on 16 June 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. She suggests that Robespierre and his associates only brought about the execution of the Girondins to pre-empt the Girondins eliminating them, but produces no evidence of any Girondin conspiracy, and makes much of Robespierre's early reluctance to see Danton condemned, but less of his actions in denying Danton even the semblance of a fair trial once he had decided Danton had to go.
On the whole this is a very well written and researched and balanced book, and certainly worth reading by anyone interested in the period or the man. However, at the end of it, Robespierre comes out as someone who from a fairly early age was not only convinced that he was right, but that anyone with a different view was not merely misguided but morally corrupt. From this perception, there is a consistent path to the paranoia of his later actions, which ultimately speak louder than what remains of his words.
on 24 September 2012
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
on 13 February 2007
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.
on 11 February 2009
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)
on 17 September 2015
I must admit that I’ve always looked on the events of 1789 as a prelude to Napoleon rather than being interesting in their own right. So what, the French chopped off their king’s head? We did it 140 years earlier, and in 1689 we showed how to manage things with more grace.
For generations of historians (mostly foreign, admittedly), however, the French revolution was key event of modern history, and it is still a huge source of debate. I thought it was about time I did some proper reading, and after some thought, I choose Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre. It was a very wise choice.
First, this is an excellent biography of a very difficult character. She claims to approach him ‘as a friend’, and does her best to live up to that. However, most of Robespierre’s friends ended up under the guillotine, either with him or having been sent there by him. Being Robespierre’s friend is not something to which I’d aspire.
Secondly, Because Dr Scurr has written for a non-specialist, she also gives a thorough general history of the revolution, both clearly and even-handedly.
The only problems are that it (literally) finishes on the day of his execution, and the Revolution limped on for a while longer, and because Robespierre never went near a battlefield, the military dimension is dealt with as a completely off-stage affair.
Finally, this book is just the right length – the reader never feels daunted, nor do you feel that things have been missed out. A top read.
Who was Robespierre? The man who presided over The Terror – a blood-red fiend, or just a man caught up in a series of struggles to preserve his integrity and his position at the forefront of the French Revolution? Scurr says in this book: “While his short career in politics was long enough to win him a lasting place in world history, it was not long enough to show conclusively whether his is rightly a place of honour, one of shame, or something more inscrutable in between.”
Ruth Scurr has written this account of his career, but ambiguity haunts any final conclusion of the true nature of the man. French society was divided into three classes, the aristocrats, the clergy and the third estate, unequal in number, this last of the orders was by far the most numerous, and proactive in the Revolution. Between May and August 1788, France changed forever. Under the Old Regime the parlements had legal, policing and political responsibilities and were composed mainly of nobles, who had often used personal wealth to buy themselves public office. On Louis XVI’s accession the country was in debt, to the tune of well over four billion livres. The unjust system of taxation exempted the two privileged orders, the Nobility and the Clergy and burdened everyone else in the Third Estate with taxes which the poorest could not afford to pay. Moreover, 98% of the population of France belonged to the Third Estate. If numbers have any meaning, the inflexibility of the three orders should have caused disquiet and men like Robespierre were waiting in the wings to give weight to the numbers of impoverished families. In an early pamphlet Robespierre’s two most prominent political ideas are already present. The principle of election came first. According to him the bishops in the Estates of Artois represented no one because no one had chosen them. The Third Estate chosen by the elite, represented only the elite. The poor, meanwhile were so preoccupied with scraping a living that they had no time or opportunity to reflect on the causes of their discontent, or the natural rights of which they were being cheated.
Ruth Scurr’s portrait of Robespierre is an unflinching one, deepening one’s respect for the biographer’s cause. To give nuance and insight to such an ambivalent and pivotal figure, an indifferent speaker, a canny and devious man, a man who dared to envisage and bring to culmination the judicial assassination of the King of France, a man who presided over the countless deaths of ordinary people in his reign of terror – no easy task, but Scurr proceeds with great skill and tells as well anyone could this chilling, exhilarating, violent and shocking story.
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. For much of his life, certainly before the Revolution and for a couple of years after the fall of the Bastille, his positive points predominate - a passion for justice and for the plight of the poor, as shown by his advocacy of the poor in many court cases when he was a simple lawyer in Arras, and by many of his speeches afterwards; and his radical and uncompromising democracy, an advanced phenomenon in the 18th century. It is only really from 1792, the fall of the monarchy and the suspension of the 1793 constitution before it ever came into effect, that we see the awful side of Robespierre - his singlemindedness becoming a complete personal identification of his own views with the interests of the Revolution, and an utterly and chillingly sincere belief therefore that those opposed to himself and, ipso facto, the Revolution must die - the title of this biography "Fatal Purity" is well chosen. The story from the arrest of the Girondins in June 1793 is the story of the fall and massacring of one faction after another until Robespierre's own fall and death in late July 1794. There are some sickening, horrific and tragic stories along the way, especially those of the prison massacres of September 1792, the separating of Marie Antoinette from her children, the execution of Camille Desmoulins's wife and the many poor and working class people who fell under the guillotine's blade - it was by no means aristocrats who were its most common victims as is commonly supposed. A great and tragic read.
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 arch-villains - the coldly fanatical and ruthless Robespierre. The author points out the many contradictions in this complex figure: although he believed that even those too poor to pay tax should have the right to vote, he became a dictator who suppressed free speech and people's right to defend themselves; despite his dislike of bloodshed, he pushed through new laws to speed up the process of guillotining "traitors"; although he lacked qualities of leadership, was reclusive, made sick by tension and was not a naturally good speaker, he was quick to identify and exploit opportunities to gain power; he prided himself on being morally "incorruptible", yet fell prey to jealousy of talented revolutionaires such as Danton, and saw them as rivals who must be destoyed.
Ruth Scurr provides somes explanations for his personality and behaviour - the death of his mother when he was still very young, the influence of the College where he was "indoctrinated" with ideas of the republic in classical Rome and Greece. Yet, it remains unclear to what extent his ideas became more extreme over time, or whether he suppressed his fanaticism until there was a chance to exercise power. I was particularly struck by the way he rejected the atheism which you might expect to arise from the revolution, and the great arrogance with which he concocted single-handed the "new religion" of worship of "The Supreme Being".
As the book progressed, I became more convinced that Robespierre was mentally unstable and psychopathic, often changing his mind, indulging in very exaggerated language, and turning rapidly against former colleagues for whom he appeared to feel no empathy.
Ruth Scurr has done a good job overall, and obviously has to demonstrate her academic credentials. In general, I could have done with less detail and more emphasis on key events, players and their relationships. At times, I realised too late that a faction or individual was important, and had to use the index to search back and refresh my memory, only to find that e.g. the "Hébertistes" weren't explained as clearly as I would have liked. The important coverage of Robespierre's final bloodthirsty summer and his own death seemed too rushed. I also found irritating the author's tendency to imagine Robespierre doing or thinking in a certain way e.g. her analysis of his final scream seemed a bit "over the top".
Despite a few reservations, this book left me wanting to read more about the French Revolution and some of the other characters who fell by the wayside before Robespierre - Danton in particular caught my interest.
So, I recommend this biography to anyone wanting to increase their understanding of a fascinating period in history. If you are pressed for time, the author's introduction gives you quite a useful summary of Robespierre as a person.
on 24 December 2008
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.
Where I would differ from other reviewers,is that I feel the Author paints a far from flattering picture of her subject.My take is that she portrays Robespierre as a zealous, self-rightious fanatic motivated by idealogical "purity" and unable to see others as human beings, as individuals with aspirations and ambitions which might be just as valid as his own, and with which he would have to compromise.
The image of Robespierre which emerges is a rather chilling one of a man who saw people as mere specimens on which to practice his social experiments much as Lenin would do to even more devestating effect much later.
on 31 July 2014
I read this in the wake of reading Hilary Mantel's "A Place of Greater Security" to compare the fictional to the factual account of this weird but important character. It makes for almost as lively a read as Mantel's novel. What impressed me most was that the author was totally even-handed, rather than condemning Robespierre utterly as most commentators seem to or (as some have done) painting him as a misunderstood hero. What depressed me more and more, however, was the realisation that there are still people such as Robespierre doing similar things (updated for the passage of a couple of centuries, of course) for similar reasons with similar reactions of either adulation or horror. Do we never learn?