Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Peter McPhee. Yale Univ., $40 (352p) ISBN 978-0-300-11811-7
Historian and professor McPhee (Living the French Revolution, 1789-1799) adds to his volumes on French history with a comprehensive biography of the controversial, diminutive, outspoken, and ambitious man who overcame adversity to become a lawyer, who argued for the rights of children born out of wedlock and freedom of the press in 18th-century France, and whose name is inextricably linked with the French Revolution—for better or worse. McPhee maintains that Maximilien Robespierre "was seeking to make sense of the chaos of a world in revolutionary upheaval and to use his talents to create stability and certainty for a new order"—but at the end of his short life, he was "reviled as thoroughly as he had once been idolized." McPhee succeeds in his goal of illuminating Robespierre's early life and career (as well as his ideological and political development), and continues with thorough detail to his execution in 1794; his view is sympathetic to Robespierre, downplaying his fanaticism and dictatorial tendencies that other biographers describe. McPhee includes a detailed chronology of Robespierre's life, as well as extensive endnotes and a bibliography, which documentation will allow readers to determine whether they agree with McPhee's assertion that, "Far from the emotionally stunted, rigidly puritanical and icily cruel monster of history and literature, this was a passionate man." This fast-moving and thorough exploration of Robespierre's life and death will interest devotees of French history, particularly those looking for a fresh take on the Revolution. Illus. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/26/2012
Release date: 03/01/2012
Genre: Nonfiction
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