Danton: making it big in the revolutionary world

I read biographies far less often than someone of my historical bent would be supposed to. I often expect them to be dry – I’m not sure why – and I often prefer books on the minutiae of history, the stuff that often gets overlooked. That said, I have a soft spot for Alison Weir’s biographies – I’ve read most of her Tudor stuff, and I really liked her book on Isabella (“She-Wolf of France”).

One of my all-time favourites is a biography of John Dee, best known as an astrologer, alchemist and magician, but actually responsible for some pretty awesome science too. Against that is the fact that I have biographies of Dirk Bogarde (I am a big fan of the Doctor movies), Gandhi, Elizabeth I… and the Pythons autobiography… all sitting on my unread/true shelf (it’s a long story). I’d like to read more bios, they just don’t move up in the ‘must read’ queue.

This problem is exacerbated, for me, when it comes to reading of modern, controversial characters. Dee was controversial, and Isabella certainly was (and when I can get my hands on a good revisionist bio of King John, I am going to be all over it), but even I concede that arguing about them is slightly academic, although always with modern repercussions. I would desperately like to read a good biography of Trotsky – and Lenin, I guess, too – but who the heck am I going to trust? A popularist like Alison Weir? I don’t think so, sunshine. A historian of whose politics I know nothing? Problematic. I would love to read one written by Peter McPhee – God bless his Marxist soul – but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

And so we come to the fact that I have finally finished The Giant of the French Revolution. Danton: A Life, by David Lawday.

When I first started reading about the French Revolution I quickly decided that Danton was the man for me; Marat is too much a rabble rouser – although dying in the bath is sooo Greek tragedy – while Robespierre, with his insistence on continuing to wear ancien regime costume, clearly had gumption but his whole Republic-of-Virtue-or-die made me a bit uncomfortable. There are things about Danton that make me uncomfortable too, but… he’s so much larger than life, he had such energy, and he instructed his executioner to make sure to show his head to the crowd once it was off, because it was worth looking at. Plus, Gerard Depardieu plays him in a movie, and he was perfect.

So, the book. Lawday admits at the start that this is a slightly romanticised history, because Danton committed almost nothing to paper. There are no footnotes, although there are references at the back giving some indication of where ideas and quotes came from. And it is a bit romantic: Lawday sometimes lets himself go on flights of descriptive fancy about the streets of Paris and the countryside around Arcis, Danton’s birthplace; and he gets a bit smoochy over Danton and his wife Gabrielle’s relationship. The other romantic aspect, and the thing that annoyed me the most, was that Lawday’s vision of Danton as a hero apparently demanded that there be a genuine fiction-like villain for him to play against. Robespierre, the man probably responsible for Danton’s death, is the obvious candidate here, and Lawday goes out of his way to malign and belittle him as unmanly and insipid, in contrast to the testosterone-fuelled Danton. But what really, really got my back up was that Lawday also featured Manon Roland, wife of Danton’s fellow elected official Jean-Marie Roland. It seems clear that Mme Roland and Danton did not get along. Lawday, though, plays this up in sexualised and demeaning ways that were occasionally outright offensive. Having recently read Liberty, about the contribution of women to the Revolution – including Roland – this got my goat even more than it might have.

Sigh. Anyway, aside from that demonisation, I did really enjoy Danton. Lawday gives a good running explanation of the Revolution such that I didn’t get lost trying to figure out what else was going on at the time, and he does well at portraying Danton as intimately involved in most of the important events. Some of this may be exaggeration, but not all of it. It’s largely well written, although I’m not sure that I agree with The Economist that it’s “beautifully told”. It’s eminently readable, anyway, and captures the energy and urgency of the Revolution. I think this would be exceptionally good way in to the Revolution for someone with little knowledge of the events, but with a curiosity about people who shape events.

In other news, I am still struggling through Citizens. That is, in theory I am still reading it, but it’s at the top of my bookcase at the moment, not being read.

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