A Place of Greater Safety: The Pre-Revolutionary Background:
Louis XV is named the Well-Beloved. Ten years pass. The same people believe the Well-Beloved takes baths of human blood… Avoiding Paris, ever shut up at Versailles, he finds even there too many people, too much daylight. He wants a shadowy retreat….
In a year of scarcity (they were not uncommon then) he was hunting as usual in the Forest of Senart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired, ‘Whither he was conveying it?’ ‘To such a place.’ ‘For a man or a woman?’ ‘A man.’ ‘What did he die of?’ ‘Hunger.’ (Jules Michelet)
Sir Francis Burdett, British Ambassador, on Paris: ‘It is the most ill-contrived, ill-built, dirty stinking town that can possibly be imagined; as for the inhabitants, they are ten times more nasty than the inhabitants of Edinburgh.’
Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety
Winner of the 1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, this French Revolution novel is a hugely ambitious work.
It’s a complex narrative tapestry following three of the main characters of the revolution – Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. We also hear from the women in their lives and other characters.
Camille (who appears on older covers of the novel as above) is in fact the lynchpin. Not just in terms of acting as a link between his more famous friends. But also in inciting the original riots that led to the storming of the Bastille.
Mantel portrays him as a mercurial character: youthful, egotistical, neurotic, moody, arrogant, bisexual. And forever tossing his long dark hair in between writing furious articles against the old guard. He is courted by all sorts, politically and otherwise.
Because of his beauty and diminutive size, most of the other characters try to protect him. Not always realising how sly and manipulative he really is. The rest want to murder him, or go to bed with him, or possibly both.
He has his eye on an older woman, before making a cunning sideways shift to her daughter, Lucile.
Danton, never a model of probity himself, suggests he might have both. Though Camille doesn’t mean to fall in love with his would-be mistress’s daughter, he does. But it’s also clear that he’s in love with Danton.
Danton is, appropriately, a larger than life character – with a huge appetite for sex, women, food, conflict and dodgy dealings.
While Camille stammers, Danton bellows, since he possesses the strongest pair of lungs in the Cordeliers district.
He has a knack for always being somewhere else when the trouble starts. And his physical unattractiveness in no way impedes his appeal to women. Far from it, Camille’s young wife is thoroughly wound up about him. Much to Camille’s vicarious enjoyment.
There’s a curious threesome thing going on throughout this novel. First with Camille chasing both the mother and daughter, then with his interest in Danton and young Lucile, and then Lucile’s attraction to both Camille and Danton. But it’s an underlying tension rather than something played out for real.
Robespierre is a very different personality, and possibly the least well-drawn.
Even by the end of the book, he’s something of an enigma.
The novel begins when the three men are still young. Camille is four. Later, Camille attends Louis Le Grand school. There, Robespierre, who is a little older, takes charge of him.
Camille, soon something of a celebrity at the school, is Robespierre’s first and only friend.
Some of the other friends and opponents in the future revolutionary struggle are also students. Mantel includes a true event when the new king and queen pay a visit to the school. The pupils have waited in the rain for the royal couple to arrive. The scholarship boy has memorised his speech ready to greet them.
But Marie Antoinette is bored. And the king orders the coach to leave even as the scholarship boy still recites his speech.
‘Never mind, de Robespierre,’ a priest commiserates, ‘it could have happened to anyone.’
~ A Place of Greater Safety
No hint is given later that Robespierre ever dwelled on the incident. He’s portrayed as very much against the death penalty, a young lawyer of high principles.
But it’s the extent to which he is willing to pursue his principles that’s the problem.
He wonders if he could sacrifice a friend to his beliefs before he realises he has no friends.
Then he remembers, he has Camille.
The narrative threads come together
While Robespierre begins his law career out in the provinces, Camille meets Danton in Paris. There they represent opposing sides in a court case.
Camille tells Danton about his distant cousins – Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, and Antoine Saint-Just. The former, according to gossip, murdered his wife. The latter is currently in prison for stealing the family silver.
Years later, Fouquier-Tinville will head the tribunal which tries Danton and his friends.
And when Saint-Just finally appears, he’s worse than Robespierre in his po-faced political extremism. It’s hard to imagine him capable of any youthful indiscretions.
However, he did once nurture ambitions to be a poet.
Camille, who abandons law for writing and publishing, makes the fatal mistake of ridiculing some poetry Saint-Just sends him. A slight which Saint-Just never forgets.
Mantel takes an often wry omniscient view of her characters, but also allows them to speak for themselves.
So Danton takes over the narrative in places, as does his wife Gabrielle. Camille’s would-be-mistress and eventual mother-in-law Annette is another viewpoint character, as is her daughter, Lucile.
Sometimes the narrative is third person, sometimes first. Mantel also weaves in contemporary quotes and accounts from her real-life characters.
She can also turn on a pin from a revolutionary cutting off someone’s head, to a London playbill on the very next page:
18 August 1789
At Astley’s Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge
(after rope-dancing by Signior Spinacuta)
An Entire New and Splendid Spectacle
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
From Sunday 12 July to Wednesday 15 July (inclusive)
PARIS IN AN UPROAR
displaying one of the grandest and most extraordinary
entertainments that ever appeared
Because of the complexity of the characters and events, there’s not much time spent on description. Some of the dialogue is written in script form.
Marat looms on the edges of the book, huge and loathsome in appearance.
The king is clueless about politics. He’s also subject to the stronger influence of his wife, Marie Antoinette. His cousin, the Duke of Orleans, is ambitious for the throne, and also manipulated and advised by his mistress.
Choderlos de Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liaisons, is in the duke’s pay. He’s a spy and recruiter of useful people – like Camille.
When the reader becomes complicit
A Place of Greater Safety is not just an account of events leading up to the Terror. It also draws the reader into a compact with the characters.
By making Danton and Camille attractive personalities, she seduces the reader into their dubious machinations. So that the reader themself ultimately colludes with them.
Perhaps the most chilling scene in the book takes place once Danton, Camille and their friends are in power. They draw up a list of people who will be executed. Camille is left to bargain for the life of an ex-lover.
Swept up in events, they have all moved beyond the point of no return.
What these amusing, entertaining and seductive characters do in that room is nothing less than evil.
And as Camille’s agitated father-in-law points out, Camille is now part of the new establishment.
‘You don’t understand, anyone who wants to make a revolution, has to make it against him.’
~ A Place of Greater Safety
But Camille, ever one to risk political suicide, wakes up to reality. He turns on the Terror itself when he writes a tract comparing current events to Rome during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.
The title of the novel’s penultimate chapter is Conditional Absolution. Camille partially redeems himself. But in doing so he pits himself against Saint-Just. And Robespierre, the man who once wondered whether he could ever sacrifice a friend for his principles.
Danton’s fate is well known. As is Robespierre’s.
Most people will not have heard of Camille and some of the other characters – don’t look them up on Wikipedia. Read the novel instead.
It’s a fabulous account of good ideas gone bad.
Mantel also spares plenty of humanity for all her characters. From Marie Antoinette needing to urinate before her execution, to the ridiculous but still likeable Duke Philippe of Orleans.
However, there is a word of warning. The cast of characters is large and the book runs to almost 900 pages.
A Place of Greater Safety will either defeat you or take over your life. For me, it’s quite possibly the best historical novel I’ve ever read.