History, Literature, Reviews.

Storming the Bastille, then laundry

Book Book Review, Title A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel, Author Hilary Mantel, Rating 2.5, Storming the Bastille, then laundry

A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel

Hilary Mantel

Book Review

Today we stormed the Bastille; I got there late; I heard it was bloody. Then I went home and had an argument with my mistress about the laundry. And she spends too much time gossiping with the concierge. Hmmm, what's that I smell for dinner?'

Such parody is a little harsh, but it serves to underline the overall pedestrian nature of this novel; the rich subject deserved much better. That subject is a tale of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of its three major characters: Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, two of whom were members of the decidely unsafe Committee for Public Safety, all three of whom were consumed via the guillotine in the most unsafe year of 1794.

For someone like myself, who finds the French Revolution fascinating, this would seem to be the best of all possible worlds: A novelistic treatment of the turbulent and never dull times surrounding the events that usher in modern Europe, allowing me to experience, through the fantastical reconstructions of actual participants in those events, what it might feel like to live in those times. Alas, if it were only so! Unfortunately, the author too often manages to make those times feel ordinary and domestic, rather than vibrant and alive.

Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail had a similar response: “Mind you, I had to give up her sprawling tome about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, which seemed to be a love-letter to (of all people) Camille Desmoulins, and in which, as far as I can recall, nothing ever happened. Maybe it happened in the bit after I gave up. Then again, maybe not. As I am very interested in the French Revolution, it was quite an achievement to drive me away.”

Hilary Mantel has received much recent acclaim for her two more recent historical novels around the life of Thomas Cromwell, another fascinating historical subject, who was Henry the VIII’s most able minister until he lost his head:  Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I have recently read these, found them much more entertaining and rewarding, coming to understand that her early effort, A Place of Greater Safety, was an apprenticeship which helped to sharpen her gifts. Thank goodness for her perseverance!

A gift from my wife, Cindy.

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