Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life
Gavin Jacobson reviews Peter McPhee’s Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life
Like his spiritual hero, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robespierre retained an enduring affection for dogs. He delighted in their companionship, and after long days spent toiling in the National Convention, was often seen walking his beloved hound, Brount, through the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Such a detail might seem immaterial to other biographers, but it represents the kind of factual embellishment that captures the tone of Peter McPhee’s new and highly accomplished study of the person who came to be known as the Incorruptible. McPhee, a specialist on revolutionary France, guides us assuredly from Robespierre’s upbringing in Arras, a provincial town in northeast France, through the stormy crucible of the Revolution, which saw him reach the apex of power, to his painful execution in 1794.
In tracing this narrative arc, McPhee’s primary endeavour, in which he succeeds admirably, is to humanise a figure commonly depicted as a murderous tyrant, presiding over the bloody maelstrom that swept across France between September 1793 and July 1794. Such a view has traditionally seen Robespierre take on a role analogous to the Roman deity Saturn, ravenously devouring the children of the Revolution, severing the heads of ‘fripons’ whose counter-revolutionary instincts threatened France’s inexorable march toward republican rhapsody. He was the blood-spattered forefather to the despotic progenies of the 20th century, and, according to Lord Action, ‘the most hateful character in the forefront of history since Machiavelli’.(1) McPhee rescues Robespierre from such venom, stripping away the layers of myth and prejudice that have set over the years to show us a somewhat tragic figure, more slave than master to the events of his time.