Somewhat with my recent trip to France in mind, I picked up Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety.
In the end, I lugged the book around Alsace, but ended up reading it both before and after the trip rather than while I was there, which was actually just fine.
Mantel is well-known to me: I adored her Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies, which are more recent work by her. A Place of Greater Safety is just celebrating its 25th birthday. But it doesn't read like an early work; she was every bit the master writer even then.
I doubt I gave A Place of Greater Safety the time and attention it deserves. At 750 pages of rather dense prose, in which you are reluctant to miss even a single word, much less a phrase or paragraph, I pushed through it as fast as I could, but still it took 2 months.
In the end, what do I think I learned?
- In a Revolution, almost by definition, nobody is in control of events, even, perhaps most especially, not those who THINK they are in control of events.
- The French Revolution is, nowadays, remembered as a time and a place when wondrous progress was made in the world of ideas (The Declaration of the Rights of Man, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite", the Republic, feminism, secularism, etc.), but the actual story was much a story of people and what they said and did day-to-day. That is, nobody sat down one day and decreed the entire thing; events happened incrementally, in the heat of the moment, under pressures and in situations that it can be hard to envision.
- People are, in the end, people. Nobody really set out to Have A Revolution, and even once it was underway, lots of other life went on at the same time: people got married, had children, had affairs, got sick, got divorced, moved house, got in arguments, all sorts of things. We might want to write A Clean Story Of The French Revolution Leaving Out All The Boring Humdrum Stuff, but that wouldn't be telling the story the way it really happened.
- Mantel is a lovely writer, and it it is always a treat to read her books, even if one must thus read about awful events (not all the events she relates are awful; some are vividly inspirational, but there is plenty of misery to go around)