History is not meant to be an emotional tutorial. It is not, I think, supposed to instruct us exactly how to live. The past may not be a foreign country, but it is certainly remote, distant from us in our current age. The lessons of history are over-rated, and in any case, if not for teaching us the nature of life, what are novels and poetry for?
Still, history and its near cousin biography can at least prompt identification with those who are long dead and whose contexts differ so dramatically from our own. Having just finished Ruth Scurr’s biography of Maximilien Robespierre, I can certainly attest to that.
As I finished Scurr’s book I was struck by a feeling I exhibit but did not expect to harbour: a sympathy, of sorts, with the devil – Robespierre himself. The old foe of Burke and thus English liberty has effectively won me over – not, I should say, for his actions themselves, but for the fact that he genuinely believed in them; in all things he believed himself to be right.
The nature of his sudden fall from power has something to do with it; no doubt this is as emotively important as the meteoric nature of his rise from an unknown country lawyer to become the pre-eminent political figure of the early French republic. The horrific nature of his final hours need not detain us here, but it is an entirely wretched affair. Scurr conjures both well, though it must be noted that the actual animating impulse which drove Robespierre from obscurity to notoriety is almost impossible to recover and to reconstruct.
Regardless of this enduring mystery – or perhaps because of it – it seems difficult to resist having some interest in such a man, and to be at least a little ensnared by the force of his personality, transmitted through, and in spite of, the many almost satanic caricatures which have blackened his name and characterised his nature so adversely in the minds of later generations. To read Burke, whose warnings about the French Revolution were both accurate and eloquent, one cannot escape the conclusion that Robespierre was a devil, an almost infinitely malevolent spirit. For the caricaturist James Gillray, he was an anti-Christ like figure, a concentration of unholy evil: though he did so with his typical scope for detail and eye for the beautiful even amid earthy corruption, Gillray’s print Shrine at St Ann’s Hill, which depicts Whig leader Charles James Fox kneeling at an alter consecrated to the religion of revolution, is a clear depiction of such political impulses as distinctly unholy – and the alter is adorned with suitably demonic busts of Napoleon and Robespierre to illustrate the point. (Robespierre’s sponsoring of the Cult of the Supreme Being, as opposed to the atheism newly in fashion in revolutionary Paris at the time, makes this particular representation both more acute and less accurate.)
Burke’s pen was as vicious. In his Letters on a Regicide Peace, Burke writes dismissively: ‘I care little about the memory of the same Robespierre. I am sure he was an execrable villain. I rejoiced in his punishment’. But even this phrase is not completed without a political point of its own; Burke wrote that he rejoiced ‘not neither more nor less, than I should at the execution of the present directory.’ Even in death Robespierre is denigrated; even after his ignominious end he is traduced by comparison.
I was struck as I read that his epithet of ‘the Incorruptible’ was apt; that he did seem to have believed every word he said and wrote; that he knitted together in his own mind the notions of the Revolution and his own self; and that he fell swiftly – shockingly so – and also tragically.
Much of the contemporary sources we have for Robespierre’s life have their own distinct perspectives; their reasons either to love or to detest the man are often manifest in their prose. It is with some reservation that latter-day historians should read the memoirs of Robespierre’s sister, Charlotte. Her description of her brother is at once sympathetic to read and infuriating; so pure of heart was he, in her eyes, that the spectacle of the Terror – something which the name Robespierre will ever bring to mind – may well have happened to another country under a different government.
Nonetheless, it seems unfair and unjust and rather churlish to deny her stated memories of childhood, with her brother’s fondness for keeping birds as pets and his attempts to amuse his siblings, all of whom had a rough time of things on account of the early demise of their mother and the rather squalid nature of their father, whose name Maximilien bore.
All of this engenders a rather odd situation: that of feeling a genuine and humane sensation – of admiration or fellow-feeling I cannot say – for a man whose name is second only to Hitler and, sans the writings of Andrew Roberts and the like, Napoleon in the pantheon of European – continental – evil in the hearts of the British.
While Georges Danton has become a kind of hero in the popular imagination, the rehabilitation of Robespierre seems rather far off. He did not share the former’s titanic, booming voice, which was used to proclaim a defence of tremendous skill; he did not possess Danton’s mighty physicality, which gave him a presence not easily forgotten and an impact as outsized as his frame; and Robespierre did not have Danton’s courage, though that did not affect the nature of their deaths. Each met their end before the guillotine, and bravery or its absence is effectively unimportant – if not actually immaterial – in such circumstances.
Robespierre is a figure whose name is perhaps condemned to a kind of damnation. Especially in the English speaking world, the legacy of Edmund Burke and William Pitt will likely drown his out. But in many ways he is as in need of a defender as Napoleon has found in Roberts, and even, perhaps, of a little sympathy.