Hilary Mantel

A Place of Greater Safety

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A Place of Greater Safety Summary

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In 1992, several years before winning the Man Booker prize twice in a row, critically acclaimed English author Hilary Mantel published A Place of Greater Safety, a historical novel set during the events of the French Revolution of 1789. Although it features hundreds of historical figures from the time, the novel focuses on three of the men that played key roles during the upheaval, tracing the lives of Georges-Jacques Danton, a vicious pragmatist with an iron will, Camille Desmoulins, a hyper-verbal and impassioned crusader, and Maximilien Robespierre, the unemotional true believer who created the Reign of Terror.

The novel is written in Mantel’s idiosyncratic and sometimes polarizing style. She uses quick shifts from third to first person narration, narration both in the past and present tense, and perspectives that sometimes change from one sentence to the next. Although it is a deeply researched work that stays as true to the facts as possible, the text also includes real and recreated newspaper snippets, imagined speech, dialogues in the form of play scripts, and direct addresses to the reader. Commenting on the freedom of writing historical fiction, Mantel justifies her approach as a re-interpretation and re-telling of history rather than a drily academic recitation of facts by pointing out that “For historians, creative writers provide a kind of pornography. They break the rules and admit the thing that is imagined, but is not licensed to be imagined.”

In France in the 1780s, due to a variety of causes both local (unpopular tax burdens and lackluster harvests) and international (the recent success of the American Revolution), there were increasing calls for ending the feudal system and upending the tyranny of the monarchy. In the spring of 1789, France’s elected body, the Estates-General, met at Versailles to discuss how to redistribute power differently between the nobility, the church, and everyone else. Because Robespierre has been elected to the “everyone else” part of the assembly, the Third Estate, and because Danton and Desmoulins are part of the same rebellious circle, the young men and their families are there at the deliberations. As the trio impress elder statesmen and rise in stature, we witness how the Third Estate convinces the other two to unite into one parliamentary body: the National Assembly.

Having been kicked out of Versailles, the National Assembly defeats the compromise idea of constitutional monarchy when it meets in Paris. Meanwhile, down the street, Desmoulins gets his moment in the sun. Jumping up onto a table at a café, the usually shy and stuttering young man is inspired to deliver a rousing and fierce declaration that the already violence-prone crowd should arm itself. Printers trip over themselves to reprint his words as revolutionary pamphlets, and two days later, on July 14, 1789, the turbulence erupts in the Storming of the Bastille, a symbol of the monarchy’s abuses of power.

Because they live near each other, Desmoulins and Danton grow close, despite the differences in their personalities. Desmoulins is beautiful, funny, and creative, with a streak of cruelty – the novel implies that in a different historical moment he would have found himself at home in Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic circle. Danton, meanwhile, is deeply charismatic despite his extreme ugliness (his face was famously scarred by a childhood accident and smallpox). He is paranoid enough never to put any of his ideas in writing, but is also a brilliant public speaker who can inspire crowds with his hours-long electrifying speeches.

In 1792, Danton proves himself to be a formidable anchor of the new republic, using both his brilliance as a tactician and his morally flexible ability to be bribed by anyone who wants to have influence in France. After Louis XVI is removed from the throne, royal families in the rest of Europe are outraged enough to suspend the usual hostility between Catholic and Protestant countries. In the summer of 1792, they send the Duke of Brunswick to restore order with several armies, and as his troops mass on the border it seems clear that France can’t possibly defend itself – especially since its own army’s leaders were exiles on the Duke’s side. In the novel, Danton secures victory against the Duke of Brunswick by rallying the French people – and also by bribing the Duke with the Crown jewels. This corrupt exchange allows Danton to get one good victory in the field, rallying his troops and demonstrating to the world that the new France is still a force to be reckoned with.

But by 1793, it is Robespierre whose vision comes to dominate. The National Assembly mutates into another legislative body, the National Convention, who begin the unavoidable process of every revolution: the search for ideological purity. In the summer of 1793, they create the Committee for Public Safety, which institutes the death penalty for anyone whose ideas do not match with those of the revolution – a process that is eventually called the Reign of Terror. The Committee is led by Robespierre, who believes that he is the best person to judge who is and isn’t worthy.

The executions begin with the former King and Queen, and their supporters, but quickly end up turning on the various factions within the revolutionary forces themselves. Desmoulins is horrified as the words of his pamphlets are being used to convict his friends, and he produces a new series of writings that condemn the Terror, comparing it to the worst excesses of Ancient Roman emperors. But of course, speaking out in this way is only an invitation to be beheaded next.

For a while, Robespierre is able to protect Desmoulins and Danton, whose vices were making him a target as well, out of friendship. But as Robespierre’s power lessens, and the blood thirst of the purity-obsessed ideologues around him grows, Desmoulins and Danton are executed as enemies of the people. By the time the Reign of Terror ends, over 16 thousand people have been sentenced to death for anti-revolutionary crimes. As we learn from Desmoulins, the “place of greater safety” is the grave.