In Hilary Mantel’s first novel, ‘A Place of Greater Safety’, unpublished for thirteen years, the political becomes the personal. Mantel takes on the task of describing the progression of the French Revolution from the inside out, treating three outstanding historical principals involved―Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre― as characters in a novel, taking her cue as much as she can from the record, but then moving on to create their personalities and drives in detail using her imagination.
She animates not only their psychological worlds, but also those of their families and loves and wives. Hers is not a claim for a particular historical truth beyond source documents, rather a way of trying to understand history, saying something like: yes, we know what these men did, and so might appraise them accordingly, but here is one interpretation of why they did what they did. Which shows them to be not only actors in some grand dramatic pageant, as in Thomas Carlyle’s history, but individuals perhaps like ourselves, except caught up in historic events, and then by temperament and chance and opportunity becoming and creating those events.
Mantel has said that as she wrote the book, she liked Danton less and Robespierre more but―trust the tale not the teller―the central figure and hero here is surely George-Jacques Danton. For those who don’t know, we are told early on that he will die. We are not told the fates of the others, and I would urge readers who do not know the facts here to do no reading in advance and go with the story. The impact will be greater.
The first thing to be said about this novel is that it is long, 872 pages in my edition. And yet it is, as they say, ‘unputdownable’. It could have been cut, of course, and it could easily have been longer. But the accumulation of the pages gathers momentum as you read and, having spent so much time with these people, the end, the climax, even if you do know it, carries tremendous power. For although we might have foresight, these men cannot, and that ignorance, the ordinary ignorance of living a life, can generate tremendous tension and pathos, ‘dramatic irony’, as it is known in the theatre.
The second thing to be said is that, technically, the novel is a miracle of organisation. We are given a long list of characters at the start, which I needed, nevertheless there is never any problem in following who is doing what to whom and why. Mantel balances her large cast with such a sure touch you hardly notice. The obvious comparison here is ‘War and Peace’ and like Tolstoy, Mantel focuses on a couple of families and sketches in the others as she feels necessary.
There are sacrifices, deliberate ones, even in such a long work. Much circumstantial detail is omitted, broader description of place particularly. We know we’re in 18th century Paris and surrounds, but for the most part, we could almost be in any city and its countryside. Similarly, with the exception of the finale, Mantel avoids potentially great set-pieces. The King is dispatched in a few trenchant sentences, the Queen has a couple of gripping pages, but little more. The mob riots, the frontier battles, the internal insurrections, are almost all conveyed indirectly, through conversation.
In fact, this is a book of conversation. There are a few internal ruminations, but it is mainly through conversation that this huge story is told, not successive dramatic monologues, as in Dostoevsky, but actual one-on-one exchanges, always pithy and pregnant with meaning and portent. This gives the novel a peculiar contemporaneity. Politics is, after all, a timeless human activity.
I mention above that our hero is Danton. Danton is a man who is morally compromised from the start and continues on that path throughout. He is your old-style politician, larger than life, trading, haggling, helping himself, helping others, immensely charismatic. But despite all of that, he is also throughout, and particularly at the close, a great moral force. No hypocrite, always true to himself, and true, despite all he does, to the high ideals of the Revolution. In stark contrast to the politically correct clerks who bring him down and destroy what had begun with such hope and energy. Perhaps, because like Cromwell, history has judged him a villain, and Mantel likes her underdogs, she strives to give Robespierre a better press than I think he deserves. Crucially, he betrays his colleagues through an invented incident. It is the only time Mantel skews history to her prejudice.
For this is the conundrum or great issue of the French Revolution: how something so idealistic and holding such promise could in so few years descend into terrible barbarity. Through successive conversations Mantel shows us the corrupting process; with this I would have liked a little more scaffolding, the charters, manifestos, so that we might observe more closely how they became perverted. And all those innocent beheadings, whole families, bystanders, one after another, Mantel relays all this, of course, but the moral effect of such mass evil seems somewhat muted when reported second hand.
The other hero of this book, a heroine, is, I assume, largely an invention, Camille Desmoulins wife, Lucille. While Danton pretty much remains Danton throughout his extraordinary journey, Lucille starts as a precocious spoiled brat, selfish and spiteful. Through her marriage with Camille and involvement in his affairs we watch her grow in moral stature until at the end, she is like some great figure from Classical French Drama or Opera. The Revolution destroys so much, but it makes Lucille Desmoulins, enables her to realise her inner potential, rise into the woman she becomes, of which there is no notion, and certainly not to herself, to begin with. It is a wonderful piece of writing.
Why do it? This huge and hugely ambitious enterprise begun when Mantel was a poor ex-student shop assistant in Manchester and finished as a seriously sick teacher/housewife in a bush town in Botswana. A nine-hundred-page novel about the French Revolution. What was she thinking? What was she doing? I suppose she was doing what she felt she could.
And the meaning of the title? On p651 of my copy, well into the work, there is the following exchange:
‘Can we offer you an escort, Citizen Deputy, to a place of greater safety?’
‘The grave,’ Camille said. ‘The grave.’
What I believe Mantel is saying here is that life itself is inherently dangerous, more dangerous for revolutionaries than most of us no doubt, nevertheless that living fully involves making choices and commitments, saying and doing things we might prefer not to, sticking our necks out, both for ourselves and those we love and admire. The more we dare, the braver we are, the more complete our lives, even if, as a result, they might be cut off prematurely. Danton died a young man but lived a complete life, a great life, and placed his head on the block knowing this and knowing others would know it too. ‘Show my head to the people,’ he is reported to have said to his executioner. ‘It’s worth the trouble’. For Mantel, this was worth a book.
The broader philosophical take here is that in times of crisis or upheaval, political and otherwise, evil men and evil itself will prosper when good men are passive. This is a thing we all know and history, particularly twentieth century history, has demonstrated it time and again. But still it is important that these great truths are occasionally brought to the forefront of our minds, pushing aside for a while the trivia of daily life, and this magnificent novel, amongst much else, surely achieves that.