Colour me surprised to find out that what I thought was Uncle Ben’s quote was actually much older than that, hailing instead from the pen of journalist Camille Desmoulins during the French Revolution. While reading this and following the fates of Camille, lawyer Georges Danton and politician Maximilien Robespierre, I couldn’t help but be reminded over and over of another superhero quote, this time from Batman – “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” None of the characters featured within lived particularly long lives what with it being set during the Revolution, but they live long enough to see themselves do just, that having started out being hailed as the idealistic heroes who set events in motion before political expedience called for their heads. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before reading this I thought I had the general gist of the French Revolution, although I must admit I’d thought the timeline was far more condensed. If you’re not at least a little familiar with some of the players you may be a little flummoxed with this at times – if you’ve read much Mantel you’ll know she doesn’t tend to spell things out for those in the cheap seats, and so oblique references to the Capet woman and other players might fly over a few heads. But then Mantel isn’t really concerned with spelling out what happened, but rather imagining what might have been the lives of the three men who drove a lot of the thinking of the time, how their ideas ebbed and flowed into shape and how their ideals were corrupted by the trappings of power, with death being seen first as a necessary evil at the start of the Revolution before becoming essentially a useful tool for getting rid of inconvenient people by the end.
Mantel’s skill at making what were previously just names in history books flourish into living, breathing and all-too-human people is just as present as it has been in her later works, but I must admit that I found this book more difficult than her Cromwell trilogy and even took a month long break before Part 4 to give myself some breathing room (although pandemic brain stopping me from concentrating long enough to finish a paragraph was also a factor).
Epic, intelligent, and ever so slightly hard going, Mantel fans will find a lot to enjoy but this probably isn’t one for casual readers.