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Raising the Dead

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Someone must have recommended it. Otherwise there’s no way, twenty years ago, I’d have picked up an 880-page book about the French Revolution. Even a novel. But I did pick up Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992), and I was immediately sucked into the vortex of this swirling, populous epic that animates one of history’s greatest and bloodiest convulsions. My paperback bears the scars of my attention: the faded front cover is detached and veined with creases, the corners worn and blurred, the pages dog-eared and soft as cloth. The impact the book had on me in return feels almost as physical. Because history, until that point, had left me completely cold. With A Place of Greater Safety, it suddenly came to hot-blooded life and stepped right off the page.

At school, history seemed to be about dates and deals and dead men. I did not choose to study it for A-level. Instead I chose English, devouring literature in great long gulps, and from it I patched together a rather hazy picture of the past, just enough to provide a context for whatever I was studying and help make sense of it, but no more. I learned to infer history from the art and literature of the time, stepping gingerly around it but never quite looking it straight in the eye. In my head I developed a timeline upon which the markers were books and plays and paintings. Actual historical events could, if necessary, be slotted in alongside them. Thus the Spanish Armada was defeated at about the time Shakespeare was writing Henry IV Part One. The Battle of Waterloo took place in the same year that Emma was published. The French Revolution and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence both saw the light of day in 1789. And so on. I’m not proud of this scheme or advocating it for others, but at the time it did seem to serve my (admittedly narrow) purposes.

So A Place of Greater Safety was a complete and utter revelation. In it we follow

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Someone must have recommended it. Otherwise there’s no way, twenty years ago, I’d have picked up an 880-page book about the French Revolution. Even a novel. But I did pick up Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (1992), and I was immediately sucked into the vortex of this swirling, populous epic that animates one of history’s greatest and bloodiest convulsions. My paperback bears the scars of my attention: the faded front cover is detached and veined with creases, the corners worn and blurred, the pages dog-eared and soft as cloth. The impact the book had on me in return feels almost as physical. Because history, until that point, had left me completely cold. With A Place of Greater Safety, it suddenly came to hot-blooded life and stepped right off the page.

At school, history seemed to be about dates and deals and dead men. I did not choose to study it for A-level. Instead I chose English, devouring literature in great long gulps, and from it I patched together a rather hazy picture of the past, just enough to provide a context for whatever I was studying and help make sense of it, but no more. I learned to infer history from the art and literature of the time, stepping gingerly around it but never quite looking it straight in the eye. In my head I developed a timeline upon which the markers were books and plays and paintings. Actual historical events could, if necessary, be slotted in alongside them. Thus the Spanish Armada was defeated at about the time Shakespeare was writing Henry IV Part One. The Battle of Waterloo took place in the same year that Emma was published. The French Revolution and William Blake’s Songs of Innocence both saw the light of day in 1789. And so on. I’m not proud of this scheme or advocating it for others, but at the time it did seem to serve my (admittedly narrow) purposes. So A Place of Greater Safety was a complete and utter revelation. In it we follow Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien de Robespierre from their births ‒ in provincial homes, into families with various degrees of dysfunction ‒ and on through their schooldays. We see them turning into young men and getting their first jobs, their characters taking shape and crystallizing. We watch their interlocking lives as the revolution swells and they rise to its surface, and we recognize them as if we’ve grown up with them: which, after several hundred pages, in a way we have. Never mind that much of the detail comes straight out of Mantel’s prodigious imagination. I wanted to shout: ‘You mean these dry, dead people made jokes and wept and made friends and flirted and made love and blasphemed?’ Somehow, though it should be obvious, nothing before had ever made me feel that history was once life. Mantel’s genius here ‒ and later in Wolf Hall ‒ is to make you care about her characters as if they were your intimates, even, or maybe especially, when they have few redeeming features. It is largely their flaws that make the three protagonists so mesmerizing. Desmoulins and Robespierre meet as children at the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris, where they develop a loyal friendship based on their opposing natures. Desmoulins ‒ mercurial, amoral, charming and sexually indiscriminate ‒ becomes the radical pamphleteer with the silver pen who can inspire the crowds with his writings. On 12 July 1789 he leaps on to a table outside the Café du Foy and, losing his habitual stammer, makes an impassioned call to arms. Two days later the Bastille falls. Robespierre is the cold intellectual of the revolution: ascetic, self-controlled, purely rational. Nothing is known about his sex life, but Mantel gives him a secret one which, paradoxically, makes his chilling detachment as he escalates the Reign of Terror seem more credible. Desmoulins also befriends Danton, a young barrister, and introduces him to Robespierre, then over the years acts as a go-between and peacemaker between the two politicians as they circle each other warily and eventually, fatally, fall out. Danton is a huge bear of a man with appetites to match and a scarred face. He’s a natural leader and a rabble-rousing orator, full of bluff confidence and fearless drive, who also thinks he’s above the law and has a habit of disappearing from Paris when things get too hot. In the National Convention he votes for the execution of Louis XVI, and as a member of the first Committee of Public Safety he effectively runs the country for a while. But by the time he realizes the killing is out of control, it is too late. Robespierre, when power comes to him, makes Danton look moderate. In the end Danton and Desmoulins argue against him and the murderous excesses of the Terror. Robespierre shows a brief flicker of humanity when he tries to save his old school friend, but then ‒ after a trial without evidence or witnesses ‒ he lets him go with Danton to the guillotine. As the revolution builds with the inexorable force of a tidal wave, the realization dawns on the protagonists that they can no longer control it and are standing directly in its devastating path. And by the end of the final chapter you, as the reader, sense ‒ because by now you have understood the full implication of the word ‘revolution’ ‒ that the wheel will keep turning and that Robespierre will not survive for long. Historians can get quite hot under the collar about fiction being woven into the fabric of fact. But a friend who did a degree in the subject points out that history always employs the imagination. You have the source material, which may be more or less reliable and which you must evaluate, and these various sources are like dots on a page. Joining the dots is a creative act. As soon as you write one single sentence beyond what is precisely proven, you are adding something of yourself: Mantel adds a lot of herself; an academic might add the minimum. The different approaches, from the barest account to the most embellished retelling, exist on a spectrum. That, at any rate, is I how I see it. To me A Place of Greater Safety has an emotional truth: it may not all be literally true, but it feels true, and it allows me access to a subject that, in its purest form, I couldn’t digest. It doesn’t, anyway, pretend to be anything other than a novel. But I trust Mantel to have done her research, and she herself says that she never lets her version of events contradict the known facts. Where possible, she uses the historical figures’ own words, from their writings or speeches. ‘The reader may ask’, she teases in her introduction, ‘how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.’ How history is made is one of the novel’s themes: her three protagonists are conscious that they are making history and consider how posterity will view them. Desmoulins’ wife Lucile writes an ‘official’ diary and also her brown notebooks which are for ‘dark, precise thoughts: unpalatable thoughts’ ‒ two versions of the same life, reminding us that we can never know what historical figures were really thinking. How Mantel must have enjoyed closing the first chapter with a 1793 quotation from Robespierre: ‘History is fiction.’ Her book is a challenge to the dates-and-dead-men type of history, a gauntlet thrown defiantly down at the feet of the worthy textbook. The novel combines her wit and playfulness, her interrogation of her own methods, her constant but lightly worn cleverness, her profound sense of humanity, and it takes flight. A Place of Greater Safety is even more fascinating today because it is so evidently the direct ancestor of Wolf Hall. The latter is a tighter construction, with a narrower focus, a more consistent style and a cast list of a mere 96 characters instead of 150, but the shared DNA is plain. In the earlier book you witness Mantel honing her skills, and you watch in slack-jawed awe as she marshals her material into a kaleidoscopic whole, blending fact and fiction, artfully juggling the various storylines at the same time as experimenting stylistically. She works to stop the vast surface of the novel becoming too uniform, ensuring it will snag your attention. The dialogue is snappy, and between scenes there may be a direct quotation from Robespierre’s notebooks or she may throw in a list showing the rise in the price of household staples between 1785 and 1789 (the cost of firewood went up a whopping 91 per cent). Just when you have acclimatized to the omniscient narration, a character suddenly speaks in the first person. Some conversations are set down as if in a script for a film or a play. While this stylistic skittishness has irked some critics, I love the evanescent, glinting quality it gives to the book. Above all, there is a scene in Robespierre’s early childhood where the embryonic narrative voice of Wolf Hall can be fleetingly heard. In it, Mantel uses the pronoun ‘he’ for longer than is really comfortable, before telling us which character she is talking about. This signature of Wolf Hall ‒ I don’t know if it has a name, let’s call it the ‘third person obscure’ ‒ alienated some readers who never worked out that when she says ‘he’, unless it’s clearly someone else, she is always referring to Cromwell. It is not a hollow trick: it enacts Cromwell’s insinuating presence. Both my children refused to specialize in history and my attempts to persuade them fell on deaf ears. I recognized their stance from my own childhood: what is interesting about dead people? What is the point of knowing about stuff that’s already happened? Perhaps it is as much a characteristic of childhood to look forward as it is of old age to look back. At school, from the age of about 11 onwards, they’d been given raw source material and asked to work out which was more reliable: the account, for example, of someone who was present at the time but an enemy of the king, or an account written by a monk a century later. They didn’t care. ‘Ah,’ said a history teacher of my acquaintance, ‘they’re trying to teach them to think like historians. But what makes history interesting at their age is the story: what’s going to happen next?’ It’s not just at their age: some of us always want the story, and Mantel is a genius at spinning it.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Rebecca Willis 2016


About the contributor

Rebecca Willia has worked at Vogue, the Independent on Sunday and Intelligent Life, and is no longer afraid of history books.

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