Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel (1992)

A common habit among fiction readers is, when impressed by one novel, to seek out others by the same author. That process, after greatly enjoying Wolf Hall and Bring Out the Bodies, led to A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel's earlier novel of the French Revolution. 

Seeking out earlier work can be a risky proposition; authors often need several tries before finding their mature voices. Such was not the case, however, with this novel. Mantel had already penned eight previous novels, and her character-focused style was already in full flower.

The French Revolution is a perfect subject for Mantel, who loves to develop characters. Indeed, there are so many varied and interesting characters that the reader can be overwhelmed. The extensive Cast Of Characters section at the end is very helpful in that regard. Also confusing is the way characters changed roles as the revolution progressed. One year's hero often became the next year's traitor and guillotine victim. Again, the Cast of Characters helps by noting these changing circumstances. Following that is a short list of characters who survived past 1794.

There was a point, about a quarter of the way in, when it seemed that Mantel's fictionalized French characters bordered on British caricature. I was reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the questing knights approach an unknown castle, to find it occupied by unknown defenders. Using their best parodies of French-accented English, the defenders challenge the approaching party. Puzzled, King Arthur asks "What are you, then?" To which the reply is "I'm French! Why do you think I have this outrageous accent, you silly king?"

Anyway, that impression soon passed as the characters' non-Anglo thinking and behavior settled into the rhythm of the story. And what a story it is! The bloody lunacy of the French Revolution was, in a way, a foreshadowing of the madness to come in the 20th century.

Note: this review is based on the Kindle version, which is nicely done and a bargain at $4.95.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes, especially the people. For starters, I sought out a biography (My Lady Scandalous, by Jo Manning) of the mysterious courtesan Grace Elliott, purported to be a British spy. The bio shed no light on the truth of that claim, but provided some interesting social history background. Many of the other characters merit similar exploration.

Mantel herself, in her Author's Note (a much-appreciated feature, as always), apologizes for the brevity of space devoted to Dr. Marat, who (she says) deserves his own novel (here's hoping that happens).

Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, although the focus is necessarily very narrow, and events outside of Paris get mentioned only in passing, if at all. For example, the revolutionary/reactionary wars between France and its neighbors are simply topics discussed in Paris, usually less interesting to the principal characters than the day's debates in the Committees.

Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, it seems so - as far as possible. The author notes the uncertainty surrounding those times, especially with regards to characters never prominent before the Revolution. Mantel's research is typically very thorough. and this novel is no exception.

Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes - as far as possible. Even less is known about the historical characters than about the events. The author takes responsibility for her portrayals, made even more challenging by the lack of major fictional characters. Among historical novelists, I rate Hilary Mantel #1 in character development, and her Danton, Camille, Robespierre and many others (including many fascinating women) really come alive. If the real people weren't much like Mantel's characters, they should have been.

Update: this novel inspired me to re-read the grandfather of all French Revolution novels - Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Mantel pays homage to Dickens by including in her novel two of his famous fictional characters - Monsieur Defarge the wine-shop keeper, and his wife who non-stop knits into her never-finished work the names of those she judges worthy of death.

Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
There's so little of this that the question may not have much relevance. The one area where plausibility usually suffers in historical character portrayals is motivation. We know at least some of what they did, but very little of the why. Mantel always does a commendable job with characters, making them as complex, contradictory, and maddening as real people.

Score = 5

No comments:

Post a Comment