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)

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