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Fatal purity : Robespierre and the French Revolution /
Ruth Scurr.
New York : Metropolitan Books, 2006.
xvii, 408 p., [16] p. of plates.
0805079874, 9780805079876
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New York : Metropolitan Books, 2006.
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First Chapter

My dear Croker,

I wish you would think seriously of the History of the Reign of Terror. I do not mean a pompous, philosophical history, but a mixture of biography, facts and gossip: a diary of what really took place with the best authenticated likenesses of the actors.

Ever yours,

Robert Peel1

Soon after he received this letter from his friend Sir Robert Peel, the once and future Tory prime minister, John Wilson Croker packed his bags for a seaside holiday. Although he was a prominent literary and political journalist and was hoping to work as he sat on the beach, Croker packed none of his collection of rare and fascinating books about the French Revolution that are now one of the glories of the British Library. He took with him only the list of those condemned to death during the Reign of Terror.2 He perused it against the rhythmic sound of waves breaking on the shore.

Twenty-two impoverished women, many of them widows, convicted of forwarding “the designs of the fanatics, aristocrats, priests and other agents of England,“ guillotined.

Nine private soldiers convicted of “pricking their own eyes with pins, and becoming by this cowardly artifice unable to bear arms,“ guillotined.

Jean Baptiste Henry, aged eighteen, journeyman tailor, convicted of sawing down a tree of liberty, guillotined.

Henrietta Frances de Marbœuf, aged fifty-five, convicted of hoping for the arrival in Paris of the Austrian and Prussian armies and of hoarding provisions for them, guillotined.

James Duchesne, aged sixty, formerly a servant, since a broker; John Sauvage, aged thirty-four, gunsmith; Frances Loizelier, aged forty-seven, milliner; Mélanie Cunosse, aged twenty-one, milliner; Mary Magdalen Virolle, aged twenty-five, hairdresser: all convicted for writing, guillotined.

Geneviève Gouvon, aged seventy-seven, seamstress, convicted of “various conspiracies since the beginning of the Revolution,“ guillotined.

Francis Bertrand, aged thirty-seven, convicted of producing “sour wine injurious to the health of citizens,“ guillotined.

Mary Angelica Plaisant, another seamstress, guillotined for exclaiming, “A fig for the nation!”

Relaxing into his holiday, Croker continued reading through the long list of dubious charges against the several thousand victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal of Paris, from its institution on 10 March 1793 until the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 27 July 1794. He compiled some grimly fascinating statistics: in the last five months of Robespierre’s life, when he supposedly secured tyrannous power over France and the Revolution, 2,217 people were guillotined in Paris; but the total condemned to death in the eleven months preceding Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was only 399. On the basis of these statistics, Croker concluded that the executions “grew gradually with the personal influence of Robespierre, and became enormous in proportion as he successively extinguished his rivals.”3 In awed horror he recalled, “These things happened in our time--thousands are still living who saw them, yet it seems almost incredible that batches (fournées--such was the familiar phrase)--of sixty victims should be condemned in one morning by the same tribunal, and executed the same afternoon on the same scaffold.”

Although Peel pressed his friend to write a popular and accessible book about the French Revolution, Croker never did so. When he got back from his holiday in 1835 he published his seaside musings in an article for theQuarterly Review. Here he acknowledged the enormity of the problem Robespierre still poses biographers: “The blood-red mist by which his last years were enveloped magnified his form, but obscured his features. Like the Genius of the Arabian tale, he emerged suddenly from a petty space into enormous power and gigantic size, and as suddenly vanished, leaving behind him no trace but terror.”4

Copyright © 2006 by Ruth Scurr

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 2006-04-01:
Maximilien Robespierre was an ambitious provincial lawyer whose political career came to epitomize the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Few would argue that his commitment to egalitarian principles was anything less than genuine, but his intransigent commitment to these principles set the basis for a terror-based state whose legacy still haunts the postmodern world. Scurr (history, Cambridge) skillfully uses Robespierre's writings to provide insight into a complex personality of the man called the Incorruptible, who was kind and gentle in private life and a brutal infighter in the public arena. Scurr maintains that Robespierre's iron will sustained the Revolution during its most turbulent period but that within his fanaticism lurked the seeds of his demise. His Reign of Terror eventually devoured him. This is Scurr's first book, and one hopes that it is not her last. She evokes the temper of those times through the copious use of primary sources, and her characterizations of such personalities as Mirabeau, Marat, and Brissot are splendid. This is the best biography of the Incorruptible since David Jordan's The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre over 20 years ago and is highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2006-03-06:
The short, violent life of Maximilien Robespierre was a mass of contradictions crowned with a supreme irony: this architect of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror would in July 1794 be executed by the same guillotine to which he had consigned so many others. Cambridge University historian Scurr says she has tried to write a biography that expresses "neither partisan adulation nor exaggerated animosity," but even she must conclude that with the Terror, he "kept moving through that gory river, because he believed it necessary for saving the Revolution. He can be accused of insanity and inhumanity but certainly not of insincerity." Robespierre can also be accused of being a revolutionary fanatic who hated atheists, and "became the living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral"; a dedicated upholder of republican virtues whose hands were smothered in blood; a fierce opponent of the death penalty who helped send thousands to their deaths; and a democratic tribune of the people who wore a sky-blue coat and embroidered waistcoats so aristocratic they wouldn't have been out of place at the court of the Sun King. Scurr's first book scores highly in unraveling not only her subject's complexities but those of his era. 2 maps. (Apr. 29) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, March 2006
Publishers Weekly, March 2006
Library Journal, April 2006
New York Times Book Review, May 2006
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Chronologyp. xiii
Map: Revolutionary Parisp. xviii
Prefacep. 1
Introductionp. 5
Before the Revolution (1758-1788)
Child of Arrasp. 17
The Lawyer-Poet Back Homep. 36
The Revolution Begins (1788-1789)
Standing for Election in Arrasp. 61
Representing the Nation at Versaillesp. 78
Reconstituting France (1789-1791)
The National Assembly in Parisp. 111
The Constitutionp. 141
The Constitution Fails (1791-1792)
Warp. 177
The King's Trialp. 218
The Terror (1793-1794)
The Pact with Violencep. 257
Robespierre's Red Summerp. 318
Codap. 359
Notesp. 361
Bibliographyp. 379
Acknowledgmentsp. 393
Indexp. 395
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.

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