A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: a Book Review

Given a choice of reading one long book or several shorter books, in the past I’ve always gone for the long book, as I like to got lost in a book, but more recently I’ve preferred shorter books. So this is the reason that Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety has sat on my bookshelves unread for a few years. It took me over a month to read it and I did pause for a while to read other shorter books in between. And this book is certainly a book that takes you to another time and place.

It is a remarkable book about the French Revolution concentrating on three of the revolutionaries – Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins and Maximilian Robespierre, from their childhoods to their deaths. Along with these three main characters there is a whole host of characters and without the cast list at the beginning of the book I would have struggled to keep track of them. In fact, some of the lesser characters were just names to me and I never saw them clearly, but that didn’t surprise or deter me, given the enormity of the task of chronicling the events of the French Revolution.

But the main characters stand out and there are also vivid portraits of such people as Mirabeau (a renegade aristocrat), Lafayette (a general in the American Revolutionary War and a Commander of the French National Guard), Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. I was also fascinated to read about Jean-Paul Marat  (he who was murdered in his bath), the Marquis de Sade and Pierre de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuse) – I didn’t know anything about de Sade’s and de Laclos’s involvement in the Revolution.

My European History at school stopped at 1789, so although I remembered listing the causes of the Revolution and the events that led up to it, my knowledge of the main event, as it were, is patchy and incomplete, mainly gathered from books such as Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities and TV programmes over the years. I found the first part of A Place of Greater Safety covered much of the ground that I was familiar with, but seen through the eyes of the three main characters as they grew up.

Despite Mantel’s insight into the personal lives and characters of the three main protagonists I never really sympathised with any of them – after all they were responsible for the deaths of many people, including their own friends and played a major part in the Reign of Terror. But at times I was drawn into hoping that they would escape their fate – they were all guillotined. They were all lawyers who grew up in the provinces, knew each from their youth and moved to Paris.

Camille Desmoulins is perhaps the star of the book. It was he who instigated the storming of the Bastille. He was by all accounts a charismatic character, despite his stutter. He and Danton lived close to each other, and Danton, a large, loud and ugly man who had the power of captivating his audiences, had a liaison with Lucille, Camille’s wife. Robespierre was a much cooler character and his involvement in the Terror (in which many people lost their heads) was chilling. But even he came over under Mantel’s pen as almost a likeable human being, revealing his weaknesses as well as his power. As long as he could he shielded Danton and Camille as opposition to them grew.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book isn’t written in the first person, but it moves between the first and third person points of view, giving an almost panoramic view of the characters and their attitudes to the Revolution. It really is written in a most diverse style, moving between locations, characters and even tense. There are also passages written as script-style dialogue, passages from recorded speeches and pamphlets, ‘woven’ into Mantel’s own dialogue. She writes in her Author’s Note that this is not an impartial account and she has tried to see the world as her characters saw it, so where she could she used their own words.

The events of this book are complicated, so the need to dramatize and the need to explain must be set against each other. …

I am very conscious that a novel is a co-operative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. …

I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true. (pages ix-x)

I think, for me, that Hilary Mantel succeeded with this book. I have struggled reading other books written in the present tense, but either I’m getting more used to it, or Hilary Mantel’s style has won me over. Either way, reading this book and Wolf Hall has been a pleasure – ‘real journeys’ into other times and places.

  • Paperback: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; (Reissue) edition (4 Mar 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 000725055X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007250554
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating: 4/5

Today I’m eagerly waiting for the follow up to Wolf Hall to be delivered to my letter box: Bring Up the Bodies is published today and I’ve had an email saying it’s on its way to me.

3 thoughts on “A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel: a Book Review”

  1. Congratulations on finishing an 880 page book! I have several large books sitting on my TBR shelves and it’s daunting to even begin to read one, knowing that you’re making a long-term commitment. This does sound like a book I would like. Characters involved in the French Revolution always seem either all-bad or all-good to me and I would like to see a more balanced view in novel form. I’ll keep this one in mind.

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