The French Revolution: A Book List for High School (or Adults)

My vision of our high school curriculum is a kind of smorgasbord of half year studies that my scholars can choose from according to their interests and tastes.  It’ll take me almost forever to pull such a thing together, but eventually, someone will have the benefit of lots of options, and I will have the benefit of not so much work.  Theoretically.

I do not personally know very much about the French Revolution at all, but it was a pivotal event, not just for the people of France, but for the entire Western world.  These are the books I’ve chosen, with some options.  Note: I’m an extremely good Book Chooser, regardless of my knowledge of the subject, in case you doubt my selections.  Meg will be my Course Tester this year, and we’ll tweak it a bit when we’re done, because there will be more books than we’ll have time for, and it’s possible that one may not add enough to the fight to stay on the list for the next student.  We will update as we go!

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama seems to be the one book on the French Revolution that all others aspire to outdo. I’d originally suggested a different and shorter title, but when it arrived, I realized it did not compare with Citizens for readability. So, even though it is nearly 900 pages long, this is my preferred text for complete coverage of the Revolution.

The Terror: The Merciless War For Freedom In Revolutionary France by David Andress also covers the whole of the Revolution, but with the focus on the Year of Terror.


Optional: Lafayette by Harlow Giles Unger. Lafayette was a hero of our American Revolution, after which he returned home to his native France to play an active role in the Revolution there, too. He was welcomed as a hero, but before long, he, too, was targeted by the Public Safety Committee.


The Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution by R. R. Palmer is a classic biography of the twelve men of the Public Safety Committee that orchestrated the Terror, including Robespierre.


Optional, but highly recommended: Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr is a more in-depth biography of the most famous architect of the Reign of Terror, and perhaps a bit more sympathetic than history often chooses to be. It’s very important to me that my children see the humanity behind historical events. We are all flawed, and it’s easy to villianize someone after the fact, but very difficult to know what you would do if you were in his or her shoes.

Optional, but highly recommended: The Lost King of France by Deborah Cadbury looks like a very Anastasia type of tale, but might be more sympathetic to the plight of the monarchy than the others. I really like to present my students with as many points of view as possible. I like to think it helps to train them in the virtues of compassion and right judgement. Nothing is ever black and white.

Song at the Scaffold by Gertrude Von Le Fort is a fictionalized account of the sixteen Carmelite nuns executed during the Terror. It is the only specifically Catholic book I can find on the Revolution, but it’s a moving tale.  Because the Revolution was also so violently anti-Church, I think it’s an important aspect, and I wish there was more available material.

Optional: Marie Antoinette by Kathryn Lasky is a children’s novel from the Royal Diaries series, but not everything has to be hard, does it?



The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and The Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, both by Robert Asprey. These two could be optional, but Napoleon was definitely a product of the Revolution, if perhaps not its most desired outcome. Plus, he’s pretty cool and hard to fit in anywhere if we don’t get to him here. 🙂 I really enjoyed Waterloo by Bernard Cornwall, too.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke was written before the worst of the Revolution and is not enthusiastic.The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine is a response to Burke’s piece, and a defense of the Revolution.  I intend for these two to be read last and for the student’s final essay to be a response to either or both Burke and Paine.

Other essays could include portraits of key players, Catholic responses to the actions of major figures or to the Revolution in general. We haven’t actually been through this course yet, so I’ll update with ideas that present themselves as we talk our way through this unit.

I wanted to include a literature component, which would likely round this out into a full year, two credit course. I have a few texts selected that would work great, but the literature of the period was so depraved that I don’t think anybody should read it, certainly not an impressionable young person. If you are what you read, and these were the most popular novels of the period, it’s no wonder the Revolution devolved as it did. Relevant or not, however, I can’t subject my children to that. The other option is to use the few decent texts available or to cover literature about the Revolution. I’d go with the second option, I think.  I don’t have a book list prepared for this section yet, so if you’re interested, check this post again in a few days!

2 Comment

  1. Emily G says:

    Do you know Elena Maria Vidal’s work? “Trianon” and “Madame Royale”.They are novels for adults about Marie Antoinette. Also, I highly recommend adding Michael Davies’ book about the heroic Vendeen Rising, “For Altar and Throne”.
    This looks like a neat course! I might just take some of your recommendations for my ownself.

  2. For your literature, I hope you include The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities. We have watched the 1982 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel movie twice now, and love it. We’ll spend days exclaiming, “Sink me!” in a droll, British accent. Good books turned into good movies is one of our favorite genres for family movie night (after reading the book, usually, but sometimes before if it will help with comprehension: Shakespeare and Jane Austin).

    Also, I love Song at the Scaffold. Last year, my then 14 yo had a bit of trouble understanding it, so we spend quiet early mornings one week and I read it to her while she crocheted. I am really bad at reading sad things, so she had to listen around sobbing… I recently learned that the nuns were one of the last groups to be killed – some sources say The Last victims of the guillotine. I can’t help but believe that God accepted their martyrdom and spared everyone else.

Comments are closed.