Hilary Mantel wrote A Place of Greater Safety in the 70s, but it was unpublished until 1992, twenty years in which she failed to find any interest in a historical novel about the cataclysmic events of 1789-1794. In an interview with the Paris Review, she says that, “I had no idea how little the British public knew or cared or wished to know about the French Revolution. And that’s still the case. They want to know about Henry VIII.”
I’m both surprised and not by this comment. Why wouldn’t we be fascinated by a chaotic moment in time which changed the shape of our closest neighbour and long-time enemy, and gave rise to the striding beast Napoleon? But also, Henry and all his wives, right?
So, it’s probably true that most readers come to Greater Safety because they’ve read the Cromwell trilogy and want to explore more Mantel. In contrast, I came to Greater Safety particularly because I wanted to learn about the French Revolution, as opposed to trying to read all of her work. I’d tried Wolf Hall and abandoned it, partly, I think, because I gorged myself on the Tudors when I was a teenager, and partly because I was discouraged by the density of the writing. But as an historical writer, critics widely say that she has no equal, so when I googled “novels about the French Revolution” and Greater Safety came up, it seemed like my best way in.
I went into the book knowing virtually nothing about the Revolution. Robespierre, The Terror, Marie Antoinette losing her head, the invention of the guillotine – I could just about riff on the most basic fragments. I have come out the other side of the book knowing more, of course, but not (perhaps because I didn’t know her style of writing) as I expected.
Mantel’s aim with the book was to tell the story from the point of view of the revolutionaries; as incredible as it seems, she couldn’t find anything written from their perspective, only the events as experienced by France’s aristocrats. In her introduction to the novel, she explains that its focus will be solely Paris, its people and the events that took place there, not the rest of France. She picks three men as her subjects, the lens through which to view the Revolution; Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. These men knew each other, were close (or at least Desmoulins was close with each of the other two), and were at the heart of the Revolution from the beginning. Apart from a brief overview of their childhoods and adolescence, the bulk of the 800-page novel takes place from 1788-1794: from the build up of pressure that leads to the storming of the Bastille, to the second revolution and the start of the republic, through the Terror and the height of Robespierre’s popularity. It ends months before Robespierre’s own execution and the end of the Terror.
What Mantel does not do, is step back and take a panoramic view of the sweep of events. We are down in the weeds here, living day to day with our characters, who are as complicated and contradictory and frustrating as anyone we know. In her introduction she says, “I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. Of course, my characters did not have the blessing of hindsight; they lived from day to day as best they could.” And we live with them: their complaints, their meals, their affairs – even in the face of destruction, love and sex thrive. There are twitches of the omniscient narrator’s ability to scan forward in time. Lucille Desmoulins, on contemplating life should her husband be assassinated, decides she would kill herself; the reader, even without the historical knowledge, can predict that she won’t have to.
While we are down here with the characters in this deeply subjective, human space, Mantel is quite often coy. Key events like the storming of the Bastille, the Massacre of the Champs-de-Mars, the execution of Louis Capet, formerly King Louis XVI, are told at a remove. Where most historical fiction novelists would take us into the heat and sweat of the moment (Bernard Cornwell springs to mind), she takes a step back, or tells it in fragments around the moment, a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. Take the execution of Louis the Last; we are with him in his cell, briefly, as he thinks and prays aloud. Then:
“10:30 a.m. The coat is snatched away from [the executioner] Sansom’s assistants, and cut up into snippets. Hot pies and gingerbread are for sale in the Place de la Révolution. People are swarming around the scaffold, soaking rags in the spilled blood.”
There’s no perspective from the crowd or the executioner, no view of the guillotine blade as it falls. Mantel refuses to give us the drama that we came for – we are not meant to be that mob, baying for blood. She does it again with the final deaths in the book; the writer explicitly turning to the reader and saying, no more.
“There is a point beyond which – convention and imagination dictate – we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant on to the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat.”
What is historical fiction for? Why read novels when there are reams of articles and histories on the world’s book shelves? Personally, I’ve always used it as a way to educate myself without getting bored, and (like all humans) I remember facts more easily when attached to stories. A Place of Greater Safety is, no doubt, impeccably researched, and Mantel says, “I would never [change a fact to heighten the drama]. I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them.” But – and I could be entirely wrong here – I don’t get the sense that she is interested in conveying facts to the reader so that they can go away and “know about” the French Revolution. More that she wants us to know what it would have felt like, its mess and confusion, and, as best we can, get beneath the skin of its charismatic and terrifying – but somehow, still human – leaders.