Both of these novels about the French Revolution, which were published in the 1990s (Mantel’s in 1992 and Piercy’s in 1996) have been on my radar for awhile, and since they are both by authors whose other work I’ve enjoyed, and I always feel like I don’t know enough about the French Revolution, I decided I should read them both this summer.
In retrospect, this may have been overdoing it. I’d definitely recommend that if you want to know more about the French Revolution and if, like me, you learn history best through historical fiction, you should read at least one of these novels. Which one will depend on your tastes in reading. But there’s enough similarity between the two that you probably don’t need to read both, as I did.
Both books tell the story of the Revolution from the perspective of several key revolutionary characters, alternating points of view and taking the story from these characters’ childhoods up to their deaths, which for most of them (not coincidentally) occurred in 1794 during the Reign of Terror. Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximillien Robespierre are central characters in both novels. Mantel’s book adds as a third main character Camille Desmoulins (who is present, but less central, in Piercy’s book): other characters, including the women associated with these men, come in and out of focus in the mostly-omniscient narrative, but for the most part A Place of Greater Safety is the story of Danton, Robespierre, and Desmoulins.
City of Darkness, City of Light also focuses on the male political leaders of the Revolution, but she has a more varied cast of characters. Three women are also central figures in Piercy’s novel: the intellectual Manon Roland, the actress Claire Lacombe, and working-class revolutionary Pauline Leon. While in A Place of Greater Safety the female characters are mostly introduced only because of their relationship with the male ones, in City the women are revolutionaries and key players in their own right. The inclusion of the female perspective helps to round out the story, as does the perspective of working-class characters like Claire and Pauline. In Safety we see the perspective of the middle-class politicians who both need and are afraid of the Paris “mob”; City brings us into the middle of that mob and reminds us that while people like Danton and Robespierre always had food on the table regardless of which way the political wind was blowing, people like Pauline Leon and her neighbours were motivated to become revolutionaries by the very real pangs of hunger they felt when bread was in short supply.
Despite appreciating the broader perspective of the Piercy novel, I found Mantel’s book a much more engaging and emotionally powerful read. I think it simply comes down to a matter of writing style. I know from discussions around Wolf Hall that not everyone likes Mantel’s style. A Place of Greater Safety is quite different from Wolf Hall — rather than the intense and almost claustrophobic immersion in one character’s point of view that we get in the Cromwell novels, the point of view here is omniscient, dipping into and out of characters’ perspectives sometimes in the length of a paragraph, sometimes even slipping into first-person for a few pages, or writing a scene in the form of a dramatic script. The style is far more consciously “literary,” which is not going to be to everyone’s taste. City of Darkness, City of Light uses a much more straightforward storytelling style, alternating chapters between the viewpoint of different characters, yet somehow it didn’t grip me as much. Piercy’s novel was informative; Mantel’s made me care deeply about the characters and dread the inevitable fate I knew was coming for all of them.
These are both excellent novels with some significant similarities and differences; in the end, which one you read probably comes down to a matter of taste. If you want a good novel that gives an overview of the French Revolution and the people involved, flip through a few pages of both books (either in a literal bookstore, or online if you’re give the option to “Look inside”) and decide which portal you’ll choose to take you back to the 1790s and the exciting, turbulent and ultimately deadly years of the Revolution.