The French Revolution was a concussive event, a century’s worth of transformation compressed into five years. In 1789 King Louis XVI put on his silk underclothing with the choreographed assistance of several carefully chosen courtiers, and in 1793 his head was chopped off and his body unceremoniously thrown into quicklime. By late 1794, those who started that revolution were dead, and France was beginning to collect itself for an explosive surge across the continent of Europe.
Those few years have been cornered by fine minds of every political persuasion in a rarely interrupted stream of words that began in English with Tom Paine and Edmund Burke. But – what were they like for those who lived them? Events of the time are typically presented as the culmination of, or a distortion of, historical forces, clockwork as much as the mating dance of the ruffled grouse. But to a ruffled grouse male feeling his way forward, the possibility of a misstep ever present – what is he thinking and feeling? We’ve had no better idea of the subjective life of those restless lawyers who were the revolution’s kindling and mainstay until Hilary Mantel’s wonderful novel, A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel has just won a big literary prize in the UK for Wolf Hall, a novel set in the time of Henry VIII. Sixteen years ago, when A Place of Greater Safety was published she won devoted admirers.
Mantel embodies the revolution in three young men from the provinces who come to Paris to seek their real life: Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. The book is long (750 pages) but never windy, and maintains an urgent pace from start to finish. Deft strokes set the stage in and around Paris for a series of set pieces, usually told from a third-person point of view, very close in; occasionally we slip into the mind of Danton or Robespierre or Madame Roland. The dialogue is unfailingly witty, increasingly desperate, and never predictable.
Mantel never makes summary judgments or attempts magisterial statements; there is only action, reflection, and action. She paints vivid portraits of historical figures Lafayette, Mirabeau, the King and the Queen, the leading Girondists, Jean-Paul Marat, the novelist DuClos, several members of the Committee of Public Safety, even the Marquis de Sade; but the movement of the book takes place in the changes of our three heroes and those closest to them.
They brim with confidence in the 1780s, knowing that the shell of feudalism would burst, and soon, and they were destined to be a part of whatever was to follow We meet their families, and follow them to Versailles in the Spring of 1789, along with the First, Second, and Third Estates, to consider a new distribution of power; the State was out of money and ideas. The young men advance as young men do, by being noticed by the Elders who count (here, Mirabeau and the Duc d’Orleans), and making themselves useful. Desmoulins is the least known of the three but it is he and his wife Lucile who steal the book.
Desmoulins’s moment of glory came first, on July 12, 1789. He was a beautiful, wayward young man with a terrible stutter who wrote well, though his incendiary pamphlets could never find a printer. On a hot summer’s day, he stood on an outdoor café table at the Palais Royal and galvanized his listeners with a burst of frightening eloquence that led directly to the taking of the Bastille. Thereafter, printers vied for the chance to print his pamphlets, which became required reading. He lived close by to Danton, a force in the neighborhood, then in the district, then in Paris, and by the summer of 1792, in all of France.
Danton is portrayed as a big, charming, mesmerizingly ugly man careful never to write anything down, with a resonant voice and brilliant mind that enabled him to talk for hours and hours, and move multitudes. Mantel’s version is a blend of fidelity and corruption; he takes money with both hands from those all around Europe anxious to have influence, to support his large family and big appetites, even as he aimed at preserving France and its revolution from the surrounding world that was trying to drag it down.
In 1792, it was not at all clear that France would survive as a nation. The royalty of Europe were horrified at the removal of Louis XVI from the throne and incarceration in a downtown palace, and vowed to reestablish order in France. Catholic and protestant armies massed at the border under the leadership of the Duke of Brunswick, who issued an inflammatory proclamation in the summer of 1792 threatening the French people with instant and severe punishment for resisting his effort “ to check the attacks upon the throne and the altar, to reestablish the legal power, to restore to the king the security and the liberty of which he is now deprived and to place him in a position to exercise once more the legitimate authority which belongs to him.”
Who would resist him? The French army’s leadership had fled the country with other émigrés, and was leading the new armies all around the edges of France, preparing to return. Within France, a stew of constitutional monarchists, democrats, anarchists, communists, and opportunists competed for leadership in a void; political power, property rights, the Church, all foundational matters were up for grabs. It was Danton’s time. In France’s weakest moment, he urged everyone forward; all hope lay in audacity. He purchases France’s first military victory, at Valmy in September,1792. Danton explains to his co-conspirator Fabre D’Eglantine that they must die before they tell; the Duke of Brunswick isn’t really such a hard fellow; all the venomous stuff attributed to him was written by angry emigres. What Brunswick really likes, said Danton, are precious things, like the Crown Jewels. What we really need, he said, is one win in the field, to show us it can be done. Of dubious historical accuracy, this scenario described by Madame Roland, is emblematic of Mantel’s Danton – ripe corruption of incalculable value to the revolution. He rolls through the book with a direct gaze and an irresistible power that does not flag until just before the end.
The Terror is routinely presented as a monster that sprung full-grown and terrible from Robespierre’s brow, but it had its roots in a widely supported effort to consolidate power, to answer the very open question of where it lay. .The unwieldy National Convention, made up of representatives of every type and from every region, created the Committee for Public Safety, to get things done. Twelve members of the Committee worked long and hard, and with increasing success. The law of the preponderance of the means over the ends, however, meant that the Terror took on a life of its own. The number of deaths began slowly, and increased throughout 1793. It claimed the King and Queen, and then the Girondists, and a host of lesser known people who ended up in the carts on their way to the guillotine because they had crossed someone who knew how to work the system’s levers.
The revolution steadily consolidated.. Toulon, France’s naval center, had rebelled against the Revolution and surrendered the French navy to England. In December of 1793, Toulon was recaptured under the leadership of a brilliant new general, Napoleon Buonaparte. The Vendee rebellion west of Paris along the Loire was crushed, and he resistance in Burgundy was stopped dead. The French armies pushed back against their foes with energy and more than a million soldiers, the first people’s army in Europe, and secured France’s borders. But even as the revolution solidified, the Terror grew, exponentially.
Desmoulins was horrified at the execution of many of his friends, particularly because his vehement pamphlets against their policies had greased the way. In late 1793 he wrote a series of pamphlets which aimed to stop the Terror. The third issue, which came out in December of 1793, found Tacitus’s description of the reign of Tiberius to be uncannily like that of France in late 1793: whole families wiped out by the executioner, men committing suicide to save themselves from being dragged through the streets like common criminals; men denouncing their friends to save their own skins; the corruption of all human feeling, the degradation of pity to a crime. “As soon as words had become crime against the state, it was only a small step to transform into offenses mere glances, sorrow, compassion, sighs, even silence….”
Desmoulins knew he was paving his way to the guillotine, and that he would whimper and piss his pants as he bounced along over cobblestones towards the blade, but he could not keep himself from writing, any more than he could ever stifle any of his impulses. His perfect lack of discipline or sense of self-protection lay the heart of his charm.
Proceedings of the Jacobin Club:
CITIZEN NICOLAS [INTERVENING} Camille, you are very close to the guillotine!
CITIZEN DESMOULINS: Nicolas, you are very close to making a fortune! A year ago you dined on a baked apple, and now you’re the government printer.
No one seriously thought that Desmoulins was in danger, though, because of his friend and protector, Robespierre. Desmoulins and Robespierre had shivered through the rigors of a strict academic and theological high school education, and had relied on each other for what they lacked ever since. Robespierre’s nickname, The Incorruptible, is usually used in a mocking way, but at a time of immense opportunism, someone who could not be bought, whose allegiance was only to the Revolution, became something valuable, a moral compass. Mantel does a masterful job of following him from believing that he should be in power because he really could do the job better to anyone else, to obtaining power, to being required to exercise power at every moment of the day.
Robespierre watched out for his friends as their power faded, and the committee’s rose, but an increasing number of prosecutors and hard-working Spartans like Antoine Saint-Just, were disdainful of Danton and Desmoulins. Vadier, the prosecutor, was investigating corruption in the East Indian company that had been manipulated in the stock market in a way that proved lucrative for Danton’s friend the actor Fabre D’Eglantine, and probably for Danton himself. Vadier referred to Danton as “That fat stuffed turbot, we’ll gut him too.” Danton reciprocated with equal delicacy, telling the painter David that if he felt his life in danger, he would become ‘more cruel than a cannibal’ and promised to eat Vadier’s brains and shit in his skull.
But by 1794, Danton had lost his edge. His wife Gabrielle, to whom he was compulsively unfaithful, died in childbirth, and he never quite regained his footing. Mantel meticulously presents the historical backdrop, but the heart of the book lays in how she immerses each of these three in their ‘family’ contexts and with each other. Danton and Robespierre find each other useful; both are very fond of Camille. Desmoulins is attracted to the magnetic women of the Duplessis family; first to Annette, mother of two daughters and wife to Claud, a long-serving state bureaucrat; and then to her daughter Lucile. Reversing propriety, Lucile let people believe she had a long string of lovers, but she thought only of Desmoulins, and determined to marry him in her mid-teens. They each could find out what they were thinking only by talking to the other. A painting by David portrays the two of them together with their infant son; both with long curly black hair and shining eyes. Their son’s godfather was Robespierre.
Robespierre was adopted by the carpenter Duplay and lived in a simple room in Duplay’s complex for the last years of his life. He dressed impeccably and kept very irregular hours, having only to fend off occasional advances from Duplay’s daughters. All the Duplays felt blessed by his presence, and looked after him as carefully as if he were a prize bull. The arrangement suited him perfectly.
The book is filled with domestic scenes in which historical events emerge in the reactions of those who experienced them. Mantel is quite capable, though, of presenting live action. Desmoulins’s sudden speech, followed by the capture of the Bastille; the storming of the palace, capture of the King and slaughter of Royalist prisoners in August-September 1792; the deaths of Danton and Desmoulins are told with gathering momentum and heart-stopping intensity.
It is known that after working 15-20 hours a day, Robespierre collapsed for a full month, from February 10 to March 12, 1794. Utterly exhausted, already somewhat disembodied, nursed by the Duplays, he dreamt of the Republic of Virtue, and emerged in April as even more removed from earthy connections than before. He no longer will endanger himself or stand in the way of St. Just and the other committee members who were done with Desmoulins and Danton; he is more interested in fashioning, and becoming, the new Deity who will replace the old God in the minds of a simple people who must have hope, even if they cannot have bread.
In a grotesque effort at balance, Desmoulins and Danton are swept up as the “Right,” and executed, while Hebert, creator of Pere Duchesne, a scabrous newspaper loved by those in the lower depths, was executed as a man of the “left.” The book ends with Robespierre in Committee, not long before his own death, lost in reveries of watching his mother sit by a window, belly swollen, pregnant with her own death, make lace. “He saw that it was the gaps that were important, the spaces between the threads which made the pattern, and not the threads themselves. `Show me how to do it,’ he said. `I want to learn.’ `Boys don’t do it.,’ she said. Her face was composed; her work continued. His throat closed at the exclusion.”
Mantel dares to put us together with some of the most complicated, charismatic, and influential people in the historical record, and brings them to vivid, almost palpable life. They are much like us, but they also have a quality of seriousness that feels prickly and strange in this ironic, distanced age. Her book is outside the veins which flow towards literary prizes and honors these days, but it is built to last. The “place of greater safety,” we learn from Camille Desmoulins, is the grave.