Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
  • Alternative view 1 of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
  • Alternative view 2 of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

4.5 4
by Ruth Scurr
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

"Judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point. This is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read."
—Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books

Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the

…  See more details below

Overview

"Judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point. This is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read."
—Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books

Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the only true defender of revolutionary ideals? The first modern dictator or the earliest democrat? Was his extreme moralism a heroic virtue or a ruinous flaw?

Against the dramatic backdrop of the French Revolution, historian Ruth Scurr tracks Robespierre's evolution from provincial lawyer to devastatingly efficient revolutionary leader, righteous and paranoid in equal measure. She explores his reformist zeal, his role in the fall of the monarchy, his passionate attempts to design a modern republic, even his extraordinary effort to found a perfect religion. And she follows him into the Terror, as the former death- penalty opponent 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.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

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
author of Fear: The History of a Political Ide Corey Robin
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.
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.

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780805082616
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
04/03/2007
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
448
Sales rank:
230,413
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt



Fatal Purity



Robespierre and the French Revolution



By Scurr, Ruth


Metropolitan Books



Copyright © 2006

Scurr, Ruth

All right reserved.


ISBN: 0805079874



Preface
 
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


Continues...




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.


Read More

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.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >