on June 12, 2003
I first read this book when I was a senior in high school ten years ago. I was really interested in the French Revolution and all the personalities involved. This book was a beautifully written, sensitive and accurate portrait of the tragic figures of the Revolution. She knew things about Robespierre I thought only I knew that I had read in dusty old volumes you can't even get access to anymore. I remember in the forward she says "if it seems too unlikely to be true it probably is", and that's definitely the case. It was a very touching book and really brilliant in a number of ways. Mantel really understands the eighteenth-century mind better than most authors I've read. Now I'm getting my Ph.D. in history and looking into that period in even more depth! Get this book even if you aren't a history buff, though. It's a great read even if you don't know the first thing about history.
on July 13, 2012
Mantel first impressed me with her vivid characterization of an historical figure in "Wolf Hall", so, when I read up on some of her earlier works, "A Place of Greater Safety" seemed right up her alley. Focusing on three major players in the days leading up to the French Revolution--Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre--Mantel brought that ability she showed in "Wolf Hall" (that attracted the Man-Booker Prize jurors) to bear almost as well in this much earlier novel: she seems to see into and through the eyes of the personalities of characters who remain for most of us flat and factual, dates, speeches and actions only. I've taught "A Tale of Two Cities" any number of times and Dickens does bring fictitious players of the same era to life. But though I've read significant background to prepare for that teaching, it never occurred to me to imagine how and why Desmoulins stood on the tavern table one significant day. And though the movie "Danton" with Gerard Depardieu gave us a somewhat glorified glimpse into the final and public days of the breakdown of the relationship between that important figure of the Revolution and Robespierre, Mantel, by shifting 3rd-person narration between the three (and extending it to wives, lovers, cuckolded husbands etc.), shows us how three almost-ordinary men found themselves, step-by-small-step, at the centre of something extraordinary and beyond their control.
She says herself that she allows herself the fiction writer's liberties after she has absorbed the facts: she fleshes out the bones with details of muscle and blood that history does not tell us. And she does so so well--as with Thomas Cromwell--because she is a sensitive observer of the human mind and heart. Each of the three is distinctly different; I have no doubt that their essential actions and speeches are historically correct. Though specialists quibble that she cannot know what Robespierre was thinking on the day Danton came to his spartan rooms to beg for the safety of Desmoulins--or perhaps even if he did--his thoughts and motives are entirely consistent with the Danton she has created in this huge and engrossing book, and it is entirely logically that the Robespierre she has created would reject Danton's gesture. As with Cromwell, I feel as if I know them; I feel as if I understand what drove them on to their respective fates. This book is elegant, intellectually stimulating and yet vivid and real. She is not able, perhaps, at this stage in her writing career--or maybe doesn't have the space--to make each man as vibrantly real as Thomas Cromwell. But it is the book that predicted where Mantel would go. I highly recommend "A Place of Greater Safety"; though, because of its size, it was hard to pick up, it was impossible to put down.
on June 30, 1998
Mantel's very absorbing novel is good for two reasons. First, it evokes an excellent sense of time, of place, and of events, during the French Revolution. Possibly more than any historical work about the events of the Revolution, this novel captures the true zeitgeist of the times. Second, and closely linked to the first reason, is the author's vivid depiction of three characters - Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins - as living, breathing, sinning creatures. Above all is the author's suggestion of the randomness of events, what we now proclaim History. Revolutions produce upheaval: they displace, promote or overthrow people. And as in life, the author ultimately suggests, we all seek that one thing: a place of greater safety. This book verges on an imperfect brilliance.
Recognizing that it took Mantel a painfully long time to bring this book to publication, I am glad she eventually prevailed. Her inaugural work of historical fiction is definitely a winner in so many ways, paving the road to her ultimate success as an internationally acclaimed novelist with two subsequent excellent works. To start things off, she has chosen the French Revolution - one of those most dramatic and baffling periods in modern times - as her subject. While there is a lot of material available to aspiring authors on this most calamitous of times, she has chosen to view it through a different prism than is traditionally available to historians: personalities rather than ideas in collision. On this score, she has plenty to work with within the traditional ranks of the old regime versus the republican cause, but has chosen instead to take the more difficult course and look at three seeming allies within the latter movement. From the individual lives of fellow revolutionaries Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins, she weaves a fascinating tale of intrigue, dare, innovation and treachery emerging from relationships borne out of a desire for revolutionary change. All three of these exceptional men came from provincial backgrounds that did not seem to appreciate the potential abilities in oratory, writing, and reasoning to change the world for the better. As Mantel's story progresses, these three young men move to Paris to seek professional careers in a place that lives and breathes humanity. Invariably, Paris, in all its appealing glory and deplorable ugliness, will turn them and their kind into passionate and ruthless revolutionaries who will learn to kill on principle alone. Interwoven in this journey of dangerous enlightenment is the role that very special women play in helping to bring these careers to a tragic end. While Gabrielle, Lucille and Adele are often seen as naively complicit in and, at times, sadly overwhelmed by their men's phenomenal rise to power during the early days of the revolution, they come across as noble in their steadfast loyalty to the bitter end and a desire to protect them from harm. The underlying irony in this whole drama is that while ideas and ideals can initially foment a sense of greater freedom and equality, they also possess the terrible capacity to destroy those who get in the way because of differences of opinion, personal failings, and individual wants. In the midst of political revolution, as described here, there are few safe places to hide. This work of fiction is a wonderful reminder that no history can truly be understood without first examining the lives of its main participants.
on June 4, 2004
I have just finished this book, so all of my retrospective observations are still a bit shaky. That said, I cannot yet criticize this novel successfully from any angle. If there is any qualification to make, it is that, really, you need to devote a good week to it: about four to read, and three to get back to a person your friends will recognize.
I came about this book by way of an article Mantel had written in "The London Review", loosely tied to the release of Colin Haydon's edited collection of essays on Robespierre. By the end of the article, I was very much the worst neighbor in my apartment building- I did not stop reading or turn off my light for the next two nights.
After seven years of English and Journalism classes, I can not figure out why Mantel's name did not come up once. There is nothing extraneous here, nothing fantastic to the point of unbelievability. The characters mature and change and determine and repel each other. No one is a saint nor, with one minor exception, do they deserve their sentences. In her Camille Desmoulins -for the majority of the novel, at least- there is a great literary archetype of exuberant, youthful egotism. At first, we blame him for nothing, then everything. At the last, he looks disturbingly like his reader.
Danton, by the same turn, starts out in much the vein of Stanislawa Przybyszewka's Georges-Jacques, the big lug. He is admirable as one true to his own interests if nothing else. Then, in one of the most skilled revelations in the literature I've read, his true, unwavering dedication to the principle behind the whole big mess he has helped create is fully uncovered, and too late. There are plenty of places to cry big, philosophical tears in this book.
There are plenty of places to laugh, too. Those familiar with Mantel's editorials will recognize here her ongoing jabs at feminist representative Nicolas Condorcet, and his jealousy of Robespierre for the female attention he felt should rightfully have been his. She gives her tragedy the sense of ridiculous humor it earns. Even at its busiest, the guillotine traveled around France most ubiquitously as an earring.
Robespierre, somewhat suprisingly, comes across as an almost secondary character. In the end, though, it is him behind the narrative. His influence is why we forgive Saint-Just and Babette Duplay. While she is the product of her family's almost cult-like reverence for "the god upstairs", Saint-Just's hard line violent rhetoric is a logical echo and heir to Desmoulins and Danton's early encouragements of insurrection. Saint-Just appears late, and this follows the arch of the novel perfectly. Everything here, including Mantel's own use of language, artfully turns about in the last hundred pages and bites the hand that has been feeding it. (To stray from Vergniaud's more familiar analogy.)
That goes for the setting as well. The ci-devant court, the external European armies, the anonymous mass known simply as "the people" are all, like Robespierre, apparent afterthoughts that frame the main characters. If their politics are contrary to the monarchy, they still have no other practical precedent. They denounce foreign armies, but without tangible victory there is no legitamacy to the Republic nor to their places in it. Danton openly detests the "good people", but everyone with an education in the novel is intriguing for a place in the new leadership, and in need of a following.
It is hard to put a cap on an emotional response to the characters, because so little of this feels like a sweeping change to the face of the Western World. It reads an awful lot like a small group of people with good intentions whole-heartedly and somewhat frantically making out a place for themselves wherever they can find it. Even Danton's predictions of his immortality, though we know them from the outside to be true, seem overblown in the context of laundry folding and cafe speeches.
I would put it next to "War and Peace" as a literary accomplishment (as well as a weight.) This is an excellent novel.
As the revolutionaries develop their society, the events they set in motion and the ideas they espouse set off a serious of violent events that will ultimately devour them. Mantel gets us inside their heads and creates understanding of these fascinating people without letting them off the hook for their errors, in spite of their ideals.
on August 22, 2000
This is quite likely ther greatest historical fiction ever written about the French Revolution.
It follows the careers of three of the revolution's architects - Georges Danton, who wants to be rich and famous; Camille Desmoulins, who wants just once in his life to make his father proud of him; and sensitive Robespierre, Camille's school friend who believes there's something wrong with the system but isn't out for blood.
Camille is center stage at the storming of the Bastille - a stage he will never quite again regain. Danton becomes involved in the political aftermath, and they drag Robespierre kicking and screaming into the bloodbath that follows.
Eventually Danton is softened by the death of his long-suffering wife and Camille is horrified when friends start to go to the guillotine. Robespierre, however, has indeed become the fanatic they wanted to make him. They realize he must be stopped - but with Danton involved in government corruption and Camille seen weeping publicly for a condemned prisoner and emotionally torn between his two friends, it may be too late...
The storytelling here is masterful, sympathies wavering from one of the trio to another - an amazing feat considering that the "Citizens" have to be among history's great mass murderers. The book is long, but nothing really could have been left out - the Revolution was this epic in scope. Other historical figures weave in and out of the narrative - an initially stupid and vain but ultimately moving Marie Antoinette; briefly but memorably a harried Lafayette who realizes they are at the brink of something far more horrible than the Revolution's older sister in America but can't change the tide of history by himself; and many others - above all a frightening Marat.
Mantel purposely kept Marat a supporting character because he was a bit older than the main characters and thus his story is a bit different than theirs. She hopes to write his story eventually, and I can hardly wait to see the results.
on November 27, 1999
The French Revolution is an obsession of mine, and I've probably read every fictional account of it still in print (and many that are not :)) I can say that beyond a doubt A Place of Greater Safety is the best novel on the subject and, along with Gore Vidal's Burr, probably one of the best historical novels I've read period. The history is accurate (which is an event in and of itself) and the characterization is absolutely brilliant. Mantel gets so close to her characters that she sympathizes with almost every one of them, although Camille will get your heart. The way she can take historical events and imbue them with humor, drama, tragedy, and an intense sympathy with all human striving is absolutely amazing. It's a long read but worth every second of it. I've recommended this book to almost everyone I know, but they often don't get to read it because I can't stay without it for more than a week or two.
on October 26, 2000
This is one of the rare novels of historical fiction that completely captures the true spirit and essence of its subject. Powerfully moving, "A Place of Greater Safety" expresses the views and ideals of the Revolution, through the lives and words of Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre. The author is, amazingly, able to depict her characters' emotions with so much depth and truth, that by the end of the novel, you will question all you think you understand of the French Revolution and the people who believed in its cause. This book gives the reader a taste of both the beauty behind the emotions which governed the people of France, and of the tragedy that sent so many to their deaths in the early, volatile days of the Republic. A story of the despair of a people and a merciless strugle for justice, "A Place of Greater Safety" is a masterpiece that will not soon be forgotten.
on September 9, 1999
I first found this gem when I was a graduate student in London on a random trip through a local bookstore chain. I had never heard of the author, and purchased the book during a spell of summer boredom and because I have degrees in both French and History. It turned out to be an amazingly lucky find.
The book's most interesting facet is the view of the interior life of its characters. It does more than fill in the background of events, constructing private coversations between historical figures -- it offers insight and motive (or the lack thereof) for some of the most fascinating people in modern history.
I've reread the book several times and been pleased to give it as a gift to more than one friend.