history and fiction in Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety

A passerby hesitated, stared. “Excuse me–” he said. “Good citizen–are you Robespierre?
Robespierre didn’t look at the man. “Do you understand what I say about heroes? There is no place for them. Resistance to tyrants means oblivion. I will embrace that oblivion. My name will vanish from the page.”
“Good citizen, forgive me,” the patriot said doggedly.
Eyes rested on him briefly. “Yes, I’m Robespierre,” he said. He put his hand on Citizen Desmoulin’s arm, “Camille, history is fiction.”
Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

Like her Booker-Prize-winning books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, A Place of Greater Safety is a historical novel in which lawyers best known for beheading tragic heroines (Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette) are among the protagonists. In its form, its topic, and even its quality, A Place of Greater Safety also bears comparison to War and Peace, although Mantel does not advocate an elaborate conceptual scheme comparable to Tolstoy’s. In the afterword, she writes, “I am not trying to persuade my reader to view events in a particular way, or to draw any particular lessons from them. I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions: a book that one can think and live inside.” Until I finished the novel on Saturday, I was so deeply inside it that now I mourn the characters, even Robespierre.

As the quotation cited above suggests, Mantel is interested in the relationship between history and fiction. The most obvious difference is that history is true and fiction is false. But even if one insists on facts (as I do), the distinction is more complicated than that. Robespierre really walked down the streets of Paris. The passage above is fiction because Mantel has imagined the scene. (However, Mantel frequently has the characters state real quotations from their works, on the theory that “what goes onto the record is often tried out earlier, off the record.”) Within the fiction of the book, it really is Robespierre whom the patriot recognizes: that is a fact, not a mistake.

But what does it mean to say “Robespierre”? Does one mean The Incorruptible, the great civic republican moralist and statesman? Does one mean the villainous author of the Terror? Historians still debate who Robespierre was, even given the vast evidence that survives. And, according to Mantel, Robespierre wasn’t sure himself. Not only is the truth perspectival in the sense that each of us observes from a distant and limited vantage-point, but we are not even sure how to view ourselves. The meaning of the word “Robespierre” changes for Robespierre from minute to minute. His name did not vanish from the page, as he predicts above, but the fullness of his experience did.

It’s worth comparing the actual French Revolution to the contents of this novel. One difference is scale. Twenty-eight million people were alive in France in 1792. Each lived a continuous stream of consciousness and formed passionate, complex, incomplete, and often invalid views of scores of other people, for a total of billions of relationships. The scale of a novel is necessarily much smaller. I count roughly 136 named characters in A Place of Greater Safety, not counting crowds and generic figures like “the patriot” (above).

In real life, the action was continuous and simultaneous, all those millions acting and thinking at once. In contrast, Mantel writes almost entirely in set-pieces. Each scene takes place at a geographical location and involves between one and a dozen named people. Each scene is set after the previous one in chronological order, but usually after a gap of hours, days, or even months. So, whereas history flowed smoothly and simultaneously, the novel jumps from set-piece to set-piece.

Reality has no narrator. Mantel narrates in a supple, subtle, deliberate style. For instance, consider this sentence: “He put his hand on Citizen Desmoulin’s arm, ‘Camille, history is fiction.'” Since Robespierre was a boyhood friend of Demoulin’s, he never addresses him as “Citizen Desmoulin.” The title “Citizen” enters the narration here because “the patriot” has been addressing strangers that way, and Robespierre sees his friend from the patriot’s perspective at that moment. But he begins is sentence with the name “Camille …,” and within three words, we are back to a more intimate view. The title “Citizen” evokes layers of irony as we read Mantel’s narration of Robespierre’s thoughts in reaction to a nameless patriot who is using terminology invented by men like Robespierre.

As Mantel writes in the afterword, “I am very conscious that a novel is a cooperative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. Of course, my characters did not have the blessing of hindsight; they lived from day to day, as best they could.” To imagine their experience sympathetically (when the characters in question include Danton, Demoulins, and Robespierre) is a great achievement of sympathy. But the book is not devoid of judgment, on the false theory that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” Like Cromwell at the end of Bring up the Bodies, Robespierre in the last chapter of A Place of Greater Safety is a chilling figure, all the more frightening because Mantel has made him so human until then.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.