*The French Revolution was very confusing.
*Only the most dedicated readers will persist for 747 pages.
*The Committee of Public Safety was, in some respects, similar to a co-op board or a PTA: factions, alliances, occasional moments of grace.
*Hilary Mantel does, as I’d read in a review somewhere, manage to make Robespierre sympathetic.
*Robespierre said, “History is fiction.”
Well, what novelist wouldn’t want a protagonist like that? As in Wolf Hall, Mantel is very concerned with the power of words. There’s a phrase in the more recent book where Cromwell thinks that writing a law is the ultimate test of the function of the words in it. Here, Danton (a legendary speechmaker) ruminates that “actions are being manufactured out of speech. How can words save a country? Words make myths, it seems, and for their myths people fight to win.”
I had hoped for something a little clearer than A Place of Greater Safety turned out to be. I hoped I would finally be able to slot into place the various forms of government: National Assembly, Legislative Assembly, National Convention, etc. Nope. On the other hand, I will never again forget which one was Danton and which Robespierre, the Incorruptible. And both of these are to some extent outshone by Camille Desmoulins, the volatile, charming journalist who did a great deal to popularize the theory of the revolution. Mantel has him thinking, “Writing’s like running downhill; can’t stop if you want to.” She gives him near-universal sex appeal and flexible sexual morals; a gorgeous wife similarly equipped, and a wicked wit. It’s always nice when an author can make you fall in love with her creation.
Mantel’s contemporary voice was not a surprise this time, and I found it very effective. Managing more characters, she sometimes has them address the reader directly, and sometimes lists dialogue as in a play. The flaw in this book, though, is that it gets hard to wade through. I’m a motivated reader: I finished Simon Schama’s Citizens. But round about page 500, with the length of a normal novel still to go, I flagged. A great deal of the conflict is simply argument. Alliances change, and, sure, lives are at stake but it’s very hard (despite the list of characters at the front) to keep track of who’s who and why being a friend of Brissot’s (or Fabre’s, or, ultimately, Danton’s) was such a bad idea. We know that most of these people will end up on the scaffold anyway.
And then, of course, it’s all pretty depressing. These men began with good intentions and deep affection for each other. They go through loyalty, mutual concern, tolerance, mistrust, suspicion, conciliation, renewed affection, willed indifference. Danton and Desmoulins died on the same day. Robespierre lasted a little bit longer, as one might expect of the cool customer with apparent ice water in his veins. And of course the French Revolution, according to some historians, took another hundred years to play out in its entirety.