John Maniscalco's Reviews > Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr
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's review
Nov 29, 11

really liked it
Read from October 04 to 21, 2011

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 the man and his vision for France. A devout disciple of Rousseau, Robespierre saw the revolution as France's opportunity to shake off centuries of monarchist oppression and implement the people's will. Seeing himself as the embodiment of the people's will, Rousseau rose to the leadership of the radical Jacobin faction and his powers of speech took him to the pinnacle of power in revolutionary France. Yet, his zealous protection of the revolution's survival led to the paranoid fear of incessant and successive counterrevolutionary plots. While he certainly imagined many plots, there were enough uncovered real plots to the revolution that vindicated his fear. Although he is not the one who instigated the Terror, be became its greatest advocate and believed France could only be purified with the blood of traitors. As one can imagine, this leads to a great story.

But, a great story is not enough to make a great book. There were many flaws that I found with this book that I found troubling. Perhaps the most significant flaw is its lack of context. The French Revolution is notorious for being a complicated mess. While it might be difficult to give a comprehensive accounting of context, the author gives the reader far too much credit.

I also found the final chapter accounting for Robespierre life and legacy to be lacking. The author seemed to make no final conclusions on the man himself. I suppose that may be what the author intended. Scurr is a fair story teller, giving you the facts and her insights without judgement. Although, I did get the feeling that Scurr has a rather restrained respect for Robespierre, obviously impressed with his speeches, conviction, and political skill but bothered by his paranoia and willingness to kill on a massive scale in order to eliminate his enemies.

Despite these complaints, this book provides a decent education on Robespierre, although I would have wanted more. And despite its flaws, it is still the best book on Robespierre because there is no alternative.


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