Paul Johnson

Deist, Altruist, Terrorist

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

By

Chatto & Windus 388pp £20 order from our bookshop

We all know about Robespierre and identify him with the French Revolutionary terror of 1793–4. But few of us could give a coherent account of his activities as a radical leader or explain exactly what it was he stood for. And indeed it may be that a coherent account is impossible. That is not for want of material written by the man himself, who is said to have had a small, high voice but was a prodigious spouter. He made his maiden speech on 18 May 1789 at the Estates General, and spoke more than 500 times at the National Assembly. He also spoke over 100 times at the Jacobin Club up to August 1792, and 450 times at the Legislative Assembly. At the trial of King Louis XVI alone he spoke eleven times, calling for death. Some of these speeches were very long. In addition he wrote interminably for the two newspapers he founded, and for others. His collected works fill ten substantial volumes. Ruth Scurr has presumably had to read through and make sense of all this to produce her book. She has made a valiant effort, and I congratulate her on producing the best book on Robespierre since J M Thompson’s two-volume biography of 1935. It is well researched, clearly written, moderate in tone and objective.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • sorry I can’t spell fluttering. I was agitated.,
    • Probably try and get an announcement out later, for all these male writers who think of fluttering inner muscle sheaths...,
    • He felt the muscles far inside her flutteriung around him,
    • Next week sees return, and we've got discounted tickets on offer, right here: ,
    • We're rarely topical - tricky as a monthly magazine - but we've an article this month all about Laurence Binyon, po… ,
    • "We will remember them" - who wrote those words, and why have them become our terms of memorial? ,
    • RT : Wow. We're over the moon with this stunning piece on My Cat Yugoslavia, 'a truly extraordinary novel.'… ,