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Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution [Hardcover]

Ruth Scurr
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 May 2006
Robespierre was only 36 when he died, sent to the guillotine where he had sent thousands ahead of him. Only a few months before, this pale and fragile man, formal, anxious to the point of paranoia, steeled by deep-held principles, had held centre place in the new Festival of the Supreme Being, wearing his sky-blue coat and decreeing a new religion for France. Robespierre and the Revolution were inseparable: a single inflexible tyrant. But what turned a shy young lawyer into the living embodiment of the Terror at its most violent? Admirers called him 'the great incorruptible'; critics dubbed him a 'monster', a 'bloodthirsty charlatan'; even his friends found him hard to understand. Ruth Scurr sheds a dazzling new light on this puzzle, tracing Robespierre's life from a troubled childhood in provincial Arras to the passionate idealist, fighting for the rights of the people, and sweeping on to the implacable leader prepared to sign the death warrant for his closest friends. No backdrop can match the French revolution: it burns with human interest. As Scurr says, 'More than haunting, it obsesses, because it will not lie down and die'. Her brilliant, probing narrative brings the Revolution and its chilling hero to fiery life once again, helping us to understand how ideals and fanaticism can so often go hand in hand, as they still do today.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (4 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701176008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701176006
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 129,285 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Scurr brilliantly evokes the sheer speed and intensity of change after the fall of the Bastille". -- Guardian (Sat): Rebecca Abrams

"Scurr has written a lucid, readable and finely balanced biography of this flawed French revolutionary" -- Mike Rapport, BBC History Magazine

"The best English-Language book on the subject for decades" -- Book of the Week, The Week Magazine

"This is a biography that will stimulate all those interested in the subject of state terror" -- Antonia Fraser, The Times

"fine political biography" -- Independent (Fri): David Coward

"it is difficult to ignore the contemporary resonances" -- Times

A much-lauded debut -- Bookseller

Engaging and insightful biography... Scurr writes with sensitivity and clarity about this paradoxical individual -- Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

`extremely intelligent, well researched book...'
-- The Sunday Herald Books of the Year. Chosen by Lady Antonia Fraser, historian.

‘Scurr has an important tale to tell, and she tells it judiciously.’ -- The Sunday Times, Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Book Description

How idealism turned to blood: a powerful new portrait of the most enigmatic politician of all times, and a vivid re-reading of the turbulent French Revolution itself. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Actions speak louder than Words 16 Jun 2012
For most of the last century, Robespierre has generated mixed views amongst historians. He is revered by some for his principles and sense of purpose, hated by others as a cold-blooded, self-righteous fanatic. The problem is that very little is known of Robespierre's early life, and many of his private papers were destroyed after his execution. Robespierre himself remains enigmatic and writers can impose their own interpretations on his actions and create their own version of him. Ruth Scurr's book is a very interesting attempt to understand Robespierre from a study of his political and personal ideas and to examine how these developed over his adult life. This is not the first time that his political ideas have been examined (Alfred Cobban did so in 1948), but Scurr also attempts to examine both his personal ideals and his moral development over his lifetime. Her main problem is still the paucity of sources and her necessary reliance on his published political speeches, which need not fully reflect his deeply held beliefs.
Ruth Scurr has specialised in the history of ideas, and in her book she places more importance on Robespierre's ideas than his actions. However, she is scrupulous in setting out the reasons why she comes to a particular view, so that one can use the background she provides to form a different view. I felt that she was a little too sympathetic to Robespierre, and in two areas her sympathy may have misled her.
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47 of 55 people found the following review helpful
This is a fantastic achievement, and really readable with it. The French Revolution is one of those events which is difficult for the modern mind to get fully to grips with - reasonably straightforward perhaps until about 1791 and then increasingly foggy until 1794. The haziness largely centres on Robespierre, because he is difficult for us, in a (post-Marxian) world in which we think through political formulae, really to get to grips with. As he moves increasingly centre-stage it is important to understand what he is after, and why the revolution sways chaotically around him. Ruth Scurr really gets to the heart of Maximilian Robespierre (the "Incorruptible", as she continually describes him), and translates him into modern form. This is a highly sympathetic history, but avowedly a convincing one. Here is a man with a true vision of virtue, of a society of truth and goodness, and in touch with its element. If the revolution is anything, he believes, it must achieve goodness, whatever the ambiguities that involves. It is remarkable how popular that man's vision for the revolution proved to be for his people in a time of almost anarchic violence and uncertainty. This was not a bloodthirsty despot, the first of the dictators. The Festival of the Supreme Being was a sublime moment of realisation for Robespierre, even if not necessarily for his own people, and far from the Cult of Personality of the later dictators, as it has been seen. Two hundred years down the road here is a British historian dishing the "sea-green" image of Carlyle which has so influenced our Anglocentric view of Robespierre since then.

This is fine revisionist writing, clearly argued, and above all, absolutely unputdownable. The sort of book you think will take you a week, but which you finish in a day and a half.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
There is little information out there on the lives of the leaders of the French revolution and their motivations. The majority of reading material is to do with the Terror, how it all started or the royal family. This book not only delves into Robespierre's life and motivation but also briefly shows you the motivation of his acquaintances Marat & Danton, the other names most associated with the Terror.
Fatal Purity shows you the contradictions in Robespierre's character along with his real belief that he was right and how those around him either had to agree wholeheartedly or stand against him.
Ruth Scurr charts the rise of Robespierre's political ambitions and his change in viewpoint on the use of heath as a weapon and finally shows how he finally failed in his aim and followed his former enemies to the guillotine.
I believe not enough is known about the personalities involved in the French Revolution, especially as they were the people who changed the course of history for an entire country and helped make it into what it is today.
I would definately recommend this book to anyone interested in French or European history (& have already recommended it to my mum)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read 2 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed reading this book as I find the life of Robespierre interesting and I especially like how Ruth Scurr goes into Robespierre's personal life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly and thoughtful 24 Sep 2012
By Sarah
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One of the best aspects of this book is the fact that it can be read and enjoyed by people with varying degrees of familiarity with the French Revolution. I came to it after a fairly prolonged bout of reading but it is the first Robespierre biography I've read. Ruth Scurr has researched intensively and I like the fact that whilst she issues caveats, she does include things like 'gossip' from his secretary. Given that so few people really knew or wrote about Maximilien in his lifetime these snippets are well worth having even with a health warning. She says she is going to try to approach him as a friend, and this seems to work well. It means that she doesn't shy from giving insight into what may constitute motives; here she acknowledges and, I think, finally condemns his growing paranoia, but with the examination of his childhood, one can perhaps imagine that the desertion by his father would leave him with a mistrust of the 'enemy within'
I read this book quickly, and will definitely read it again - having it on my kindle means I have been able to add useful highlights and notes. I am also looking for the Norman Hampson biography which looks at Max from 4 points of view - hard to find.
La Révolution française et Camille DesmoulinsDantonDantonA Place of Greater SafetyCitizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Most interesting
It gives a complementary and focussed view of the French Revolution.
Very well documented and easy to read, despite its length.
Published 14 months ago by Emiliano Fossati
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent piece of work
This is a brilliantly researched book that skillfully entwines something of Robespierre's personality with the historic events surrounding the revolution. Read more
Published 23 months ago by Joseph Kane
4.0 out of 5 stars Absolute power corrupts absolutely
This very readable account of the momentous, chilling, chaotic events of the French Revolution distinguishes itself from the many previous versions through its focus on one of the... Read more
Published on 6 Sep 2010 by Antenna
5.0 out of 5 stars An Incorruptable Portrait
How easy it is to look at Maximilien Robespierre and see nothing but a monster, a mass-murderer, whose fate was well-deserved, though it perhaps came too late. Read more
Published on 19 Jan 2010 by Josepha Josephine Wilkinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Historical Biography as it should be
One of the most insightful biographies I have ever read.The Author gets into the mind of Robespierre and takes us to the eye of the storm that surrounded him. Read more
Published on 24 Dec 2008 by Pendragon
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and tragic
A well written and fascinating account of the life and career of this most famous and infamous of French revolutionaries. Robespierre is a fascinating man of contrasts. Read more
Published on 27 Oct 2008 by John Hopper
2.0 out of 5 stars Fatally flawed
This is a classic example of revisionist history. The common perception of Robespierre is of a power hungry monster prepared to have anyone who stood in his way sent to the... Read more
Published on 14 Sep 2008 by C. Wareham
1.0 out of 5 stars Fatal purity? How about vicious psychopath!
This book suggests that Robespierre's only crime was trying to help too much.

We have no window into Robespierre's mind, so perhaps if we knew only his words there might... Read more
Published on 12 Mar 2008 by Timothy Bates
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