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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