The Love-Hate Relationship

Reviewed by Maya Jasanoff
Sunday, February 4, 2007


The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present

By Robert and Isabelle Tombs

Knopf. 782 pp. $40

Napoleon once likened the English Channel to a mere "ditch that will be crossed when someone has the boldness to try it." In 1994, it was permanently breached by the Channel Tunnel -- a monument to Anglo-French collaboration that brought London and Paris into day-trip proximity by train. But passengers might have detected hints en route of the ongoing Anglo-French rivalry. While the sleek, French-designed Eurostar trains sped away from Paris at a clip approaching 200 mph, when they hit England, they were forced to crawl along unmodernized tracks. It gave passengers time to admire the Kentish countryside, quipped French President François Mitterrand -- until the train pulled into London's Waterloo Station. One wonders what Napoleon would have made of that.

So near and yet so far: Britain and France have for centuries regarded each other with everything from outright hostility to envy, fascination and love. In That Sweet Enemy, two married historians (one British, the other French) chronicle the shared history of these codependent nations -- from tragedy to farce, from politics to sex to sports. Robert and Isabelle Tombs's magnificent survey is an important interpretation of one of Europe's defining relationships and a rollicking, eventful cultural tour. That Sweet Enemy is indispensable reading for anybody interested in Britain, France or the Europe they have shaped.

Anglo-French relations used to be defined by war, and nearly half of this weighty book concerns the "Second Hundred Years War" -- a series of escalating conflicts fought from 1689 to 1815. The authors linger over the complexities of 18th-century foreign policy, but it is hard to feel too bogged down when their cast of characters includes such figures as the Chevalier d'Éon de Beaumont. A French agent in London and a well-known hermaphrodite, d'Éon turned against Versailles only to be wooed back to France by another emissary, Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of The Marriage of Figaro, who promised d'Éon a handsome pension and permission to wear his/her chivalric order with women's clothes (though "only in the provinces").

The battle of Waterloo itself, the authors perceptively explain, seemed to crystallize national stereotypes: the French rushing emotionally forward, the British stolidly holding the line, " la furie française against le flegme britannique." It also marked the end of the countries' armed enmity. Waterloo sealed Britain's role as the world's leading imperial power, while for France it initiated a culture of "glorious defeat." The Anglo-French wars also left some 1.4 million Frenchmen and 200,000 British dead in their last phase alone: devastating reason enough for the two powers never to fight each other again.

The most entertaining part of the book describes how Britain and France fumbled toward friendship after 1815. Of course, there were still spies and suspicions, as evidenced by the British parliamentary secretary who talked his way on board a new French ironclad battleship and took furtive measurements with his umbrella. Yet the relationship flowered in new ways. British tourists flocked to the Pyrenean town of Pau and the pleasure halls of Paris. French political exiles made new homes in Britain, among them the painters Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, whose impressionist hues made even the London fog look good. And while French chefs like Alexis Soyer introduced haute cuisine to the dining rooms of London, the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth invented haute couture in Paris by importing British tailoring techniques.

More sobering is the book's treatment of the 20th century, when Britain and France again went to war -- this time as allies. Here, the book's ambitious scale pays off as the authors draw thought-provoking contrasts between the world wars and Europe's earlier struggles. In particular, the authors identify "the greatest failure" in the shared history of Britain and France as their inability to construct a viable peace after World War I in the way they had after Waterloo. Their dysfunctional relationship thus played into Hitler's hands. And though the specter of defeat in 1940 brought Britain and France into real partnership, their differing outlooks have seriously complicated the process of European integration since. None other than Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the European Common Market.

In some ways, Britain and France are now closer than ever. London is "the world's eighth-largest French city," and some 600,000 homes in France are owned by Britons. Even the Eurostar travels swiftly on new English tracks, and later this year, its trips will terminate at London's St. Pancras Station instead of the awkwardly named Waterloo. Yet tensions between Britain and France remain, most conspicuously perhaps in European Union politics. America, largely absent from this book, has driven a further wedge between them. The intensity with which France and Britain once considered each other seems to have dulled as their eyes turn toward other powers and imperatives. Then again, as That Sweet Enemy so expertly demonstrates, the sources of their current worldviews may lie just across the ditch. ·

Maya Jasanoff teaches British history at the University of Virginia. She is the author of "Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850."

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