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on 8 February 2016
This is an amazing study of this fascinating character told in such engaging and simple language. It is so clear and vivid that you feel as if you are witnessing everything first-hand. It is not, however, just about Ropespierre but about other individuals central to the revolution and about the events that shaped it. Excellent.
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on 2 January 2013
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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on 1 May 2017
An interesting introduction to Robespierre that would have benefited from more facts and less supposition.
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on 22 March 2017
Excellent read. Easy to read, informative and well researched. Did the job for me
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on 12 April 2016
I have over 300 books on the French Revolution and this is one of the best researched biographies I have read.
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on 19 May 2017
A handy source if you're researching Robespierre. Has rather the tone of a rehabilitation piece, though. Driven by personal moral force, type thing.
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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.
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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.
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on 11 April 2015
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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 6 September 2010
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.
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