A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, Atheneum Press, 1992 –
If you’ve read ‘Wolf Hall’ you might already be a fan of Hilary Mantel. If you haven’t read ‘Wolf Hall’, her book about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell (Henry VIII’s chief political architect after the fall of Cardinal Wolsey), you should. If that book leads you to her earlier book about the French revolution, ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, you might end up disappointed.
The French Revolution is one of those critical moments in European history that helped shape our modern world. Beginning roughly at the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, it swept away one of the most enduring and stable monarchies in Europe, descended into a calculated political bloodbath known as the Reign of Terror (September 1793 to July 1794) and ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is, by and large, a well-researched study of three historical figures from the revolution. Camille Desmoulins gained prominence in the early part of the revolution and was instrumental in influencing public opinion as a writer of pamphlets and paper articles. Georges-Jacques Danton, an orator and organizer of notable skills, became a leading political figure in the rise of the Jacobin party, a group that eventually controlled the events of the revolution. Maximilien Robespierre is known today mostly for his role in the notorious Reign of Terror, a period lasting under a year in which thousands of royalist and enemies of the Jacobin party lost their heads to the guillotine. The Terror finally ended when Robespierre met his end on the guillotine.
Mantel is interested in the relationship between Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. Of the three, Robespierre was the least drawn to violence and gained increasing political influence due to his steadfast idealism and his notable ‘incorruptibility’. Personal gain was never on Robespierre’s mind, he was dedicated to the principles of the revolution: ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. The continued success of the revolution was paramount, despite internal opposition from those with royalist leanings and external forces – war with the other European countries that wanted to stamp out the ideals promoted by the revolution.
Danton was very much an opposite of Robespierre. He was a rabble-rouser, able to inflame a mob into doing his will. He viewed violence as a tool to be used unsparingly and personal gain was never far from his motives. He achieved power by forging a relationship with Robespierre and Desmoulins on his rise.
The question this novel attempts to answer is how Robespierre was able to throw his political ally Danton and his personal friend Desmoulins under the blade of the guillotine. Unfortunately the book is too much of a slog in getting some semblance of answers to that question. One ended up feeling like a teabag dipped into too many cups as Mantel presents the reader with the personal lives of the three characters in endless small vignettes, leaping about in a haphazard fashioned. There are little snippets of conversations from family scenes or political meetings and excerpts from diaries and the public record. The technique didn’t help develop a cogent narrative and left this reader bogged down in minutia. I many times wondered how anyone could make three critical players in the French Revolution sound so tedious. Several times I contemplated abandoning ship.
Having finally waded my way through, the last fifty pages were perhaps the most compelling – it’s the point where Danton and Desmoulins call for an end to the Terror, Robespierre betrays them both and condones a kangaroo style court that leads to their beheading. Mantel provides a compelling account of how Danton and Desmoulins are affected. What’s less compelling is why a man who was repelled by violence through most of his life should end up at the forefront of the Terror, one of the more sustained episodes of savagery in French history. With Danton and Mantel advocating an end to the bloodshed, Mantel provides a few possibilities as to why Robespierre threw his lot in with those who advocated further violence, even sacrificing his two friends/allies in order to keep the guillotine in action.
All in all, the rewards are meager and I was still left viewing Robespierre as very much an enigma.
TL:DR – Read ‘Wolf Hall’ instead – no disappointments there.