A Place of Greater Safety

“Burning is not answering.”

A Place of Greater Safety, an epic novel, pulls us from the childhood to the demise of three French revolutionaries: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre (actually, we end with the guillotining of Camille and Danton, but Robespierre did follow not too long after). These were exceptional men living in a frenetic period in history.

There is some intense magic to Mantel’s work. It is cuttingly witty at times, and there is a deep pathos for characters who are vulnerable and flawed–particularly for Camille, who seems the most fragile and yet the strongest of the three main characters. He has a stutter and is given to strange outbursts, he seems unable to cope with everyday things, and yet he made incendiary speeches that urged Parisians to storm the Bastille, he was devoted to his wife Lucile, and he appears to have been capable of doing things–when he wanted to. Camille’s biting irreverence is itself endearing. Danton is likable in the way of a cowboy: big, loud, and a bit loutish, he oozes the kind of get-it-done attitude that is so appealing. You can’t miss that he is an opportunist, or corrupt, depending on your interpretation. It isn’t until the end that there is really a great deal of sympathy for him. After the death of his long-suffering wife (“convenient, to start loving her now,” one thinks Camille might have said), he becomes disillusioned with politics and stands up against the killing spree known at the Terror. It’s here we see that, bullish or no, corrupt or no, Danton has principles that he is willing to die for. Robespierre is as always (and even for a writer as brilliant as Mantel) opaque. She does a superb job of showing a mind that demanded such rigidity that things had to be broken to fit into the right place. Unforgiving and unmovable (and Incorruptible), he sends his oldest and dearest friend–Camille–to his death. To most of us, this would be inexplicable. To Robespierre, it’s a tragic necessity. It is one of the more horrifying transformations from friend to foe I’ve ever read, and an illustration of the dangers of inflexibility and over-zealousness.

There are moments of absolute brilliance. Particular lines just about took my breath away with their humor, wit, and intelligence. Though this ends tragically, there are light moments that make it easier–and at the same time more difficult–to swallow the end. The reader isn’t forced to wallow in the coming death (though a few startling reminders are sprinkled throughout that “Danton is halfway through his life” etc). However, these happy moments and the joy brought to us by Camille, Danton, their friends, and occasionally by Robespierre make it all the more difficult to accept their demise.

One of my favorite lines comes as several people are discussing Camille. It is almost exclusively a dialogue between these people (I can’t recall who or how many people spoke). At the end of the scene, up pops Camille to say, “I wish you wouldn’t speak about me like I’m not here.” Ironic and hilarious; we, the reader, didn’t even know he was there until he spoke up. It catches one off guard and recasts the entire conversation that went before. And it makes you love Camille for his sharp, unexpected interjections.

And that is how one is left; rather appalled that these people, these towering characters who have thus far swept all before them, are actually gone. These are delicate human lives like any others, and its shocking that these fascinating people were snuffed out with such finality and for no particular reason. The cycle of killings was illogical and cruel. When Saint-Just shows blank arrest warrants to fellow judges and then puts their names on them (like a sadistic blank check) in order to bully them, I said aloud, “Bastard. What a piece of shit.”

What a wonderful book! I enjoyed it, probably more so than Wolf Hall. The lack of present tense in A Place of Greater Safety probably helped. And yet, as much as I wanted to kiss Hilary Mantel, I wanted to strangle her. Brilliant, yes, but there were things that drove me slightly batty. There is the habit of not telling us who is speaking. This can be confusing, and though I feel it’s intentional (in some way), the effect is often confusing-in-a-bad-way instead of confusing-in-a-good-way–too clever by half, shall we say. And for such an enormous book, it does an amazingly poor job of telling exactly what was happening. Instead, we pick around the edges of it; we hear people talk about big events beforehand and afterward; we get snippets of some of the action. But the narrative of the Revolution isn’t told. For someone not particularly well-acquainted with the maze-like happenings of the Revolution, it became very difficult to follow. It doesn’t help that the characters (our only source of real information) tiptoe around issues.

In theory, I have no problem with the length of the book, because we are talking about an epic story. It does drag towards the middle, though, and I get the feeling that, beautiful as it is, we are only seeing more and more of the characters acting like themselves. This sounds strange, I admit; but it is simply witty repartee piled upon itself, and it feels like we aren’t moving much of anywhere. The last 100 pages or so is the pay-off. After sticking with it for hundreds and hundreds of pages, the ending packs enormous punch. It is perhaps because we have gone deeper and deeper into these people’s minds and come to love them–and also because we’ve persevered at their side for 700 pages–that the ending has such an impact.

As this is a blog about ancien regime French history, I should probably explain two things: 1) I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy of A Place of Greater Safety, but there are such fantastic details and she has such a deep understanding of these people that I have to believe her research in amazingly good. 2) The events of the Revolution were in some ways a break from ancien regime France, but in many ways there was a continuity. The Affair of the Necklace was, after all, partly to blame for bringing down the Bourbons and raising up Camille, Danton, and Robespierre.

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