Vive La Révolution!
The French Revolution. It's a lot like the American Revolution, except it was bloodier, more complicated and fueled by righteous class fury. (This video will take you through it.) Then there is the petty backstabbing among the revolutionaries. It's like a middle school lunchroom with a guillotine. All this makes for some pretty great fiction.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses/Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (novel) and Christopher Hampton (play)
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first published as a novel in pre-revolutionary France. It was written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782. It was adapted for the stage by Christopher Hampton in 1985 and the film Dangerous Liaisons was based on Hampton's play. Basically, it's the story of two bored aristocrats (Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont) who spend their time seducing and manipulating those around them. That's it. (Yet it's somehow an insanely entertaining story. There is a reason people keep remaking it.) Only Hampton's play alludes to the Revolution, but it's hard not to see the message implicit in all three versions: namely that a large portion of the French aristocracy had too much time on their hands and little regard for people's feelings. Yet they were super rich and didn't pay taxes. It's enough to make you want to storm the Bastille.
Pure by Andrew Miller
Another work that technically takes place prior to the Revolution but fairly screams “Some bad stuff is about to go down.” Novice engineer and Enlightenment devotee Jean-Baptiste Barratte is tasked with clearing out a Paris cemetery, Les Innocents (which is something that actually happened.) The cemetery is overfilling and the stench of death is literally in the air. Unlike Les Liaisons Dangerouses, Pure gives us an extremely detailed look at how the regular people of France (the 99%, if you will) lived and it's pretty brutal.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Probably the most famous novel about the French Revolution that actually takes place during the Revolution (we'll talk about Les Miserables later). Dickens' novel about the French Revolution has a lot of the typical Dickens troupes (horrible rich people, ungodly coincidences, boring “good” women and interesting bad ones). However, it's pretty nuanced in some ways too. It's sympathetic towards the revolutionaries while still condemning them for their tendency to go waaayyy overboard with the executions towards the end. (Are you of noble birth but failed to demonstrate sufficient revolutionary zeal? Off to the guillotine.Ever slander patriotism? Guillotine. Do you not have your certificate of good citizenship? Sorry, guillotine for you.) 40,000 people died by guillotine during the Revolution. In A Tale of Two Cities, one of Dickens' most noble and guiltless characters dies this way. It's quietly subversive, in a way. Dickens is generally a man of the people, but even he has his limits.
A Place of Greater Safety by Hillary Mantel
Hillary Mantel's first novel follows the lives of three of the Revolution's central figures: Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilien Robespierre. Like a lot of her historical fiction (like Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), Mantel expects you to do your homework. It's good to be familiar with names, dates and the various political factions. In short, if you can't, say, pass an AP European History level test on the French Revolution you'll be heading to the Internet a lot. It's worth it, though. It covers most of the revolution and features most of the major players. Strangely, it's also a little trashy and compulsively readable. If you want to learn about the French Revolution, this is the way to go.
The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss
Where to start with this one? Okay. The Marquis de Sade - writer, aristocrat, and overall hateful creep - spent the last years of his life in Charenton Asylum. While there, he wrote and produced plays that were performed by other inmates. Playwright Peter Weiss took this idea and wrote a play in which the inmates perform the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat - one of the more guillotine-happy leaders of the Revolution (and guy from this painting) - by Charlotte Corday, who believed in a more moderate way forward. Weiss's play draws on the theatrical traditions of Bertold Brecht's alienation effect and Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Both techniques lead to an off-putting theater experience (and the same could be said of the film), but it's an interesting read. And some of the songs are pretty good too. (Yeah. There are songs too.)
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Yes, yes, I know that Les Miserables doesn't take place during the French Revolution but during the 1832 June Rebellion.However, it is an attempted revolution. In France. So I'm looping it in. Les Miserables, as you probably know already, tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, Javert his relentless purser, Cosette, Valjean's daughter and Marius, her revolutionary boyfriend. Thankfully, Hugo goes back in time quite a bit, and generally covers the period in between the Revolution and the June Rebellion, so you don't have to look up things like “Why is there a king again? I thought they got rid of the king?” Hugo, like Dickens, is also concerned with exposing society's faults, and here he shows how many of the problems that led to the Revolution, like poverty, still linger (hence the rebellion).