements. But the outcome was determined by strategy, not politics. Finding the island too hard to defend, the British withdrew at the end of 1796, taking with them 12,000 refugees."

It's an intriguing episode in Anglo-French relations; it's something Americans should learn about when they learn about George III; it's a premise for a counter-factual novel. You will have to take my word for it that there is stuff like this on every page of the book, all in that amused ironic academic tone.

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