A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
A Place of Greater Safety is not the longest book I’ve ever read, but at 872 pages, it’s far from short. Hilary Mantel’s novel details the 1789 Revolution in France by exploring the lives of three key historical figures: Georges Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. I mentioned in my post at New Year that I had actually taken a module on the French Revolution in my First Year of University but the fact that I didn’t recognise any of those names as being key figures in the Revolution clearly speaks to how much detail I retained from that module. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating period of history, and I have now been inspired to dig out my old history text book to read up some more.
Mantel follows the lives of Danton, Desmoulins, and Robespierre from their childhood right the way through to the execution of Danton and Desmoulins in 1794. The real strength of the novel lies in the way she documents these characters: their rise to power; their clashing ideals about what the Revolution represents; their friendships; their romances; their paranoia; their struggle to maintain the power they had achieved. Each of the three protagonists are well-constructed and, despite their glaring flaws, still characters the reader can become invested in. Indeed, I found that there was no clear one character which I was championing out of these three; instead, I would find myself becoming sympathetic to one, before shifting to become sympathetic to another and finding myself frustrated at the first. This is the type of characterisation which Mantel thrives on: there are definite comparisons to be made with her complex depiction of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
This strong sense of complex characters extends beyond the three male protagonists to the female characters which surround them. The narrative voice shifts constantly between a multitude of characters, with some of the strongest passages coming from the point of view of the women at the very centre of the Revolution. Lucile Desmoulins and Gabrielle Danton, the two most prominent female characters throughout the novel, are both brilliantly depicted as flawed, brave and intelligent women attempting to keep their families safe as their husbands become further and deeper embroiled in violence and corruption. Since this period of history is typically dominated by male figures, it was refreshing to see such an event from the perspective of the women who, despite being kept away from the world of politics, could hardly be ignorant of the events happening around them.
However, the joy of such well-rounded and fascinating characters is tempered by the lengthy historical explanations and descriptions which slow the pace of the novel considerably. As I was reading, this strange balance between the slow pace of historical narrative, strong characterisation, and sudden bursts of action kept bringing to mind Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Now, to be clear, I love Les Misérables, but I will admit that there are lengthy passages which are difficult to read through due to the historical detail included. However, whilst Hugo was writing his ‘digressions’ with a specific purpose in mind (bringing to the world’s attention certain social issues of importance to him), Mantel’s loss of pace cannot be attributed to any such purpose. Instead, it seemed to me to be more the natural inclination of a historical novelist early in her career, and a tendency which would later be refined as her writing matured.
Having said that, I was definitely emotionally invested in this novel. The friendships between Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton were so naturally developed throughout the bulk of the novel that, when they began to fall apart towards the end, I was genuinely upset. The final paragraph, with Robespierre realising his role as the bringer of death to those around him, is beautifully written and completely devastating. This is not a book to go into lightly, being long and fairly slow paced, but I would definitely say that it was worth the effort. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are definitely stronger novels from Mantel, but that does not mean A Place of Greater Safety is a weak novel by any stretch of the imagination: the unique characterisation and narrative voice which made the later novels so popular is still very much present in this earlier novel, and it has been interesting to see Mantel’s development as a writer throughout.