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Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution Paperback – 5 Apr 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New edition (5 April 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099458985
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099458982
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 26,859 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"There is a dazzling light of intellect as much as a thunderous darkness of reality in her fine, humanising portrait" (The Times, Ten Best Books of 2006)

"Scurr has an important tale to tell, and she tells it judiciously" (Lucy Hughes-Hallett Sunday Times)

"Ruth Scurr's aim, in this well written first book, is to provide an accessible, up - to date biography that draws on all this work, and represents Robespierre as a human being rather than as a monster of legend. She succeeds impressively" (Munro Price Sunday Telegraph)

"This splendidly balanced account of an unbalanced mind proves that there are monsters of virtue as well as monsters of vice" (Graham Robb Daily Telegraph)

"It is judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point....It is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read" (Hilary Mantel London Review of Books)

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.

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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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Format: Paperback
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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