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A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Viking, 1992, 878 p, plus ii p Contents, ii p Author’s Note, viii p Cast of Characters, ii p Map of Revolutionary Paris.

A Place of Greater Safety cover

There is a view in certain circles which questions the legitimacy of authors describing milieux and inhabiting characters of which they have little or no direct experience, of writing, as you might say, outside themselves. This attitude focuses on the potentially dubious aspects of what is sometimes described as cultural appropriation; what some might go so far as to call exploitation. It is not a new issue: authors – aspiring authors at any rate – have over the years frequently been advised to write what they know. (There is a similar debate in the acting profession over who ought to be allowed to play certain roles. While in this context I recognise the point about adequate representation and lack of access by some actors to particular parts in a production or film it seems to me to be slightly off the point. An actor’s job after all is and always has been to pretend to be someone else. Who actually gets to do that, though, is a different challenge.) For writers an opposite problem exists though, that if they do write outside what is deemed (by others) to be their experience they could be ghettoised or even ignored, barred from any acceptance. Both the extremes are best avoided. In the best of all possible worlds they would be. This is not, of course, the best of all possible worlds.

Hilary Mantel is not a French Revolutionary, that turbulent era – one of many to try to seek the best of worlds – is well outside her experience, yet had she stuck to her lane readers would have been deprived of a very fine work of fiction indeed. In A Place of Greater Safety she has produced perhaps the most convincing novelistic account in English of what those times were like. That this was effectively her first novel is astonishing. All the hallmarks that made her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell so compelling – getting into her character’s minds, formidable research, attention to detail, sympathetic portrayals of people who in most respects were far from admirable – are here.

The narrative focus of the novel lies mainly with three principal revolutionaries, Camille Desmoulins, good with words, making him a highly successful pamphletist but afflicted with a stutter, the charismatic Georges-Jacques d’Anton (later Danton) marred by a facial disfigurement, and the reserved and ascetic Maximilien Robespierre, but also encompasses their respective households and acquaintances. Desmoulins and Danton are more or less serial womanisers, Robespierre’s reticence means he is a reluctant lover when it comes to the point.

As Wolf Hall began with incidents in Cromwell’s childhood so too does A Place of Greater Safety with those of its three main characters. The background political situation, the slow tipping into insurrection, is dealt with mainly by asides, rarely carrying the thrust of the story. History unfolds in the margins of these lives – as it does more generally, to all of us. In particular Mantel shows us the daily concerns and thoughts of Desmoulins’s and Danton’s wives, respectively Lucile, and Gabrielle then Louise. There is a comment on another woman’s appearance, “she had employed one of those expensive hairdressers who make you look as if you’ve never been near a hairdresser in your life,” that has no doubt occurred to many.

The scenario inspires a few sardonic exchanges. Someone asks, “‘Would they kill the king?’” and is replied to with, “‘Heavens, no. We leave that sort of thing to the English.’” The same topic arises later in an exchange between Camille and Fabre d’Églantine when the latter asks, “‘Do you think that Mr Pitt really cares whether we have Louis executed?’
‘Personally? Oh no, no one gives a damn for Louis. But they think it is a bad precedent to cut off monarch’s heads.’
‘It was the English who set the precedent.’
‘They try to forget that.’”

The changes and dislocations revolutions entrain are summed up by, “Because of the changes in the street names it will become impossible to direct people around the city. The calendar will be changed too, January is abolished, goodbye to aristocratic June. People will ask each other, ‘What’s today in real days?’” Camille says acidically, “The situation of the poor does not change. It is just that the people who think it can change are admired by posterity.”

The Terror comes on bit by bit, apparently without anyone consciously willing it, but has its own momentum. The characters ride the times as best they can, while they can, towards the end under the increasingly looming menace that is Saint-Just.

The best advice is given by Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville to Lucile, “‘Concentrate on surviving yourself, my love. I do.’” Not that it can necessarily be followed.

A Place of Greater Safety is not perhaps for the faint-hearted reader, but it is brilliantly achieved.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Cast of Characters; “a delicatessan” (delicatessen.) Otherwise, “about the price of a woman’s hats” (strictly that should be ‘prices’,) epicentre (context did not imply ‘off-centre’; so, centre,) Champs-de-Mars (Champ-de-Mars,) uncurably (usually incurably,) “if the crowd let the police take him” (the crowd is a single entity here; so, ‘if the crowd lets’,) “M Soulès eyes were drawn” (Soulès’s,) “kicked around like a football” (football, as such, had not been codified in 1789.) “A Bodyguard” (no need for the capital ‘B’.) “The crowd cheer” (The crowd cheers,) “Georges’ mother” (Georges’s,) publically (publicly,) stongly (strongly,) “to his army command the frontier” (at the frontier is more natural,) “as they stoved in the door” (stove in, or, staved in,) “stray voices in the street that call – line break from the middle of a line, next line starts – pass on.” “‘I’ll tell it you when I get back.’” (‘I’ll tell you it’ is more natural,) “and accusation drip from unseen mouths” (accusations,) “he called the members, opinion-mongers” (doesn’t need the comma,) “a jury retiring at this hour were unlikely to agonize over their verdict” (was unlikely; its verdict.) “The jury were back” (was back,) “‘Is that Danton’s plan.’” (is a question and so requires a question mark rather than a full stop.) “The only sound in the apartment were the dissonant chords and broken notes” (sounds … were,) Cassius’ (Cassius’s.) The public applaud (applauds.)

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