The Dim-Post

September 29, 2015

Notes on A Place of Greater Safety

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 6:31 pm
  • 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.
  • Happy days

19 Comments »

  1. Try Jonathan Israel’s “Revolutionary Ideas” or Keith Baker’s “Inventing the French Revolution”. De Tocqueville’s “The Ancien Regime and the Revolution” is also available in a very good English translation. Stay away from Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” because it’s not really about France, despite the title.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 29, 2015 @ 6:44 pm

  2. re: an english-language history of the Revolution, you can do worse than Shama’s Citizens. It’s a bit in the Burke-ian tradition of British writing on the subject (i.e. anti that sort of thing). I think this is largely because a) the English are culturally conditioned to think they had only one constitutional revolution, in 1688, which didn’t involve all that much fighting and produced a highly stable, Protestant, constitutional monarchy rather than a messy republic,and see the French Revolution as a bit too French. That and b) English popular historians have ready made material in the form of the Tudors and Stuarts which they can continue to write very long books about every few years indefinitely without having to learn a foreign language.

    Comment by Bertie — September 29, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

  3. “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.”

    The more I study politics, the more I think this is the truth.

    Comment by Seb Rattansen — September 29, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

  4. I first read it in the late 90s, and thought it was genius. Also one of the best things I’ve ever read. If I recall correctly, it was actually her first novel, but not published until after she’d had some of her shorter fiction published in the 1980s. For a first novel, even if much revised later before eventual publication, it’s astonishing.

    Comment by Dr Foster — September 29, 2015 @ 9:36 pm

  5. Wow talk about coincidence just reading a piece about Hillary in today’s Guardian and up pops your piece. Spooky’

    Comment by Ron Wilson — September 29, 2015 @ 10:31 pm

  6. The theory that history is chaotic and doesn’t respond to ideological or economic decisions is still… wait for it… a theory. In fact, speaking of Burke, it’s basically his theory, so you could argue that it lies at the root of modern conservatism, at least in the Anglophone world.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — September 29, 2015 @ 11:56 pm

  7. “…to keep themselves safe they’re forced into an endless cycle of paranoia”.

    Off with their heads then?

    Maybe it’s time to roll out the whole deal.

    Oh but then there’s the little matter of zero hour contracts. Prepared to sacrifice relations with the Japanese for that, National?

    Comment by the Weatherman — September 30, 2015 @ 7:04 am

  8. …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.

    The first thing to do after a revolution is kill off the revolutionaries, those people are dangerous.

    Comment by unaha-closp — September 30, 2015 @ 9:02 am

  9. I think “chaos” as in small seemingly unrelated events have apparently more effect than policy and concerted endeavour..

    I’m not sure. Any situation can be seen as the result of many many seemingly small and independent events. What really is the significance of any particular one? Had one been different perhaps other events would hace been different as well in ways leading to a similar result.

    Comment by NeilM — September 30, 2015 @ 9:25 am

  10. I have finally done it! Have read a book before Danyl ! -Great read, isn’t it? And a sympathetic treatment of Robespierre – the first I’ve ever come across

    Comment by Leopold — September 30, 2015 @ 9:49 am

  11. The theory that history is chaotic and doesn’t respond to ideological or economic decisions is still… wait for it… a theory.

    Are you talking ‘theory’ like Gravity or ‘theory’ like Intelligent design?
    There’s a general consensus among historians that the vast majority of what we might call “defining moments that change the course of history” are little more than observation bias of broad trends and forces that have been in play for decades. It’s comparable to climate change in some ways; ignore the year to year noise. Focus on the trend.

    Any situation can be seen as the result of many many seemingly small and independent events.

    History though the lens of macroeconomics.

    Comment by Phil — September 30, 2015 @ 11:42 am

  12. It’s comparable to climate change in some ways; ignore the year to year noise. Focus on the trend.

    I think Clunking Fist just wet the bed in his excitement….

    Comment by Gregor W — September 30, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

  13. I think Clunking Fist just wet the bed in his excitement….

    Could be the rising sea-level?

    Comment by Phil — September 30, 2015 @ 4:37 pm

  14. “We don’t get fooled again/Don’t get fooled again/No, no!

    Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

    Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — September 30, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

  15. Lol. And identifying with cAGW (and thus buying a diesel-powered European car) IS trendy.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — October 4, 2015 @ 5:14 pm

  16. Phil, you mock, but my wee is acidic, so also causing ocean acidification, the next great scare on the horizon.

    Perhaps the Greens will bend, and allow us to dam some more rivers: all that pH neutral river water running into the alkali ocean is reducing it’s pH. I guess we must live with rain entering the sea unmolested, the same way we have to wear the co2 emitted from volcanos?

    Comment by Clunking Fist — October 4, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

  17. @Phil: I mean “theory” like constructivism or marxism or social history are theories. I don’t know enough about physics or creationism to explain historical analysis using those metaphors, unfortunately.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 5, 2015 @ 2:03 am

  18. Quite a few current political debates, especially on international conflict and relations, entail historical arguments.

    It would be hard to avoid that if talking about Syria for example or trade deals.

    But if history or more accurately our understanding of history can only ever be a a complex jumble circumstance that leaves historical arguments a bit high and dry.

    Comment by NeilM — October 5, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

  19. ‘Committee for Public Safety’ which is my favourite sinister euphemism for a dictatorship ever

    That’s an artefact of French using the same word for “safety” and “security” – http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/french-english/s%C3%A9curit%C3%A9

    Same thing happens in German.

    Comment by richdrich — October 8, 2015 @ 4:50 pm


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