"Brilliant, edgy historical fiction that catches the jittery, violent flux of the French Revolution."--Michael Upchurch, Chicago Tribune
"Riveting historical novel"--The New Yorker
The story of three young provincials of no great heritage who together helped to destroy a way of life and, in the process, destroyed themselves: Camille Desmoulins, bisexual and beautiful, charming, erratic, untrustworthy; Georges Jacques Danton, hugely but erotically ugly, a brilliant pragmatist who knew how to seize power and use it; and Maximilien Robespierre,
The story of three young provincials of no great heritage who together helped to destroy a way of life and, in the process, destroyed themselves: Camille Desmoulins, bisexual and beautiful, charming, erratic, untrustworthy; Georges Jacques Danton, hugely but erotically ugly, a brilliant pragmatist who knew how to seize power and use it; and Maximilien Robespierre, "the rabid lamb," who would send his dearest friend to the guillotine. Each, none older than thirty-four, would die by the hand of the very revolution he had helped to bring into being.
Life as a Battlefield
Now that the dust has settled, we can begin to look at our situation. Now that the last red tile has been laid on the roof of the New House, now that the marriage contract is four years old. The town smells of summer; not very pleasant, that is, but the same as last year, the same as the years to follow. The New House smells of resin and wax polish; it has the sulphurous odor of family quarrels brewing.
Maître Desmoulins's study is across the courtyard, in the Old House that fronts the street. If you stand in the Place des Armes and look up at the narrow white facade, you can often see him lurking behind the shutters on the first floor. He seems to stare down into the street; but he is miles away, observers say. This is true, and his location is very precise. Mentally, he is back in Paris.
Physically, at this moment, he is on his way upstairs. His three-year-old son is following him. As he expects the child to be under his feet for the next twenty years, it does not profit him to complain about this. Afternoon heat lies over the streets. The babies, Henriette and Elisabeth, are asleep in their cribs. Madeleine is insulting the laundry girl with a fluency and venom that belie her gravid state, her genteel education. He closes the door on them.
As soon as he sits down at his desk, a stray Paris thought slides around his mind. This happens often. He indulges himself a little: places himself on the steps of the Châtelet court with a hard-wrung acquittal and a knot of congratulatory colleagues. He gives his colleagues names and faces. Where is Perrin this afternoon? And Vinot? Now he goes up twice a year, and Vinot—who used to discuss his Life Plan with him when they were students—had walked right past him in the Place Dauphine not knowing him at all.
That was last year, and now it is August, in the year of Grace 1763. It is Guise, Picardy; he is thirty-three years old, husband, father, advocate, town councillor, official of the bailiwick, a man with a large bill for a new roof.
He takes out his account books. It is only two months ago that Madeleine's family came up with the final installment of the dowry. They pretended—knowing that he could hardly disabuse them—that it was a kind of flattering oversight; that a man in his position, with steady work coming in, would hardly notice the last few hundred.
This was a typical de Viefville trick, and he could do nothing about it. They hammered him to the family mast while, quivering with embarrassment, he handed them the nails. He'd come home from Paris at their behest, to set things up for Madeleine. He hadn't known that she'd be turned thirty before her family considered his situation even halfway satisfactory.
What de Viefvilles do, they run things: small towns, large legal practices. There are cousins all over the Laon district, all over Picardy: a bunch of nerveless crooks, always talking. One de Viefville is Mayor of Guise, another is a member of that august judicial body, the Parlement of Paris. De Viefvilles generally marry Godards; Madeleine is a Godard, on her father's side. The Godards' name lacks the coveted particle of nobility; for all that, they tend to get on in life, and when you attend in Guise and environs a musical evening or a funeral or a Bar Association dinner, there is always one present to whom you can genuflect.
The ladies of the family believe in annual production, and Madeleine's late start hardly deters her. Hence the New House.
This child was his eldest, who now crossed the room and scrambled into the window seat. His first reaction, when the newborn was presented: this is not mine. The explanation came at the christening, from the grinning uncles and cradle-witch aunts: aren't you a little Godard then, isn't he a little Godard to his fingertips? Three wishes, Jean-Nicolas thought sourly: become an alderman, marry your cousin, prosper like a pig in clover.
The child had a whole string of names, because the godparents could not agree. Jean-Nicolas spoke up with his own preference, whereupon the family united: you can call him Lucien if you like, but We shall call him Camille.
It seemed to Desmoulins that with the birth of this first child he had become like a man floundering around in a sucking swamp, with no glimmering of rescue. It was not that he was unwilling to assume responsibilities; he was simply overwhelmed by the perplexities of life, paralyzed by the certainty that there was nothing constructive to be done in any given situation. The child particularly presented an insoluble problem. It seemed inaccessible to the processes of legal reasoning. He smiled at it, and it learned to smile back: not with the amicable toothless grin of most infants, but with what he took to be a flicker of amusement. Then again, he had always understood that the eyes of small babies did not focus properly, but this one—and no doubt it was entirely his imagination—seemed to look him over rather coolly. This made him uneasy. He feared, in his secret heart, that one day in company the baby would sit up and speak; that it would engage his eyes, appraise him and say, "You prick."
Standing on the window seat now, his son leans out over the square, and gives him a commentary on who comes and goes. There is the cure, there is M. Saulce. Now comes a rat. Now comes M. Saulce's dog; oh, poor rat.
"Camille," he says, "get down from there, if you drop out onto the cobbles and damage your brain you will never make an alderman. Though you might, at that; who would notice?"
Now, while he adds up the tradesmen's bills, his son leans out of the window as far as he can, looking for further carnage. The cure recrosses the square, the dog falls asleep in the sun. A boy comes with a collar and chain, subdues the dog and leads it home. At last Jean- Nicolas looks up. "When I have paid for the roof," he says, "I shall be flat broke. Are you listening to me? While your uncles continue to withhold from me all but the dregs of the district's legal work, I cannot get by from month to month without making inroads into your mother's dowry, which is supposed to pay for your education. The girls will be all right, they can do needlework, perhaps people will marry them for their personal charms. We can hardly expect you to get on in the same way."
"Now comes the dog again," his son says.
"Do as I tell you and come in from the window. And do not be childish."
"Why not?" Camille says. "I'm a child, aren't I?"
His father crosses the room and scoops him up, prizing his fingers away from the window frame to which he clings. His eyes widen in astonishment at being carried off by this superior strength. Everything astonishes him: his father's diatribes, the speckles on an eggshell, women's hats, ducks on the pond.
Jean-Nicolas carries him across the room. When you are thirty, he thinks, you will sit at this desk and, turning from your account books to the piffling local business on which you are employed, you will draft, for perhaps the tenth time in your career, a deed of mortgage on the manor house at Wiège; and that will wipe the look of surprise off your face. When you are forty, and graying, and worried sick about your eldest son, I shall be seventy. I shall sit in the sunshine and watch the pears ripen on the wall, and M. Saulce and the cure will go by and touch their hats to me.
What do we think about fathers? Important, or not? Here is what Rousseau says:
The oldest of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family, yet children remain tied to their father by nature only as long as they need him for their preservation.... The family may perhaps be seen as the first model of political society. The head of the state bears the image of the father, the people the image of his children.
So here are some more family stories.
M. Danton had four daughters: younger than these, one son. He had no attitude to this child, except perhaps relief at its gender. Aged forty, M. Danton died. His widow was pregnant, but lost the child.
In later life, the child Georges-Jacques thought he remembered his father. In his family the dead were much discussed. He absorbed the content of these conversations and transmuted them into what passed for memory. This serves the purpose. The dead don't come back, to quibble or correct.
M. Danton had been clerk to one of the local courts. There was a little money, some houses, some land. Madame found herself coping. She was a bossy little woman who approached life with her elbows out. Her sisters' husbands came by every Sunday, and gave her advice.
Subsequently, the children ran wild. They broke people's fences and chased sheep and committed various other rural nuisances. When accosted, they talked back. Children of other families they threw in the river.
"That girls should be like that!" said M. Camus, Madame's brother.
"It isn't the girls," Madame said. "It's Georges-Jacques. But look, they have to survive."
"But this is not some jungle," M. Camus said. "It is not Patagonia. It is Arcis-sur-Aube."
Arcis is green; the land around is flat and yellow. Life goes on at a steady pace. M. Camus eyes the child, where outside the window he throws stones at the bam.
"The boy is savage and quite unnecessarily large," he says. "Why has he got a bandage round his head?"
"Why should I tell you? You'll only bad-mouth him."
Two days ago, one of the girls had brought him home in the early warm dusk. They had been in the bull's field, she said, playing at Early Christians. This was perhaps the pious gloss Anne-Madeleine put on the matter; it was possible of course that not all the Church's martyrs agreed to be gored, and that some, like Georges-Jacques, went armed with pointed sticks. Half his face was ripped up from the bull's horn. Panic-stricken, his mother had taken his head in her hands and shoved the flesh together and hoped against hope it would stick. She bandaged it tightly and put another bandage around his head to cover the bumps and cuts on his forehead. For two days, with a helmeted, aggressive air, he stayed in the house and moped. He complained that he had a headache. This was the third day.
Twenty-four hours after M. Camus had taken his leave, Mme. Danton stood at the same window and watched—as if in a dazed, dreadful repeating dream—while her son's remains were manhandled across the fields. A farm laborer carried the heavy body in his arms; she could see how his knees bent under the deadweight. There were two dogs running after him with their tails between their legs; trailing behind came Anne-Madeleine, bawling with rage and despair.
When she reached them she saw that the man had tears in his eyes. "That bloody bull will have to be slaughtered," he said. They went into the kitchen. There was blood everywhere. It was all over the man's shirt, the dogs' fur, Anne-Madeleine's apron and even her hair. It went all over the floor. She cast around for something—a blanket, a clean cloth—on which to lay the corpse of her only son. The laborer, exhausted, swayed against the wall, marking the plaster with a long rust-colored streak.
"Put him on the floor," she said.
When his cheek touched the cold tiles of the floor, the child moaned softly; only then did she realize he wasn't dead. Anne-Madeleine was repeating the De profundis in a monotone: "From the morning watch even until night: let Israel hope in the Lord." Her mother hit her across the ear to shut her up. Then a chicken flew in at the door and got on her foot.
"Don't strike the girl," the laborer said. "She pulled him out from under its feet."
Georges-Jacques opened his eyes and vomited. They made him lie still, and felt his limbs for fractures. His nose was broken. He breathed bubbles of blood. "Don't blow your nose," the man said, "or your brains will drop out."
"Lie still, Georges-Jacques," Anne-Madeleine said. "You gave that bull something to think about. He'll run and hide when he sees you again."
His mother said, "I wish I had a husband."
No one had looked at his nose much before the incident, so no one could say whether a noble feature had been impaired. But the place scarred badly where the bull's horn had ripped up his face. The line of damage ran down the side of his cheek, and intruded a purple-brown spur into his upper lip.
The next year he caught smallpox. So did the girls; as it happened, none of them died. His mother did not think that the marks detracted from him. If you are going to be ugly it is as well to be whole-hearted about it, put some effort in. Georges turned heads.
When he was ten years old his mother married again. He was Jean Recordain, a merchant from the town; he was a widower, with one (quiet) boy to bring up. He had a few little eccentricities, but she thought they would do very well together. Georges went to school, a small local affair. He soon found that he could learn anything without the least trouble, so he did not allow school to impinge on his life. One day he was walked on by a herd of pigs. Cuts and bruises resulted, another scar or two hidden by his thick wiry hair.
"That's positively the last time I'll be trampled on by any animal," he said. "Four-legged or two-legged."
"Please God it may be," his stepfather said piously.
A year passed. One day he collapsed suddenly, with a burning fever, chattering teeth. He coughed sputum stained with blood, and a scraping, crackling noise came from his chest, quite audible to anyone in the room. "Lungs possibly not too good," the leech said. "All those ribs driven into them at frequent intervals. Sorry, my dear. Better fetch the priest."
The priest came. He gave him the last rites. But the boy failed to die that night. Three days later he still clung to a comatose half-life. His sister Marie-Cécile organized a cycle of prayers; she took the hardest shift, two o'clock in the morning till dawn. The parlor filled up with relations, sitting around trying to say the right thing. There were yawning silences, broken by the desperate sound of everyone speaking at once. News of each breath was relayed from room to room.
On the fourth day he sat up, recognized his family. On the fifth day he cracked jokes, and demanded food in quantity.
He was pronounced out of danger.
They had planned to open the grave, and bury him beside his father. The coffin, which they had put in an outhouse, had to be sent back. Luckily, they had only put a deposit on it.
When Georges-Jacques was convalescent, his stepfather made an expedition to Troyes. Upon his return, he announced that he had found the boy a place in the minor seminary.
"You dolt," his wife said. "Confess it, you just want him out of the house."
"How can I give my time to my inventions?" Recordain asked reasonably. "I'm living on a battlefield. If it's not stamping pigs it's crackling lungs. Who else goes in the river in November? Who else goes in at all? People in Arcis have no need to know how to swim. The boy's above himself."
"Perhaps he could be a priest, after all," Madame said, conciliatory.
"Oh yes," Uncle Camus said. "I can just see him minstering to his flock. Perhaps they'll send him on a Crusade."
"I don't know where he gets his brains from," Madame said. "There's no brains in the family."
"Thanks," her brother said.
"Of course, just because he goes to the seminary it doesn't mean he has to be a priest. There's the law. We've got law in the family."
"And if he disliked the verdict? The mind recoils."
"Anyway," Madame said, "let me keep him at home for a year or two, Jean. He's my only son. He's a comfort to me."
"Whatever makes you happy," Jean Recordain said. He was a mild, easygoing man who pleased his wife by doing exactly as she told him; much of his time nowadays he spent in an outlying farm building where he was inventing a machine for spinning cotton. He said it would change the world.
His stepson was fourteen years old when he removed his noisy and overgrown presence to the ancient cathedral city of Troyes. Troyes was an orderly town. The livestock had a sense of its lowly place in the universe, and the Fathers did not allow swimming. There seemed an outside chance that he would survive.
Later, when he looked back on his childhood, he always described it as extraordinarily happy.
In a thinner, grayer, more northerly light, a wedding is celebrated. It is January 2, and the sparse, cold congregation is able to wish each other the compliments of the season.
Excerpted from A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. Copyright © 1992 Hilary Mantel. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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.
Hilary Mantel's novels "offer lessons in life's contrariness, in the tensions between free will, unfortunate accident, and involuntary behavior" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). She is the author of eight novels and winner of the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature.
Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies—an unprecedented achievement. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage to colossal critical acclaim and a BBC/Masterpiece six-part adaption of the novels will broadcast in 2015.
The author of fourteen books, she is currently at work on the third installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy.
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I typed a lengthy, detailed review, and... lost it. *groan* The book itself would have been great, but I couldn't enjoy it because of problems with the formatting. My review will focus on the formatting, as I'm sure there are many others focusing on things like character development (marvelous), pacing (pretty tight), plot devices, etc. All the good things that are said in those reviews, I agree with. But. I'd have rated this book probably 4 or 4.5 - maybe even a full 5 - stars *had it been properly formatted* and then *proofread* just as carefully as if it were a first-edition, before being released for the Nook. There are errors on a solid 1/3, if not more, of the pages, some of them such that the reader is unable to tell who's speaking the crucial words, and when a person stops. (Close-quotation marks were by far the worst offenders - open-quotation marks were pretty consistent.) There are nearly as many references to the "Lanterne Attorney" as there are to the "Lanteme Attorney." (That's an RN that got OCR'd into an M, lower case all.) Not to mention several other cases of letters being combined to make nonsense. There are italicized phrases that just continue out for the entire rest of the paragraph - or that drop the italics halfway through a word. There are Is that are 1s and lower case ls that are upper case Is, and in several cases, letters that are written as a box, because the "translating" process didn't recognize a cedilla or an accent. And then there are some that are just plain goofs - like a character agonizing over how must he *feed* when he hears something that like - where clearly the intended word was "feel." If anyone important reads this review, I implore you - get a copy of this book, on the Nook, read it with an eye for formatting, for typos, for slips - and submit it to whoever is in charge of quality control for the conversion of text-books to Nook-books. Your readers, and I'm sure the authors, will thank you.
I was interested in this book because it was recommended by the author of another book I really enjoyed, Jude Morgan's _Passion_, a novel about the British Romantic poets and the women in their lives (dumb title, fantastic book!). _A Place of Greater Safety_ was not as immediately engaging, but it was definitely worth my extra effort at the beginning. Most novels about this period focus on Marie Antoinette or the other members of the aristocracy, so I think our view of the old regime tends to be a little sentimental and overly sympathetic. This novel, on the other hand, focused completely on the Jacobins--the radical wing of the French Revolution. The characters are all real, ordinary men who became central figures in the Revolution: Robespierre, Danton, and their mutual friend and colleague, Camille Desmoulins. I found that I knew relatively little about these men and their lives. But by reading the book, I came to not only understand them better, I have a greatly improved understanding of this whole chaotic period and how a Revolution of such great hope became a nightmare of violence, betrayal, and Terror. The three main characters are brilliantly drawn and distinguished from each other--they have different backgrounds and personalities, and even have different ambitions and beliefs about the Revolution. The ascetic, self-righteous Robespierre is worlds away from the earthy practicality of Danton, or the cynical brilliance of Desmoulins. In a lot of ways, Desmoulins became the most interesting to me--I loved the way that he evolved, only to be tragically done in by his inability to deceive himself about the excesses of the Revolution. This book is thought provoking and well worth reading. I found myself thinking about it a great deal, and even applying my greater understanding of the history to issues in my own life.
Simply stated, the best novel ever written about the leading players of the French Revolution. Anything attempting to follow this one will be compared with it--probably unfavorably. As history, it is meticulously researched (there are fewer errors in it than there are in some well-known nonfiction histories of the French Revolution); as literature, it is brilliant and a can't-put-it-down joy to read. Mantel grabs the reader by the throat with her dead-on, perceptive, malicious characterizations and storytelling, and never lets go through all the twists and turns and bumps of the tumultuous, tragic, and sometimes ludicrous events of five years that changed the world.
It's easily one of the best books I've ever read. I had trouble with the length--though not the longest novel I've read, it was still pretty daunting. There were a lot of places, events, and people to remember, and Mantel does an amazing job of finding little quirks about each of them so they are easier to remember. It lagged a little after 400 pages, but around page 600, the momentum picked up again and it was well worth the lull. Aside from A Tale of Two Cities (and it's kind of a given that it's mentioned in a lot of reviews), I never read much literature on the French Revolution. I just picked it up because I was impressed with Mantel's Wolf Hall and I wanted more. It doesn't really disappoint. Her writing is absolutely beautiful and she captures her characters almost perfectly. I was very impressed with her characterization in this book, especially. Danton, Robespierre, and Camille progress from chapter to chapter so naturally it's not even noticeable until the end, and then you have to wonder when exactly they changed. Camille, quite naturally, was my favorite. It's unfortunate that she didn't include something from his or Robespierre's side at the end. I feel like there was an ending for Danton, but not for the other two. I didn't get that resolution that I wanted with them. It's a terrific book. I can't really say enough. It really makes you think.
being historical fiction - you have to take some things with a grain of salt. But if you always wondered what Danton and Robespierre were like- this book helps in a fictional way to get to know these men better. Mantel really helps, in my opinion, to take you to this period and make you feel a part of the events taking place. I have read many wonderful history books about this period and even though this is historical fiction - it really is a delightful way to relive this chaotic period of French history. The writing is far superior to other historical fiction that I have read.
Slow moving and not as exciting as I expected, since the FR is one of my favorite subjects as a history buff. I know many of the characters but still had trouble following what was happening with whom. I did feel the author gave a different twist on the behavior of some of the main characters. I don't know enough to judge her accuracy. Recommended with reservations.
Beautifully written, if somewhat dubious in terms of historical accuracy. Robespierre is absolved of all responsibility for his actions (though he really isn't the horrifying dictator so many other works make him out to be, so in this regard Mantel is still more accurate than the vast majority of writers/directors out there), Saint-Just portrayed as almost comically villainous, and this depiction of the Duplays borders on malicious, particularly the decision to make Elisabeth a practicing rapist, which has no basis in reality whatsoever... All that being said, it's an excellent book if you're able to separate it from the real Revolution and know to take the anecdotes Mantel relays with a grain of salt.
¡¡ Attention Content Department !! Your production job is offensively illiterate. As far as I can tell, nobody copy-edited or proofread this text before it was published. Accents are missing on names throughout. Place names use incorrect prepositions (“de” instead of “du” and vice versa, etc.). Typographic usage is ignored throughout. Punctuation marks are transposed and/or missing so that the meaning is distorted. And that unmistakeable scanner error — “rn” transformed into “m” — is ubiquitous. Every other instance of “Cornélia” has been transformed into “Comélia.” ¡¡ Attention Content Department !!: After 100 or so pages (of an 800+ page book) I started adding proofreading/editing notes on my Nook. If you want my annotated eBook, I’ll be glad to send you my Nook. I won’t be buying any more eBooks for it, and it keeps losing its connections to my WiFi network causing me to doubt the security of my connection to the Nook bookstore. The real insult is to Ms. Mantel who has written a gripping, meticulously researched novel based on the actual words, spoken and written, of three major players in the French revolution. Well worth the time involved. But not in this format. Buy the printed book.
if you like historical novels with a feel for accuracy this is a very interesting and readable book. i'm also learning a lot about the nature of the french revolution.
Is Ms. Mantel.