Hilary Mantel’s novel about the French Revolution. It was published in 1992 and is the template for her books about Thomas Cromwell: character and research-based novelisation of pivotal yet complex historic events
I think it’s better than Wolf Hall. Actually, I think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Oddly I didn’t think this when I first read it which was about ten years ago. It’s a long, dense book: maybe I needed to read it twice? But, also, the reviews were quite cool when it was first published. Perhaps it was before its time and the success of the Cromwell books has retrospectively canonised it, somehow?
Or, because the technique is modern but the literary approach is 19th century? The book isn’t about a cryptic fragmented post-modern hypothesis, as was rather fashionable in the 90s; instead it’s about what it is about: the experience of being one of the central conspirators in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
Mantel doesn’t have a grand theory of history she’s trying to sell. In the book Robspierre anticipates Marx and argues to his friend Camille Desmoulins that the revolution would have happened without them, and their co-conspirator Danton. Economic and class forces do play a role. But so do whims, geopolitics, friendships, rivalries, romances and random chance. Individuals rise to power and are poised to take the revolution in one direction, but then they’re struck down by their enemies, or ill health, and someone else takes over and history veers off in another direction entirely. History, according to Mantel, is chaos.
I don’t know that much about the French Revolution. There isn’t a good English language history of it (so far as I know). I was struck by how many of the incidental characters are still famous ~225 years later. Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette, of course. Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liasons, is a calculating royalist agent. John-Paul Marat appears periodically to present sound logical reasons for the Revolution to murder all its enemies. The painter David apotheosises him after he is killed in his bath. Citizen de Sade (formerly a Marquis) makes an appearance. A heroic young artillery officer called Buonaparte is mentioned towards the end. Heady times.
It is one of the best books about politics. Mantel is very interested in the figures behind the development of the modern nation state and the immense power – for good and evil – of bureaucratic government. She is an expert on conspiracies, the power of journalism, demagoguery and transactional politics.
The title is a (a) a reference to the murderous ‘Committee for Public Safety’ which is my favourite sinister euphemism for a dictatorship ever, and (b) an ironic comment by Camille Desmoulins: the brutal reality of revolutionary and post-revolutionary politics forces the central characters to accept that to ensure their own personal safety they have to murder their enemies. And since almost everyone else with any power is a potential enemy, to keep themselves safe they’re forced into an endless cycle of paranoia, denunciations and liquidations. Trying to reach ‘a place of greater safety’ dooms them all.