Fatal Purity

Marisa Linton | Published in History Today
Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution
Ruth Scurr   Chatto and Windus    369 pp    £20      ISBN  0701176008
The two leading figures of the French Revolution who remain best known today are at opposite ends of the spectrum, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. Robespierre’s character is by far the more complex and compelling. Marie-Antoinette found herself at the centre of the Revolution only through the chance that made her an empress’s daughter and a king’s wife. Fate had destined Robespierre for obscurity and a respectable life as a small-town lawyer. However, once the Revolution broke out, he threw himself into it wholeheartedly and  forged himself a unique place at its very heart.
He became synonymous with all that was best about the Revolution: he was a tireless defender of liberty, equality and the rights of the poor and dispossessed. But he is also indelibly associated with the most hideous aspect of the Revolution: the use of Terror. His enigmatic personality still commands our attention: to understand Robespierre is to begin to understand the Revolution.

In 1789 Robespierre was a shy, unknown deputy in the Estates General, notable mostly for the awkwardness of his public speaking. He learned quickly: Mirabeau saw immediately what made Robespierre special: ‘That man will go far. He believes what he says.’ Robespierre was a politician by conviction and his ascetic personal life reflected this. Even at the height of his power he lived as a lodger in the house of a master carpenter. Politically astute, stubborn, infuriatingly convinced of his own rectitude, he was that most remarkable of mortals – an incorruptible politician.

No French revolutionary has attracted more biographies than Robespierre. Most have been either passionately for or passionately against him. He has that effect on people. His earnest sincerity commands respect; his conviction appals us. Indeed, it is the very integrity of his principles that makes his adoption of violent tactics so horrifying: a fact recognized by his two greatest English biographers, J.M. Thompson and Norman Hampson.

And now we have the latest biography of Robespierre, the first book by a relatively unknown author. The publisher makes great claims for it, stating that it is: ‘The highly-anticipated debut of a major new historian’, and asserting that the book ‘sheds a dazzling new light’ on the puzzle that is Robespierre. Well, does it? Far from it. This book is not likely to be of interest to anyone with specialist knowledge of the Revolution. There is no new material, no original interpretation, no use made of the burgeoning new studies of political culture and language in this period that could throw fresh light upon the subject. But that should not trouble the general reader. The story of Robespierre is itself an extraordinary one. And Scurr does a very competent job, giving her account in a clear and evocative style. At times, particularly as the narrative reaches its climax, her language approaches the almost poetic quality this tale can inspire in even the most prosaic historians. Political biographies, however, straddle an awkward position between addressing the role of the individual, and the events that shaped the time. The most notable shortcoming of this book is the downplaying of the politics of the Revolution itself. Thompson said it was misleading to think of the Revolution as having leaders at all, for they were ‘swept off their feet, and carried along by a movement which they were powerless to control.’ This does not always come across in Scurr’s account. She attributes much of the hostility between the two revolutionary groups, the Jacobins and the Girondins, to the personal enmity of their respective leaders, Robespierre and Brissot. She states: ‘Robespierre had made an implicit pact with street violence in order to destroy his Girondin enemies in the Convention.’ This is misleading: personal rancour there was in plenty, but that was not why the Girondins were overthrown. The overwhelming reasons were the war and war policy, the fate of the King, and the question of how far the Parisian lower classes, the sans-culottes, the practitioners of street violence, should control the Revolution. Eventually, the sans-culottes  took matters into their own hands to put the Jacobins in power. Robespierre and the Jacobins chose to ride the tiger of direct popular democracy in allying themselves with the sans-culottes. But to ride a tiger is a dangerous business and the Jacobin leaders wielded the Terror partly to stop the sans-culottes doing it on their own account. ‘Let us be terrible,’ said Danton, ‘to save the people from being so.’ Was Robespierre the hero or the villain of the  tragedy that was the Revolution? This book is a good place to begin the search for an answer.
  • Marisa Linton is the author of The Politics of Virtue in Enlightenment France (Palgrave, 2001).
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