‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’

Hilary Mantel

For a time, early last year, there was no trace of Robespierre to be found on the street where he lived in the days of his fame. The restaurant called Le Robespierre had closed its doors, and after a while its portrait sign was removed from above the entrance of the house on the rue Saint-Honoré. Once again, the plaque on the wall had been smashed. The marble was shattered, the letters gouged away by a vindictive chisel. Just before the Bastille celebration, on a day of misty heat, a new plaque appeared. In the interim, only the staff of the new patisserie were able to confirm that it was true: Robespierre lived here.

The house on the site has been rebuilt, and so the room he occupied is, as his biographer J.M. Thompson has said, a metaphysical space. You go down a passage between shops; it widens a little, into a high-walled enclosure. It doesn’t look like a place where a tragedy would occur, but if we had a diagnostic for such places we would always cross the road and stay away. In 1791 the gateway opened into a yard, with sheds where wood was stored; Maurice Duplay, who owned the house, was a master-carpenter. In this courtyard, Paul Barras saw two generals of the Republic picking over the salad herbs for dinner, under the eye of Madame Duplay. Robespierre lived on the first floor, in a low-ceilinged room with the plainest of furnishings.

The historian François Furet tells us: ‘The revolution speaks through him its most tragic and purest discourse.’ It does not matter where he lived or what he was like, or that he walked through this gate the day before his horrible death. His temperament is of no consequence, nor the will that drove his punitively controlled body through the all-night sittings. But this abstract Robespierre is not the one that interests you, as you stand inside the passage, sheltered from the street. After all, you keep his portrait on your wall; if Furet’s formulation convinced you, you would not feel so desolate, and almost panic-stricken. The passage itself is confined and dark. Your throat constricts a little, and you remember what Michelet said: ‘Robespierre strangles and stifles.’ There are closed doors on your left. You glance up to the first floor. The windows are dirty. You say: ‘it is only a metaphysical space.’ Metaphysical wild horses would not drag you into Robespierre’s room or any space that might have been occupied by it. You lean against the wall, expecting something to happen.

When the restaurant was still trading, the management used to hand out a photocopy with a Brief Life on it. Someone thought its tone lacked warmth, and had scribbled in the margin what follows: ‘these walls still resound to the speeches, ardent and flawless, of Maximilien Robespierre.’ The phrase delights you, but you would feel exposed if you had written it. Objectivity is such a god, and your brain, such as it is, interests itself in subjective trivia. He was a man of spectacular absent-mindedness. He liked flowers. Sometimes he laughed till he cried. He caught Madame Tussaud when she slipped and fell downstairs on her sightseeing-trip to the Bastille. Discern a subject, not an object, and feelings creep in. You throw up ramparts and dig trenches to defend yourself against them; one day, perhaps, you will notice that the house you are defending is empty and nobody has been at home for years. Meanwhile you are here in the half-dark with the patriote isolé. ‘Millions of French people were brought up in the worship of Robespierre,’ says François Crouzet in an essay here. How is it that none of them come by? Sometimes you think of leaving flowers in the passage. But you never do it, or let us say, you have never done it yet.

To write about Robespierre you have to find the courage to allow yourself to be mistaken. Otherwise every sentence will be freighted with conditionals and qualifiers, and every quotation prefaced by ‘alleged to have said’. You will contradict yourself, because he contradicts himself. If you want to know why he excites such extremes of adoration and loathing, you have to study not just the biographies but the life stories of the people who wrote them. His 19th-century biographer Ernest Hamel worshipped him, the socialist historians Mathiez and Lefebvre championed him, George Sand called him ‘the greatest man not only of the Revolution but of all known history’. Lord Acton described him as ‘the most hateful character in the forefront of human history since Machiavelli reduced to a code the wickedness of public men’. In 1941 the historian Marc Bloch tried to call time: ‘Robespierrists, anti-Robespierrists, we’ve had enough. We say, for pity’s sake, simply tell us what Robespierre was really like.’

But it’s not so easy. It’s not only novelists who perpetrate fiction, and it seems that whatever you say about him, you say about yourself. ‘The whole corpus of Robespierre studies is a hall of mirrors,’ Mark Cumming says in his piece in this volume. Intending only to look at Robespierre, we see ourselves with our own startled eyes, starved or gross, inflated or diminished. Carlyle’s ‘thin lean Puritan and Precision’ scuttles forever through the English imagination. But would he have been recognised by the man who met the Incorruptible strolling in the Bois de Boulogne, wearing a waistcoat embroidered with roses?

The present book contains 16 essays about what Robespierre thought, what he did, and how he has been perceived and interpreted, not only by historians but by playwrights and novelists. There are chapters on his ideology and vision, on his political role, and on how he has been represented to posterity in the 19th and 20th centuries. The authors are the leading scholars in their field and each essay is presented with impressive clarity of thought and expression. They have avoided the kind of history that asks, in George Rudé’s words, ‘whether he would have been an agreeable dinner companion or a suitable match for my daughter’; though contemporaries did ask these things, of course. The tone is judicious, though an outburst of ritual name-calling from David Jordan belies the subtlety of his longer study, The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre. For him, Robespierre is ‘unworldly, resentful, vain, egotistical, susceptible to flattery, contemptuous of or indifferent to all the social pleasures except conversation … inflexible, unforgiving … secretive … obsessively self-regarding’. It’s as well to have it over in the first paragraph. As Baudrillard puts it, ‘There are those who let the dead bury the dead, and there are those who are forever digging them up to finish them off.’

The editors’ introduction highlights the problem of evidence. When Robespierre was dead, outlawed and guillotined in July 1794, his papers were sorted by Courtois, a relative of Danton’s, and Courtois did his job dishonestly, selecting and destroying. Those closest to Robespierre died with him, and few of his former colleagues were interested in putting the record straight. As the editors tell us, the victors of Thermidor ‘not only blackened his memory but possibly also exaggerated his importance for posterity’. Once dead, he could be blamed for the ‘excesses’ of the Terror, but the blame would only stick if he could be shown to have been a powerful, singular figure. There were men who were far more bloody, in intention and in deed: Fouché, Collot, Carrier. He had acted as a check on their ferocity. But he was the best-known of the members of the Committee of Public Safety, their ideologist and spokesman. He is remembered as the theoretician of the Terror. It is he who bears the blame, when blame is handed out.

Robespierre went to live with the Duplays in 1791, in the summer of the backlash against the ‘patriots’, when the radical papers were closed down, presses were smashed, and the left were on the run. Marat disappeared from view, Danton crossed the Channel, but Robespierre simply moved house. He had already gained a Christ-like reputation, but Maurice Duplay was not much like the carpenter of Galilee. A member of the Jacobin Club, he owned other houses besides the one on the rue Saint-Honoré, and had a good business. The Duplays were a plain-living, high-minded family, all of them politically committed. One daughter was married and away, three daughters were still at home. Eléonore, the eldest girl, was an art student. Danton called her Cornélia Copeau: little Miss Woodchip, the carpenter’s daughter. Elisabeth, who was in her mid-teens, talked many years later to the dramatist Sardou. ‘He was so good!’ she said of Robespierre. He listened to all her troubles. He was patient and kind. We used to go for walks and take his dog to swim in the river; in season, we picked cherries and cornflowers. Interpreted by Elisabeth, the Duplay household takes on the bourgeois calm of a painting by Chardin, its inhabitants entranced and absorbed among everyday objects, blocks of colour and light overlaid with a sober, reverential geometry. Sardou was horrified. ‘Which Robespierre had she known?’ He proceeded to demolish her memories. Silly woman! Sentiment was blocking her access to her own history.

It is possible – if fiction is your business – to feel some disturbance about the Maison Duplay. Once behind the gate, Robespierre left only briefly, when his sister Charlotte turned up in Paris and demanded her sisterly right to keep house for him. He would only agree to move a street away, and then at once became ill – he was subject to every kind of psychosomatic attack. Within days he was back in his room over the woodyard. He and Eléonore were seen to walk hand in hand. ‘Eléonore thought she was loved,’ said a fellow-student, ‘but really she only scared him.’ Many people assumed that she was Robespierre’s mistress. It is interesting, if he was the judgmental prig of legend, that he didn’t seem to care what people thought.

Robespierre was 36 when he died and we know almost nothing about the first 30 years of his life. There is a persistent legend that the Robespierres were of Irish origin, but both J.M. Thompson and the painstaking French novelist Marianne Becker have traced the family back to Northern France in the 15th century. Maximilien was born in Arras in 1758, four months after his parents’ marriage: so he was by way of an accident. His father François was a lawyer, and his mother was the daughter of a master-brewer. When he was six, she died in giving birth to her fifth child. After her death, François ran up debts, started disappearing for long periods and finally went for good. The children were parcelled out among the family. Maximilien was a quiet child who liked to keep small birds, though later, of course, people would decide that it was for the purpose of cutting off their heads with a toy guillotine which he had – with uncanny prescience – invented for the purpose.

When Maximilien was 12 he was awarded a scholarship to the Collège Louis-le-Grand in Paris. He was poor to a humiliating degree, but formidably diligent and clever. In his early twenties he returned to Arras, having qualified as a lawyer. He began to pay off his father’s debts. He had a reasonable success and was appointed to a minor judicial position. Sometimes he drove into the country with friends; sometimes he wrote light verse. But he soon managed to alienate sections of the local establishment. He did not want what the old regime could give him, and within a few years he would make himself a person with nothing to lose. He identified with victims, and would use the language of victimhood like an offensive weapon. He constantly declared that people were trying to ‘oppress’ him; if you disagreed with him, he would declare himself ‘oppressed’. He began to refer, in his writing, to the ‘laborious life’ and early death he foresaw. He had an unspecific but powerful intimation of disaster and glory. Montesquieu informed his intellect and Rousseau informed his emotions. Later he described himself as ‘timid as a child’ and said that he shook with nerves when he had to make a speech. He was not constituted for confrontation. His voice, people said, was not strong; so it was up to him to create, in those halls of the Revolution with their disastrous acoustics, a climate in which he would command a hushed assent.

In 1789 he was elected to the Estates General and went to Versailles. In the National Assembly which evolved from the Estates, he was part of a tiny radical minority, but this did not bother him because he did not count in the ordinary way. He was always part of a greater majority: the People and Maximilien, Maximilien and the People. He quickly suspected that the heroes of ‘89, when in power, were merely old regime politicians with a different vocabulary. They spoke the language of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, while furthering their sectional interests. He tried to shame them into following the logic of their proclaimed principles; mostly, he failed. In the two years following the taking of the Bastille, he pursued an impeccably liberal and far-sighted agenda. He spoke for manhood suffrage and against a property qualification for voters; against slavery; in support of civil rights for Jews; against capital punishment; and against censorship.

The two latter principles, notoriously, would buckle under pressure. In the early years of the Revolution he let the radical press establish his credentials. From the spring of 1792 to the early summer of the following year he made a low-key venture into journalism, publishing a weekly paper, of comment rather than news. His distributor was in the cour du Commerce, on Marat’s doorstep. It is hard to imagine him in that territory of inky little hacks, trading sneers and insults over each others’ misprints. He had been, as Hugh Gough’s essay says, ‘consistent and tenacious’ in defence of press freedom and had refused to take legal action over the many libels published against him, believing that public opinion would vindicate him. After the fall of the monarchy, the anti-censorship case had to give way; only a community of saints would have allowed the royalist press the opportunity to campaign for a restoration. In the spring of 1794, his childhood friend Camille Desmoulins would tell him that it was not vertu but freedom of thought that was the basis of a republic; but the offending issue of the Vieux Cordelier would not make it into print and the childhood friend would go to the scaffold. In this affair you can convict him of timidity, or of coldness of heart, rather than hypocrisy. It is unhelpful to read a man backwards. Robespierre’s early commitment to press freedom was genuine, but did not extend to a press which, as he saw it, had been systematically corrupted. As Gough shows, the Committee of Public Safety, when Robespierre was a member, did not reintroduce the repressive censorship of the old regime nor anticipate that of the Directory; though perhaps it was want of capacity, rather than lack of will. By late 1793, Robespierre profoundly feared the press. A syllable, he felt, could sabotage his policy. For example, he had said: ‘the republic, one and indivisible.’ The press reported that he had said ‘one and universal’; thus aligning him with distrusted cosmopolitan radicals. He did not think this was a mishearing, but a plot to trap him.

His personal history gave him no reason to believe that the world would let him have his say. He was, it is reported, frequently shouted down and silenced early in his parliamentary career. He had no presence, there were no crowd-pleasing mannerisms or orator’s flourishes. Historians usually report that his speeches are arid. It is interesting, then, to read his speech against capital punishment, which is as fresh as if it had been made today. It is perfectly constructed, a brilliant fusion of logic and emotion: as much a work of art as a building or a piece of music could be. You can believe that, as Desmoulins reported, he could bring 800 men to their feet in a single moment. You could quibble over the head-count, but the power seemed to be real. It extended to the women of Paris, who attended the public galleries of the Jacobin Club. This worried his contemporaries. They thought he was taking some sneaky advantage. ‘What a man this is, with his crowd of women around him!’ said Rabaud Saint-Etienne. Condorcet, the champion of women’s rights, sulked because he had got their attention.

The status which Robespierre achieved in the Revolution cannot be explained in traditional political terms. For most of his career he fought shy of office, and most of the parliamentary measures he proposed were rejected as too progressive. When he joined the Committee of Public Safety he did so in the quietest manner possible, simply replacing a member who had fallen ill. Soon after he joined the Committee, it began to accrete executive power, till it was the effective Government of France. Its proceedings were generally not minuted, so his role is often unclear. Is he speaking for himself, or for the Government? Whatever the source of his authority, he was undeniably effective. David Jordan’s essay describes him as ‘that rare being, an ideologue with exquisite political reflexes’. Part of the secret of his success, no doubt, was that initially he was underrated. He was cautious, and could bury himself in detail; these traits were thought the hallmarks of mediocrity. But he had a canny sense of timing and the kind of persistence that wore his opponents down; the weary Danton, at his trial, described him as ‘above all, tenacious’. The Robespierre of 1793 is the patron saint of the formerly overlooked, one of the meek who are to inherit the earth. His moral authority held together under pressure of circumstance, and his reputation for probity often seemed the one constant when coalitions were fragile and the reading of events uncertain. He was an idealist who did not believe in losing. As Coleridge put it, ‘Robespierre … possessed a glowing ardour that still remembered the end, and a cool ferocity that never either overlooked or scrupled the means.’

In May 1793 he told the Convention: ‘To fulfil your mission, you must do exactly the contrary of what existed before you.’ Alan Forrest’s essay on his part in war organisation shows him confronting the generals with unblinking radicalism. He had opposed a declaration of war by the French, which made him temporarily unpopular. But he knew that, in times of war, public liberty never increases. He was suspicious of soldiers in general, their outlook; they were oppressors by nature, he thought. He was sceptical of the notion that the French Army would spread freedom through Europe: ‘who loves armed missionaries?’ He suspected that the war was unwinnable, and that once it began it could not be limited. Victories might be more lethal than defeats; he saw a military dictatorship as the end of it, and of course he was right. But as Forrest shows, he became ‘a war leader in spite of himself’, his imagination and his willingness to tear up the rule book contributing to the high morale of the volunteers and helping to win the Republic’s battles. Ideology reinforced strategy. The ambit of heroism was not narrowly defined; a woman who sent her son to the front was also a hero. The soldier was not a brute, but a citizen: not cannon-fodder but a free man whose intelligence must be addressed.

But it’s not enough to win; you have to be right. The Revolution, he believed, must be justified at every step, and every Revolutionary action must be an expression of virtue. No cynic ever learns anything about Robespierre; unable to come to grips with ‘virtue’, he retires, baffled. There is a problem with the English word ‘virtue’. It sounds pallid and Catholic. But vertu is not smugness or piety. It is strength, integrity and purity of intent. It assumes the benevolence of human nature towards itself. It is an active force that puts the public good before private interest. Its meaning is explored in Patrice Higonnet’s Goodness beyond Virtue (1998), which is an extraordinary manual of practical Jacobinism. Higonnet has not much time for Robespierre, who, he says, ‘probably died a virgin’ (not that historians ever gossip, of course). But his book shows the day-to-day vitality, during the Revolution, of ideas which had a venerable pedigree, but which had been presumed to be entirely theoretical. Robespierre thought that, if you could imagine a better society, you could create it. He needed a corps of moral giants at his back, but found himself leading a gang of squabbling moral pygmies.

This is how Virtue led to Terror. Virtue and Terror became inseparable, a single Janus-faced god who guarded the gate to a better world. Was the violence of 1793-94 just the product of circumstances, forced on an unwilling Government panicked by war, civil war and sabotage? Or was it somehow the logical outcome of everything that had gone before? By late 1793 there was a rotten substructure to the Revolution, a web of crooked Army contracts, stockmarket frauds and forgeries, and a capital full of spies and foreign persons of, as Robespierre saw it, dubious worth and allegiance; all information which came to the Government was suspect at source. Also, it was clear that the Sovereign People did not always act in its own best interests. It seemed, from the actions of looters and strikers, that it was given to short-term thinking. Robespierre tried to forge an inner consistency, clinging to the idea of a virtuous people misled by corrupt and factious politicians, by enemies who were masked and veiled. If the Revolution didn’t have moral force behind it, it was merely a series of self-serving crimes. Danton had laughed at the idea of virtue; he was therefore not fit to govern. After the courtroom battle with the Dantonists, Robespierre began to fear that the trial process was itself anti-patriotic, criminal, dangerous: the existing law bred crime, if it protected the enemies of the people. Four years of polemics had failed to save the patrie, which was a spiritual, rather than a temporal space; the battle for territory was less important than the battle for the imagination. From now on, there were to be no trials, in the old meaning of the word. The enemy could be judged by his actions, not by a hypocritical form of words he might wield in his defence. There were to be no more arguments, only justice, as swift as death on the field. It was Hérault de Séchelles who, before falling victim to the guillotine, had described it as ‘a sabre cut’.

It is monstrous, of course. But – in practice – the monstrosity did not belong to Robespierre alone. What he embraced as principle, others embraced for aggrandisement. His religion, which some Jacobins mocked as a private hobby of his, was a creed for toughened spirits, for the habitually unconsoled, and in discovering it he had consulted intuition, not reason. For him, and for Saint-Just no doubt, terror was a means of discovery and self-discovery. In public, one might say that the triumph of good was inevitable. In private, there were spiritual doubts. ‘Vice and virtue forge the destiny of this earth; these two opposing spirits fight each other for it.’ In Robespierre’s mind, the Year II was a battleground, the stage stripped for apocalypse.

Now I will ask you, look at the portraits. Ask what they can tell us. He was so much drawn and painted, as if every amateur artist reached for his pencil, in wonder at what he knew to be a transitory phenomenon. So there is plenty to look at; it is our fault if we can’t see. An Englishman called John Carr, travelling in Paris in 1802, was surprised by a bust ‘taken of him, a short period before he fell’. He noted:

History, enraged at the review of the insatiable crimes of Robespierre, has already bestowed on him a fanciful physiognomy, which she has composed of features which rather correspond with the ferocity of his soul, rather than with his real countenance. From the appearance of this bust, which is an authentic resemblance of him, his face must have been rather handsome. His features were small, and his countenance must have strongly expressed animation, penetration and subtlety.

There is a salon portrait of 1791, attributed to Mme Adelaïde Labille-Guiard. Two years into the Revolution, she has painted a boy with a face of conspicuous sweetness, gentle and shy: a black coat, white cuffs falling over those exquisite, boneless, long-fingered hands that only portrait painters have ever seen. In the posed portraits, he is always smiling: faintly, perhaps; impatiently, perhaps. Then there is a sketch taken from life, 1793, in the National Convention. He is not smiling. He has pushed his spectacles into his hair. His eyes have moved sideways, in suspicion or a kind of dread. Under the sketch the artist Gérard has scribbled: ‘eyes green, complexion pale: coat of green stripe, gilet blue on white, cravat red on white’. A man, as Belloc put it, for colour rather than ornament. The face is still very young; the expression is closed, guarded, as if he had seen something move in the shadows. By Thermidor, it appears he has aged ten years. The final sketch, taken again from life, shows features pared to bone, jaw muscles rigid, every line drawn taut and fine. A day or two after it, Mme Tussaud took his death mask.

The Revolution represented a ruinous physical struggle for its front-line personnel. You didn’t need to be a soldier to be wrecked by it; the home front shattered constitutions, with its unrelenting schedules, its emergencies and exigencies as punishing to the mind as to the body. ‘I confess an immense fatigue,’ Robespierre said, in his last speech to the Convention. In the weeks before it, he had preserved a silence which worked on the nerves of his colleagues. His face became unreadable. But the narrative behind it is always old and always new.

Danton thought he had the story straight: ‘He can’t fuck, and he’s afraid of money.’ Broad-brush portrayal is as far as many historians ever get, because Robespierre is judged in a way that is visceral as much as intellectual. He is a monstrous archetype of the grand inquisitor and mystic, and both historians and imaginative writers have been happy to set up archetypes around him; chiefly Danton himself with his ‘prodigious tout ensemble’. Imagination creates a false opposition between the two men; for most of the Revolution, there was little difference of policy between them, and Robespierre – on the principle that it is better to win even the battles you have not chosen to fight – abandoned Danton when he could do nothing more for him. But as Norman Hampson says elsewhere, the Danton of legend is hard to resist, especially since he imposed himself on contemporaries as well as posterity. After his death this well-read, greedy, secretive lawyer became a sort of roaring boy, a great-hearted, common-touch, chicken-in-every-pot man. As the 19th century progressed, Robespierre acquired a set of nervous twitches and shudders, and a hideous yellow complexion highlighted by green veins. The 18th-century inch being a variable measure, he shrunk physically, while Danton expanded. As Mark Cumming’s essay describes, Robespierre is accused of ‘physical impotence, cowardice and effeminacy’. Of course, most people who have written about Robespierre are men, and wish themselves to be, au fond, masculine, beneath their academic gowns or tweed jackets. They like to believe that if it came to it they could knock their opponents down: more like Danton than like Robespierre, after all.

Two essays in this collection concentrate on Robespierre in drama and in French fiction. The most famous play about the Revolution is Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Astonishing in form rather than content, it embellishes the legend of the world-weary philosopher done to death by a Robespierre-machine. Anouilh’s Poor Bitos, tricksy in form and hollow at the centre, tells us more about postwar France than about the France of 1793, just as Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton tells us about Poland in the 1980s. If we suspect that Danton is both flattered and denigrated by Gérard Depardieu’s mesmeric performance, we are still repelled by the film’s sick, neurotic, elderly Robespierre. Romain Rolland complained that ‘the greatest figure of the Revolution still has no stature in France’ and proceeded to commemorate him in an unperformable play with a 300-page text and a notional playing time of six hours. Henry Irving played Robespierre in a Sardou melodrama of 1899, in which the Great Terrorist was forced to compromise his principles to save his long-lost illegitimate son. But William Howarth’s essay shows that Robespierre has not been entirely ill-wished by the theatre. An 1888 play by Combet has a memorable stage direction. ‘Then Robespierre appears, borne on clouds. At his entry, the heavenly choir bursts into song.’

Howarth’s piece on Robespierre in drama has little to say about Stanislawa Przybyszewska, on whose work Wajda based his Danton script. She was the maddest of all female Robespierrists (and in this matter I yield to few). Born in 1901, daughter of a Polish writer, she was an artist of starvation and frost, who dated her letters by the Revolutionary calendar, and died at 34, in Danzig, where she had been living in a sort of out-house, unheated through the winters, painting her food with lysol to preserve it, while thinking intensively and extensively about ‘this handsome petty lawyer who at the age of 35 single-handedly ruled France.’ Tuberculosis, morphine and malnutrition were adduced as the causes of death, but she could more truthfully be diagnosed as the woman who died of Robespierre.

If you try to write either drama or novels about the Revolution, you have to consider your likely audience and the state of their prejudices. For historians, creative writers provide a kind of pornography. They break the rules and admit the thing that is imagined, but is not licensed to be imagined. It’s no use insisting that you have applied for your licence, either; you may as well brace yourself for attempts to run you off the territory. The editors of this volume are generous about the possible role of fiction in reimagining the past, but Mark Cumming warns about ‘the perilous delights of picturesque history’. We are likely to succumb to them, until history is written by machines; there are not two kinds of history, one sceptical and rational, and the other imaginative and erratic. Cumming makes the uncontentious observation that ‘the historical image is two-faced, pointing outwards to the historical subject and inwards to the author’s psyche.’ This is as much true of academics as of accredited fictionalisers. But it is Carlyle who is the subject of this essay, Carlyle who made it so difficult (for the English-speaking reader, anyway) to look at the Revolution except through the highly-coloured filters which gave us ‘the sea-green incorruptible’. A real heroine of the Revolution is the housemaid who lit the fire with his first draft. Dickens borrowed from Carlyle his best effects, and as Orwell pointed out, A Tale of Two Cities is largely responsible for the English reader’s notion of the Revolution as ‘a frenzied massacre lasting for years … whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared to one of Napoleon’s battles … To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads.’

The general view has not changed much since Orwell’s day. In the non-Francophone world, the bicentennial was dominated by Simon Schama’s Citizens, which does not challenge comfortable preconceptions. Schama uses his narrative skill and his wealth of illustration to confirm people in the belief they already hold, which is that the Revolution was a bloody and nonsensical waste of time. For the French, of course, Schama is irrelevant, because he is telling them nothing they have not heard from their own revisionist historians.

In the present book, Malcolm Cook’s chapter on Robespierre as seen by French novelists serves to show their general timidity, their failure to break with stereotype. But the scope of his enquiry is not wide. Has he not read Dominique Jamet’s 1988 novel Antoine et Maximilien ou la Terreur sans la vertu, with its refreshing portrait of Robespierre as a paedophile and child-murderer? Worth five minutes of anyone’s time, it leads a novelist to examine the ethics of the trade. Imagination must be free, the dead have no remedy in law; all they can do is haunt you.

Which, in effect, is what Robespierre does. He takes a grip on the imagination and does not easily let you go. Michelet, ambivalent about the Incorruptible, always crossing and recrossing the line of his own argument, accused Louis Blanc, Hamel and others of a corrupting partiality: ‘You have a friend in the city, and this friend is Robespierre.’ But in her 1997 book Mourning Glory, Marie-Hélène Huet quotes a passage in which Michelet, having completed his great history of the French Revolution, speaks of what Robespierre had come to mean to him:

In this entire history, which was my life and my inner world for ten years, I formed, on the road, many deep bonds of friendship … The greatest void I felt at this whitewood table, from which my book now departs, and where I remain alone, was the departure of my pale companion, the most faithful of them all, who had not left me from ‘89 to Thermidor; the man of great will, hard-working like me, poor like me, with whom I had, each morning, so many fierce discussions.

Michelet’s book is finished; the argument still smoulders in the air.

In his last weeks, Robespierre stayed out of the public eye. He went for walks in the woods or shut himself up at the rue Honoré. No one supposed he was a spent force, but after the death of the Dantonists he had seemed to lose his sureness of touch. He could not survive if he trusted nobody, and could not work out who to trust. The truth about the motives of his fellow-revolutionaries seemed to be beyond mortal reach. In his 1978 biography of Danton, Norman Hampson pointed out that ‘the truth was whatever corresponded to anything that Robespierre wanted to believe at any particular time.’ But there is a difficulty here: in what words can the truth be told, when the secret enemies of the Revolution have stolen its language? He had always warned that the devil had the best tunes. All that is left for him is the word which is guaranteed because it is spoken by a dying man. ‘What objection can be made to a man who wishes to speak the truth and agrees to die for it?’

The Revolution, as a creative enterprise, died with him. There is a formulation in which his death is a kind of blessed release for the nation; but after it, the Terror continued, and what lay ahead was a new tyranny and 20 years of war. In his last speech to the Convention, he said: ‘my reason, not my heart, is beginning to doubt this republic of virtue which I have set myself to establish.’ The heart leaves its faint trace: Michelet alone at the whitewood table, Stanislawa obsessively rewinding her typewriter ribbon. Otherwise, not much is left except a battered document case in the Musée Carnavalet, placed in proximity to Danton’s large monogrammed knives and forks. The leather is stamped with Robespierre’s name, but it has almost faded away. As Lamartine says, ‘he was the last word of the Revolution, but nobody could read it.’

On the final document his signature is unfinished. He had written just two letters of his name, before a pistol shot shattered his jaw; whether he fired the shot himself, no one really knows. Lying in his own blood in an anteroom of the Committee of Public Safety, he gestured that he wished to write, but no one would give him a pen. I would have given him a pen, Barras said later, uneasy at the cruelty and the lack of a possible disclosure. He was half-dead when he was taken to the scaffold, and his decapitated remains were buried near the Parc Monceau. Eléonore survived, and was known as ‘the widow Robespierre’. Maurice Duplay was imprisoned and driven out of business. His wife was found dead in her cell. Fear sealed the lips of witnesses, papers were burned, memories were reformulated. After the revolution of 1830, a group of admirers tried to locate the body. But though they dug and dug, no one was there.