La Plus Belle France

“If I were God and had two sons, the eldest would have to be God after me,

but I’d make the second King of France.”

—Ascribed to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor

The subtitle of this handsome illustrated volume, “A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War,” usefully indicates the book’s historical dimension, which the title alone does not convey.  While a quick glance at the work suggests more of its scope, only careful reading can reveal its enormous variety and interest of topics, wealth of detail, and stylistic liveliness.

Robb, an historian living in Oxford, has written previously on 19th-century French subjects, notably in biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Rimbaud, and his knowledge of the period must have been solid.  The present work resulted from his determination to increase his personal acquaintance with France by bicycling through it—a journey, he writes, of 14,000 miles in the saddle.  To create this book, his impressive odyssey was complemented by four years in libraries.  The efforts were not misplaced.

Conceived as an historical guidebook, the volume is not a narrative of Robb’s own travels, nor even organized as an armchair tour of France, though, as he notes, it does...

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