The rise and fall of Georges-Jacques Danton (1759–1794), whose booming voice and fervid passion animated both the French Revolution that honored him and the Terror that took his head.
Former Economist correspondent Lawday, who first developed an interest in Danton while working on a previous biography (Napoleon’s Master: A Life of Prince Talleyrand, 2007), recognized that his subject presented challenges. Danton didn’t like to write and left virtually no revealing personal documents. Nonetheless, the author ably assembles a convincing portrait of a man of giant stature, appetite, ability and ego. Lawday begins in 1789 on the day after the fall of the Bastille as young Danton, just 29, arrives at the site and, his voice roaring, immediately announces his presence on the revolutionary stage. The author then sketches Danton’s early story: his birth in the Champagne region and some early childhood experiences that sound almost mythic (he was suckled by a cow, wounded in the face by a bull. Big, strong and ugly, Danton was also bright and ambitious and soon began the pursuit of a legal career in Paris. Lawday rehearses the principal causes of the Revolution and gradually introduces the principal players, including Mirabeau, Lafayette, Madame Roland, Marat, Thomas Paine, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the unsmiling villain of the piece, Robespierre. The author also tracks Danton’s personal life, which included his beloved first wife (who died in childbirth—Danton’s reaction is horrifying and wrenching) and his 16-year-old second wife, whom he swiftly married. “He was thirty-three years old,” writes Lawday, “and he needed the closeness of a woman’s body.” The author ably follows his subject’s maneuvers into positions of authority, his confounding combination of cruelty and compassion and his underestimation of Robespierre, who engineered Danton’s death shortly before his own date with the national razor.
A clear account of one man’s failure to recognize the fanged creatures that swim in waves of passion and popularity.