Book Review: "Fatal Purity"
Cambridge University historian Ruth Scurr's first book might be one of the most gruesome biographies I've ever read. Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution is the tale of Maximilien Robespierre, "The Incorruptible" - one of the foremost leaders of the Revolution which would ultimately condemn even him to death.
The French Revolution is a subject I am not particularly familiar with, but having spent last semester in a graduate seminar on its American counterpart, I thought this book would at least prove interesting. It was that, and much more. Scurr has woven together an excellent narrative on the life and times of Robespierre, focusing necessarily and appropriately on the Revolutionary years. This is not a book for the squeamish - after about page 60 at least one person is put to death with every turn of the page (I exaggerate, but only slightly). It provides a fascinating comparison to the revolution in America, whose leaders somehow managed not to start chopping off each others' heads once they'd won.
I had very few quibbles with this book; I do wish that Scurr had discussed in more depth the impact of America's struggle on the French revolutionaries, but I'll set that aside. On the whole, I really enjoyed this biography of a deeply principled yet somehow just-as-deeply unlikeable man. For the casual reader of biographies, this is highly recommended; for those interested in a deeper understanding of the difficulties and trials of the French Revolution and the people who made it, I recommend Fatal Purity just as highly.