Hilary Mantel: A Place of Greater Safety

The 2015 BookLikes Group Read

Conserving the buddy read (or what’s left of it) for posterity — one of the few that actually took place in the relevant discussion group.  BL group discussions were public and visible even to non-BL-members, but I’ve removed the links to the participants’ member profiles for purposes of this repost.

#1 by: Carpe Librum

A Place of Greater Safety – Hilary Mantel
Reading start: 2015-07-01
Reading finish: 2015-07-31

#2 by: Lillelara

I saw Themis post about the club-read this month and this book really does sound interesting. So I have already read the first 120 pages and I have to admit, that this book is going to be a tough read for me. Hilary Mantel uses a lot of words I do not know and I´m constantly looking up words in the dictionary (I´m from Germany, so I do have to look up a lot of words). And it takes some time to getting used to her peculiar style of storytelling. She jumps a lot between places, people and situations.

But I really like it so far. There are some really interesting characters.

#3 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Carpe Librum and Susanna, I know you were still hunting after the book earlier this week — any success yet? Or should we perhaps postpone this discussion a bit?

#4 by: Carpe Librum

I do not have it yet, but feel free to discuss.

Lillelara – good for you for taking on such a challenge! Glad you’re here. 🙂

#5 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Well, I’m about a fourth of the way in now, and I’m already totally in love with Mantel’s prose all over again — the same spare, precise prose as in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” that can express volumes in a mere sentence or, at most, a paragraph. She’s totally making late 18th century French society come alive; both in Paris and in the provinces, and I think she’s also doing an excellent job at portraying the social causes underlying the French Revolution.

(A vast canvas like that of course also means a huge cast of characters, as Lillelara has mentioned, and I’m glad Mantel has chosen to include a cast list in the book’s front matter!)

Also, as in the two Cromwell novels, we get Mantel’s faux-3d person narrative perspective, as a result of which … damn the woman, she’s doing it again — yet again, she’s getting me to empathize with a man whom, up until now, I’d firmly pigeonholed in the camp of history’s great villains; in this case, Robespierre. Unlike with Cromwell, this time around I sort of expect that to change; at the very latest, as soon as he’ll turn against Danton (who’s always been the one French Revolution leader I’ve felt the most sympathy for, and so far that’s not any different here, either). But dammit, Robespierre’s not only a completely three-dimensional person — they all are, of course, and again, first seeing them as children and learning something about their background helps to develop an understanding how they came to be the persons they were — I also can’t help siding with Robespierre again and again; not only against his provincial rivals and opponents but also, for example, against Mirabeau. (Interesting to see Mantel employ stage style dialogue for their first direct encounter, incidentally; very effective, I thought.)

Similarly, I think it’s very effective how Mantel first introduces Paris through Danton’s eyes: none of the three main characters were native Parisians, after all, and again, I think this technique goes a long way towards putting the reader exactly on the same footing as the characters.

If there’s one thing I’m not sure about it is Mantel’s repeated references to British history, politics and culture; this is virtually the only aspect that at times does seem to betray a non-French narrative perspective and which seems a tiny bit jarring. I’m fairly sure Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins, as well as their circle, really were aware of the things Mantel references and they would have considered them; but hardly in preference or even to the exclusion of similar references from their native France (particularly in terms of philosophy, constitutional theory and the theatre: Molière, Corneille, Descartes and Montesquieu, anybody?), from other European countries, or, especially as far as revolutionary ideology / constitutional theory and revolutionary strategy is concerned, first and foremost also from America. — Well, maybe the French philosophers are going to be given greater weight at some point after all (so far, the only ones who seem to have made a semi-off stage appeareance, and really more in terms of setting the general stage of the era, are Voltaire and Rousseau.) I’m greatly enjoying watching Choderlos de Laclos as the Duke of Orléans’s agent, though.

Kind of apposite, incidentally, that this should be our group read for July! 🙂

(And also, though in a two or three degress of separation sort of way, that I should have reached the events of July 14, 1789 today, on July 4 … There will be blood from here on out, I fear.)

#6 by: Carpe Librum

I love how Mantel manages to do this with historical figures! I’m so eager for this book to come. It’s interesting that there are mentions of British history. I would expect references to the US. Any American characters?

#7 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #6:
So far Americans only get a mention in terms of setting the larger stage — in the pre-revolutionary days there’s a brief mention of Franklin in connection with scietific / technical advances (“should we invite Franklin to view it?”), and in dealing with the revolutionary mob, Lafayette wonders what Washington would have done (but comes up blank). But, for example, nothing at all about Jefferson; at least, as yet.

#8 by: Carpe Librum

Guess what I just found in my mailbox?!?!

#9 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Ooooh, good! Enjoy!

#10 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Discussion, chiefly on Robespierre’s character, in the comments section of Lillelara’s 36% reading progress status update

#11 by: Carpe Librum

Thanks for pointing this out. I’m hoping to get started this weekend.

#13 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #12:

#14 by: LunaLuss

I am at 8% through it. I like it so far though sometimes I get confused because of the sudden jumps from a character to another. despite that the reading is captivating. I like the way the author describes scenes as well.

#15 by: Carpe Librum

I’m excited to see so many involved in this month’s discussion!

#17 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #16:
Yes, that caught my attention as well. Wasn’t that a reference to the 17th century Cromwell, though? (IIRC it’s in the context of a discussion about abolitioning the monarchy?)

#19 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Still — can’t get around the Cromwell family in Mantel’s writing … even when she’s writing about France! 🙂

#20 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

I suppose this is appropriate today — Bonne Fête Nationale, la France!

#22 by: Lillelara

Thanks, Themis. What a gorgoues picture of Paris and what a coincidence, that we are reading this book this month.

I´m about 60% into the book. The tension between Danton and Robespierre is buildung up and I´m really curious what is going to happen next.

#23 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #22:
Wow, you’ve really caught up! Where are you timewise — late 1792, early 1793?

#24 by: Lillelara

Reply to post #23:
Late 1792. Along the way I did get used to Mantels writing style and by now I do know more or less who is who. Althoug I´m still glad there is “cast of character”-list in the beginning of the book :).

And I did quite some additional reading on the french revolution. For me it is easier to follow the story, knowing what happened during the french revolution (sadly a topic, which has been neglected in my history lessons at school).

#25 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #24:
We’re almost exactly at the same point then!

I’ve taken a look at the Wikipedia entries for the French Revolution, and they’re actually not bad at all for purposes of background — they also include biographies (of varying length and degree of detail) of almost every person who made it into Mantel’s book.

I just about remember that my high school history class at some point did get around to the French Revolution — we were more concerned with the politics / underlying political philosophy, and with the social conditions of the time, though, and less with the actual sequence of events, at least once we’d gotten past July 14, 1789. Which isn’t to say that the chronology wasn’t mentioned at all, it just wasn’t drummed into our heads, for which on the one hand I was glad (having to memorize historical dates would probably have turned me off history pretty fast and much earlier than by the time we’d gotten this far anyway); on the other hand, it really took my reading a few additional books on my own to sort of at least get a handle on the basic chronology without having to look up even major events like Louis XVI’s death time and again.

#27 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #26:
Yes, because he’s gotten rid of his debt — but to a certain extent, I think he used it as a pretext before, anyway. He realized that being identified with any position or movement just short of an all-out republican government might materially damage him in the weeks and months to come, so he found reasons to stay out of the limelight until the time was right. The others didn’t have that sort of dilemma, at least not in Paris — Desmoulins never had the standing as a barrister that Danton had, so they would hardly have offered any position of note to him in the first place, and Robespierre was stuck in Arras up until he was nominated as a deputy. Once in Paris, he didn’t hesitate to make his opinions known — nor incidentally, at that time, did Danton.

And, very appropriate of course to reach the events of July 14, 1789 on July 14 of this year! (I reached them on July 4, which was sort of the next best thing, I thought. 😉 )

#29 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #28:
Stylistically it’s very similar to her Cromwell books, of course, but I take it that’s not what you mean?

Scarlet Pimpernel? (It’s actually a lot less lighthearted than the movie adaptations make it appear …)

Rafael Sabatini (Scaramouche)?

Dumas père?

Btw, you’ll learn more about Danton’s thought processes as the book progresses.

Mantel glosses over most of the big events after July 14, 1789, incidentally, which at times I actually find a bit annoying; particularly as our three guys are less and less private citizens as of now and are, as a matter of fact, very much in the limelight of public attention. Except for the Massacre of the Champs de Mars and August 10, 1792 (where we do see them, and Danton in particular, putting themselves at the head of events), sometimes you’d think that nothing else of much consequence had happened — yes, OK, so we learn that Danton is made minister and Desmoulins and Fabre are his secretaries (I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anybody 😉 ), and we get about a three-second snippet of Robespierre’s speech at the king’s trial (or rather, Desmoulins’s comments on that speech!), but that’s pretty much it … hmm. I wonder where she’s going to take this narrative approach once we’re further down the road in 1793.

#32 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #31:
True. It is one of my favorite books about the era, too, though, so right now I’m actually having a bit of a facepalm moment not to have mentioned it myself.

Speaking of Stefan Zweig, not only his bio of Marie Antoinette, but also that of Joseph Fouché makes for an excellent companion book to Mantel’s novel. I started his Fouché biography a few days ago, on the recommendation of a friend, and I can highly recommend it. (Fouché was, after all, the person who brought down Robespierre, so in part it also tells the continuation of the story — right into the Napoleonic empire and beyond.) I’m at work right now, but will post excerpts later when I get home.

And Teresa, you’re right, initially the focus is very much on Desmoulins.

Does anyone else feel, too, btw, that Mantel’s attitude is different with regard to each of the three main characters? Desmoulins she’s simply fond of — and she very much wants the reader to be fond of him as well. (Hence, I suspect, also the initial focus on him in particular.) Robespierre fascinates her, though I’m beginning to see gradually less sympathy for him in her portrayal of his character. Danton’s bull(y) side she finds problematic, but she’s OK with his fundamentally pragmatic attitude, and she begins to warm towards him as he emerges as more forgiving than some of their associates …

#33 by: Lillelara

Reply to post #32:
Yes, Hilary Mantel does like Desmoulins the best. But I don´t think, that is the reason, why she focused on him in the beginning. To understand, why Desmoulins is part of the revolution, you have to know something about his personality. And this is something, which for example doesn´t apply to Danton (anyway not to that extent).

Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton have different reasons for participating in the revolution, which for me are:

Desmoulins: Basically all his life he has been treated like a lesser person, has been belittled by everyone and even his father doesn´t have anything good to say about him and treats him accordingly. Desmoulins wants to redeem himself through his success in the revolution and this makes him the most likeable of the three. I really did feel sorry for him in the beginning.

Robespierre: He has a clear mind and he does know, what is wrong with the country. He is perfect at rationalizing and he doesn´t let feelings get in his way (I do think, that the death of his mother must have had a huge impact on Robespierres emotional state). Even though he in the beginning condemns violence, he sees it as a necessary evil and as something, he has to do to achive his goal (which in his opinion is the salvation of the country, not some personal benefits). He certainly is the most dangerous one.

Danton: He wants money, fame and a good life for his family. He only does something, when it gives him some kind of advantage and he clearly knows, what should be done and what not. He intimidates people by being a brute (or a bully 😉 ). This makes him the least likeable character in this novel, but also in some way the most human.

In the beginning I did struggle with Danton as well. That changed, when Mantel did give him a voice of his own. I´m expecting, that Dantons personality is going to change throughout the last year of his life and I´m really looking forward to read about it.

#36 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #35:
Love Lucile and Annette.

#39 by: LunaLuss

Reply to post #33:
I really like your description.

it is funny that in today’s French society Danton seems to be more liked than Robespierre. The latter is infamous because of his communist penchant even though he was not driven by money but revolutionary ideas, While Desmoulins is still (unfortunately) belong to that marginalized position he longed to break free from.

#41 by: Carpe Librum

Well, I’ve finally gotten started at least. It is interesting to read Mantel’s style in a much less familiar story. Just made it through part one with the introduction of each of the Big 3 and I’m happy to see everyone seems to be enjoying it.

#43 by: Lillelara

I finished the book this morning. Thank you for bringing this novel to my attention. I absolutely loved it.

#44 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

They come rattling over the cobbles
they sit on their coffins of black
Some are struck dumb, some gabble
top-heavy on brandy or sack
The pews are all full of fine fellows
and the hawker has set up her shop
As they’re turning them off at the gallows
she’ll be selling right under the drop, boys
selling right under the drop

Then you’ll find me in Madame Geneva’s
keeping the demons at bay
There’s nothing like gin for drowning them in
but they’ll always be back on a hanging day

Mark Knopfler: Madame Geneva’s
(from the album Kill to Get Crimson)

I finished the book this morning as well. Now have to get my thoughts sorted out and write a review …

Lillelara has already written hers, and it’ll be a hard act to follow!

#48 by: Themis-Athena’s Garden of Books

Reply to post #47:
It’s common to many dictatorships, regardless of underlying political theory. The Nazis did the same thing — brainwashing taken to the nth degree. Frightening, isn’t it?

Will be looking forward to your review.

#49 by: Carpe Librum

I’m going to get back to this today. You are all far ahead of me & I had to take the time to read my local book club selection since I’m hosting this month!

#52 by: Carpe Librum

Are others still reading? We could keep this book for another month, but not just for me.

#53 by: SusannaG – Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady

Still haven’t been able to get a copy!

I would be in favor of extending it another month, myself.

#55 by: Carpe Librum

I know that a couple of people are finished with this book, but I went ahead and extended this discussion through August. My hope is that more of us can get through it and have more great conversation. This is by far the most discussion we have had in this club so far, so let’s keep it going!

Welcome to the several new members! I think everyone gets notifications when I post, but if you haven’t, you can recommend future books here.

#56 by: Carpe Librum

Alright, I need some encouragement. I love the moments of snarky humor that remind me so much of the Cromwell series, but I feel like I don’t know what the heck is going on! How much did you know about the French Revolution before reading this. My knowledge is pretty much limited to Les Miserables and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

#57 by: LunaLuss

My knowledge on the French revolution is pretty limited as well. It is true that sometimes I cant follow the events but I dont let that bother me much. I just try to glue the pieces together as accurately as I can. Investigating further through websites etc helps but that’s time consuming and it breaks my attention on the historical novel, so I just keep reading and add notes to make sense of them later.

#58 by: Carpe Librum

Glad I’m not alone! I’ve been trying to read without Googling to avoid learning more than I want to know about the main characters, but I may have to give in. I know about the fate of Robespierre but not the others. Are you still in the process of reading this one too?

#59 by: SusannaG – Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady

Still working on getting a copy.

#62 by: Carpe Librum

Oh, thank you! I was feeling like a dunderhead! Mantel is so far above me but I love her.

#63 by: Lillelara

I did some extensive background reading on the french revolution while reading this one, otherwise I would have been lost. And ultimately I learned more reading this book than in any history class in school.

#64 by: LunaLuss

Reply to post #58:
Yes I am!

#65 by: Carpe Librum

I’m feeling much better about this now and think I will give in and do a little bit of background reading. I am just a few pages into Part Four. Thanks everyone!

#66 by: SusannaG – Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady

Reply to post #61:
Thank you very much for the offer; but I think ILL will work for me. (I would have done it last time we were at the library, but it was a very brief visit.)

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