IN THE PREFACE to Citizens, his award-winning account of the French Revolution, Simon Schama identified himself firmly with the 'biographical approach' to historical events. He had learned from Richard Cobb, he wrote, to see the Revolution 'not as a march of abstractions and ideologies but as a human event of complicated and often tragic outcomes'.
Hilary Mantel's huge novel about the Revolution - almost the same length as Citizens - covers much the same territory and shares Schama's method of concentrating on individuals. It is principally the story of three men, Danton, Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. But the jacket blurb sets alarm bells ringing with its chirpy announcement that Desmoulins is obsessed by a married woman: 'But recently - he's not sure how - he seems to have got engaged to her daughter. He had a perfectly good fiancee once before, until her family found out about his boyfriend. Now they pay him to stay away from home.'
It would be unfair to hold jacket copy against an author unless it fairly reflected the book's tone. In this case, the blurb accurately catches the novel's trivialising tendency, its fatal attraction to slickness: Mantel's characters do not so much talk to each other as deliver terse, clever one-liners. The young Desmoulins, told by his father not to be childish, fires back: 'Why not? I'm a child, aren't I?' Camille's future mother-in-law, on discovering that her daughter Lucile has hidden one of his letters in a book, observes: 'Perhaps you would like to file it inside my copy of Les Liaisons dangereuses?'
These are symptoms of the novel's major weakness, an intrusive authorial voice which is the sole unifying factor in a work which encompasses abrupt changes of scene, point of view and even of tense (the latter sometimes in mid-sentence). Although she avoids the first person pronoun, Mantel is present on every page, even inserting herself into the narrative by claiming that one of her characters is reading her own novel. Sometimes she lapses into script-style dialogue; at others she strives too hard for effect, as when she compares Marat's progress through a rowdy meeting of the National Convention to that of 'a coffin-worm at a wedding feast'. Attempting to convey the strength of Danton's feeling for his second wife Louise, she lurches into Mills & Boon sentimentality: 'God, how he loved her]'
On the rare occasions when the book is affecting or exciting, it is because Mantel is relating real events which could hardly fail to move: the execution of the Dantonists which concludes the novel, or Camille's anguished cry during his trial, 'They are going to murder my wife]' Other vignettes of personal tragedy, like the suicide of Roland de la Platiere on learning of the execution of his wife Manon, are more effectively and economically conveyed by Schama, the historian, than Mantel, the novelist.
Mantel began this book in 1974, long before establishing her reputation as a writer with novels like Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and the marvellous Fludd. She has recently updated it, paying particular attention to the female characters. Yet they are on the whole unsatisfactory, flitting in and out of the narrative without really coming to life or - in the case of Lucile Desmoulins and Louise Danton - drawing too heavily on the stereotypes of romantic fiction. Once again, a recent academic text makes up the deficiency, this time the long chapter on the French Revolution in Death Comes to the Maiden, Camille Naish's thoughtful and illuminating study of women and the death penalty.
Hilary Mantel has lived with A Place of Greater Safety for most of her adult life, consigning it to a drawer after its initial rejection by a publisher. Eighteen years and nearly 900 pages are not enough to exorcise her obsession with the Revolution; she remarks in an authorial note that she hopes to write a sequel about Jean-Paul Marat - whom she characterises as the 'guest star' in this novel - at some future date. Where Simon Schama gave us the French Revolution as human tragedy, Hilary Mantel presents it as upmarket soap opera.
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