Yet another visit to those sanguinary years when heads rolled, blood flowed and people cheered.
In his first book, BBC Radio writer Fife eschews most of the traditional conventions of scholarship and simply retells the sad, horrifying story. Readers interested in the sources of his many quotations, some as long as two pages, will look in vain for foot- or endnotes. Still, the author writes with skill, confidence and considerable wit, displaying a shrewd instinct for the important detail, the ironic twist and the poignant moment. Fife begins on July 11, 1793, with the assassination of Marat, stabbed in his bath by the distraught Marie-Charlotte de Corday. The author then returns to the Revolution’s early, hopeful days, examining its proximate causes (the horrible harvest of 1788 among them), its signal events (the storming of the Bastille, the beheadings of the king and queen) and the rise of a new generation of anti-royalist leaders. Fife spends some time assessing the situation in the Vendée, a region that wished to adhere to its king and its religion and paid for this folly by suffering unspeakable brutalities. The author frequently pauses to tell small, mostly appalling stories about minor characters who found themselves dragged to the guillotine for reasons ranging from clerical error to an intemperate remark in a dress shop. The tale’s dark hero, of course, is Robespierre, who first appears in the book’s opening pages and is rarely offstage thereafter. The narrative ends with his grisly demise: a botched suicide that left his face a ruin, followed by 17 hours of agony that ended only at the guillotine, the “national razor” whose operations the prissy, self-righteous lawyer and architect of terror had not previously witnessed. Fife properly notes an awful irony: The Terror’s leaders claimed to love “the people,” but did not much care for actual breathing ones.
A well-written summary, though nothing revolutionary.