BOOK REVIEW / A chorus of disaffection at the scaffold: Tim Blanning on a skilful and resounding tale of the French Revolution by Hilary Mantel. 'A Place of Greater Safety' - Hilary Mantel: Viking, 15.99 pounds

PARIS in May 1793. Camille Desmoulins, left-wing revolutionary, has just left the National Convention, where his attempt to defend the loathsome radical journalist Marat has been shouted down. Two soldiers follow him. Fearing arrest, he turns to face them defiantly, but all they say is, 'Can we offer you an escort, Citizen Deputy, to a place of greater safety?' He replies: 'The grave. The grave.' As it turned out, he had almost a year left before being guillotined on the Place de la Revolution, together with his friends Danton, Herault de Sechelles and Fabre d'Eglantine.

Even at the end, as the mob bays for blood and the former aristocrat Herault tries to teach his plebeian companions to behave like gentlemen in the face of death, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for the plight of Desmoulins and his friends. Stumbling out of the tumbrel and up the scaffold steps to the 'National Razor', they might have reflected that they had done more than most to build their own place of execution. Reading the list of their alleged crimes before their trial, the president of the revolutionary tribunal had exclaimed that it was all nonsense, 'a complete fabrication'. The public prosecutor (and Desmoulins' cousin), Fouquier- Tinville, smoothly replied: 'Well, it is the usual. We've handled it before - it was Camille, in fact, who taught us how'.

It is Camille Desmoulins who is the central character of this novel of the French Revolution. It begins with his childhood in Guise in Picardy, takes him through his unhappy school-days as a scholarship boy at the College Louis-le-Grand and on to an unremarkable career as a lawyer in Paris in the 1780s. Nothing much happens, so wisely we are hustled on to the collapse of the old regime, beginning in 1787. It was now that clever, energetic, daring and unscrupulous young men like Desmoulins came into their own. A brilliant orator and pamphleteer, he grabbed every opportunity with both hands. More than anyone else, it was he who galvanised the crowd by his open-air speeches at the Palais Royal in July 1789, inciting them to storm the Bastille. From then on he was at the centre of revolutionary politics, and it is through his eyes that we see the tragedy of the next five years unfold.

Like all historical novelists, Hilary Mantel has three main problems to overcome. The first and least of her worries is how to handle the professional historian, lurking in the reviewing undergrowth to identify factual errors. A dismissive sentence in the preface is deemed sufficient defence - 'Anyone who writes a novel of this type is vulnerable to the complaints of pedants'.

A more serious difficulty for her is how to provide the essential historical context without seeming, well, pedantic. For the most part, she does this wonderfully well. The passage on the Duke of Orleans, for example, is a model; and so is the account of 1790, seen through the naive eyes of Madame Danton. Her technique, however, is not infallible. For example, we are given the following cafe conversation in March 1787: ' 'What is it that the Marquis de Lafayette has said?' 'He has said that the Estates General should be called.' 'But the Estates is a relic. It hasn't met since - ' '1614.' 'Thank you, d'Anton.' ' And thank you, Hilary Mantel, we murmur.

More intractable still is the problem of too many characters. 'History is fiction,' Robespierre wrote, one of the many occasions on which he was patently wrong. History is not fiction because it does not have neat dramatis personae. Ideally, every historical novel should be operatic in personnel, with one tenor, one soprano, one mezzo, one baritone, one bass, no more than four comprimario roles and a chorus. Alas, the French Revolution teems with colourful characters, all noisily demanding star status and all pulling in different directions. Only at the very end of this book does the blade of the guillotine neatly ring down the curtain with a thud.

Hilary Mantel deals with this problem by blending the private and personal lives of her immense cast-list in a seamless narrative. This is the key to the resounding overall success of a flawed, over- long (872 pages) but intriguing book. Her most convincing creation is the central figure of Camille Desmoulins, the neurotic bisexual with the unusual preference for sleeping with his mother- in-law, living in the fast lane and always liable to cross the central reservation.

The author's skill at strong characterisation is matched by memorable turns of phrase, as when she describes Marat slipping out of a house 'disguised as a human being', or Hebert's hands as looking 'like things that live under stones'. Perhaps most important of all, she has grasped what made these young revolutionaries - and with them the French Revolution - tick. The insight is delivered by Lafayette: ' 'Where do they come from, these people? They're virgins. They've never been to war. They've never been on the hunting field. They've never killed an animal, let alone a man. But they're such enthusiasts for murder' '.

In other words, this is the perfect complement to Simon Schama's history of the French Revolution from the same publisher - Citizens, published in 1989. And do I hear the question: are there any factual errors? No one is going to call me a pedant.

In this extract from A Place of Greater Safety, the King lies dying at Versailles:

Just after Easter, King Louis XV caught smallpox. From the cradle his life had been thronged by courtiers; his rising in the morning was a ceremony governed by complex and rigid etiquette, and when he dined he dined in public, hundreds filing past to gape at every mouthful. Each bowel movement, each sex act, each breath a matter of public interest: and then his death.

He had to break off the hunt, and was brought to the palace weak and feverish. He was sixty-four, and from the outset they rather thought he would die. When the rash appeared he lay shaking with fear, because he himself knew he would die and go to Hell.

The Dauphin and his wife stayed in their own rooms, afraid of contagion. When the blisters suppurated the windows and doors were flung wide open, but the stench was unbearable. The rotting body was turned over to the doctors and priests for the last hours. The carriage of Mme du Barry, the last of the Mistresses, rolled out of Versailles for ever, and only then, when she had gone and he felt quite alone, would the priests give him absolution. He sent for her, was told she had already left. 'Already,' he said.

The Court had assembled, to wait events, in the huge antechamber known as the Oeil de Boeuf. On 10 May, at a quarter past three in the afternoon, a lighted taper in the window of the sickroom was snuffed out.

Then suddenly a noise exploded like thunder from a clear sky - the rush, the shuffle, the tramp of hundreds of feet. Of blank and single mind, the Court charged out of the Oeil de Boeuf and through the Grand Galerie to find the new King.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape