Book Of A Lifetime: A Place of Greater Safety, By Hilary Mantel
Friday 18 February 2011
The biggest fight I've ever had with my mum was over this book. It was the summer I turned 17, and my family were spending a fortnight in the Dordogne. I remember very little about that holiday. I have to phone my mum to ask the name of the nearest big town (Bergerac) and my sister to check other details, like the names of the boys we befriended (Jon and David).
What I do remember is the moment where Camille Desmoulins kisses Lucile Duplessis's hand: "He turned it over rather forcefully, and held her palm against his mouth. And just that; he didn't kiss it, just held it there. She shivered." I remember big, ugly George-Jacques Danton, gored not once, but twice by a bull, then scarred by smallpox ("His mother did not think that the marks detracted from him. If you are going to be ugly it is as well to be whole-hearted about it") and I remember Maximilien Robespierre, "The Incorruptible", pale and gauche and unflinchingly intense.
I was going into my final year at school, and my history teacher had told us to read 'A Place of Greater Safety' before studying the French Revolution. At 900 pages, with a dull brown cover, it wasn't an enticing prospect. But I dutifully began on the long, boring drive from Belfast to Bergerac, and within pages I was hooked.
The book is an incredible feat. More than just telling the story, it captures the spirit of the Revolution – it makes you feel you are living through it. Re-reading it now, I wonder if the way it is told – the shifting tenses, the shifting pronouns, the blurring of boundaries, the sudden intimacies – captures something of the intensity of being a teenager, too. I read that book obsessively, breathlessly. The showdown came on Bastille Day, when Jon and David came to ask if my sister and I wanted to come into Bergerac to watch the fireworks. I said no: my parents were strict, they wouldn't let us, and went to close the door.
My mum overheard: don't be ridiculous, of course we could go. I said we had no money. My dad said he'd give us some. No, thank you, I repeated: I wanted to stay in and read. And there the fight blew up, while the poor boys shuffled in the doorway. My mum shouting, I was almost 17, it was unnatural not to want to go out. My sister pleading, my dad guldering at us to be quiet. Mum, to her shame, remembers the neighbours complaining. She won, in the end. I stomped off to the fireworks and out of spite drank too much Pernod. If they wanted a typical teenager...
But a decade later, 'A Place of Greater Safety' was the first book Mum downloaded onto her new Christmas Kindle. And she finally understands, too, how it is impossible to do anything else while you're in Hilary Mantel's world.
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