Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fatal Purity: Robespierre And The French Revolution

Andrew wrote about the Andrew Mellon biography we have been reading.

Andrew and I have also been reading “Fatal Purity: Robespierre And The French Revolution” by Ruth Scurr, a young British historian. This volume is not so much a pure biography of Maximilien Robespierre—although it is, in part, that very thing—as an examination of his role during The French Revolution, particularly during The Reign Of Terror.

Robespierre is a difficult subject for a biographer because he led an “interior” life. Although he was a public figure, he did not reveal himself to his intimates, primarily because he appeared to have none. He also did not reveal himself in letters, diaries or journals.

What historians must rely upon, in evaluating Robespierre, is primarily the public records of the time. These records have been picked over so many times, by so many historians, that it would seem that there is little new for Scurr to discover. And there is indeed nothing new in this volume.

Scurr begins her tale by informing the reader that she likes and admires Robespierre, inviting the reader to believe that she has uncovered new information that provides a fresh twist on Robespierre and his activities. However, as soon as the corpus of the story begins, readers quickly discover that Scurr is telling the same old story that has been told countless times before—and told much better, and with far more insight and depth, by other historians. It is difficult to understand the source of Scurr’s admiration for Robespierre, because the story of his butchery as she tells it is no prettier than anyone else’s. What is it about Robespierre that Scurr found appealing? After reading her book, I can only say “Beats me”.

And this truly is a very poor book. The book should never have been published. There are so many books about Robespierre and The French Revolution, all far better than this, that one more unimaginative rehashing has no rightful place on library shelves. The best thing I can say about this book is that it was only 432 pages long.

Why did Andrew and I buy this book? It was reviewed favorably in The London Review Of Books. Why did the LRB reviewer give the book an excellent review? Beats me.

“Fatal Purity” is Scurr’s first book, and I wonder whether it was based upon her doctoral dissertation. It unmistakably carries the odor of an academic project by a less-than-first-rate student at a less-than-first-rate institution (Scurr studied at the Oxbridge circuit--but the work coming out of both Oxford and Cambridge has been extremely spotty for at least the last decade, as my university professors constantly decried).

Scurr has the irritating habit of telling the reader her analysis of people and events before she actually describes those people and events. Her ensuing descriptions, however, never support her so-called “analyses”. There is a glaring disconnect between the two—although this “cart before the horse” method is consistent with the field of dissertation-writing.

Her book is all the more painful due to the fact that Scurr does not write well. Could not her academic advisors and editors have offered some guidance and advice about clear and concise writing?

This is some of the worst history writing I have ever come across. Ineptitude this blatant is comparatively rare, at least among books issued by major publishers.

And there, perhaps, is the rub. This book was first published in Britain by Chatto And Windus, and released in the U.S. by Metropolitan Books. Major publishers, clearly, took a pass.

Andrew and I should have taken a pass, too.


  1. Hey, Josh. On the contrary, the two books I read this weekend were fun and fast-paced and exquisitely written. What were they?

    Donald Spoto's biography of Audrey Hepburn called "Enchantment" and an old biography of Sarah Bernhardt.

    Hope your final week at the bookstore is fun.


  2. Hey, Chanteuse.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the two books. You chose better than we did. Not only was the Robespierre book a total bust, but the George III book was just as bad.

    My final week at the bookstore will be fun. It was a nice job, and it served its purpose, but it is time for me to move on.

    Have a good week.