Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

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A riveting biography of the French Revolution's most enigmatic figure that restores him to his pivotal historic place

Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians, at once the most notorious leader of the French Revolution and the least comprehensible. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the only true defender of revolutionary ideals? Was his extreme moralism?he was known as "The Incorruptible"?a heroic virtue or...

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A riveting biography of the French Revolution's most enigmatic figure that restores him to his pivotal historic place

Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians, at once the most notorious leader of the French Revolution and the least comprehensible. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the only true defender of revolutionary ideals? Was his extreme moralism—he was known as "The Incorruptible"—a heroic virtue or a ruinous flaw? Was he the first modern dictator or the earliest democrat?

Against the dramatic backdrop of the French Revolution, historian Ruth Scurr follows the trajectory of Robespierre's paradoxical life, from his unprepossessing beginnings as a provincial lawyer opposed to repressive authority and the death penalty, to his meteoric rise in Paris politics as a devastatingly efficient revolutionary leader, righteous and paranoid in equal measure. She explores his reformist zeal, his role in the trial of the king and the fall of the monarchy, his passionate attempt to design a modern republic, even his extraordinary effort to found a perfect religion. And she follows him into the depths of the Terror, as he makes summary execution the order of the day, himself falling victim to the violence at the age of thirty-six.

Written with epic sweep, full of nuance and insight, Fatal Purity is a fascinating portrait of a man who identified with the Revolution to the point of madness, and in so doing changed the course of history.

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Editorial Reviews

Hilary Mantel
Scurr approaches his complicated story with brisk but sympathetic efficiency.... Her book is a straightforward narrative history, and she is a steady guide through complex events. It is judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point. Her explanations are economical and precise, her examples well chosen and imaginative, and her quotations from original sources pointed and apt. It is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read. It works well as a general history of the years 1789-94, besides being a succinct guide to one of its dominant figures.
The London Review of Books
Publishers Weekly
The short, violent life of Maximilien Robespierre was a mass of contradictions crowned with a supreme irony: this architect of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror would in July 1794 be executed by the same guillotine to which he had consigned so many others. Cambridge University historian Scurr says she has tried to write a biography that expresses "neither partisan adulation nor exaggerated animosity," but even she must conclude that with the Terror, he "kept moving through that gory river, because he believed it necessary for saving the Revolution. He can be accused of insanity and inhumanity but certainly not of insincerity." Robespierre can also be accused of being a revolutionary fanatic who hated atheists, and "became the living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral"; a dedicated upholder of republican virtues whose hands were smothered in blood; a fierce opponent of the death penalty who helped send thousands to their deaths; and a democratic tribune of the people who wore a sky-blue coat and embroidered waistcoats so aristocratic they wouldn't have been out of place at the court of the Sun King. Scurr's first book scores highly in unraveling not only her subject's complexities but those of his era. 2 maps. (Apr. 29) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Maximilien Robespierre was an ambitious provincial lawyer whose political career came to epitomize the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Few would argue that his commitment to egalitarian principles was anything less than genuine, but his intransigent commitment to these principles set the basis for a terror-based state whose legacy still haunts the postmodern world. Scurr (history, Cambridge) skillfully uses Robespierre's writings to provide insight into a complex personality of the man called the Incorruptible, who was kind and gentle in private life and a brutal infighter in the public arena. Scurr maintains that Robespierre's iron will sustained the Revolution during its most turbulent period but that within his fanaticism lurked the seeds of his demise. His Reign of Terror eventually devoured him. This is Scurr's first book, and one hopes that it is not her last. She evokes the temper of those times through the copious use of primary sources, and her characterizations of such personalities as Mirabeau, Marat, and Brissot are splendid. This is the best biography of the Incorruptible since David Jordan's The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre over 20 years ago and is highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Ruth Scurr does for Robespierre and the French Revolution what Quentin Bell did for Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: she apprehends the complete personality of the man, the moment, and the movement. A work of genuine scholarship and political literature, Fatal Purity is an electrifying biography of an epoch's vaulting ambitions and wounded pride, radical vision and terrifying uncertainty, bracing heroism and decimating energies." — Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780099458982
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/28/2007
  • Pages: 388
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in 1971, Ruth Scurr studied at Oxford and Cambridge, where she currently teaches politics and history. A prominent literary critic, she has written for The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. Fatal Purity is her first book.

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Read an Excerpt

Fatal Purity

Robespierre and the French Revolution

By Scurr, Ruth

Metropolitan Books

Copyright © 2006

Scurr, Ruth

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0805079874

My dear Croker,
I wish you would think seriously of the History of the Reign of Terror. I do not mean a pompous, philosophical history, but a mixture of biography, facts and gossip: a diary of what really took place with the best authenticated likenesses of the actors.
Ever yours,
Robert Peel1
Soon after he received this letter from his friend Sir Robert Peel, the once and future Tory prime minister, John Wilson Croker packed his bags for a seaside holiday. Although he was a prominent literary and political journalist and was hoping to work as he sat on the beach, Croker packed none of his collection of rare and fascinating books about the French Revolution that are now one of the glories of the British Library. He took with him only the list of those condemned to death during the Reign of Terror.2 He perused it against the rhythmic sound of waves breaking on the shore.
Twenty-two impoverished women, many of them widows, convicted of forwarding "the designs of the fanatics, aristocrats, priests and other agents of England," guillotined.
Nine private soldiers convicted of "pricking their own eyes with pins, and becoming by this cowardly artifice unable to bear arms," guillotined.
Jean Baptiste Henry,aged eighteen, journeyman tailor, convicted of sawing down a tree of liberty, guillotined.
Henrietta Frances de Marbœuf, aged fifty-five, convicted of hoping for the arrival in Paris of the Austrian and Prussian armies and of hoarding provisions for them, guillotined.
James Duchesne, aged sixty, formerly a servant, since a broker; John Sauvage, aged thirty-four, gunsmith; Frances Loizelier, aged forty-seven, milliner; Mélanie Cunosse, aged twenty-one, milliner; Mary Magdalen Virolle, aged twenty-five, hairdresser: all convicted for writing, guillotined.
Geneviève Gouvon, aged seventy-seven, seamstress, convicted of "various conspiracies since the beginning of the Revolution," guillotined.
Francis Bertrand, aged thirty-seven, convicted of producing "sour wine injurious to the health of citizens," guillotined.
Mary Angelica Plaisant, another seamstress, guillotined for exclaiming, "A fig for the nation!"
Relaxing into his holiday, Croker continued reading through the long list of dubious charges against the several thousand victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, from its institution on 10 March 1793 until the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 27 July 1794. He compiled some grimly fascinating statistics: in the last five months of Robespierre's life, when he supposedly secured tyrannous power over France and the Revolution, 2,217 people were guillotined in Paris; but the total condemned to death in the eleven months preceding Robespierre's Reign of Terror was only 399. On the basis of these statistics, Croker concluded that the executions "grew gradually with the personal influence of Robespierre, and became enormous in proportion as he successively extinguished his rivals."3 In awed horror he recalled, "These things happened in our time--thousands are still living who saw them, yet it seems almost incredible that batches (fournées--such was the familiar phrase)--of sixty victims should be condemned in one morning by the same tribunal, and executed the same afternoon on the same scaffold."
Although Peel pressed his friend to write a popular and accessible book about the French Revolution, Croker never did so. When he got back from his holiday in 1835 he published his seaside musings in an article for the Quarterly Review. Here he acknowledged the enormity of the problem Robespierre still poses biographers: "The blood-red mist by which his last years were enveloped magnified his form, but obscured his features. Like the Genius of the Arabian tale, he emerged suddenly from a petty space into enormous power and gigantic size, and as suddenly vanished, leaving behind him no trace but terror."4
Copyright 2006 by Ruth Scurr


Excerpted from Fatal Purity
by Scurr, Ruth
Copyright © 2006 by Scurr, Ruth.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Map of Revolutionary Paris x

Preface 1

Introduction 4

Part I Before the Revolution (1758-1788)

1 Child of Arras 15

2 The Lawyer-Poet Back Home 32

Part II The Revolution Begins (1788-1789)

3 Standing for Election in Arras 55

4 Representing the Nation at Versailles 70

Part III Reconstituting France (1789-1791)

5 The National Assembly in Paris 101

6 The Constitution 128

Part IV The Constitution Fails (1791-1792)

7 War 161

8 The King's Trial 198

Part V The Terror (1793-1794)

9 The Pact with Violence 233

10 Robespierre's Red Summer 288

Coda 326

Notes 328

Bibliography 349

Acknowledgements 363

Chronology 365

Index 370

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2007

    A reviewer

    Ruth Scurr successfully manages to be neither overly critical nor too flattering in explaining Maximilien Robespierre to her readers. Scurr highlights the significant influence of the classical Greek and Roman tradition and the 18th century Enlightenment on Robespierre¿s intellect. Scurr also quotes Robespierre and his contemporaries to give her audience further insights into the complex, contradictory personality of the Incorruptible. To his detractors, present and past, Robespierre was the first of a long list of modern dictators. Think for instance about the multiple purges over which dictators such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein presided during their respective reigns of terror. Terror increasingly became self-perpetuating and indiscriminate when Robespierre was at the apex of his power in 1793 ¿ 1794. Robespierre, unable to compromise, convinced himself that he embodied France and the Revolution. Unsurprisingly, anyone who did not share his views was a traitor to France and therefore a counterrevolutionary who deserved death. Terror could only be stopped by Robespierre¿s own elimination. To his supporters, present and past, Robespierre was the first modern democrat. Robespierre embraced the social contract theory of government that Jean-Jacques Rousseau propagated and the concept of republican virtue that Charles-Louis de Secondat (Montesquieu) advocated. Robespierre built a genuine reputation as the defender of the poor and weak in the different positions that he assumed, especially after the Revolution. Robespierre went far in his quest for power because he sincerely believed everything he was saying and convinced many people around him of his sincerity in working for the well-being of the Revolution. Perhaps, more importantly, the fate of Robespierre is a stern warning to the revolutionaries of all stripes, present and future. Revolutions often devour their own children.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 22, 2013


    I was inspired to read this book after reading "A Place of Greater Safety" by Hilary Mantel. I was intrigued by this man who never witnessed any of the public executions, but was so willing to change the rules of a fair trial to promulgate his philosophy of a free people and who was often consulted by his fellow revolutionaries only to say they had simply misunderstood him. Scurr describes a paranoid hypochondriac, often vain and petty and overly sensitive to any criticism of his ideas. He never ventured far from his home of Arras and Paris, never learned any languages beyond his native French and classical languages, never participated in mob takeovers and yet his speeches led to the execution of Louis the 16th, Marie Antoinette, Desmoulins, and Danton. He based his world view on the writings of Roussesu and amazingly helped to overturn the entrenched control and power held by the Catholic Church. He promoted through his lengthy speeches the ideas of democracy and education for all, including women. When he failed to develop allies with both England and America, which was a little far fetched since they had been engaged in war with one another, he wound up despising them. He admired Benjamin Franklin and other American leaders but never received a response to his correspondence with them. He favored silk stockings, oranges, powdered wigs, green tinted glasses, and dogs. A wounded Robespierre was led to the guillotine wearing a sky blue waistcoat as he was called "Monster" by the very people that admired him only months before. His fanatical ideals led him to death; the same ideals that resulted in the deaths of his friends, priests, women and children and countless others. I highly recommend this book. It is well written, well researched and thoughtfully constructed.

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    Posted February 19, 2010

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    Posted November 22, 2009

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