Judith Lennox is the author of 17 novels, most of which have been set in the first half of the 20th century. She has sold over 3 million copies of her books, which have been published widely throughout Europe. Three of her novels, The Winter House, A Step in the Dark and Before the Storm, were shortlisted for the Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Further information about Judith's work can be found on her website. She lives in Cambridge with her husband, Iain. Here she writes about Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety.
Judith Lennox on A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
The word 'epic' might have been invented for A Place of Greater Safety. The novel is 870 pages long and covers the period of French history between 1763 and 1794. It describes the evolution of a revolution, through the storming of the Bastille and the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, until the instigators of revolution themselves are beheaded. Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins are the central characters, but the women in their story live and breathe with equal veracity, their loves and griefs and trials every bit as important and real as the men's. One of the novel's funniest scenes is where the women laugh at and mimic the pomposities of their men, those notable and self-important revolutionary leaders. The huge array of secondary characters forms a vital and ever-changing background, and throughout the narrative that other great personality, the city of Paris itself, is alive with violence and opportunity and filth and grandeur.
The novel's great length allows Mantel to immerse her reader in the Paris of the second half of the 18th century, its politics, fashions, ideas and arguments. It permits the inclusion of the gossip and rumour that fuel revolt, as well as the loves, hatreds, fears and self-deceits of those central to the plot. In the earlier chapters of the book, the rising price of bread resounds like an ominous drumbeat; in the latter part, the city pulses to a different beat: the thud of the guillotine. Though the novel is political it is never dry, and the excitement and ferment of the period, its rampaging desire for change, whirls the reader along. The death-throes of the old régime are followed by the savage birth of the republic, ripped from its mother's belly, like Robespierre's stillborn infant sibling. The scope of the novel also facilitates Mantel's knack of coming at a scene tangentially - it is not always possible, after reading a scene in A Place of Greater Safety, to say what the point of that scene was, but then life is like that, we edge along or retreat a little or blunder about, only seeing in retrospect the purpose and flow of the day-to-day.
Camille Desmoulins is a husband, lover, father, journalist and pamphleteer, as well as a demagogue. He is the lawyer who can hardly get a word out without stuttering, and the revolutionary leader who is terrified of everything. He is violent and vulnerable, greedy and amoral, intensely attractive and more than a little sexually ambiguous. His personal magnetism makes him the friend of both Robespierre and Danton. Robespierre - highly intelligent but emotionally lacking, perhaps a touch Asperger's - is Camille's protector almost to the end of the book. But Camille's charm is dangerous, too. It draws people to him, firing them to become instigators of acts of extraordinary savagery. Mantel suggests that only in anger and invective can Camille shake off fear and lose himself. And yet he is also the man who, during the frenzy of the Terror, faints at the condemnation of an old enemy, and whose remorse and pleas for clemency lead eventually to his death.
Mantel's language is vivid, energetic, often contemporary, sometimes vulgar. This makes the book live. Throughout, there are phrases, wonderful little bits of description or dialogue, that you read several times over, savouring the taste of them, envying Mantel's ability to convey so much in so few words. Camille's extended family, the de Viefvilles, are described as 'a bunch of nerveless crooks'. The Louis-le-Grand school in Paris: 'The rooms were swept by piercing draughts, and by gusts of subdued chatter in dead languages.' Robespierre's thoughts on first meeting the child Camille: 'He was not a free bird. He was a bird that needed looking after.'
Another of the book's great qualities is its wit. There is so much, in the first half of the novel at least, that makes you smile - the exchanges between Camille and his teachers at Louis-le-Grand, the relationship between Camille and his father, Jean-Nicolas, not exactly a meeting of minds. The triangular love affair of Camille, Annette Duplessis and her daughter, Lucile, is to be relished - you might sense the seeds of tragedy early on, but who could fail to be amused by the portrayal of the first disastrous dinner-party to which Claude Duplessis unwittingly invites the man who will eventually marry his daughter, and who could not be ravished by Camille and Lucile themselves. Dark-eyed and beautiful, sweeping back their luxuriant curls with identical mannerisms, they are always, wonderfully and fatally, meant for each other.
I first read A Place of Greater Safety 13 years ago. I started it, then stopped reading it for a long time because my mother was very ill, and did not pick it up again until after her death. Three months after my mother died, my sister and I went to the Canary Islands, for sun and warmth. My sister swam up and down the lido and I sat on an outcrop of black, volcanic rock, watching the waves and reading A Place of Greater Safety. It was one of the few experiences that broke through the numbness of grief, and by the time I reached the last terrible chapters of the book, I could hardly bear to read them, and skimmed them, in a way, almost with one eye closed. The novel will always for me be associated with that part of my life, its loss and regret and expenditure of all emotion, and the restorative power of great fiction.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]