It's easy to reduce France to the sum of its parts: weekend breaks amid the culture of Paris or summer holidays basking in the sunshine of the south; accounts of the Revolution -- Madame Defarge knitting beside the guillotine -- and Napoleon's battle at Waterloo (mis)remembered from school history lessons; a country famous for its intellectuals, its philosophers and writers, its fashion, food and wine. Despite this, however, the notion of 'the French' as one nation is relatively recent and -- historically speaking -- quite misleading; in order to discover the 'real' past of France, it's not only necessary to go back in time, but also to go at a slower pace than modern life generally allows: this book is the result of 14,000 miles covered by bicycle (and four years spent in the library). It is -- at last -- a book which tells the whole story. Praise for Robb's last novel, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century: Funny, enterprisingly researched, and undertaken with few apparent preconceptions . . This is an excellent, amusing, decent book, which covers an enormous amount of ground in a little space Philp Hensher, Spectator A fascinating study of a complex subject, written with humanity, sceptical intelligence and an impressive command of the sources Daily Telegraph A fascinating mix of personal testimony and judiciously filleted history The Times

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