Debussy once asked Mallarme if he could set one of his poems to music. But, replied Mallarme, have I not already set it to music? Hilary Mantel has decided to treat the French Revolution as a novel. But was it not already a novel? The Revolution forms a concentration of extraordinary events that defies ordinary belief. Such a tumultuous and incoherent story of violence, accident and fear is already the stuff of fiction.
But Mantel is right. No historian can explain, except to the reluctant satisfaction of other historians, how it was that within a very short period of time France was beset by civil war and rejected the principles by which its society had been governed, namely, the monarchy, the Church and the aristocracy. And then, within a few years, France emerged as a solid, surviving state, dominated by a conservative peasantry and a self-satisfied bourgeoisie. To understand this we have to use our imagination. Mantel, having read many history books, takes us into the private world of the leading revolutionary characters. In a novel of more than 800 pages, a series of short scenes brings us into intimate contact with those who are the official leaders of the revolutionary