Home > Books, Europe, Politics > If You’d Seen His Green Eyes: A Review of ‘Robespierre and the French Revolution’

If You’d Seen His Green Eyes: A Review of ‘Robespierre and the French Revolution’

Hilary Mantel writes in the London Review of Books:

He expected it to end badly, and it did: a bullet from a pistol which shattered his jaw, a night of unspeaking agony, death without trial. During that night – ninth Thermidor, or 27 July 1794 – he made signs that he wanted a pen and paper. What would he have written? We cannot hope that it would have helped us understand him. He’d had his chance, you’d think: five years in politics. The historian George Rudé estimates that Robespierre made some nine hundred speeches. He had spoken, of course; but had he been heard?

Literally speaking, perhaps not. The halls of most Revolutionary assemblies had poor acoustics. Then there was the matter of his timidity. When he first emerged on the French political scene, in the spring of 1789, he said that he ‘trembled like a child’ before each intervention. Many would have felt the fear, but few would have admitted to it. He was easy to shout down. His accent was provincial, his person – he was short and slight and pale – designed to be overlooked. But if he was not a gifted orator, he was a persistent one. By the autumn of 1789, journalists had learned to spell his name.

Most of his speeches survive, if at all, in short newspaper reports. When you read those that were printed at the time, and have been preserved whole, what you find is a pervasive sentimentality, a strong self-referential tendency, a structure of iron logic. The Incorruptible was also the unpredictable. He was a fissiparous bundle of contradictions. He idealised ‘the people’ and profoundly distrusted anyone who claimed to speak for them. He distrusted the very structures of representation that he helped to put in place. He sought power, and he despised it. He was a pacifist, and helped run a war. In the middle of the most detailed and quotidian debate, he was thinking about posterity; and while he was planning for success he was hymning the purity of failure. He was blessed or cursed with foresight. In the ordinary sense, his vision was defective. Even with the help of spectacles, he didn’t see very well, and was, Ruth Scurr suggests, both short-sighted and long-sighted. His perspectives were strange; the lines between himself and the outside world were blurred. Diffident, rather gauche, he should have kept himself apart from the world; instead, he seems to merge hazily with the times he lived through. He thought he was the Revolution, and he thought the Revolution was him.

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Categories: Books, Europe, Politics
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