Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review- Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

I promise that I'll always tell you truthfully what I like about a book and what I dislike. I wasn't inclined to like anything about Robespierre, especially if it had a sympathetic slant, which despite the author's assertions of impartiality, it clearly has. What I didn't expect was how fully illustrated was the character of this divisive historical figure.

Robespierre easily makes the list of unlikely successes. His nervousness, rigid perfectionism, easily wounded feelings, and discomfort with public speaking were all against him from the start when he assumed the role of trial lawyer in Arras, not to mention as an elected representative at the start of the revolution. More than once the author and reader wonder how he ever managed to attain the heights of power and influence which he did.

I'm not sure that question is ever really well-explained, though plenty of political history is given. Revolutionary politics are a very dense and confusing subject, but what does become clear, and the author mercifully does not attempt to justify, is that Robespierre went from a man who wept the first time he had to recommend the death penalty to someone who sent his own friends to the guillotine.

My main concern with the book is that several times the author mentions annecdotes (most often things Marie-Antoinette is supposed to have said), but gives no citation for the source. Many of these being things I had never heard before I was interested to know where they were found, but was left without an indication. I found this very frustrating.

On the whole, I am glad to understand more about the man behind the monstrous acts, and the climate in which this could happen. I will leave this book on my shelf, and return to re-read it in the future as we draw closer to an examination of the revolution itself; though I hesitate to accept it as unbiased scholarship. Nevertheless, the facts it does cite speak volumes about a world gone mad.


  1. I find Robespierre, interesting, in the same way I find Rasputin, a morbid curiousity. I love your story of the Comtesse, nothing morbid there, just curiosity, waiting for more!

  2. I think the most interesting thing about Robespierre is that he really always thought he was doing what was best for the Revolution. Even when children were killed, or prisoners massacred by the mob, or his own friends were guillotined, he stood by stony-hearted, sure of his righteousness.

  3. Although I'm really not a fan of the Revolution, I find Robespierre quite fascinating. I grew up in a former socialist state, I believe I know how even the best intentions can become corrupted and be turned into a ideology so easily. I recently watched the move Danton (1983) and enjoyed the very nuanced portrayal of Robespierre, whereas Danton was your typical Gerard Depardieu (but intriguing too).

  4. Hi Lady Ship!

    It's interesting to hear about how people, or even an entire society, can give up so much and do so much evil in the name of an ideology. I must find the film Danton and watch it now.