The people's revolutionary

Biography: Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror,  by David Lawday , Jonathan Cape, 294pp, £20.

Biography: Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror,  by David Lawday, Jonathan Cape, 294pp, £20.

A STATUE OF Georges-Jacques Danton in dynamic rhetorical pose stands to this day outside the clutter of cinemas at the busy Odéon interchange in the heart of Paris. It was built on the site where Danton, the revolutionary hero of the people, lived. Erected by the city of Paris in 1889, the statue stands on a small pedestrian island to the side of the chic Boulevard Saint-Germain. Thousands of people pass by this spot daily, yet many probably never raise their eyes to see beyond the annoying pigeons. But for the person who looks up to examine the boisterous figure in mid-speech, what is there to see in this massive statue half-hidden by mature leafy trees? How do we – or should we – interpret this controversial figure in the 21st century? Some essential clues may be found in David Lawday’s immensely readable new biography of Danton.

Over the centuries, popular memory has chosen to depict Danton as the people's hero of the revolution. Indeed, the people of Paris under the revolution – that heaving uneducated mass of sans-culottes– were the very pulse that inspired Danton's entry into and rise through revolutionary politics. However, it must be noted that this biography bears the problematic subtitle "Gentle Giant of Terror". And this is exactly how Lawday depicts the huge country ogre Danton, who became synonymous with both the fiery, idealistic beginnings of the French Revolution (1789-1792) and with its gruesome offspring, the awful years of mass murder known as the Terror (1793-4). Therein lies the ambiguity of history's relationship with this lawyer-turned-people's politician. It is a contradiction that Lawday balances with apparent equanimity. Without ever hiding Danton's errors, misjudgements or links to mass murder, this biography attempts to interpret the giant's motivations and actions during his short political life. In spite of extraordinary circumstances, the portrait of Danton that emerges is that of a sincere, moderate and most likable man.

Danton starts life as a hulking country boy in the village of Arcis-sur-Aube to the east of Paris towards Champagne. The young Danton was a brilliant speaker, debater and reciter of Cicero, but not a writer. Lawday suspects he may have been dyslexic. This precocious ability to speak, linked with a huge, booming voice emanating forth from his giant shape, initially led Danton to practice law in Paris. From there, he became caught up in the pre-revolutionary debates taking place throughout Paris and rose to leadership from within the Cordeliers club as a much-loved people’s voice and champion. But Danton’s personal life makes interesting reading too. His attachment to his village, Arcis, to his mother, and to the land show his country roots lie as close to his heart as does his adopted Parisian populace. The depiction of Danton the family man, devoted to his wife and two sons, prefigures his utter heartbreak when Gabrielle dies in childbirth. Such details mark him out as a much more human figure than the stony, monkish figure of his own political nemesis and executioner, Maximilien Robespierre. While the latter was known as The Incorruptible, it is also remarkable that Danton himself never profited from his revolutionary posts or politics. Although he was known to be generous and expansive in his love of food and drink, he lived modestly in his Cour du Commerce apartment to the very end.

In this biography, we meet all the familiar protagonists of the revolution, from General Lafayette to the royalist Mirabeau, and from ambitious Mme Roland to fiery journalist Marat, yet the characterisation remains fresh and story-like throughout. Lawday rejects the image of Danton as popular lout, painting him instead as a complex mix of bourgeois and idealistic intellectual. Curiously, Lawday makes a bold, prefatory confession, noting that the reason why there are so few biographers of Danton is perhaps due to an unusual dearth of personal archival material. Presumably this was because of Danton’s verbal presence dominating his lifelong dyslexic’s reluctance to put pen to paper. Lawday’s reconstruction is, in places, based on invention. Such an admission of recourse to “romanced history” arguably has the potential to undermine the veracity of any biographical text. The diligent reader wonders to what extent the cheery chapters sketching Danton’s youth draw on biographer’s licence. The careful historian notes the number of apocryphal statements associated with the gentle giant and wonders if Danton truly did tell the executioner to hold up his ugly head to the people after he was guillotined because “it is worth a look”. Yet these problems arguably underlie many biographical reconstructions and are absolutely not specific to this text. Regardless of the degree of poetic licence, Lawday’s book is ultimately meticulously researched and thoroughly footnoted throughout.

Indeed, alongside its thought-provoking reading of Danton, this biography offers an excellent entrée for the uninitiated into the history and politics of the French Revolution.

So what is it about the 1789 revolution that continues to inspire biographies, histories and debate more than two centuries later? Lawday highlights the seismic political change brought about by idealists and reformers of the revolution, but he also meditates on the absolute awfulness of the bloodbath that ensued under the Terror. He captures the inexorable slide from ideals into dictatorship and the failure of a moderate voice like Danton’s to control or check that slide in any way. Where Lawday draws explicit links between modern terrorism and these first Terrorists, Danton’s ultimate letdown also serves as a timely warning to politicians of the fickleness of the popular vote. The image of the great giant being trundled through the streets of Paris on the way to the guillotine is a sobering one. The crowds, for once, were eerily quiet. Were these the people for whom he gave his all?

Síofra Pierse is a lecturer in French and francophone studies at University College Dublin. Her book,

Voltaire Historiographer: Narrative Paradigms

, was published by the Voltaire Foundation, Oxford University, in 2008