The French Revolution began on May 5, 1789, when the Estates-General (representatives elected to represent the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of the population) gathered together for the first time in more than 150 years. Most of the French population was frustrated by heavy taxes and a political system that put virtually all power in the hands of aristocrats. Revolutionaries tried to seize power, which led to rioting and violence in Paris, and on July 14, 1789, they stormed the Bastille fortress. Many French aristocrats fled to other countries, including England, and French revolutionaries attacked and burned the homes of the wealthy. In August 1789, the Revolutionary government published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, proclaiming a new vision of social and political equality.

Despite the hopes of creating a more just and equal society, violence and unrest continued. The French King and Queen were executed during a period known as the "Reign of Terror,” which lasted from 1793 to 1794. During this time, anyone perceived as disloyal to the Revolutionary government could be imprisoned or executed. In total, more than 16,000 people were executed. The violence of the Revolution led other European countries to eventually declare war against France. The Revolution finally came to an end when a French general named Napoleon was recognized as the leader of the French state. The wars which began during the Revolution lasted until 1815, when Napoleon was defeated for the final time.

Read about another novel that explores the legacy of the French Revolution, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.