A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

January 3, 2023

A Place of Greater Safety is a stunning epic novel of the French Revolution, written by the late Hilary Mantel long before her most famous work, Wolf Hall.  She wrote it in the 1970s, when she was in her early twenties, but could not find a publisher for it until 1992, both because publishers were not interested in novels about the French Revolution and because they did not want to take a chance on a long book by an unknown author.  I do not know whether her unusual writing style was also a factor in their decision or not.  I will say more about her style later.

It would be impossible to summarize the plot without making this an enormously long review, so I will just give the basics here.  I will give away the ending, though, because it is historical fact.  If you do not want to know the ending, it is fine to skip ahead.  Mantel’s novel is about three leading figures of the French Revolution: Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre.  If the novel could be said to have one main character, I think it would be the brilliant and tragic figure of Desmoulins.  The book begins with him as a three-year-old child and ends with his death, along with Danton’s, in April 1794.  Mantel does not take her narrative up to Robespierre’s downfall and death, which occurred a few months later, but, of course, readers with knowledge of the French Revolution will know it will happen, and Mantel foreshadows it.

Desmoulins is a charming character, a lawyer and journalist, who is not afraid to criticize the old regime, and later becomes a leading figure in the Revolution as the publisher and main author of the newspaper Révolutions de France.  He is the link between the other two main characters, Danton and Robespierre.  As children, he and Robespierre, both from not particularly wealthy families in northern France, attend Louis-le-Grand, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in Paris, as scholarship students.  Robespierre is lonely at school and Desmoulins becomes his friend.  Danton, who comes from a rural area in northeastern France, has little formal education, but qualifies as a lawyer and goes to Paris, where he becomes friends with Desmoulins, who is, by this time, a struggling young lawyer there.  Danton and Robespierre eventually become colleagues in the National Convention and, for a time at least, political allies, but they are not close personal friends in the same way each is a close friend of Desmoulins.  I also have to say, as much as I enjoyed reading about Danton and Robespierre, and Mantel’s characterization of them, I missed Desmoulins when he was absent from the book.  He is never absent for very long, though, since, even when he is not actually present, people talk about him.

As I said, the book starts with each of the three main characters’ childhoods and continues through their early careers as lawyers in the early 1780s, and then through the Revolution.  Mantel also writes about their personal lives and relationships, some of which might be her invention.  Desmoulins is a brilliant man, but not usually a great public speaker, because he has a stutter, which, according to Mantel, began when he was sent to boarding school at seven.  It might have been the trauma of the separation from his family that caused it, even though he is never particularly close to his family, and his father often seems disappointed in him.  His stutter disappears when he is angry or excited, famously so in July 1789, just before the fall of the Bastille, when he gives a rousing speech in the Palais-Royal, calling people to arms.  Desmoulins’ speech is one of the events that leads directly to the storming of the Bastille.

Desmoulins’ personal life is, in one word, complicated.  In Mantel’s version of events, he is bisexual, but I do not know whether this is true of the real Desmoulins or not.  I have not come across it before while reading about him.  As a young man, he has a sexual relationship with the lawyer in whose offices he trains, even though it is unclear how consensual this is on Desmoulins’ part.  Later, it is strongly suggested that he is in love with Danton, who is strictly heterosexual and does not reciprocate.  We do not even know if he is aware of Desmoulins’ feelings.  Desmoulins, though, is more heterosexual than otherwise and has many affairs with women, most of which, we are led to understand, are nothing but distractions to him and do not mean much.  The central relationship in his life is with a mother and daughter, Annette and Lucile Duplessis.  As a young man, Desmoulins falls in love with Annette, the mother, who refuses to have sexual relations with him.  He courts her daughter, Lucile, in order to be close to Annette.  Lucile is in love with him from the beginning, even though she knows the nature of his relationship with her mother.  Later, Desmoulins really does fall in love with Lucile and marries her, despite her father’s objections, but is never faithful to her.

If Desmoulins can be said to be the hero of the novel, Lucile could be said to be the heroine.  She is also an ambiguous, complex character.  This is something I love about Mantel’s characterizations.  All her leading characters are complex and multifaceted.  Even though they do some terrible things, you never quite lose your sympathy for them, or, at least, you understand why they do what they do.  I would say that Mantel’s sympathies are mostly with Desmoulins and Danton, but she even makes Robespierre sympathetic at times.  Back to Lucile, though: at first, she seems like a silly, flirtatious young girl, who manipulates Desmoulins into marrying her, but she turns out to be highly intelligent, very much the equal of her husband.  Desmoulins is one of the few men of the French Revolution who thinks women should have the vote (Danton and Robespierre do not), and we cannot help but think that this is because of his wife’s influence.  Lucile is a beautiful woman, and many men, including Danton, find her attractive.  She flirts with several men while she is married to Desmoulins, but we never know for certain if she is unfaithful to her husband.  There is a rumor that her baby is Danton’s, but this is refuted when Mantel states that he is her husband’s baby.  Again, I don’t know if there is any truth, in real life, to the rumor that Lucile and Danton were lovers.

Danton is a huge man, with a face that is hideously scarred after he is gored by a bull as a child, but women find him very attractive.  He marries Gabrielle, a café owner’s daughter, in Paris before the Revolution, and has several children by her.  Unlike Lucile, Gabrielle is immediately sympathetic.  A few brief sections of the novel are told from her point of view, and we find that she does not share her husband’s revolutionary views.  She is a staunch supporter of the monarchy and a devout Catholic, after Danton has become an atheist and abandoned his early belief that France should have a king.  Gabrielle loves her husband, though, despite the difference in their views and his many affairs.  Later, when asked about his infidelity, Danton says he does it for lust and power.  Tragically, Gabrielle dies giving birth to her last child, and a few months later, Danton marries Louise Gély, the fifteen-year-old daughter of his neighbors, who had been helping Gabrielle take care of the children.  The marriage lasts less than a year, ending with Danton’s own death.

From the very beginning, Danton has a strong desire for money, unlike Desmoulins, who is content to be a struggling young lawyer until the events of the Revolution overtake him.  At times, he resorts to dishonest means of making money.  During the Revolution, Danton, as well as the other two protagonists, Desmoulins and Robespierre, join the radical Jacobin faction.  In the early days of the Revolution, Danton and Robespierre believe in a constitutional monarchy, but Desmoulins is one of the few people who thinks France should be a republic.  Later, after Louis XVI attempts to flee the country, they all support the republic, but Danton keeps a finger in every pie.  He takes bribes from the English and from French monarchists living abroad in exile, and he plays various factions off against each other and always comes out the richer.  Mantel suggests that Danton is involved in the theft of the crown jewels in order to bribe a foreign general to lose a battle after France’s war effort has not gone well, and that this general’s loss is what turns the war, at least temporarily, in France’s favor.  As with other events in the novel, I do not know whether this is true or Mantel’s invention.  Certainly Danton, like many of the Jacobins including Robespierre, opposed the war at first.  Danton did not want England to get involved because he knew that the strength of British sea power would keep the war going on for a long time.

Robespierre starts out as quite a sympathetic character, at least as a young man.  Although it seems unbelievable now, he has a horror of violence and opposes the death penalty.  As with the others, Mantel writes about his early career as a lawyer to the poor.  He had a strong sympathy with the poor, which made him very popular, at first in his hometown of Arras and, later, as a deputy to the Estates General and the National Assembly at Versailles and Paris.  (Of the three protagonists, Robespierre is the only one who wins his election to the Estates General.  It is not until the elections to the National Convention in 1792 that all three become representatives in the legislative body.)  Unlike Danton and Desmoulins, Robespierre does not have a very active sexual life.  After a half-hearted engagement to Lucile Desmoulins’ sister (which may be Mantel’s invention), his main relationship is with a carpenter’s daughter, Eléonore Duplay.  Robespierre takes refuge with the Duplay family after they save him from a riot in 1791.  They are strong Jacobin supporters, and the parents want their daughter to marry Robespierre.  Mantel suggests that they forced the two of them into sexual relations so that Eléonore would become pregnant and Robespierre would marry her.  There is not much passion on either side.  Again, I don’t know how much of this was invented for the novel.  I know that, in real life, there has been much speculation about Robespierre’s relationship with Eléonore Duplay and whether or not it was sexual in nature.  No one knows for certain.

It is fascinating to see the changes in Robespierre’s views over the years as the Revolution becomes increasingly more radical.  As I said, at first he believes in a constitutional monarchy, as did many others, but Louis XVI’s veto of important legislation and, most of all, his attempt to flee the country, changes Robespierre’s mind.  He, as well as the other three protagonists, votes for the king’s death, in spite of his horror of the death penalty.  (In Mantel’s version of events, Danton had opposed the king’s death at first, but is blackmailed into voting for death after his involvement with French royalists is discovered, but I don’t know how much truth there is in this.) 

A turning point in Robespierre’s views occurs with the September massacres in 1792, shortly after the fall of the monarchy, when many prisoners in Paris were massacred by the mob.  Supposedly, the prisoners wanted to restore the monarchy, and this was the excuse given for putting them to death, but in reality, many of them were ordinary people, whether they had monarchist views or not.  Mantel considers Marat, one of the most bloodthirsty of the Jacobin leaders, the primary figure responsible for the massacres.  Danton is Minister of Justice at the time, and Desmoulins is his secretary, so they bear some responsibility for the massacres as well.  In her version of events, Marat goes to Danton and Desmoulins with his idea of massacring the prisoners, and they are horrified at first, but eventually go along with it, although they come up with lists of people to be spared.  Events get out of control, though, and the people carrying out the massacres ignore the lists, or they trick people by promising to let them go and then killing them as soon as they are outside the prison walls.  Robespierre, at the time, has no direct responsibility for the massacres, since he is not yet one of the leaders of France, but he could have spoken out against them, and doesn’t.  Clearly, his horror of violence has lessened.  In a fascinating passage, Mantel’s omniscient narrator lists the ways in which people can be complicit in a crime, including standing by and doing nothing when a crime is committed, so we can tell that she believes Robespierre is complicit, although not directly involved.

Mantel writes of all the principal events of the Revolution, including the fall of the Bastille, the king’s attempt to flee the country, the attack on the Tuileries Palace that led to the end of the monarchy, and the split in the National Convention between the moderate Girondins (who were not always a coherent bloc) and the radical Jacobins.  Our protagonists are all Jacobins, and all become leading figures in the National Convention.  At first Danton, who is a powerful speaker, is one of the leaders of the Convention, and extremely popular with the common people of Paris.  Desmoulins, although not a great speaker, is one of his main allies.  Robespierre joins the powerful Committee of Public Safety, and it is the members of this committee that become the real leaders of France.  Supposedly, the twelve members are equals, but Robespierre becomes their clear leader, at least for a while.  According to Mantel’s version of events, the Terror really overtakes Robespierre, instead of his leading it.  There are members of the committee who are even stronger advocates for the Terror than Robespierre, including Antoine Saint-Just, Desmoulins’ cousin who hates him, and these people push Robespierre towards stronger support of the Terror than he otherwise would have given.  In particular, it seems to be Saint-Just’s personal dislike of Desmoulins and his jealousy of his longtime friendship with Robespierre, that drives Robespierre away from his old friend after Desmoulins decides it is time for the Terror to end.

The split among the three main characters is powerfully portrayed.  Danton and Desmoulins wish to end all the killing, and Desmoulins writes against the Terror in his newspaper.  Robespierre and other members of the Committee of Public Safety have them arrested, along with various thieves and financial schemers in whose plots Danton was involved.  Even then, Robespierre feels guilt over turning against his friend Desmoulins, but in the end he chooses power over friendship.  There is one scene, which may be Mantel’s invention, where Robespierre visits Desmoulins in prison and offers to spare his life if he will testify against Danton and the others, but Desmoulins refuses.  Danton and Desmoulins, along with their fellow prisoners, are guillotined in April 1794.  Lucile Desmoulins, who approaches various people in Paris in an attempt to rescue her husband, is guillotined shortly afterwards.

A Place of Greater Safety is a complex, powerful novel.  Mantel’s view of the Revolution, it seems, is that the events were stronger than any one character, and that her three protagonists began with good intentions, but were overtaken by events.  She brings up the famous quotation, attributed to Vergniaud, one of the Girondins, that “The Revolution is devouring its own children.”  Her sympathies definitely seem to be with Danton and Desmoulins in opposing the Terror, rather than with Robespierre in advocating it, although she does give the reader a certain sympathy with Robespierre’s dilemma as he and his oldest friend, Desmoulins, find themselves on opposing sides of the Terror.  The place of greater safety of the title turns out to be the grave, as someone says toward the end of the novel.  I think that what Mantel is saying is that, during these violent events, the grave is the only safe place.

I would like to conclude by discussing Mantel’s style, and my own experience with the novel.  I first tried to read A Place of Greater Safety in the mid-1990s, only a few years after it was published.  I had taken a college class on the subject and was looking for novels to read.  One of my very favorites was, and is, Katherine Neville’s The Eight, only part of which takes place during the French Revolution.  An online friend of mine, in the early days of the internet, was a real expert in the French Revolution, and she recommended A Place of Greater Safety as the greatest novel ever written about the Revolution.  I began reading it and, unfortunately, could not get into it at the time.  I am not entirely sure why that was, but I think it might have had to do with Mantel’s unusual style, which I was not used to, and prevented me from enjoying the book very much.  This was long before Mantel became famous for Wolf Hall.  The sad news of Mantel’s untimely death prompted me to revisit the novel, and I find that I have totally changed my mind.  I was utterly captivated by the book, and drawn into the world of Mantel’s characters.  She makes these famous figures of the French Revolution into real, believable people, with flaws and complexities, and they come to life, all through the 749 pages of the novel.  You feel as if you are experiencing the events along with them.

Mantel’s style is unusual, and several recent authors have tried to imitate it, but, in my opinion, not as successfully.  I could describe it as a modernist style, but it is more than that.  She alternates between past and present tense, and between first and third person, sometimes within the same passage or section.  Mantel does all the things that writers are told not to do, but it works perfectly (and shows you how silly some of these rules of writing really are).  I am not always certain why she does what she does, although she clearly has a reason.  The present tense passages might be meant to give more of a sense of immediacy, even though I see that in some of the past tense passages as well.  Most of the book is told from her three protagonists’ point of view, but not always.  There are certain sections, usually in first person, told from the point of view of relatively minor characters, many of whom are women.  Also, at times she employs an omniscient narrator to tell the leading events of the Revolution, and these parts can sound like a history book, although they are never dry or boring.  It is an astonishingly complex narrative, and I am in awe of Mantel’s abilities.  Her early death is a loss to the world.  A Place of Greater Safety is, in my opinion, one of the three greatest novels of the French Revolution ever written, along with Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Katherine Neville’s The Eight (the parts set in the French Revolution, that is).  It is a long and challenging read, but very rewarding in the end.

A Place of Greater Safety is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.