Hilary Mantel: A Place of Greater Safety
Mantel’s novel is basically the story of the French Revolution, told primarily from the point of view of the main participants, rather than as a historical document. She focuses her story on three of the main actors in the Revolution – Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre – starting with their births and ending the book with the guillotining of Desmoulins and Danton. Though we follow their careers and their personal lives in some detail, we also meet a host of other characters – from Louis XVI and Mirabeau to the families of the three protagonists. While painting a fairly detailed portrait of how the Revolution came about, both in terms of the historical imperative as well as the characters of the three protagonists and others, on both sides of the political spectrum, Mantel also lets the various characters give their point of view.
The events of the French Revolution are well known and can be found in numerous books and websites so there is no point in enumerating them here. In her introduction, Mantel makes it clear that, while she will follow the historical narrative where she can, for the rest she will make educated guesses. She also makes clear that she tries to give the perspective of the main characters rather than an objective account of events, which she does to a certain degree. I say to a certain degree because clearly she is revolted by many of the excesses of the main participants. Saint-Just and Fouquier-Tinville, who only really appear towards the end, come in for particular criticism, as does Robespierre, particularly at the end, when he sacrifices Danton. She is also critical of some of the foibles of the participants. Danton is shown as corrupt (he takes bribes) and a sex maniac. After his wife dies he marries a fifteen-year old girl and forces himself on more than one woman, including the wife of his best friend, Camille Desmoulins. Desmoulins, for his part, also is loose in his sexual morals, having an affair with his future wife and her mother at the same time, and then letting his wife have affairs with both Danton and Arthur Dillon.
Mantel does not neglect the female perspective. We learn a lot about the various women in the life of the protagonists. Danton’s two wives, Desmoulins’ wife and mother-in-law/lover, various possible wives for Robespierre (who never marries) and participants in the Revolution such as Louise de Kéralio (link in French), Manon Roland and, in particular, Anne Théroigne. However, there is one woman who was key and who is mentioned on many occasions but whom we barely see and that is, of course, Marie Antoinette. Mantel gives us more details of the female perspective, including the accounts of child births, servants and similar domestic issues. However, her great skill is to marry both the details of the personal lives of the main characters to the political and historical events of the Revolution. The book is long – 750 pages – but a lot happens in those pages and Mantel certainly never let us get bored.
First published 1992 by Viking