Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr · Chatto, 388 pp, £20.00
He expected it to end badly, and it did: a bullet from a pistol which shattered his jaw, a night of unspeaking agony, death without trial. During that night – ninth Thermidor, or 27 July 1794 – he made signs that he wanted a pen and paper. What would he have written? We cannot hope that it would have helped us understand him. He’d had his chance, you’d think: five years in politics. The historian George Rudé estimates that Robespierre made some nine hundred speeches. He had spoken, of course; but had he been heard?
Literally speaking, perhaps not. The halls of most Revolutionary assemblies had poor acoustics. Then there was the matter of his timidity. When he first emerged on the French political scene, in the spring of 1789, he said that he ‘trembled like a child’ before each intervention. Many would have felt the fear, but few would have admitted to it. He was easy to shout down. His accent was provincial, his person – he was short and slight and pale – designed to be overlooked. But if he was not a gifted orator, he was a persistent one. By the autumn of 1789, journalists had learned to spell his name.
Most of his speeches survive, if at all, in short newspaper reports. When you read those that were printed at the time, and have been preserved whole, what you find is a pervasive sentimentality, a strong self-referential tendency, a structure of iron logic. The Incorruptible was also the unpredictable. He was a fissiparous bundle of contradictions. He idealised ‘the people’ and profoundly distrusted anyone who claimed to speak for them. He distrusted the very structures of representation that he helped to put in place. He sought power, and he despised it. He was a pacifist, and helped run a war. In the middle of the most detailed and quotidian debate, he was thinking about posterity; and while he was planning for success he was hymning the purity of failure. He was blessed or cursed with foresight. In the ordinary sense, his vision was defective. Even with the help of spectacles, he didn’t see very well, and was, Ruth Scurr suggests, both short-sighted and long-sighted. His perspectives were strange; the lines between himself and the outside world were blurred. Diffident, rather gauche, he should have kept himself apart from the world; instead, he seems to merge hazily with the times he lived through. He thought he was the Revolution, and he thought the Revolution was him.
Scurr approaches his complicated story with brisk but sympathetic efficiency. Robespierre was born a nobody, but he is not undocumented. Unhappy childhoods always leave something behind – if only death certificates. Born in Arras in 1758, Robespierre was the eldest in his family; his mother died when he was six, giving birth to a fifth child. She was a brewer’s daughter, and had been five months pregnant when François de Robespierre, a lawyer, got around to marrying her. The de Robespierres were a ‘good’ family with no money. His mother’s death was followed by his father’s desertion. François left debts and, no doubt, gossip behind him. The children were split up and cared for by aunts and grandparents.
Later, Rousseau would assure him that people were naturally good, that nature could be trusted, that he was free from original sin. Did he feel he was good, that he was free? His touchiness, his vulnerability, his tendency to flinch from people, suggest an active sense of shame. Later he would champion the rights of illegitimate children. He insisted, at an early stage in his career as a legislator, that the age-old concept of ‘bad blood’ should be abandoned. Children were not responsible for what their parents did, what their parents were. You get a fresh start in this life; the ideal Robespierrist state would have guaranteed it, educating you and keeping you from want. In a democracy, an individual would be judged by his merits, not by the accident of his birth.
The life of Maximilien is conventionally divided into 31 years that don’t matter and five that do. It’s like the life of Christ: private obscurity followed by public ministry and agonising and public death. (The parallels were not lost on those who were inclined to adore him or satirise him.) We do not know how the break-up of his family affected him, because he never talked about his early life. But to make sense of him we probably do need to think about what he was like as a child. How has Scurr engaged with her subject? ‘I have tried to be his friend,’ she says. If you had met him when he was ten you would probably have thought: he needs one.
Robespierre had a scholarship to the prestigious Louis-le-Grand, formerly a Jesuit institution, which operated under the auspices of the University of Paris. His strength of character, his seriousness, were thought remarkable. One of the priests, Father Hérivaux, called him ‘my Roman’. Later, a disaffected former schoolfellow, the journalist Camille Desmoulins, would compare the reign of Robespierre to the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. That wasn’t what Father Hérivaux had meant at the time.
At 23, Robespierre returned to Arras to make a career as a lawyer, and look after his brother Augustin and his sister Charlotte. Augustin would follow him into revolutionary politics and die with him. Charlotte, who lived to be an old woman, left ghostwritten memoirs; she was gushingly fond of her brothers, though when they were alive she complained incessantly that she didn’t get enough of their attention. She gives us the domestic detail; records of the Artois courts give us a little more. Like many educated young men of the time, Robespierre cultivated his sensibilities. He wrote a little light verse. He was sociable, up to a point. He had women friends. He could easily have married. Except for his spectacular absent-mindedness – he once served the soup onto the tablecloth, not noticing the absence of a bowl – he was like other people. Reform was in the air; liberal opinions were the fashionable ones. Usually they didn’t hamper the individual in his pursuit of a place within the system. But Robespierre was a poor-man’s lawyer. He put principles ahead of profit, and ahead of friendship. He was ready to take offence, and ready to give it. In an early poem he says that the worst thing that can happen to a just man is to know, at the point of his death, ‘the hate of those for whom he gives his life’.
Robespierre thought about pain and death with an unflinching intensity which would have destabilised lesser beings. It’s a mistake to think he possessed an awful prescience, or that he had a power, quite unsuspected by those about him, to organise the next decade on a pattern he had predetermined. Perhaps his dreams were different in intensity, though not in kind, from the dreams of those around him. It was an era for the young, clutching their copies of La Nouvelle Héloïse, to look for something interesting to die of: love, or something else. The young dream of transcending their circumstances, of shaming the mediocrities around them; of saving lives, of being martyrs. When you have so much future before you, life seems cheap; perhaps you cannot fully imagine, as older people can, being extinguished, simply coming to nothing.
For most people, the era of selfless risk-taking is a phase. It irritates their elders while it lasts; though sometimes, in political movements, those elders find a way to exploit it. But then, if young persons survive their ideals, something happens which surprises them: they learn a trade, they develop ambitions, they fall in love, they get a stake in life. Or simply time passes, and middle age beckons, with its shoddy compromises. But for the Incorruptible, idealism was not a phase. He kept his vision carefully in his head through his twenties and carried it carefully to Versailles, where he arrived a few days before his 31st birthday. Because he was perfectly attuned to the times he lived in, because there was a real cause to be served, his wishfulness hardened into conviction, his dreams set in stone. Still, he sounds more like a priest, a saint-in-training, than the seasoned political operator he would become. ‘My life’s task,’ he said, according to his sister, ‘will be to help those who suffer.’
We must deduce that he was suffering too. His whole-hearted identification was with the poor, the deprived, the hopeless, and it was this identification which later made him violently reject the atheism of certain strands of Revolutionary thought. Given that you couldn’t create a perfect society – at least not overnight – you had to leave people with the consolations of belief. It was too cruel to try to convince them that the universe was ethically blind. They had to know that their persecutors were going to be punished – in the next world if not in this. And if you could not abolish poverty, you could at least take away its stigma. You could make poverty honourable, while you were working – through a system of universal education – to help lift people out of it. And you could take away the powerlessness of the poor man; you could give him a vote.
First, of course, you had to give him an election. The poor did not have votes in the election that sent Robespierre to Versailles, for France’s first meeting of the Estates General since 1614. He arrived with no polish, no grace and, as Scurr says, ‘completely devoid of ironic distance from the events on which he was staking his life’. But he was realistic and clear-sighted when it came to predicting the flow of events. ‘Unexpectedly, fragile, bookish Robespierre turned out far more talented at the practice than the theory of politics.’
Just as Scurr understands the powerful religious impulse behind Robespierre’s thought, she also understands revolution. It may seem an odd claim to make, but so many of the people who have written about Robespierre, and about the Revolution in general, don’t seem to understand why the people of ’89 didn’t stay quietly at home waiting for evolutionary change. Scurr reminds us that Arthur Young, the agriculturalist who travelled through France on the eve of the Revolution, was shocked by the landless, the shoeless, the hopeless; he thought the French peasants were as poor and hungry as the Irish. She sees precisely why, to some people, the promise of amelioration didn’t seem enough; she understands the need to be out on the streets getting direct results. It’s wise, though, to be careful with certain loaded terms: ‘mob’ is not the collective noun for Parisians, and should not be applied to the curious spectators who came, in 1790, to stare at the royal family when they took the air in the gardens of the Tuileries.
The impetus for popular revolution came, of course, from the towns: from Paris especially. Townspeople were always at risk of bread shortages, of wage cuts, and they were scared of being swamped by even hungrier refugees from the countryside. Small riots were almost routine in those years; they were suppressed, more or less efficiently, more or less humanely. The Revolution was given its intellectual justification by educated professionals and by the more liberal-minded clergymen and nobility, but Scurr does not allow us to forget the groundswell of popular desire – the transformative, unifying power of the events of 1789. To anyone with a political consciousness, it must have seemed as if history had speeded up. The slow centuries had dragged by, punctuated by oddly regressive peasants’ revolts; then there was the summer of 1789. The Estates General turned into the National Assembly. The Third Estate had a voice. The king surrounded Paris with troops, and Paris erupted in protest. The crowds attacked the Bastille for good practical reasons – they wanted the gunpowder shut up inside – but when the fortress fell, something fundamental seemed to have shifted in the historical process, perhaps in human nature itself. Camille Desmoulins wrote: ‘Old men cease, for the first time, to regret the past; now they blush for it.’
As soon as Robespierre had any direct experience of politics, he understood what type of thought and language a revolutionary needed. When the minister Foulon was killed in the post-Bastille lynchings, he wrote: ‘M. Foulon was hanged yesterday by the people’s decree.’ He grasped at once what was needed – speed, resolution, and a willingness to tear up the law books. Robespierre didn’t operate within the conventional power structure, even the one that the early revolution had set in place. He sat in the first National Assembly, but was excluded from its successor by the self-denying ordinance that he himself had proposed. He was never a government minister. His power base was within the Jacobin club, which had branches all over France; he was one of the first to grasp the potential of its cellular organisation. He climbed to power through the insurrectionary commune of 1792, and through a National Convention, which was elected on a basis of universal manhood suffrage – though admittedly, a large percentage of the potential electorate were too confused or too frightened to vote. Finally, the instrument of his power was the Committee of Public Safety. It is the Robespierre of these latter days who haunts our imagination: implacable, remote, his hair immaculately powdered, his well-shaven jaw set, his thin shoulders stiff with rectitude inside his well-brushed coat.
As Norman Hampson wrote in The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre, ‘there’s nothing the facts can do to change the myth.’ Still, one must keep trying: stating the facts as we have them, living with the myth while scrutinising it. Robespierre was keen on scrutiny: he wanted a parliament building with room for 10,000 spectators. His opponents were often dismayed, when he was under attack in one public forum or another, to find the public galleries packed with his female fans. So it is time that a woman wrote his biography. Scurr says that ‘throughout his short life, women loved Robespierre: his combination of strength and vulnerability, ambition and scruples, compassion and refinement attracted women with strong defences against obviously vulgar men, but none against the seemingly sensitive.’ She herself is defended well enough. ‘By all accounts,’ she says, ‘he was remarkably odd.’ In this book, he is singular, but not unrecognisable to us. We may not find his adamant moral purpose among our friends and neighbours; but we listen fearfully to the news, and we know it does exist, elsewhere in the world.
Like all biographers, Scurr hopes to give her subject a private life. She possibly makes too much of Pierre Villiers, a man who claimed, much later, that he was Robespierre’s unpaid secretary in 1790. He is the only witness who tells us Robespierre had a love affair. Scurr knows Villiers is a suspect source, but can hardly resist him. (It’s as if you can’t have a Frenchman without a mistress.) From 1791, Robespierre lived quietly with the family of a master-carpenter, whose daughter may or may not have been his fiancée, and probably, Scurr thinks, wasn’t his lover. It’s not much to go on. The writer, and the reader, knows that an unrecorded private life doesn’t mean there was none. It just means that it’s private.
Scurr keeps her promise to be Robespierre’s friend; at this distance, a critical friend can get close without the risk of a falling-out leading to rapid decapitation. Her book is a straightforward narrative history, and she is a steady guide through complex events. It is judicious, balanced, and admirably clear at every point. Her explanations are economical and precise, her examples well chosen and imaginative, and her quotations from original sources pointed and apt. It is quite the calmest and least abusive history of the Revolution you will ever read. It works well as a general history of the years 1789-94, besides being a succinct guide to one of its dominant figures. She doesn’t go in for denunciation or character assassination, of the kind favoured by many historians and by the revolutionaries themselves. After a certain point one begins to miss the vituperation: one wonders if she has plumbed the depth of Danton’s crookedness, Mirabeau’s treachery, St Just’s psychopathology. But there’s a word that everyone uses when talking about Robespierre, and Scurr is quite free with it: the word is ‘paranoia’. Did he have delusions of persecution? No: he had enemies, and they went armed. ‘Share my fear,’ he would exhort his listeners. They had enemies too; and they were not always the obvious ones, the hostile troops massed on the borders.
Among certain revolutionaries, by 1791, there was a strong suspicion that the glorious Bastille days were not as glorious as they had seemed at the time. How far had events been stage-managed by the Duke of Orléans, who wished to be king, and by foreign powers – the English particularly – who had an interest in undermining Louis? Robespierre suspected that his colleagues were ‘masked’, that the meaning of events was ‘veiled’, and he was right. He had once thought Louis a well-disposed king; he had come to learn that he was prepared to betray his own country. Lafayette, the hero of the early Revolution, crossed the Austrian lines; so did General Dumouriez, who had led the French armies to their first victory at Valmy. Robespierre had believed in the purity of heart of his colleague Pétion, who had sat in the Estates General with him; he had seen Pétion turn into a pompous, self-serving windbag who thought the king’s sister had fallen in love with him. Others – and they were numerous – simply fooled him, from the actor-poet Fabre d’Eglantine to Danton himself. The East India Company fraud, which came to light in late 1793, and which implicated both Fabre and Danton, was a business of such farcical complexity that nobody could see the end of it, or plumb its depths. One can see how threatening it must have seemed – the idea that the war effort and the whole economy was being undermined by crooked army contractors, in alliance with sinister foreign interests. It is perfectly sane to feel threatened by what you cannot see clearly and don’t understand. The things that Robespierre didn’t understand were multifarious, and ranged from the workings of international finance to the human capacity for duplicity.
Was he duplicitous himself? He was not consistent, and Scurr sees why. He made a sharp distinction between what was possible in a country at peace and a country under threat from external aggression and civil war. In ordinary times, he thought, there was no need for capital punishment, because the state had enough power to constrain the criminal and render him harmless. But in a time of war, when the state was subject to sabotage, it could not necessarily protect itself; you could not ask the soldier to kill enemies on the battlefield if the state did not have similar sanctions for its internal enemies. Similarly, he was anti-censorship, taking the principle of freedom of expression so seriously that he would have carried it to a logical conclusion and permitted pornography. But once again, the principle must give way before the greater necessity of national defence: a government at war cannot, he thought, allow its journalists to be the enemy within.
What Scurr shows very ably is how liberal instincts succumbed to circumstance. By the middle of 1792, King Louis was expecting imminent rescue by foreign troops. In July, the commander of the enemy allies threatened to raze Paris to the ground. The journée of 10 August was the response – the mass invasion of the palace of the Tuileries. If the first revolution had been conditional, flawed, and had ended in the creation of a new elite, this republican revolution was a chance to start again. But under the terrible pressure of events there was no chance to turn ideals into solid fact. The Duke of Brunswick’s troops crossed the border on 19 August and the prison massacres of September took place in an atmosphere of mass panic. When the butchers went to work, they killed imprisoned prostitutes, and young people in a reformatory, as well as those who could be seen as the enemy within. Robespierre took the opportunity to try to get his opponent Brissot placed under arrest. If he had actually been arrested – Danton blocked the warrant – there is a strong possibility that Brissot would have been caught up in the slaughter.
In Robespierre’s terms, this would have been an economical bit of blood-letting. He blamed the Brissot faction for the war, and he did not think they had been misled, but that they were actively conspiring against the Revolution. He never extended to his opponents the courtesy of believing them merely mistaken, or misinformed, or even stupid. In an emergency, such a courtesy is meaningless. He knew them by their deeds and he knew them to be malicious. With the enemy only days away, malice equalled treason. So he thought, anyway. He had to wait another year for Brissot to be ‘unmasked’ before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and guillotined with his supporters. Robespierre deplored needless violence, but could persuade himself rather readily to see the need. Due process was too slow for his fast-moving instincts.
Certainly the war was not of his making, and Scurr emphasises how during 1792 he struggled for peace, standing out against the drift of public opinion and losing in the process any personal popularity he had amassed. He did not agree either with Danton’s war of territorial expansion, or with Brissot’s war of ideological expansion; he didn’t think you could export the Revolution’s ideals by force of arms. It was a no-win situation, as he was aware. If France lost, the Revolution would be over; if she began to win, she would have to thank her generals, whose commitment to democracy was always suspect. The Bourbons would be back, vengeful and furious; or a power vacuum would let in a military dictator. However it worked out, Robespierre foresaw ‘a gaping chasm filled with victims’. If you look at the subsequent Napoleonic years, you can see that he was not wrong.
But once the war was a fact, it could be used to justify the instruments of internal repression – the Revolutionary Tribunal, the internment of suspects, and then the infamous law of 22 Prairial, which denied the accused a defence. The Committee of Public Safety – which was originally, like the Tribunal, a Dantonist invention – accreted power after Robespierre joined it, and became in effect a provisional revolutionary government, overseeing the Terror. Robespierre checked the excesses of Fouché and Tallien, who, on mission in the provinces, had committed atrocities in the name of the Revolution; and he intervened to save individuals. But his part in the Terror cannot be wished away. Was he a good man who deteriorated under the pressure of events, or was it only in the extreme situations thrown up by the war that he was able to show what was latent in him, for better or worse? How far was he responsible for the bloodshed of 1794? If you take away his responsibility, you take away his claim to greatness. He saw the problem himself: ‘Obliging persons have been found to attribute to me more good than I have done in order to impute to me mischief in which I had no hand.’ The people’s salvation was, he said, ‘a task beyond any single man’s powers – certainly beyond mine, exhausted as I am by four years of revolution’. In 1794, when the king’s sister Mme Elisabeth was guillotined, he was blamed for it by people in the street, even though he had opposed it: ‘You see,’ he said, ‘it is always me.’ But he had asked for this intense identification with the Revolution, and couldn’t now complain.
Why was his purity fatal? Because it seemed to be absolute. You couldn’t buy him. You couldn’t impress him. You couldn’t frighten him. You couldn’t lay claim to him – he wasn’t a man without human affection, but he didn’t let it get in the way of the guillotine’s blade when he thought old friends were blocking the Revolutionary path. In the end you couldn’t even negotiate with him, because he was afraid of getting his hands dirty. For such a pure soul, death was the only logical outcome. You would be martyred, or you would be compromised. You would be the people’s enemy, or – as Marat called himself – the people’s friend, or you would simply be ‘the people’, which is how Robespierre thought of himself: the sum of their hopes, the sum of their fears. But could the people ever triumph? Was it even possible to state their case, since history was written by the winners? By the summer of 1794 a revolutionary pessimism had taken hold of him. He was depressed, and physically ill. He was tired; he could well have said, with Marat, ‘I haven’t taken a quarter of an hour’s recreation for more than three years.’ He began to stay away from the Committee and the Convention. Who would the public blame, when he wasn’t there, if events took an unfortunate turn? The answer was: we blame you.
In the Convention, Robespierre sat on a high tier of seats, which people called the Mountain. His voice was no louder, he’d grown no bigger; but now people listened and they looked. They scrutinised every gesture, they weighed every word. What did he say? What did he mean? Who does he mean? Does he mean me? What brought Robespierre down finally was not a further access of fanaticism, or a proposal to intensify the Terror, but a proposal to moderate it. His mistake, in his last speech to the Convention, was to threaten his opponents without naming names. Every member of the assembly felt himself close to the guillotine, and men with disparate interests acted in concert to destroy him. Many years later, when he was an old man, Merlin de Thionville was asked how he could have brought himself to turn against Robespierre. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘if you had seen his green eyes . . .’
It seems doubtful whether Merlin or many others ever got close enough to see his green eyes. Scurr seems to have got closer than most. In 1865, the writer Edgar Quinet said of the actors of the Revolution: ‘However dead they are . . . they are still in the fray. They go on fighting and hating.’ And hoping, one might add; even now they are two centuries away, we should still be looking to see what we can learn from their hopes and their violent expression. The Revolution is not over, any more than history is at an end. Whenever Robespierre was interrupted, something is missing still. Whenever he was silenced, we are listening to the silences. Whatever else he was, he was a man of conviction and a man of principle. We are not now attuned to principle or conviction, but to the trivia of politics and the politics of trivia. This is why we cannot understand the Islamic world, or the conviction of its militants, their rage for purity, their willingness to die. What they have, the heirs to the liberal tradition have let slip away; we’re ironical, comfortable, self-absorbed and fatally smug. We think justice has been done; good enough justice, anyway – and we hope that charity will fill the gaps. Robespierre had no holy book, but he had a militant faith, not in a Christian god, but in a good revolutionary god who had made men equal. He did not see his ‘Supreme Being’ as a figure who offered consolation alone, but as an active force for change. Revolutionaries were to enjoy an afterlife; death, he said, was ‘their safe and precious asylum’. His ferocity of intent, his fierce demand for martyrdom, are suddenly familiar to us; he appears to be our contemporary.
When the Abbé Sieyès was old, and the past and present had got jumbled in his head, he used to say: ‘If M. Robespierre comes to call, tell him I’m not at home.’ Today we must sympathise with the abbé. But however much we don’t want to see him, we can hear his light tread on the stair.
Hilary Mantel’s novels include A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution, Vacant Possession, An Experiment in Love and, most recently, Beyond Black.
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