400 Years of Romance, Revolution and Renewal

Book details

ISBN: 9781471128981
Published: March 2022

Buy now (UK)

We are endlessly fascinated by the French. We are fascinated by their way of life, their creativity, sophistication and self-assurance, and even their insistence that they are exceptional. But how did France become the country it is today, and what really sets it apart?

Journalist and historian Peter Watson sets out to answer these questions in The French Mind, a dazzling history of France that takes us from the seventeenth century to the present day through the nation’s most influential thinkers. He opens the doors to the Renaissance salons that were a breeding ground for poets, philosophers and scientists, and tells the forgotten stories of the extraordinary succession of women who ran these institutions, fostering a culture of stylish intellectualism unmatched anywhere else in the world.

It’s a story that takes us into Bohemian cafes and cabarets, into chic Parisian high culture via French philosophies of food, fashion and sex, while growing unrest hastens the bloody birth of a republic. From the 1789 revolution to the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany, Watson argues that a unique series of devastating military defeats helped shape the resilient, proud, innovative character of the French.

This is a history of breathtaking ambition, propelled by the characters Watson brings to vivid life: the writers, revolutionaries and painters who loved, inspired and rivalled one another over four hundred years. It documents the shaping of a nation whose global influence, in art, culture and politics, cannot be overstated.

Reviews of The French Mind

"A love for France radiates from this book"

Financial Times

"He unfurls his intellectual history in the form of vivid biographies . . . [an] engaging movement through time towards France’s recent reckonings with extremism, exceptionalism and empire . . . perceptive"


"An encyclopaedic celebration of French intellectuals refusing to give up on universal principles . . . while remaining slim, bringing up well-behaved children and falling in love at every opportunity"

The Times

"Majestic, ambitious . . . [Peter Watson] deserves admiration for the grace and agility with which he interlinks the development of a vigorous cultural identity and the seismic shifts of French national history, continually lurching between triumph and disaster. Impressive enough in its scope, authority and sprightliness to leave us wondering whether a French writer could have managed the task quite as deftly"

Literary Review