Eight hundred pages later, I don’t know much more about the greater events of the French Revolution, but I know tremendously more of the major personalities that drove it.
This novel spans a cacophony of different voices — shifting tenses through the all-powerful third person omniscient point-of-view, through transcripts, quotations, and occasional first person narratives — but chiefly follows three of the major players:
Writer, orator, and “inveterate hell-raiser”, Camille Desmoulins.
The loud, physically-imposing lawyer-leader, Georges-Jacques Danton.
And enigmatic, doctrine-literalist, Maximilien Robespierre.
Mantel examines their complicated relationship with patriotism and revolution juxtaposed with their lust for (respectively) fame, wealth, and… well, it’s not entirely certain what Robespierre lusts for. He seems to be lying to himself and is prone to bouts of hypocrisy for much of his political career. This is most evident in his opposition to the death penalty paired with the enormous amount of citizens he sent to the guillotine.
They’re all bad people. In one way or another. Yet Mantel keeps them sympathetic — not least of all by glossing over or making indistinct the number of deaths they directly or indirectly contributed to. This is good because the greater part of the novel is dialogue and those three spend a lot of time chattering at each other or another member of the prodigious cast. Their physicality is notable. Slight Camille pushing his long hair out of his face or putting his hands to said face; The physical presence and fright of Danton; Robespierre’s mental state tied to facial tics and whether or not his hair is powdered.
Unlike Wolf Hall, this book is more difficult to follow without some knowledge of French history. I only have high school history class at my disposal and suffered at parts. It focuses heavily on a certain of kind of middle class intellectual — the frequenters of the Jacobin clubs of the time and anyone with interpersonal relationships involving the three main protagonists. The common person is rarely more than a fickle element of a volatile mob. Uneducated and requiring society’s elite to guide them. Major events such as the King’s execution are skimmed over or summarized in a single line*. There is also an endless cavalcade of committees, sections, clubs, deputies, ministers, conventions, assemblies, and so on. I could not keep track. Maybe this is the intention. I am sure it was difficult to keep track as a bystander during the time and that might be the point, but I am not certain.
The writing is masterful; not quite as polished as in Wolf Hall and its sequel, but very good. It’s quite funny at times. It oscillates perspective and tense with ease. And it proves that the third person omniscient narrative (narrator knows all characters thoughts at any given time) is not dead in the modern novel and is excellent if used correctly. On the other hand, it really did not have to be so long. There’s a lengthy head scratching sequence following Madame Roland despite her role in the overarching narrative being minimal. It certainly did not need every working day conversation between Danton and Camille, but part of the charm of the novel is that time passes but feels natural rather than the author pressing fast forward on the time remote. It’s not just about the society shattering events, but the day-to-day.
Anyway, like most books about revolution and political upheaval, A Place of Greater Safety asks: When you topple the old regime and overthrow the despot, how do you prevent the new boss form just being as bad as the old boss? It doesn’t attempt an answer. It does leave us with an evocative quote courtesy of the Comte de Mirabeau:
“Liberty is a bitch that likes to be fucked on a mattress of corpses.”
*The line is something like “And Louis, the King, is quicklimed.” I only understood this due to a distant child association of my grandfather gardening. The King has become fertilizer. Intensive googling revealed that I understood very little. Quicklime hastens decomposition, meaning the sentence is literal — the king was killed and some one(s) used a chemical reaction utilized in soil balance to melt his corpse. There’s further meaning behind this, according to this website, the practice was typically used for pauper’s graves. They were shallow so the less you had to bury the better.
I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed.