Some thoughts on Hilary Mantel's A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY

  • This is a phenomenal book. The other Mantel I've read is WOLF HALL, which is a terrific book and I don't begrudge it its Booker one bit; but it isn't a patch on A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.
  • No, I take it back, I suppose do begrudge the WOLF HALL win a bit, because the implication is "if you read just one Hilary Mantel book, make it this one!" and that ain't so.
  • One thing she does phenomenally well here, and I can't think of any other examples at all come to think of it, is portray a cohort of colourful, intelligent friends who by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time seize - and are seized by - History. But they were by no means destined for it. If the aristocrats had been just a little less corrupt and incompetent, they could have tottered on for another 5-10 years before revolution came, and then it wouldn't have been Camille/Danton/Robespierre's revolution. (And what then of Bonaparte?)
  • As a result, the character's don't feel like Camille Desmoulins, and Danton, and Robespierre, the titans of history; they feel more like people you know. In fact, I couldn't help occasionally casting friends of mine as them (and as Lucile, and as Anne Théroigne) as I read, and I bet I'm not the only one.
  • She does this by not beginning with "the cataclysm" - the days before Bastille Day - but rather with a slow burn and build starting from the births of our three protagonists, and their schooling, and their collective finding of feet in the legal profession, and Camille's initial relationship with Lucile and her mother - all very historically accurately, but not Historical Events, if you take my meaning. But it works, not least because Mantel's such a terrific writer that even at this stage her sentences are like rapier thrusts.
  • She also completely convincingly portrays the slow transformation of Robespierre from unpaid advocate for the poor / devout anti-death-penalty activist to mild-mannered blood-drenched dictator. Every step along that road makes sense. It's his very saintliness, his purity, that is the source of the Terror, in the end. I feel like I understand Orwell's famous line "Saints must always be considered guilty until proven innocent" a little better now.
  • Whereas Danton is corrupt and verging on amoral, and Camille a headstrong enfant terrible, but both are still pragmatic idealists, in their own way, unlike purist idealists, like Robespierre and Saint-Just.
  • I'm reminded of a conversation with my sister once, about why right-wing political groups so often seem so much more effective than left-wing ones (cf. the right-wing governments in left-wing UK and Canada, where the liberal votes are split across two parties.) The conclusion we came to is that most right-wingers -- the non-religious types, for instance -- don't really care if their fellow-travellers-of-the-moment are ideologically pure: Tea Party? Libertarian? Wall Street mogul? Whatever! "We'll all work together now, and sort out our differences later!" Whereas left-wingers tend to put much greater stress on ideological purity: "How can we possibly work together now, before we sort out our differences?"
  • There's a real extra frisson/edge to reading this book in Cambodia, which suffered through the worst of all revolutions thirty-five years ago (one which killed an estimated one-third of the population); Bangkok, a gleaming ultramodern city of skyscrapers and skytrains which still had a gargantuan mob of armed insurrectionists occupying its streets not two years ago; and now Burma, which has been in the iron fists of tyrants for decades ... except that over the last two years said tyrants have been unilaterally relaxing that iron grip, something almost unprecedented. Visceral reminders all that revolutions don't just take place in historical fiction.
  • Camille, Danton, and Robespierre were the protagonists of APoGS, but it became increasingly clear to me as the book progressed that Lucile was the hero, inasmuch as there was one. And her transformation from callow shallow twelve-year-old to revolutionary princess and warrior was quite superbly depicted.
  • I wonder if the Terror would have been possible without the guillotine. It just wasn't possible, before the invention of that dread device, to execute so many people so quickly with anything like the decorum that a state execution requires. The very notion wouldn't even have occurred to people. But once it became possible to slaughter the enemies of the state in a neat, almost surgical manner, at a rate of one every five minutes... well, then, it became almost inevitable that someone would start doing so.
  • One thing that struck me; if France was riven by discord, and the streets of Paris running red with the blood of the Terror, why were its armies ultimately so insanely effective? A theory: at the time, European warfare was in large part a game in which aristocrats could show how brave they were while killing off thousands of the lower classes. So their armies were incredibly inefficient. Whereas the French army, once suitably revolutionized -- eg by the execution of generals on the word of their maltreated troops, at the hands of (25-year-old!) Saint-Just when he was at the front -- improved drastically in both valor and efficiency.
  • Looking back, the French Revolution was just a hopeless and hapless disaster; some 20,000 people died in the Terror and the September massacres, including almost all of the flower of the Revolution itself, and yet, a mere decade after Bastille Day, Napoleon was King in all but name. I suppose, though, we have to forgive some of the many incredible mistakes they made, as no one had ever made them before; they were making it up as they went. And they killed each other for it.


Bill h said…
And that is why I loved it so. I cannot think of another novel to make you feel the past is so present. I too cast the characters as my friends - can you guess who was Camille?

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