Danton: The Gentle Giant of Terror
by David Lawday.
Cape, 294 pp., £20, July 2009, 978 0 224 07989 1
"Give me a place to stand", said Archimedes, "and I will move the earth." In the spring of 1789, your place to stand was a huddle of streets on Paris's left bank. If you put your head out of the window of the café Procope, almost everyone you needed to overthrow the regime was within shouting distance. The Revolution was dreamed here before it was enacted, beneath the dark towers of Saint-Sulpice. George-Jacques Danton lived here, and Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, Legendre the master-butcher, Fabre d'Eglantine the political playwright, and a dozen others who would make their names through the fall of the old order. In the year the Revolution began, this area was known as the Cordeliers district, taking its name from the monastery of the Cordeliers, the Franciscan friars. It was not a working-class area like Saint-Antoine, but respectable with a bohemian fringe, bankers and civil servants ensconced on first floors, garrets stuffed with malcontent actors; its agitators garnished their invective with classical allusions. From 1789 onwards, this district, with Danton as ward boss, became notorious for hair-trigger revolutionary reflexes. "Spontaneous" street protests could erupt there in an instant, and radical journalists hid their presses and their persons in the warren of houses. When a reorganisation of the city's divisions threatened the identity of the district, the citizens turned themselves into a political club, and colonised the disused monastery for a meeting place. With Danton in the chair, the Cordeliers were a formidably disruptive force, noisier and cheaper to join than the Jacobin club on the right bank. The Cordeliers had an opinion on everything, from the parish to the world; you would think they owned the Revolution.
You would disagree, of course, if you were across the river at City Hall, and struggling to impose good order on the populace. In the months after the fall of the Bastille, Mayor Bailly thought he owned the Revolution, along with Lafayette, commander of the National Guard. The National Assembly thought they owned it; the Duc d'Orléans, who hoped to replace his cousin Louis as king, thought that if he did not own it he had certainly paid for it. Mirabeau, the renegade aristocrat who was a hero both to parliamentarians and to the crowd, thought he had a right to it – was this not his hour to save his country, and at the same time get his debts paid? And perhaps Mr Pitt, plotting in London, thought it was Whitehall's revolution; the opportunity to destabilise, embarrass and disable the old enemy could not be let slip, and if a bribe here and there could do it, he would be glad to have some revolutionaries in England's pocket. Later, in 1793, the journalist Desmoulins would denounce the revolution of 1789 as a false revolution, bought and paid for, sold and resold, a put-up job, a fix. As a republican from the start, he could claim his hands were clean and his motives were pure; but where did that leave Danton, his old revolutionary comrade? Ambiguity hangs over his life and over his conduct as a leader of the Revolution, and what is soon evident about David Lawday's spirited and highly readable biography is that he stands Danton in a flattering light and pays insufficient attention to movements in the shadows. "The Gentle Giant of Terror", the subtitle calls him: which suggests, along with revolutionary vertu, a certain daft innocence. Lawday's Danton is the Danton that Gérard Depardieu enacted for Andrzej Wajda in his 1983 film about the great man's trial and death. He is a passionate defender of instinct and truth against the cold formulations of Robespierre: he is a peasant in a lawyer's coat, a son of the soil, one of nature's patriots; he is, in himself, a force of nature.
Such men are not often successful lawyers. Before the Revolution, Danton was doing well; he was not one of the people with nothing to lose. He had a wife, a comfortable home, and an established legal practice; many of the men who were his future comrades had nothing but sheaves of unpublished poems, unsung operas and unapplauded plays. But he was restless and perhaps, as Büchner suggested in his play Dantons Tod, he was easily bored. Revolution offered him five years of diversion and aggrandisement, and amplified his voice to the whole of Europe; in quieter times, thirty years of plodding application, bowing and scraping to his intellectual inferiors, would perhaps have taken him into the lower ranks of the establishment. Danton's origins were one generation removed from the peasantry. He was born in 1759 in Arcis-sur-Aube in the Champagne region, the fifth child of a petty lawyer, who died when his only son was three. Georges-Jacques's father had been married before; his mother would marry again; he had a network of relatives through the region. The family structure was stable, cohesive; his uncles and cousins were farmers, merchants, priests. His childhood was rural but eventful. Encounters with livestock left him broken-nosed, with a gash from a bull's horn across his lips; smallpox left him scarred; he was tall, and grew burly if not obese. His ugliness was not of the craggy kind: "His bulbous cheeks", Lawday says, "gave him the look of an enormous cherub." To his political opponent Vadier, during the Terror, he was a turbot farci, a huge fish to be gutted. Danton's riposte embodied all his smooth elegance: "I'll eat his brains and use his skull to shit in."
In Troyes, Danton was given the best of modern educations by the Oratorian order. Later, he built up an extensive library, and he spoke, or at least read, both English and Italian. He was twenty when he went to try his luck in Paris. He clerked for a Maître Vinot on the Ile Saint-Louis. Rather than sit the Parisian bar exams, he took a pragmatic trip to Reims, where the diploma could be picked up for a fee on proof of a few days' residence. In 1787, in one of those arrangements so French that they almost defy translation, he bought the legal office of avocat au Conseil du Roi from a man called Huet de Paisy, who was engaged to marry his long-time mistress, Françoise Duhauttoir; Françoise herself lent Danton some of the purchase price. A 1964 biographer, Robert Christophe, speculated that Françoise may have had a child by Danton, and that he paid an inflated price to settle his obligations. He certainly drew on the dowry for his upcoming marriage to Gabrielle Charpentier, whose father was a tax official and the owner of a popular café near the law courts. As France slid towards bankruptcy and political turmoil, Danton had assets and prospects, but he also had entangling debts, obligations.
The Dantons had a son within a year of marriage. He did not survive babyhood, but two more boys followed. The household made an ambitious move to an apartment in one of the recently built townhouses near the Théâtre Français. There was an entrance on the cour du Commerce; his front door, it is thought, opened approximately where his statue stands now, in the carrefour de l'Odéon. He would live there for the rest of his short life. At this time, Danton may have talked of "revolution", as he did – in Latin, and in typically ambivalent terms – at his reception into his new association of advocates. But he clearly thought the upheaval would be of a limited nature, for he chose to adopt the particle of nobility, calling himself d'Anton. It's unlikely that anyone laughed; the manoeuvre was too familiar a stage in the progress of a social climber.
In May 1789 the Estates General met in Versailles. In Paris, there was sporadic rioting throughout the spring, the price of bread shot up, and Louis ringed the capital with troops. When the Bastille fell, Danton was not there; he was often elsewhere on days of revolutionary action, as he had a canny regard for his own skin. But within days a citizen militia, which would become the National Guard, was formed to keep the peace on the streets. This was Danton's chance to put on a paramilitary uniform and strut about impressively. People were looking for leaders, and he – with the big presence and the big voice – was a natural leader. He was hospitable, a generous host, the glad-handing focus of the neighbourhood. He had also joined a Freemasons' lodge; probably that was how he met the liberal, anglophile Philippe d'Orléans. In the duke's circles, money changed hands, Lawday says, "and Danton was aware of it. Who wasn't? But the giant from Arcis was not there out of greed, he was there riding the tide." At this time, it seemed a change of monarch, with the new one limited by constitution, might be enough to satisfy reformers; Orléans, the obvious candidate, functioned as a walking chequebook for Danton's friends. Was Danton the fastidious exception? So many future leaders of the Revolution were scooped into the golden net of Orléanist pretentions, that they could hardly hold it against each other in the days of brutal accounting that came in with the Terror. Danton – devoted to Cicero, but fluent in street language – was just the sort of investment Orléans liked.
Nothing can be proved, though Danton's finances are worth more scrutiny than they receive here. Allegations that he was an agent in English pay had surfaced as early as the autumn of 1789. We don't know where his money came from, but we can be fairly sure it wasn't from his legal practice. We know where it went – he was buying up land in Arcis. The evidence was marshalled in Norman Hampson's 1978 biography, a wry, spare and careful assessment. Where others see a calculating opportunism running through Danton's revolution, Lawday sees a man free from "demon ideals" and driven by "impetuosity and heart". At any rate, he was led by his heart when he chose his friends. Two men he was close to at the beginning went straight through his political career with him, and died on the same scaffold. Fabre d'Eglantine was an actor and playwright, interior designer and prize-winning poet, or so he said; he was a charming con man, and his stock market scams, uncovered during the winter of 1793, would start the Dantonist faction on the slide to oblivion. Camille Desmoulins was a freakishly brilliant failure till the Bastille days. He was a timid boy with a stammer, but the Revolution, he claimed, had made him brave; he made his name as a street orator, then launched one of the era's most successful newspapers. His politics were republican before the Revolution; as he was ahead of everyone else, racing through a private revolution on his own speeded-up plan, it was only a matter of time before he collided messily with the rock-like Terrorist convictions of his childhood friend, Robespierre.
The company he kept, and his talents as a demagogue, made Danton suspect to the right bank grandees trying to steer the Revolution on a moderate and constitutional course. He was always adaptable, always approachable, and yet he seems to have scared them. It was the second wave of revolution in the late summer of 1792 that carried him to power: the attack on the Tuileries, the fall of the monarchy, the institution of the republic and the summoning of the National Convention. At a time of national emergency, with the troops of the enemy allies just ninety miles from Paris, Danton seized a position as de facto head of a provisional government. Lafayette, the commander of the French forces, defected to the Austrians, and at the same time rebels were on the march in the Vendée under the slogan "Death to Parisians". The Duke of Brunswick, commander of the allied Prussian and Austrian forces, had threatened Paris itself with "exemplary vengeance". The leaders of the Revolution were dead men walking, and the danger was that the capital would freeze with fear. Danton put the city on the march; he organised a giant recruiting drive and the seizure of all weapons in private hands. House-to-house searches picked up 3,000 suspected royalists, many more than the prisons could securely hold. On 2 September 1792 Danton delivered his finest speech, "the charge against the enemies of the patrie", who must be met with "l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace". This was happy and forceful phrasemaking; like much revolutionary rhetoric, it loses some impact in translation, but all the same it is helpful that Lawday translates everything, and does it easily and idiomatically. That day of boldness was, Lawday says, the best and worst of Danton; his speech had a galvanising effect, but it acted as a call for direct action among the citizens, as well as a strike against the external enemy.
Danton's style as leader of the government was a simple one. "Why do I do what he wants?" the navy minister asked. "Because he scares the hell out of me and he'd give my head to the people otherwise." Danton's official position was minister of justice, and he took Fabre and Desmoulins to the place Vendôme with him. Justice was in scant supply in early September, when the mobs broke into the prisons and massacred 1,600 people. Some of them were prostitutes and others, detainees in a reformatory, were little more than children. Danton did nothing to stop the killing. In his 1899 biography, Hilaire Belloc said "he might have saved his reputation by protesting, though perhaps his protest would not have saved a single life". Danton roared on more than one occasion that he did not care about his reputation. A brutal realism prevailed: "No power on earth", he said, "could have stopped the national vengeance from spilling over." There could not be a revolution without blood, and no single man could hold up his hand and say "Enough". It was Danton who, the following spring, proposed to the Convention the establishment of a Revolutionary Tribunal: for which, he would later say, "I ask the pardon of God and of humanity". His reasoning at the time was that only swift, visible justice would stop the mobs taking the law into their own hands. But the Tribunal would become the instrument the revolutionaries used to slaughter each other.
The pressure of that terrible summer eased, though the republic's victory at Valmy in September was less a military triumph than a propaganda coup. The allied commander withdrew, and Danton's opponents claimed that he had bribed him with the French crown jewels, which had recently gone missing. If so, it was an ingenious use of them. Once the immediate panic was over, Danton left office and went home to the cour du Commerce, because as a member of the new National Convention he was not permitted to hold a ministry. Jean-Marie Roland, however, hung on to his post at the Interior, and mounted a relentless attack on Danton's probity, demanding he account for the large sums he had disbursed during the days of emergency. Danton could not do it, and his failure would be a thorn in his side in the months ahead. Lawday makes much of Madame Roland's animosity towards Danton, which (like generations of male historians) he takes to be a backhanded compliment to what he calls Danton's "blatant bull-maleness". Perhaps it's time to revisit this condescending nonsense and give Manon Roland the benefit of the doubt; maybe, when she said she disliked and distrusted Danton, she meant what she said and no more. Readers of her memoirs may see her as an irritating and self-regarding woman, but they will also remember her frankness about her early sexual experiences; she was not a fool, and not someone who lacked self-awareness. It's questionable, anyway, if her personal feelings mattered as much as Lawday thinks. She had influence, but no power. Lawday uses the word "party" often in relation to the Rolandins and the Girondins, though they were the loosest of groupings. In revolutionary politics, to represent your opponents as a "party" was to defame and endanger them; it was to represent them as self-interested to the point of lacking patriotism. First you made them a "party", and then, as they went to the guillotine, a "batch". At the time, the men whom later historians call Girondins were more often referred to as "Brissotins", as so many of them were friends of Jean-Pierre Brissot, a deputy, journalist and veteran of liberal causes. Brissot had been around long enough to be compromised; Marat and Desmoulins claimed he had been a police spy before the Revolution. They had been around too, so they knew. They held secret files on each other, or so they said.
What did mark out the Girondins, Rolandins and Brissotins was their federalist impulses; they distrusted Paris, and in a moment of panic in the autumn of 1792 they proposed taking the government out of the capital, an idea Danton dismissed with contempt. They favoured a policy which the left wing of the Convention saw as suicidal; unless united, how could France possibly withstand a grand European alliance dedicated to the crushing of the Revolution? It was not a big step, later, for the left to represent federalist sympathies as traitorous. Robespierre blamed Brissot's friends for taking France into what they advertised as a "cleansing" war. He regarded it as immoral, unwinnable and likely to end in military dictatorship. Danton would have avoided war too, and worked busily behind the scenes to negotiate a cessation of hostilities, while pumping out nationalist, expansionist rhetoric: "The boundaries of France are drawn by nature. We shall attain them on their four sides – the Ocean, the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees."
Danton was with the armies in Belgium when his wife Gabrielle died giving birth to her fourth child. When he arrived in Paris, a grieving, howling wreck of a man who had been too long on the road, it was to find that the child was lost too and that Gabrielle had already been buried. She had been dead for a week when Danton had her exhumed so that a sculptor could take a mould for a bust; this gruesome proceeding, carried out by night, suggested that he was a man who, goaded to the edge of exhaustion, had tipped into emotional breakdown. At the king's trial, he had voted for death, and death was what he had got. Perhaps it began here, the strange numbness that overtook him when he was most required to act. His political judgment was no longer secure, his lucky touch had gone. Until almost the last moment, when he deserted to the Austrians like Lafayette before him, Danton backed the army's supreme commander, General Dumouriez. He had to explain that misjudgment to the National Convention; all the same, his domination of that body, in debate after debate, became clear in the spring of 1793. With the republic once more on the brink of being invaded, and threatening to break up internally, he launched another round of recruitment and requisitioning, declaring that Paris would have to save the country. When the Committee of Public Safety was first formed, in April 1793, it was known as the Danton Committee.
The idea was to fill a power vacuum; as the men seen to matter in France were deputies to the Convention, and so debarred from ministerial office, the old structure had lost status and the force of the executive arm had diminished. The Committee contained no Girondins, Brissotins or Rolandins. By June they were in prison or had fled. At this point, so many battles behind him, Danton faltered; he thought of his private life; he married again, Louise Gély, the 16-year-old daughter of a neighbour. To meet her family's wishes, he married her secretly, before a renegade priest who had not taken the oath to the Constitution. His secret was soon out. "I can't live without women", he pleaded. He took to spending time with his bride in a country house he had rented outside Paris. In July, he was dropped from the Committee. Two weeks later, Robespierre was elected. Till this point he had avoided government posts, but his time had come. He did not need women or relaxation, and did not have secrets. He often threatened to "unmask" his opponents. For a long time he avoided thinking about what lay beneath Danton's mask.
In October 1793, pleading illness, Danton took himself off to Arcis, to seal himself up in his much renovated ancestral home and try to ignore the Paris newspapers. That autumn the city of Lyon was razed by republican troops; Marie Antoinette and Manon Roland went to the guillotine, so did the former Duc d’Orléans, so did Bailly, Paris's first revolutionary mayor. Desmoulins and Fabre begged Danton to come back and reassert his authority. When he reappeared in Paris, he found he was living in the Year II. The old calendar had ceased to exist, and so had his old address; he was now at home in the rue Marat. The political landscape was changing as fast as the street names. As the year closed – the old-style year, 1793 – Desmoulins launched a press campaign to end the executions and release the thousands of interned suspects held throughout the country. In its first weeks, the campaign for clemency was wildly popular. Robespierre gave cautious approval; then he pulled back, becoming aware that, of all those who needed clemency, the Dantonists perhaps needed it most. A fulminating stock market scandal, in which Fabre was deeply implicated, seemed in the climate of the times to have political ramifications. Perhaps it did: forgery was involved, and insider trading, and a dubious and cosmopolitan bunch of disparate individuals suspected of being enemy agents. Perhaps wisely, Lawday doesn't attempt to unravel this affair, but he confuses his account of these crucial weeks by persistently referring to Danton's friends as "the Cordeliers". The club had long since been taken over by a populist faction, led by the journalist René Hébert. That was why Desmoulins's newspaper, which led the clemency campaign, was called the Old Cordelier. Hébert was Desmoulins's first target. Camille's notion of mercy was qualified: he would first eliminate the immediate opponent, whom he hated like poison, and then all revolutionaries would be perfect friends.
Hébert had been a nuisance to the Committee of Public Safety, and when these new Cordeliers went to the guillotine, the ground was suddenly cleared, the revolutionary atmosphere bright, the light searching: an abyss opened beneath the feet of the Dantonist faction their opponents now called the Indulgents. Danton could perhaps have escaped. He had a warning, an hour or two before his arrest. But as he said, "You can't take the patrie with you on the soles of your shoes". Danton lived by the word, but not the written word. He never wrote his speeches; he grew them extempore, and fed them on the emotion of his audience. All his life he was at the mercy of patchy note-takers. Alphonse Aulard, who held the first chair in revolutionary studies at the Sorbonne, investigated the problem in 1922: are Danton's famous phrases real, or are they later inventions, are they what historians think he ought to have said? "It is probable that he said them. One hopes that he said them. Historically speaking, one cannot be sure. Perhaps they are more true than authentic." In any event, and however he phrased it, Danton disdained the chance of last-minute flight. In 1791, fleeing a backlash against the radicals, he had spent six weeks in England. He was not welcome then, he would be less welcome now. There was nowhere to go: now, March to April 1794, it was time for Danton's many selves to meet each other.
A stormy session of two Committees – the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Defence, usually called the Police Committee – had resulted in two members refusing to sign the arrest warrants. Robespierre's signature appeared, very small, very faint, at the foot of the page. Leaving his house in the small hours, under arrest, Danton told his little wife to expect him back. A few days later he faced his accusers with great courage, but he could not face them down. By this stage, the Committee did not "lose" a trial. Danton, Desmoulins and other deputies found themselves tried alongside men who were strangers to them – Fabre's shady cronies. Before the Convention, Saint-Just's rhetorical deconstruction of Danton's career seemed to show that every patriotic action had its ugly, shadow side. The trial process was truncated and farcical. Like the trial of the king, it was a political coup, not a forensic process; it was an assassination. Danton had hoarded a phrase for the scaffold: "Show my head to the people. It is worth a look." The Convention did not rally to him, the people did not rise up to save their old hero. Less than four months later, Robespierre himself stood at bay before the Convention, his voice faltering, dying in his throat. A deputy shouted: "It is the blood of Danton that chokes you!"
"Is it Danton you regret?" he snapped back. "Cowards! Why didn't you defend him?"
It's a good question. Historians have been doing it energetically ever since, though his contemporaries were slower to exculpate him. After Robespierre's fall, the Convention decreed that flowers should be placed on Desmoulins's presumed grave; no one had a bouquet for Danton. He divides people: those who value heart and flair, against those who are good at adding up on their fingers, sucking their teeth and shaking their heads. If you condemn him you are, like Robespierre, more in sorrow than in anger. Lawday takes Danton at his own valuation, which at all times was high. He was never reluctant to bellow out a testimonial to himself. "I have created what I am on my own . . . I know how to marry cool reason with a burning soul and a steadfast character." We know much more about his tactics than about his beliefs. He was a skilled, pragmatic political operator who, like Mirabeau before him, was expert in covering his tracks, and he has covered them from posterity. He had a brilliant oral memory, but avoided even writing letters, and Lawday speculates that nowadays we would have called him dyslexic. When he went to Paris, the lawyer who took him on as a clerk remarked that his handwriting was indecipherable; ça ne fait rien, Danton said haughtily, as he didn't mean to make his living as a copyist. He preferred other people to put his thoughts on paper for him; then, of course, he could always repudiate them. Perhaps Lawday is right and there was some neurological glitch; the more jaundiced explanation is that he was secretive, and with good reason.
David Lawday lives in Paris and he is not one of those tepid Englishpersons who does not understand why these desperados wanted a revolution in the first place. He takes them on their own terms, these young men who threw off their powdered wigs, sought liberation from a lifetime of stifling politesse, and ended up wading through blood. On the other hand, he has a wholly English distrust of political theory. He makes Danton a man who often reacted to events rather than trying to shape them, and that seems a shrewd assessment. When things were going his way Danton took advantage of the moment, and when they were not he cleared off to Arcis till he could see improvement. Lawday writes as if Robespierre, by contrast, was in possession all along of an unshakeable plan, which included the destruction of Danton. He sets up the Danton/Robespierre contest early in the book. At his first appearance on the page, Robespierre has a "feline aspect" and "joyless eyes". This is better as drama than history. It easy to imagine their first meeting was not a success; Danton traded in first impressions and Robespierre was very hard to impress. But for most of the Revolution they worked together amicably enough, if on opposite sides of the river; and they worked in political agreement. Lawday can't stretch his imagination to see Danton as Robespierre must have seen him: a blustering windbag, with his faux heartiness, his distractibility and his unreliability. To revolution, Robespierre had a vocation; he expected to follow it, and he expected it to kill him. It may have seemed to him that Danton saw revolution as a second career; he expected it to make him rich. Until the end, Robespierre decided to believe, or at least said he believed, that the gossip against Danton was slander. He took him for a patriot, with all his faults and flaws, and Lawday persuades his reader to do the same.
His book is not searching, contains little new, and for facts it would not be first choice. It is a romantic view of the Revolution; Lawday's July crowds are pulled towards the Bastille "by some great intuitive magnet"; in fact, the fortress, almost emptied of prisoners by the authorities who had anticipated the attack, was a pre-selected target because of the explosives stored there. But Lawday creates some great set-pieces and striking turning points. At Danton's first meeting with Mirabeau: "The two men had sat inspecting each other in silence for some minutes, impressed by each other's ugliness." He is able to capture the atmosphere of the early Revolution: its inflammable mix of devilment and righteousness, reckless selflessness and flagrant self-promotion. He sees that Danton was more than the sum of his crimes, the sum of his secrets; he celebrates him, "large heart and violent impulses in irresolvable conflict". He understands that much of his public aggression was a pose; Danton was by nature a negotiator, even if his negotiations sometimes looked more like an offer from a prostitute. One evening at his apartment in the cour du Commerce, Danton entertained Henry Holland, Fox's nephew. "You can pay Danton 80,000 livres", he claimed, "but you can't buy Danton for 80,000." Lawday assures us: "Gabrielle would have understood that he was talking of the compensation he had received for his legal practice." Only a wife or the fondest of biographers could believe that. He was simply raising the stakes.
Dame Hilary Mantel is an English writer whose work includes historical fiction, personal memoirs and short stories. She has twice been awarded the Booker Prize, the first time for the 2009 novel Wolf Hall, a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power in the court of Henry VIII, and secondly for the 2012 novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second instalment of the Cromwell trilogy. The third instalment of the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, was released on 5 March 2020 in the UK and the following July was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Other books include A Place of Greater Safety and Giving up the Ghost. The above article first appeared in the London Review of Books and can be found in Mantel Pieces, which was published by Fourth Estate in 2020.