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Response to Review of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Quite apart from its pleasurable prose, Gavin Jacobson’s review is a model of its kind. He has posed and answered in insightful detail the most important questions: what is the author trying to do? How well does it work? How is the book best located within wider historiography? As he points out, I have tried to write a ‘human’ biography of a man mostly seen as an ideology on stilts, whether the prototype of the cold-blooded fanatic willing to kill in the name of his moral virtues or (less commonly) the republican martyr whose reputation was later sullied by those with guilty consciences. Ruth Scurr’s portrait of narcissistic mediocrity is mirrored by Claude Mazauric’s eulogy of unique ‘glory and destiny’. Robespierre was once a small child, and what I sought to do was to understand his life as he sought to make sense of and change circumstances not of his own making. I am gratified that Gavin Jacobson has been so generous in his appreciation of my efforts.

He chides me gently for not making more of the possible theme of ‘emulation’ in Robespierre’s intellectual encounter with Rousseau in particular, and I accept that comment. Certainly, Robespierre had absorbed from Rousseau what he took to be the meaning of the moral legislator capable of rising above tawdry self-interest to dedicate himself to the regeneration of human relations. The same might be said of the way he – and so many of his contemporaries – understood their choices in the light of the lessons of the past taught through the epic tales of classic antiquity in which they were immersed at secondary school. A major challenge in writing the biography – as for that of any middle-class individual in western Europe at that time – is in seeking to understand their rich storehouse of historical reference points from Catiline to Cromwell. These were as potent to them as are ours to 9/11 or Hitler, but more self-consciously comprehensible only by those within an educated sub-culture.