Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution by Ruth Scurr - review by Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Deist, Altruist, Terrorist

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution


Chatto & Windus 388pp £20

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.

Robespierre was born in Arras in 1758, the same year as Nelson. He was a year older than Burns, William Pitt and Danton, whom he had judicially murdered. He began his political career as a member of the Third Estate at the meeting of the Estates General in 1789 at

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