Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety is set in the epoch-making French Revolution and centers on Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximillien Robespierre. There are guest starring roles by Marat and Lucile Duplessis and despite it’s impressive length, is never overwrought or dull. The human and political elements blend almost seamlessly in such a way that neither is privileged: it is neither a novel of ideas nor a romantic novel. It is simply a very enjoyable and intellectually edifying novel.
One of the unexpected aspects of the novel is the way in which Mantel uses the tropes of romantic fiction and soap operas to deepen conflict and drive characters. Based on her own historical research, the sexual tensions depicted are real and give color to the cheeks of the characters and illustrate that they are not uni-dimensional abstractions of ideals but desiring bodies. And as soon as mobs are authorized to act as a supplement to police power and the Guillotine makes it appearance, it becomes clear that these are bodies which not only desire political power but to live. When the politics one promotes can suddenly be cause for execution, the stakes of the game are raised and this can lead to complex and emotionally charged scenes. In this particular type of scene as Camille, consistently shown to be the least in control of his emotions, consistently pulls the reader in to empathize with him. As he tried to save his former lovers and adversaries that he respects for their personal qualities from the at time capricious whim of revolutionary energies let loose the repulsion at the Reign of Terror takes on a more personal tone.
One of the notable aspects of this novelization of history is Mantel’s masterful depiction of various vantage points amongst ideologically disparate characters. Through their commentary we can see with a degree of irony the Duke of Orleans attempting to undermine his dissolute brother’s kingship so he could usurp it by throwing money at radical agitators. In this process he goes nearly broke and in effect funds the political machine that would later take his head. Considering the magnitude of events, it is not just the irony of situations that Mantel uncovers, but questions of basic political economy in period of great social unrest as they try to form into a new status quo. For instance, Mantel shows amongst the flow of events that one of the problems of adopting an ethically based absolute meritocracy in the opening phase of a revolutionary struggle is to repulse men of skill and attract men of belief. It is too simplistic to cast it as the pragmatism of Danton vs the idealism of Robespierre and Marat as the historical context determines possibilities. And in this Mantel is masterful in showing that were it not for Danton’s quasi-criminal nepotism portions of the Jacobin clubs would have disintegrated into oppositional movements of greater size or intensity than they were to later develop. What this would have meant for the period following the storming of the Bastille and the foundation of the National Assembly and later the Convention, through the unfolding of new events related to national security, the costs of food and the introduction of new characters that were not “the old Cordeliers” is not speculated on. However the play of forces on the table does make it seem unlikely that the movement towards Constitutionalism would have maintained cohesion. Without being too heavy handed, Mantel also shows how the revolution of social classes is also a symbolic one affecting language in a way that is quite powerful and dangerous.
As a final note, as someone’s who’s already read Citizen’s Robespierre’s speeches and writing, the book gave me a fresh interest in reading the journalism of Camille Desmoulins. The Lanterne Attorney is praised and feared by all of the characters in the novel and is probably one of the most relatable characters amidst the pantheon of great men that were pulled together in this exceptional novel.