What do you know about the French Revolution? Last month, I knew precious little. I remembered a few details: There was Bastille day, and then Robespierre was the bad guy, and some guy got murdered in a bathtub, and the Queen got her head cut off, right? But which happened first? And what’s the difference between a sans-culotte and a Jacobin?
If you liked Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (and you should, they’re amazing), then go back and read A Place of Greater Safety, Hillary Mantel’s similarly excellent treatment of the French Revolution.
(Don’t go thinking history is all Mantel does, though. Her output is wildly diverse. I’m trying to read all of it, and so far, it’s all fantastic. Beyond Black, about a fortune-teller in post-Thatcher Britain, still stays with me).
So, the Revolution: If it confuses us today, it’s because it was confusing then, too. And it was long – the Bastille fell several years before Louis and Antoinette were forced from the throne. All that time, there were shifting and uncertain alliances: Some wanted a constitutional monarchy. Some wanted riots so they could suppress them and become heroes. Some wanted Louis gone and replaced with a different king. Some wanted a republic. Others anarchy. We think about it as good and evil, but of course it’s not that simple, ever. We remember Robespierre as a villain but up until the end, his friends regarded him as the most ethical of revolutionaries.
Even after reading this book, I can’t quite keep all the factions and intrigues straight – but I’m pretty sure that even the participants didn’t, either. I wonder how similar this story is to those of other revolutions, not just the American Revolution but also the current unrest in the Middle East today: All of these noble causes and common enemies come to a boil, and then the realization that the fight is now a struggle to govern.