Off with their heads – but get inside them first

If Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has one, consistent observation, it’s the capacity of human beings with good intentions to really mess things up. Or, to go with the slightly more elegant phrasing of Baron Acton, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Not an original idea, neither in history nor in literature, but in Mantel’s 872-page epic it is by turns fascinating, horrific, entertaining and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

 The novel retells the French Revolution through the stories of three of its most controversial figures: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. We meet each of these characters almost before birth and follow them through childhood, young adulthood, and then inevitably the Revolution itself, with all its idealism, corruption, treachery, alliance, triumph and misery. Though I can’t judge how accurate the facts are (the French Revolution was unforgivably out of fashion in our syllabus, and we did such worthy topics as ‘The Birth of American Democracy’ and ‘Stalin’s Russia’, instead) the story-telling is breathtakingly good. Mantel sketches her giant cast of players with a range of narrative techniques and skips from viewpoint to viewpoint – first person, third person, pages of dialogue set out like a script – which can irritate when someone’s story gets to an interesting point and we forget them for a hundred pages, but is nevertheless completely absorbing. (It’s also grimly funny, though perhaps the phrase ‘gallows humour’ is less appropriate here than ‘guillotine humour’.) She fills out a character so well that by the time the three protagonists play their part in the Revolution we like them, and have an appalling, persistent sympathy that makes their later slide into corruption and cruelty feel like a betrayal. The real horror of the ending – which will be obvious to anyone with access to Wikipedia – is that we’ve been inside their heads so much that, repulsed though we are, we understand.

It’s quite a feat, and one that will break even the most stony-hearted of readers – which I am not. I staggered off to a meeting in a haze of disappointed hopes, and had much trouble explaining why I was heartbroken about the French Revolution.  

Saints and sinners: Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins

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