Jane's Reviews > A Place of Greater Safety

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
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's review
Sep 25, 12

bookshelves: fiction, unforgettable
Read from July 28 to September 13, 2012

Where I got the book: my local library. Spoilers but only if you never knew the French Revolution = wholesale death and that real characters who lived 200+ years ago may be a little on the deceased side by now anyway.

"Louise Robert says she would write a novel...but she fears that as a character in fiction Camille would not be believed. Indeed, I just had to look him up to make sure."

Oh, Camille. What a character. And he's flanked by two more tours de force of the literary re-creation of history. Mantel takes the lives of Camille (it's impossible to call him by his surname, Desmoulins), Danton and Robespierre from early childhood right through a date with Mme. La Guillotine.

What a study in contrasts. Camille, Mr. Dark Radiance:

Danton, brutal, ugly, massive and yet strangely sexy:

Robespierre, ascetic, stiff, nerveless and cold:

And then the other character, the French Revolution: unstoppable history, heartbreaking because it had to happen that way.

Mantel gives us the Revolution in conversations. Chunks of dialogue interlarded with here a quotation, there a fact, yonder a dramatic scene. But it's the conversations and the thoughts of the person through whose eyes we're seeing that drive the logic of the inexorable slide toward the Terror. In the Cromwell novels, Mantel funnels everything through Cromwell's POV; here, we're endlessly shifting, a habit I decry in many novels but Mantel pulls it off. She also gets away with switching tenses and generally leaving the reader to work out what's happening by herself. And she does this over 749 pages, which makes it a novel not for the fainthearted. Well worth the reading if you can manage it.
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Reading Progress

07/28/2012 page 15
2.0% "CHUNKSTER TIME!" 3 comments
07/28/2012 page 24
3.0% "Maximilien Robespierre, 1793: 'History is fiction'."
08/03/2012 page 57
8.0% ""When you say it doesn't matter who you marry--don't you expect to love someone?" "Yes, of course. But it would be a vast coincidence to be married to them as well.""
08/27/2012 page 69
9.0% "Please let him stop, she said, please something make it stop; but what could stop it? Perhaps, she thought, a small fire. Hilary, I've missed you." 1 comment
08/28/2012 page 102
14.0% "Camille Desmoulins: The weight of the old world is stifling, and trying to shovel its weight off your life is tiring just to think about. . .There must, somewhere, be a simpler, more violent world."
08/28/2012 page 110
15.0% "Robespierre: You can't, he tells his brother Augustin, separate political views from the people who hold them; if you do, it shows you don't take politics seriously."
08/28/2012 page 123
16.0% "Louise Robert says she would write a novel...but she fears that as a character in fiction Camille would not be believed. Indeed, I just had to look him up to make sure." 8 comments
08/29/2012 page 150
20.0% "Death to the rich. Death to the aristocrats. Death to the hoarders. Death to the priests." 3 comments
09/02/2012 page 276
37.0% "He was terribly afraid that happiness might be a habit, or a quality knitted into the temperament; or it might be something you learn when you're a child, a kind of language, harder than Latin or Greek, that you should have a good grasp on by the time you're seven."
09/08/2012 page 466
62.0% "A sex scene. Sort of." 1 comment
09/09/2012 page 482
64.0% "I'm almost certain that the weekend had not been invented by 1792." 2 comments
09/09/2012 page 485
64.0% "The idea of history as made by great men is quite nonsensical, when you look at it from the point of view of the people. The real heroes are those who have resisted tyrants, and it is in the nature of tyranny not only to kill those who oppose it but to wipe their names out of the record, to obliterate them, so that resistance seems impossible."
09/09/2012 page 502
67.0% "Louis must die so that the nation can live." 6 comments
09/15/2012 page 648
86.0% "People do not respect writers, do they? They think it is one of those things they can do without. Like money."

Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim Reading this now and loving it.

Jane I'll be reading it pretty soon - it's on the shelf at the library.

message 3: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim So glad you liked this, Jane. Jemidar and I have been reading City of Darkness, City of Light for further French Revolution immersion. Very different style, a lot more facts, additional characters to provide the sans culottes and women's perspective. I started out thinking I wouldn't like it very much, but I like it very much. Together, the books have made me want to read some of the primary sources, such as some of Robespierre's writing and The private memoirs of Madame Roland. And when I'm next in Paris, I'm going to look at places such as the Champ de Mars in quite a different light.

message 4: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie Interesting review Jane. I've heard good things about Hilary Mantel but I've never read any of her books. Re the wholesale death - yes thousands died (16,594 executed by guillotine (2,639 in Paris) and another 25,000 in summary executions across France - wikipedia), but compared to the Russian revolution it was a party, perhaps causing 9,000,000 deaths. Different circumstances, but it makes a good comparison. More depressing stats here: http://necrometrics.com/20c5m.htm

Jane What an interesting site. I have marked it for future reference.

I think the French Revolution has been inflated in popular culture just because of the effect it had on intellectual communities throughout Europe (and beyond). It was the reference point for the young and disaffected for pretty much a century afterward.

message 6: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie As this book has been compared to A Tale of Two Cities I'll quote Orwell on Dickens:

"The apologists of any revolution generally try to minimize its horrors; Dickens's impulse is to exaggerate them — and from a historical point of view he has certainly exaggerated. Even the Reign of Terror was a much smaller thing than he makes it appear. Though he quotes no figures, he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared with one of Napoleon's battles. But the bloody knives and the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in his mind a special sinister vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers. Thanks to Dickens, the very word "tumbril" has a murderous sound; one forgets that a tumbril is only a sort of farm-cart. To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads. It is a strange thing that Dickens, much more in sympathy with the ideas of the Revolution than most Englishmen of his time, should have played a part in creating this impression."

The stats for the Napoleonic Wars is 1,000,000 killed. http://necrometrics.com/wars19c.htm

Closer to home, the American Civil War: 750,000 to 850,000 total dead. That is the reassessed numbers:

"So what? Above a certain count, do the numbers even matter? Well, yes. The difference between the two estimates is large enough to change the way we look at the war. The new estimate suggests that more men died as a result of the Civil War than from all other American wars combined."

message 7: by Sherry (new)

Sherry Thanks for this! I loved WOLF HALL and the writing in BRING UP THE BODIES is exquisite -- I just found the book redundant, and couldn't give a flip about what happened to Anne Boleyn or any of the characters -- but I would be very interested in reading her earlier novels. This sounds like a great one with which to start.

Hilary Mantel likes to write about the men in history, doesn't she?

Jane Sherry wrote: "Hilary Mantel likes to write about the men in history, doesn't she?"

That was a point I'd thought of bringing up but it didn't make it into the review, so I'm glad you mentioned it. Most historical novelists either seem to write about the women in history or, if they are writing about men, write novels of the Bernard Cornwell variety with a more, shall we say, rough and tough kind of protagonist. Mantel writes about men as thinking beings, making her novels a lovely change from the usual queen sagas. And of course the historical reality was that men had a much greater active role in shaping history; one of my problems with, say, the Philippa Gregory books is that the women spend too much time waiting for the men to come home, their own roles often confined to making witchy magic to effect change (which I don't buy.)

message 9: by Sherry (new)

Sherry Jane wrote: "Sherry wrote: "Hilary Mantel likes to write about the men in history, doesn't she?"

That was a point I'd thought of bringing up but it didn't make it into the review, so I'm glad you mentioned it...."

I'm with you -- the witchcraft thing is a real problem for me. As an historical novelist myself, having written a book about four sister-queens in the Middle Ages, I think a lot of novels about queens are meant to explore women's power. Yes, a lot of them only highlight how little power women had. (Mine included, to some extent!) Mantel, however, fails to bring to life any of the women in WOLF HALL (except Cromwell's wife) and especially in BRING UP THE BODIES. As I said, I never cared much about Anne of Boleyn or Jane Seymour. Maybe Mantel prefers, in her literary life, the company of men.

I do wonder if her writing male protagonists results in her work being taken more seriously than if she wrote about women. What do you think?

message 10: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane Unfortunately you may be right. I'm currently reading She Wolves which is an interesting reflection on how the role of royal women has been discounted over the ages; I believe this attitude is still there, however deeply buried beneath PC babble.

In A Place of Greater Safety Mantel does give quite a lot of space to the women in the story. They do have considerable power, only it's inevitably of the behind-the-scenes kind. Perhaps novelists need to acknowledge the limits of women's power in bygone centuries more, and explore how they used what power they had to the greatest effect. Because they did have a tremendous influence as wives and mothers, as She Wolves shows. It's pointless to pretend they were powerful in the traditional male sense. We just can't project our 21st century ideas about gender equality onto a time where the very idea was completely alien.

Jemidar If you want to know more about the role of women in the French Revolution Marge Piercy's City of Darkness, City of Light refreshingly sheds light on the activities of the sans-culottes women and their political activities.

message 12: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Pic-o-rama excellent Jane.

message 13: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane A Like brought me back to memories of this book, which still remains one of my standout reads of recent years. Even more than Wolf Hall, in fact.

Jemidar Couldn't agree more! This post is timely as I'm currently struggling with an overwhelming desire to to reread it. So many books, so little time!!

message 15: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane I struggle with that desire too. Then I look at the pile...

Jemidar Whatever happened to the carefree days when you never gave a thought to rereading a favourite book??

message 17: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane Yes, I think the insane availability of cheap books has a lot to answer for. I used to value books a lot more...

Jemidar Yes, I was just thinking it was definitely pre GR and Kindle!!

message 19: by Kim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kim I love this book so much. Because of it, I dragged my husband on a French Revolution walking tour of Paris last year and took photos of otherwise nondescript buildings because Camille Desmoulins lived there. We also walked around the Palais Royal arcades for ages while I tried to work out the location of the cafe where Camille stood on the table whipping up enthusiasm for storming the Bastille and the shop where Charlotte Cordat purchased the knife she used to kill Marat.

Marita Your introductory paragraph had me laughing out loud.

I downloaded this book some time ago, and I hope to get to it eventually.

message 21: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane Just in case anybody was upset when I let on they were guillotined...got to cover my assets.

message 22: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca Huston I just added this one to my nook. And your comments are the icing on the cake.

message 23: by Kevin (new)

Kevin I read this several years ago, it was the first Mantel book I came across, way before she made it bigger than she was. I found it pretty grueling, as you say its not for the faint hearted and I had to do some back ground research about the French Revolution and the various characters who are the novels protagonists. I thought it a good book however - she is a great historical novelist as shown with Wolf Hall (which, criminally, I have not read yet).

message 24: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, but I think this one is the better book.

message 25: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane Rebecca wrote: "I just added this one to my nook. And your comments are the icing on the cake."

Yay! Always love it when my reviews cause people to add a book.

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