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)

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss