The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Published in History Today

The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre
David P. Jordan - Macmillan, 1985 - £17.95 – 308pp

This is the fifth book on Robespierre to appear in English in the last fifteen years. Was another needed? It certainly offers no new evidence about its subject – but then nor did the others. Apart from his copious writings and speeches, remarkably little survives to document the life of the French Revolution's most important figure. Recognising this, David Jordan chooses to rely largely on Robespierre's own words and to write his intellectual biography rather than a straightforward account of his life. A very distinctive book is the result, different from the others, but commanding respect through its obvious deep roots in the evidence. Jordan has clearly read everything that Robespierre wrote and said. He is also familiar with all the important scholarship concerning him, as the footnotes and an excellent second chapter on his hero's historical reputation show. He is even knowledgeable on Robespierre's iconography: each chapter is accompanied by a different portrait, not all of them well-known, and the frontispiece is a remarkable, smiling image hardly ever reproduced. A useful appendix documents all these illustrations.

Jordan is clearly sympathetic to Robespierre, though not uncritical. When he was hysterical, or over-credulous, or misjudged his tactics, his biographer sternly says so. Nevertheless, too much reading of self-righteous ranting takes its toll, as it has on many a historian of the Revolution before now. He ends up writing like his sources. Robespierre, he explains:

Was often carried away by rhetorical excess, caught up in a rhapsody of his own making, enthralled by the sound of words rolling in waves over his subject, burying sense in sound. Robespierre, when he loses control over his verbiage, when it becomes detached from concreteness and drifts form detail, finds himself floating hopelessly, piling up images and abstractions.

Nothing could better describe the style of Jordan himself. A good sub-editor could have trimmed his text by a quarter without abandoning anything essential; except perhaps the sense of being bludgeoned which any prolonged exposure to the Incorruptible's rhetoric leaves one with, but which is perhaps something readers seeking to get the feel of him should experience. The space saved could have been used to clarify Robespierre's objective position in revolutionary affairs at crucial points, when all we tend to get is his own (frequently fantastic) view of things. Accordingly, newcomers to the subject wishing to situate him in the Revolution as it developed will not find it easy. Quite apart from a disturbing number of tactual errors (date of Algernon Sidney's death; date of the Tennis Court Oath; meaning of gens de couleur; calling Breteuil a general) and exaggerations (Robespierre 'had himself built the Jacobin Society'; hecklers were always paid by his enemies; war was inevitable) the argument frequentlv hops backwards and forwards in time so that citations to substantiate a particular point can be piled up. As a result, why Robespierre said or wrote what he did at particular times and not others is often not clear. And there are repeated invocations of 'the Revolution' as some sort of multivalent monolith, meaning whatever is convenient for the argument in hand – another trick picked up from Maximilien himself.

Despite, therefore, Jordan's ambition of reaching a wide audience, this is not a book for beginners. Too much will confuse them, and too much mislead. For a brief introduction, the smaller of J. M. Thompson's two lives of Robespierre has still to be replaced. But those who want to know Robespierre in depth, and who know enough already not to believe all that Jordan tells them, will find plenty to take their interest in his approach. Scholars will want him in their libraries, and those of their institutions; even if they will not insist on shelving him as accessibly as Walter, Thompson, Rude or Hampson.

William Doyle is author of The Ancien Regime (Macmillan, 1986).

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