Jonathan Cape £20 (294pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Danton: The Gentle Giant Of Terror, By David Lawday

The names of the leaders of France's Great Revolution - Mirabeau, Marat, Robespierre - are inscribed in the annals as agents of the seismic change which launched our modern era. Yet they remain shadowy figures. They are a headache for biographers, for they had little time for anything except politics and did not live long enough to write memoirs.

This is particularly true of Georges-Jacques Danton (1759-1794), who committed nothing to paper and specialised in ambiguity. Historians still argue about him. Was he an opportunist, a demagogue, a crook? Or an astute political manager, an idealist, a true patriot? David Lawday strides confidently into the fray and brings back a compelling, highly readable, and very timely account of a paradoxical champion of humanity pitted against ideological fanaticism.

Danton's contemporaries saw a roaring, gutsy man whose power lay less in his ideas than in the impact of his colossal presence. Two boyhood encounters with bulls left him with a scarred lip and a broken nose set in a face pitted by smallpox. He was very ugly, very physical, a large man with appetites to match.

For one so lazy, he was unexpectedly energetic. As a brawling orator, Danton struck Churchillian notes ("De l'audace! Encore de l'audace! Toujours de l'audace!") which could turn a debate, even change the course of events. Yet he had a dangerous, ultimately fatal habit of disappearing at moments of crisis and leaving the field to his enemies.

He was born in Champagne and trained as a lawyer. Like many with his education and background, he was appalled by the injustice and oppression of the ancien régime. He believed the Revolution belonged to the people and not to ambitious, middle-class men who would inevitably turn into new despots.

By September 1789, he was a leading political player. His views were moderate. He defended the rule of law, freedom of speech and private property, and favoured constitutional monarchy. He argued with Tom Paine, too republican for his taste, but changed his mind after the King fled to Varennes in June 1791: by rejecting the people's revolution, Louis killed the monarchy. Danton's finest hours came in 1792 when he directed the bloody "second revolution" towards the abolition of monarchy and oversaw France's victories over the armies of the European alliance.

He attempted to protect the Revolution by reconciling rival points of view. He steered a pragmatic course between the Girondins, whose defence of the provinces against Paris he regarded as a recipe for civil war, and the growing extremism of Robespierre's Jacobins who made Terror an instrument of government. While Robespierre regarded all French men and women as suspect and toiled to save the people from themselves by sending them "to kiss Madame la Guillotine", Danton wanted to save them from tyrants. Out-manoeuvred, arraigned as an "enemy of the Revolution", Danton was sentenced to death at a show trial in April 1794 and guillotined. In July, Robespierre followed him. The clash of the Titans ended in their mutual destruction.

In Lawday's absorbing version, Robespierre is a bloodless roundhead. But his Danton is much more than the freedom-loving cavalier portrayed by Gérard Depardieu in Wajda's Danton (1982). Nor is he as world-weary as Büchner's play Danton's Death made him in 1835. Yet nothing is said to overturn Lamartine's comment that while Robespierre was "an idea", Danton was "a man". Lawday's distaste for the cerebral 'Incorruptible' is as plain as his sympathy for his subject.

Even his most serious charge is a faint damn: Danton was an idealist who lacked the lust for power. It is a short indictment and vanishes under the weight of his commitment to Revolution, the patrie and democratic ideals. When Revolution turned into oppression, inequality and fratricide, Danton remembered what it had once stood for.

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