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.

Teaser Tuesdays

The book I’m currently reading is A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, a huge book of 872 pages. I’m only on page 136, so it’s early days. In fact so far it’s been setting the scene of pre-Revolutionary France as seen through the key characters of Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. I’m liking it and it brings back to my mind history lessons at school when we listed the causes of the French Revolution.

This extract summarises, I think, the mood of the times in 1788:

Nothing changes. Nothing new. The same old dreary crisis atmosphere. The feeling that it can’t get much worse without something giving way. but nothing does. Ruin, collapse, the sinking ship of state: the point of no return, the shifting balance, the crumbling edifice and the sands of time. Only the cliché flourishes. (page 130)

Not long afterwards everything changed!

(Click on the Teaser Tuesdays button for more teasers) 

Adding to My To-Be-Read Piles

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Some more books found their way to me last Saturday. In the  morning the postman delivered When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett sent to me courtesy of LibraryThing Early Reviewers Programme.  Actually, the postman  just left it propped up against the wall by the front door and I didn’t find it until about 11am, so anyone could have walked off with it!  This is a whopping book of over 500 pages and it’ll take me ages to read. The Seventies were times of strikes, the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent. My first impressions of this book are that it looks well researched from the number of sources Beckett has used and there’s a chronology that may be useful, but it does look as though it could be more of a political history than I would like.

I went to a booksale on Saturday afternoon. I debated with myself whether I should go or not, after all I don’t need any more books right now, especially considering I’d just got When the Lights Went Out.  But the booksale was in aid of Multiple Sclerosis and other local charities so I felt I ought to go, because if my reading helps other people that’s a plus.

There  were plenty of books to choose from both fiction and non-fiction and I came away with these:

  • The Country Life by Rachel Cusk, the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award 1998. I’d enjoyed her Arlington Park, so I thought this looked good. On the back cover it’s described as being a mixture of P G wodehouse and Jane Austen!
  • Mrs Jordan’s Profession: the story of a great actress and a future King by Claire Tomalin.  The biography of Dora Jordan, a comic actress and the mistress of William IV in late-eighteenth century England. My knowledge of this period is very slight and of the history of the theatre, practically non-existent. I am addicted it seems to Claire Tomalin’s biographies.
  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. This is yet another massive book – it’s nearly 900 pages long. I do like historical fiction and Hilary Mantel’s writing. From the back cover:

Superbly readable … nothing less than a well-researched but richly idiosyncratic fictional history of the French Revolution …

  • Billy by Pamela Stephenson. This biography by Billy Connolly’s wife was my husband’s choice, but I’ve no doubt I’ll read it one day. Billy is a very funny comedian, although not everyone’s cup of tea. Recently we watched his TV series Journey to the Edge of the World when he travelled through the North West passage from the Atalantic to the Pacific, packed with laughter, information and stories of pioneers, colourful characters and wierd and wonderful scenery.