French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Siân Reynolds

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month’s interview is with Professor Siân Reynolds. Born in Cardiff, Siân Reynolds taught at the universities of Sussex and Edinburgh before being appointed to the Chair of French at Stirling (1990-2004). Since taking early retirement, she has acted as consultant for the School, while continuing with research and translation. Her monograph Marriage and Revolution: Monsieur & Madame Roland (Oxford University Press, 2012) won the R. Gapper Book Prize in 2013.

On Wednesday 13 January 2016 Professor Reynolds will be giving the annual Douglas Johnson Memorial Lecture, entitled ‘Children of the Revolutionaries’. More details can be found here.

In one sentence, what is your research about?

We all have a parti pris, and the one I’m most aware of is feminism, so I try to make my research gender-conscious. Having recently returned to the 18th century, my first love, (see below) I’m currently looking at the children of a sample of revolutionaries, to explore how they experienced their later lives – can we call this collective biography? Sorry, 2 sentences.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I’ve had a very zigzag itinerary (and a long life!) so the research has been in 18th, 19th and 20th century French history. My BA was in French literature, and I began working in Paris, on the history of ideas in the French Enlightenment, suggested by Robert Shackleton. This was during the Algerian War, and I deviated into an MA on French politics because the 1960s were such a time of upheaval. It was only in the early 1970s, when translating Braudel’s Mediterranean soon after reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class that I made the definite jump to history – seeing possible connections between the Annales school (not very feminist-friendly in its early years, true) and both labour history and the newly emerging women’s/gender history. I was very lucky in my supervisor for a late-developer’s doctorate, Michelle Perrot, who was herself moving between these two fields. My choice of a 19th century labour history/socialist thesis topic, make of this what you will, was actually prompted by reading the 3 volumes of the fascinating Engels-Paul and Laura Lafargue correspondence in the Sussex library (Laura Lafargue was Marx’s middle daughter).

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

The spring of 1791, to an evening meeting in the cramped Paris lodgings of Monsieur and Madame Roland. In those days before they parted company, both Robespierre and Brissot were present. It might help to work out what some of these people were like, and to elucidate the mystery that is Brissot. I always think it’s a shame that photography was invented just too late for the French Revolution – can I take my iPad in the Tardis?

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

This is disguise for ‘your favourite people’, right? If I’m allowed four men and four women: two generous colleagues from Sussex: Rod Kedward and the late Maurice Hutt; two 18th century figures – favourite philosopher, Diderot and favourite Girondin, Vergniaud; two wise French historians of women and gender – Michelle Perrot and Françoise Thébaud; plus the formidable Lynn Hunt who is a historian of everything; and I would resurrect my friend and expert on French feminism, Claire Duchen, who died far too young. It might be a bit tough for the 18th century pair to meet these 20th century folk, but they were both pretty adaptable. I think it would make for a convivial evening, especially if we can order some good Beaujolais.

Which book on French history do you wish you had written?

Tim Tackett’s Becoming a Revolutionary (1996) an inspiring work of huge research and humanity, a model of collective biography. But since it’s by definition all about men, i.e. the deputies of 1789, perhaps I can also choose a short book by Michelle Perrot, Mélancolie ouvrière [a life of Lucie Baud, an unknown silk-worker in the Dauphiné c. 1900, published in 2012] which is a brilliant example of how to make bricks without straw.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Both of them arise from being, latterly, a historian in a French department: I have actually greatly enjoyed teaching language and literature. But my research was always going on somewhere else and didn’t help the department much. The kind of rigidity imposed by the RAE/REF is very tricky for language departments – and translation is still, I think, being undervalued as a part of research. (Sussex in the early days, I have to say, was so inter-disciplinary that these problems didn’t arise.)

What is on your desk at the moment?

By chance, 3 of these are translated from the Italian: for research the French edition of Sergio Luzzatto’s 1991 monograph Mémoires de la Terreur. By the bedside in a pile: Primo Levi, If Not Now When?; Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (more to come if I like it); and two in French: Kamel Daoud, Meursault, contre-enquête; Simenon, L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains. There is always at least one crime novel.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I’ve kind of done it, becoming mostly a translator of fiction since retiring. At school I wanted to be a journalist. Later I thought of being a printer/compositor and went to night school to learn hand-setting. All the other students were 16-year-old boys.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Doing research in France takes time, and we can usually only manage short trips. All French archives and libraries have their own rules and systems: I think the trick is to master these asap – write them down! – and not to be shy about asking archivists and librarians for help: often they are researchers themselves and can be immensely helpful in directing beginners and non-beginners. They are the historian’s best friends (literally sometimes).

Prof. Reynolds: “I always think it’s a shame that photography was invented just too late for the French Revolution – can I take my iPad in the Tardis?”

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Although I’ve worked in both AN and AD, I must put in a word for the Archives de la Préfecture de Police and Archives de la Guerre at Vincennes. These “records of repression” had extremely helpful staff when I was there; and then there’s the fantastic Musée Social, and the Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand, the BHVP, the BDIC … but that’s enough archives…

Monograph or journal article?

I like long articles and short books. Both have switched on a light for me/made me think: for instance Olwen Hufton’s article ‘Women in the Revolution’ in Past and Present, back in 1971; Joan Scott’s article ‘Gender a useful category of analysis’; and Lynn Hunt’s monograph, The Family Romance of the French Revolution.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

That’s hard: runner-up would be the Berks conference in 1993 at Vassar (all those feminist stars), but going to the George Rudé Seminar in Melbourne in 2004, invited by Chips Sowerwine was a treat, as I’d only just ‘re-entered’ 18th-century history; I met several of the leading experts on the period who have proved kind helpers. We also saw some koalas in the trees and nobody commented that I had a black eye throughout.

Writing in silence or to music?

Radio 3 is my constant companion when translating, but usually nothing if trying to write. My very favourite programme is Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons: working to it is impossible, so I do the ironing.

Pick a century?

It has to be the 18th.

Éclair or saucisson?

To be honest, neither. Can I have a little pâté de campagne and a glass of Sancerre?


Many thanks to Siân for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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