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Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

3.81  ·  Rating Details  ·  579 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews
Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the only true defender of revolutionary ideals? The first modern dictator or the earliest democrat? Was his extreme moralism a heroic virtue or a ruinous flaw?

Against the dramatic backdrop of the French Revolution, historian
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Paperback, 425 pages
Published April 17th 2007 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 2006)
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Community Reviews

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Paul Bryant
Dec 28, 2015 Paul Bryant rated it really liked it
PARIS, CITY OF LIGHT


Andrew Neil, a BBC political tv journo, took off into a magnificent rant last week after the Paris bombings. It was a week, he said,

In which a bunch of loser jihadists slaughtered 132 innocents to prove the future belongs to them rather than a civilization like France. Well I can’t say I fancy their chances. France, the country of Descartes, Boulez, Monet, Sartre, Rousseau, Camus, Renoir, Berlioz, Cézanne, Gauguin, Hugo, Voltaire, Matisse, Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Bizet,
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Nathan
Ruth Scurr manages to sidestep the polemics that seem natural to a subject like hers. She has that most valuable gift of the historian: implacable impartiality. Her equanimity goes a long way to give her book credibility; if all you know of Robespierre comes from "The Scarlet Pimpernel", this will complicate the issue- in a good way.

As with many such impartial books, however, Scurr's greatest failing is that she tends to vagueness. No substantial analysis of contemporary political doctrine is pr
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Godlarvae
Aug 16, 2009 Godlarvae rated it it was amazing
Robespierre was a personality little known, and much less understood, by me. Other than the occasional character in old movies "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and a musical, and some such, I had never read of him or understood why he wielded such amazing power during those tumultuous times.
Ruth filled this want beautifully. She followed him from very early times to his eventual death, almost by his own hand, as victim of the monster that he had helped create. She followed his psychological development w
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Lauren Albert
When a historian attempts a work on a "person in his/her times," a balance between the biographical and historical parts of the book are usually very difficult to balance. I think Scurr falls on the side of focusing on the times (at least the revolutionary part of it). But I think that both sides lost out to some extent by giving cursory treatment. Perhaps the book should simply have been longer so Scurr had more time to fill in the historical and biographical details and do justice to both. The ...more
Karen Cox
Jun 05, 2013 Karen Cox rated it it was amazing
This is the first book I've ever read on the French Revolution that actually explains what happens in what order. I've read a lot of history of this period, but most of the books start with the assumption that the reader knows what a Girondist is or that the Holy Roman Emperor invaded France in 1791. Not only does Scurr explain Robespierre, she also gives the most succinct description of the events between the calling of the Estates General and the rise of Napoleon that I've ever read.
Obinna Onwuka
Explicitly stated in the foreword, Ruth Scurr attempts in this biography to present an unbiased documentary of the life of Maximilien Robespierre, one of the principal architects of the French Revolution. This key period in his life is a short eternity, just five years from the Revolution's inception to his execution, but packed with extremely dramatic events such that the entire makeup of the Revolution seems to change from week to week and day to day. The story of this period and of this man w ...more
M
Mar 17, 2016 M rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oh Robespierre... You were always strangely attractive to me when I first studied the French Revolution at school. And now that I have learned that you were neurotic, self-righteous, serious, bookish, paranoid and obsessive, you are even more obsessive. I felt the author was unsympathetic to you, but clearly she is not worthy of your genius.
Sara
Mar 18, 2008 Sara rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This was an interesting character study of an enigmatic and I think, frequently misunderstood figure. The man wasn't a saint, but he was driven by a pure sense of right, albeit a flawed and obsessive sense of right. As flawed as he was, he deserves a kind of consideration and perhaps even respect for his drive and determination.
Colleen
Nov 12, 2015 Colleen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
I recently read a book on The Terror following the French Revolution and my reaction after that (very good) book was to immediately want to know more about Danton and Robespierre. Hence me ordering this book, which then made me badly want to know more about Madam de Stael (that book arrived today! so expect my thoughts on that in like 4 days).

As someone who knew absolutely nothing about Robespierre, except maybe as the villain in the Scarlet Pimpernel movies, which my mom was a huge fan of and
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Mieka
Jan 02, 2014 Mieka rated it did not like it
If you want a totally incompetent, biased, and patchy review of Robespierre (the "neurotic and terrible dictator of the French Revolution" as Scurr would have you believe), this one's for you.
Jules
I gave it one star because Scurr is a good writer: her prose and style are good and easy to read.

And that is the only positive thing I can say about this book.

The author claims she wants to write an unbiased, non-partisan biography of Robespierre. And the title led me to believe that the core of the book was the concept of virtue and the consequences it had for Robespierre personally and for the Revolution as a whole. But what I found is a work that makes no attempt to make true of its objecti
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Rebecca
Feb 19, 2013 Rebecca rated it really liked it
The number of French Revolution themed books on my goodreads is getting embarrassing...This book is one of the more serious offerings on the subject which was regularly popping up as a suggested read, so I decided to give it a go. Like, (I suspect) many others, I've been kind of deeply fascinated by Robespierre since I read Hilary Mantel's characterization of him in "A Place of Greater Safety," and this biography only solidified my fascination. Scurr does a pretty good job of making him out to b ...more
Danielle
Feb 20, 2013 Danielle rated it really liked it
I read this for my Western Civilization II class Spring 2013. Going into reading this my knowledge of the French Revolution was what I remembered kind of from my European History class in 11th grade and the Doctor Who serial The Reign of Terror featuring the First Doctor, which honestly isn't a lot to go off of. This biography is a very fair view of Robespierre that isn't overly affected by bias. I can see that Robespierre had the best intentions going into the revolution and his focus never str ...more
Louise
Nov 30, 2013 Louise rated it liked it
Scurr ends this volume with a poem by Wordsworth, noting how he is one of the first not to "get' Robespierre. I read this book to find out how to "get" an idealist who morphs into the opposite. This book is not the interpretive narrative I was seeking.

The beginning part that covers MR's childhood provides clues, and this is where the book is at its best. Scurr speculates on how his parental loss, his poverty, his "scholarship", his having to borrow clothes, his relations with his sister and brot
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Jan
Dec 01, 2011 Jan rated it liked it
A bit disappointed really; promised much and started brightly but often slipped into a narrative history of the French Revolution focussed on Robespierre. Crucially, I was interested in her take on the political logic of his denunciation of Danton (Scurr paints Robespierre as an arch political strategist at times) but this failed to deliver a convincing argument. Good overarching theme though (Robespierre's identification with the Revolution) and an emotive ending.
Andy
Apr 29, 2015 Andy rated it really liked it
Oscillated between 3 and 4 stars, and opted for 4 because: (a) this book has given me the best picture I've ever had of the overall contours of the French Revolution; (b) it's clearly- and well-written for the most part; (c) it gives an insight into the Revolution's interaction with the power and personalities of the time and place; and (d) it has made me pose lots of questions in my head and evoked a desire to read much more on this subject.

More problematically... I think Scurr is too close to
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Jamie Carroll
Jul 05, 2010 Jamie Carroll rated it it was amazing
When I read biographies, I think the most important question is "What was he/she like?"
This book isn't perfect-it's overly dramatic in parts, quite too kind to Mirabeau and King Louis XVI, etc.
But after reading it, I felt like I really had a good grasp on what kind of person Robespierre was, and why he acted the way that he did. That's really all you can ask from a biography.
Kurt
Oct 10, 2014 Kurt rated it liked it
I have always seen the French Revolution as a fascinating historical event, but I never understood very much about it. All I knew was that the majority of the French people were poor. They blamed the king and the aristocracy. They overthrew the monarchy and executed the king and his wife. They then tried to fill the resulting political void with some kind of experimental representative republic in which no one dared trust each other. This resulted in a gory blood bath, with the newly-devised gui ...more
Margaret
Scurr has produced a very balanced biography of an enigmatic man. Robespierre is a difficult subject: the "incorruptible" man who at one time opposed the death penalty, yet sent many to their deaths by guillotine before dying himself the same way. Scurr does an admirable job presenting his history and character and offering cogent analyses of his ideas and actions.
Charles
Jan 21, 2016 Charles rated it really liked it
Shelves: academic
I was hoping for a bit more of an 'intellectual history' that engaged Robespierre's philosophy, which Scurr does in places but never fully engages. But what she does offer is a deep and engaging look at his life, the wave that carried him, and the manner in which it came crashing down.

I think the full weight of these events depend on having significant familiarity with the revolution. The relatively narrow focus on how events relate to Robespierre specifically means that *very* important stuff i
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Katy
May 17, 2014 Katy rated it really liked it
In college, I took an excellent course on the French Revolution. We read diverse accounts of the events from a variety of individuals representing all viewpoints. By the end of the course, the ideals and hopes of the revolution had ended in the carnage of the guillotine. The revolutionary period was etched in my mind as one of the greatest tragedies of western civilization.
This biography of Robespierre is sympathetic, objective, and ultimately devastating. I recommend it to anyone looking for
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Ben Haymond
I quite liked this book. I feel like Ruth Scurr took on a huge topic (the French Revolution) but by approaching it in a narrowly defined way was able to capture it better than many who try take it all on at once. Her basic thesis that Robespierre embodied the revolution better than anyone else gives the account greater power and meaning. I feel like I gained insight into the tangled web of revolutionary politics and Robespierre's (and therefore the revolution's) guiding philosophy. I had trouble ...more
John Maniscalco
Nov 29, 2011 John Maniscalco rated it really liked it
The French Revolution is perhaps one of the most interesting events in world history. Yet, not much is generally known about Robespierre, the man most associated with the Reign of Terror. This is the best book available about Robespierre, although that is due more to the lack of competition rather than the quality of the book itself.

Scurr provides a crisp accounting of Robespierre's life, beliefs, and character. In this, she does not fail the reader. Personally, I felt I knew quite a lot about t
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John Weathers
Sep 16, 2012 John Weathers rated it liked it
Good book that reads well and covers Robespierre's life and participation in the French Revolution, but I found that the author left out details in exchange for a brief conclusion without proper substantiation or context. Also, while her introduction leaves the reader with the impression that she is going to attempt an impartial examination of her subject, I think she instead wades into the domain of mirky subjective biography with too much dramatization and theorizing on her subject's inner tho ...more
Steve.  g
Mar 23, 2013 Steve. g rated it liked it
I’ve come to the subject of this book a, knowing nothing about it and b, having vivid images of what went on: The people stormed the Bastille and guillotined Louis the something and the Scarlet Pimpernel did something something.

Anyway, it was with this slight gap in mind but also wanting to understand how France went from Louis XVI to Napoleon in seven short years that I picked up Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr.
On these things it helped to get some of the events into context and order and I enjoye
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Brian
Nov 01, 2011 Brian rated it liked it
This is an excellent biography of Robespierre that really gives the reader an inside look at the French Revolution. The style of writing is very easy to read and personal so the reader feels like they are present at the events. I would recommend having at least a cursory knowledge for the revolution before reading this as she does assume some knowledge for events that Robespierre is not directly involved with. The biggest drawback to the book and the main reason for the four stars is that it is ...more
Andrew Woods
Aug 10, 2013 Andrew Woods rated it really liked it
The sophisticated, meticulous retort of Maximilien Robespierre's revolutionary ideals, his never ending struggle to establish equality and liberty within France are finely shown in this excellent book.

It is with these unmistakably exquisite auditory performances that one finds it hard to understand the reasons for the skillful politician's abrupt change in what exactly was necessary for the révolution.

Ruth Scurr transports the reader into the precarious world of 18th century France and offers
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Toni
Feb 27, 2012 Toni rated it liked it
So, the Catherine the Great biography I read a while back made me realize that I know jack about the French revolution. (Catherine had wanted to leave her mark as a liberalizing reformer, until the Revolution came along and caused her to put the ix-nay on all of those pretty ideas.) And then with this bewildering political moment we're living through, I've been thinking about the notion of ideological purity, of this need that the fringes of both sides of the political spectrum seem to have, of ...more
Elliott Cross
Aug 06, 2013 Elliott Cross rated it really liked it
It has been my intention for a long time to find a book that combines both a sharp and concise study of the complexities of the French Revolution and an in depth biography and psychological analysis of Maximilien Robespierre. And I have found just that in Ruth Scurr's book. Robespierre – the Incorruptible – was a man who never compromised and never forgave – he was the Revolution incarnate; and he made himself appear so. He was a great idealist who sought to create a Republic of Virtue: a beacon ...more
bkwurm
Sep 27, 2009 bkwurm rated it liked it
How did a small town lawyer who suffered from the principle of guilt by association and who apparently was opposed to the death penalty, end up synonymous with the Terror that sent hundreds to the guillotine, frequently for simply being associates of others who were suspected of crimes?

Robespierre's actions are detailed in this book and the author portrays Robespierre as being so single minded in his pursuit of the principles underlying the French Revolution, that he sacrificed friends and other
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Dr Ruth Scurr (born 1971, London) is a British writer, historian and literary critic. She is a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. She was educated at St Bernard's Convent, Slough; Oxford University, Cambridge University and the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris. She won a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2000.

Her first book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revoluti
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More about Ruth Scurr...

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