I never thought I’d need to do homework to get through a novel. It’s a good job I like history.
I remember people complaining about Wolf Hall, saying it was hard to read. However, I’ve read a lot of Tudor non-fiction, watched all the documentaries with both the bright young faces of BBC TV history, and the more grumpy-old-geezerly stylings of David Starkey, and a boat load of Tudor fiction such as the Shardlake series, and so none of these characters were new to me. I know them all inside out, and so Mantel’s habit of starting a sentence, paragraph or chapter in the middle of a situation or thought was fine with me. I got to enjoy the gloaty feeling of knowing what’s going on even when the author appears to be actively trying to hide it.
However, I do not know loads about the French Revolution, and I think it’s why I’m finding Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety hard going. I have read A Tale of Two Cities and seen the film of The Scarlet Pimpernel and even the Carry On classic Don’t Lose Your Head (with Kenneth Williams as Citizen Camembert), but it seems this is not enough to get a good handle on what is one hell of a complicated mess of events and characters.
I got Liberty or Death by Peter McPhee out of the library, which gave me a better grounding in why it happened, but was rather dry reading. So, I have picked up these two books this week as a treat to myself after working lots of overtime, as at least a portion of those miserable hours needs to go to something more fun than big bills I’m trying to clear.
In the preface of Citizens, Sharma makes clear he has tried to write an old-fashioned narrative of events, some way to make the whole situation flow naturally and be more readable, which so far, is proving to be the case. And Ruth Scurr’s biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity, is attempting to be a balanced as possible, and not just show him as the architect of so much death. There is also the frail human, who as a young lawyer opposed the death penalty, but later ended up essentially not undeserving of his own violent end. Robespierre was a man who often wore two pairs of glasses (like my nan occasionally did, although that was by accident, rather than design) one pair corrective and the other green-tinted. My glasses are light reactive. He would have loved them, and still been able to use his specs to make a point, as he apparently did, by taking them off.
Whereas David Caruso in CSI Miami makes all his points (and puns) after putting his glasses on.
In conclusion, history is one giant exercise in how utterly complicated and connected everything is, and I fear knowing lots about the French Revolution will turn me into the one of those people who gets upset when people cling onto one famous quote, whether it’s true or not, and completely miss all the contributing factors, and find it hard to bite my tongue and not correct them. I fear the more I read, the less fun at parties I will be.