Insanity of the incorruptible

 

Biography: Robespierre is one of those radical political figures of history whose name typically conjures up images of Cromwell, Hitler and Mao fused together.

If Maximilien Robespierre saw himself as synonymous with the French Revolution itself (1789-1792), history has decreed him Tyrant of the Terror (1793-4), or that murderous period of turmoil when Robespierre effectively ruled the revolutionary government as a dictator, via the guillotine. While history typically thrives on heroes and monsters, Ruth Scurr's new biography of Robespierre boldly proposes to resurrect the actual man from behind the myth.

If one may admit to being moved by accounts of dangerous fanatics rising to power, the human portrait unveiled in this biography makes surprisingly moving reading. Perhaps this is because it depicts a gauche little green-eyed man obsessed with a Utopian vision of justice for the people. Or because Scurr emphasises Robespierre's pure insanity and his vile inhumanity, but never questions his total and utter sincerity, however deluded.

This biography traces his life from childhood through shy, unprepossessing lawyer from the provincial town of Arras, to leader of the Jacobin faction in Paris and radical dictator under the Reign of Terror. A disciple of Rousseau, his impeccable conduct and lack of interest in money, sex, or personal gain would earn Robespierre the purist title of "the Incorruptible". He advocated and, astonishingly, implemented universal male suffrage. Yet that same fatal purity and incorruptible fanaticism were what permitted him to send his closest friends, among thousands of others, to the guillotine.

Because Robespierre is inseparable from the French Revolution, Scurr's biography is simultaneously a history of the Revolution up to the Incorruptible's own death by guillotine in 1794. One often has to brace oneself before reading litanies of revolutionary factions, directives and committees. Happily, Scurr's narrative is fluid and appealing. With consummate narrative ease, she skilfully assesses key revolutionary decisions, analyses their significance for Robespierre, and traces his involvement within the ever-splitting factions. Portraits of Danton, the charismatic Mirabeau, or Lafayette on his white stallion, are memorable. Her analysis of ceremony highlights the artificiality of revolutionary constructs like Robespierre's theistic "Festival of the Supreme Being". The imprisoned royal family is presented sympathetically, yet unsentimentally: if Scurr's Marie- Antoinette is not so adorable as Antonia Fraser's, her Louis XVI has little of the bumbling manner so facilely attributed to him.

This clear, fresh biography will appeal greatly to readers who wish to avoid being overwhelmed by blood or partisan hyperbole. Only the final two chapters are devoted to the Terror in all its horror. Even when recounting Robespierre's growing paranoia, or his self-empowering, violent law dated "22 Prairial" (intended to abolish all counter-revolutionaries, condemning them to swift annihilation), the text attempts to avoid sensationalism or dramatic excess, preferring logical discussion of Robespierre's motivation, isolation and utter self-delusion.

LIKE ANY DICTATOR, Robespierre has his many disconcertingly endearing features, which Scurr analyses systematically: his early love of pictures translates into an adult gallery of self-portraits; his childhood collection of pet birds prefigures his adult commitment to the poor (although his image of the People remains highly theoretical); his own absolute moral rectitude allows him to brook no weakness in others; his complete identification with revolutionary ideals leads him to instigate the highly dangerous notion of trial by character; his inherent paranoia impels him to rule by dictatorial faction, regardless of the damage done to democracy and revolutionary ideals.

Power requires delicate checks and balances. At what point does a democratic protest become mob rule? When does a visionary become a fanatic? What shocks most in this portrait of Robespierre is that a quasi-invisible, highly isolated individual could worm his way into a position of total power at a crisis point in history, resulting in dictatorship and mass murder. This first example of the use of militant politics (not Scurr's term) to impose a minority revolutionary dictatorship is now so classic that it seems highly familiar. Everyone has witnessed such figures, whether in the military, in religion, or in management: they impose rule through terror; they claim moral superiority; they engage a coterie of trusted lackeys; they refuse both constructive debate and answerability. With such acute contemporary resonance, this biography is arguably every bit as instructive as it is intriguing.

• Síofra Pierse is Research Fellow 2005-6 (Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences) and lecturer in French at UCD. She is editor of The City in French Writing: The Eighteenth-Century Experience (UCD Press, 2004)

• Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, By Ruth Scurr, Chatto & Windus, 388pp. £20