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Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution Hardcover – April 18, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
The short, violent life of Maximilien Robespierre was a mass of contradictions crowned with a supreme irony: this architect of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror would in July 1794 be executed by the same guillotine to which he had consigned so many others. Cambridge University historian Scurr says she has tried to write a biography that expresses "neither partisan adulation nor exaggerated animosity," but even she must conclude that with the Terror, he "kept moving through that gory river, because he believed it necessary for saving the Revolution. He can be accused of insanity and inhumanity but certainly not of insincerity." Robespierre can also be accused of being a revolutionary fanatic who hated atheists, and "became the living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral"; a dedicated upholder of republican virtues whose hands were smothered in blood; a fierce opponent of the death penalty who helped send thousands to their deaths; and a democratic tribune of the people who wore a sky-blue coat and embroidered waistcoats so aristocratic they wouldn't have been out of place at the court of the Sun King. Scurr's first book scores highly in unraveling not only her subject's complexities but those of his era. 2 maps. (Apr. 29)
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The name Maximilien Robespierre seems to embody the excesses that contributed to the deterioration of the French Revolution; his name is synonymous with the expression "Reign of Terror." Born in the provincial city of Arras, the lawyer Robespierre carved a significant place for himself in the destruction of the ancien regime, but in 1794 he fell under the machine of terror he had greatly contributed to creating and was himself guillotined. Scurr is to be applauded--and read, of course--for bringing the intricacies of the revolutionary philosophies and actions to a readily comprehensible level; as this author maintains, "To understand [Robespierre] is to begin to understand the French Revolution." Robespierre was a peculiar personality, distinctive in ways that were not all positive, and here he is as accurately assessed as hindsight permits. For the general reader, then, this is not simply a well-balanced, evenly shaded portrait of the man and his motivations, mistakes, and achievements but also a helpful explanation of an event that makes our American Revolution seem straightforward and of undeniable good sense. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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In addition, the author is fair to Robespierre, a man so easy to condemn. He had not many virtues, but those few he had are carefully related in this biography, among them his affection for his sisters and for the family he lived with in Paris. Yet the author details Robespierre's cruelty in condemning to death even his one-time friends -- Danton and Desmoulins. They had been close to him, but he sent them to the scaffold apparently without a qualm.
Robespierre was a fanatic, a rigid man without a soul. Any national turmoil would have brought that out, anywhere, in any age, but this trait of cruelty and fanaticism would have been exercised in obscurity. The pity was that he was able to rise to the pinnacle of power in a country that had lost its sanity and its decency.
I doubt that you will find a better presentation of the horrifying last hours of Robespierre's life. The author is careful to state what is known and what is surmised.
Robespierre, it is assumed, tried to commit suicide but shot himself in the jaw. His face mangled and his pain unimaginable, he was taken finally to execution along with seventeen of his associates.
As the author states:
"Outside, the carts were already waiting for them, and the guillotine had been brought back into the city center and reassembled in the place de la Révolution especially for the occasion. By early evening, enormous crowds filled the streets and the banks of the Seine. Everyone wanted to see Robespierre go past."
The hatred of the Parisians was immense, but it was a little late.
Few biographies are as convincing or as enthralling as this one. It is to be recommended without reservation.
The revolution arose not from a single definable source or clique of individuals but from a vortex of economic anxieties, food shortages, social and cultural grievances, jealousies, disputes and resentments. All were further accentuated by generalized political unrest and ideological turmoil. It entailed a convergence of conditions not easily untangled, but Ms. Scurr has succeeded in sorting through and bringing order to the maze.
Her prose is precise, fluent, and readable, and only rarely does she seem to stray from the strand of her narrative. The method she employs is biographic. Her story is built around the life of Maximilien Robespierre, his talents, his ambition, his maneuvering, his shifting loyalties and evolving ideology. The technique provides continuity and works well in delineating the the convoluted manner in which the revolution unfolded over five stormy years. But it also has shortcomings, sometimes bypassing crucial events or minimizing the role of other crucial figures.
There is little question that Robespierre was a pivotal figure in the ongoing drama. An obscure provincial lawyer from the Northern city of Arras, he had been scarred in his youth by scandals involving his father which left him with an enduring set of ingrained grievances. But he was imbued with a high, if radical, set of ideals, which he continued to pursue, even as they eroded into savagery as the revolution progressed.
Having moved to Paris, his oratorical and political skills won him converts, and he maneuvered adeptly among the constantly reshaping set of revolutionary committees, communes, and commissions, many of which he came to dominate. But as his views turned more fanatical and his activities more manipulative and peremptory, he was involved in constant infighting. Always suspicious, he grew increasingly paranoid and distrusting. He turned against and betrayed former colleagues and associates whom he suspected of traitorous activity, effectively sending them to the guillotine. Jean Cocteau once suggested that "Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo". A similar thing could be said about Robespierre in the later stages of the revolution.
Ms. Scurr works hard at maintaining a balanced score card. She gives credit to Robespierre for his incorruptibility and is sympathetic to his sticking to what he saw as his ideals, twisted and reckless though they became. Overall, she seems more defensive of his personality and activities than appears justifiable considering where they finally led. Starting as a man of principle he descended step by step into a bloodthirsty tyranny that cost the lives of thousands, including many of his friends.
Ironically, he was finally brought down not by the political conservatives or moderates he had fought so zealously but by atheists and anti-clericals who despised a type of state religion he had invented and sought to impose. Fatal Purity ends with Robespierre’s death on the same guillotine where he had sent so many others. Although Ms. Scurr presented an account of his family history and early life she ends her work rather abruptly at this point.
But the revolutionary story was not yet over, so a reader curious about its demise and transition to the Directoire, and later to the Napoleon-dominated Consulat, must look elsewhere. In the meanwhile, I commend this book to anyone seeking a better understanding of one of history’s most astonishing dramas, as well as one of its most notorious fanatics.
This book is more appropriate for readers who already know a great deal about the French Revolution. For a person who knows little, this book can be confusing.
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