Raising the Dead

Share this

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

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

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

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

reading mode