The best books on the life of Maximilien Robespierre

Who am I?

France has always been my special inspiration in life and I am lucky to have made a career writing about its history. Many of my books are framed in a long-term perspective. Paris: Biography of a City (2004)  and The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1994), for example, take the story back to the earliest times and comes up to the present. Wanting a complete change and a new challenge, I shifted focus dramatically in my current book: the history of a city in a single day – the dramatic day in the French Revolution when the Parisians overthrew Maximilien Robespierre.

I wrote...

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

What is my book about?

More than any other political figure from the French revolutionary era, Maximilien Robespierre divides historians: some see him as an embodiment of totalitarian evil, others the shining champion of the popular cause and of individual freedoms. In my recently-published The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris (Oxford University Press), I tried a novel approach by exploring how this enigmatic figure behaved over the 24 hours of the political crisis that led to his overthrow and death by guillotine.

As he saw his plans for the Revolution rejected point-blank not only by fellow politicians but also by the ordinary people of Paris whose welfare he had always championed, his fall took on the features of Greek tragedy. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

Why did I love this book?

This is my own favourite. Realising that he could not make up his mind whether he loved Robespierre or hated him, Hampson staged his own dilemma by presenting Robespierre’s life through an imagined set of conversations between a version of himself and three fictional members of the public. Witty and insightful and superbly researched below the water-line, this brilliantly experimental biography is a neglected masterpiece.

By Norman Hampson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This investigation into the mind of Robespierre is now available in paperback. The book is presented as a discussion between three figures - a civil servant, a member of the Communist Party and a clergyman - representing different viewpoints in their reactions to evidence presented by a fourth figure, the narrator. In this way, the author sets out to display the contradictions in the character of Robespierre that so puzzled his contemporaries and continue to perplex historians. The book should be of interest to students of the French Revolution and general readers.

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Why did I love this book?

The most up-to-date biography in English. Robespierre came from a broken home, and McPhee is particularly good at exploring Robespierre’s troubled childhood and humble early life as a small-town lawyer. He excels in seeing Robespierre as a complex figure shaped by Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality and desperately and increasingly unsuccessfully trying to live up to them in the Revolutionary maelstrom. Controversially, McPhee sees illness as a major cause of Robespierre’s political failures. 

By Peter McPhee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An intimate new portrait of one of history's most controversial figures: heroic revolutionary or the first terrorist?

For some historians and biographers, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds. For many others, he was the first modern dictator, a fanatic who instigated the murderous Reign of Terror in 1793-94. This masterful biography combines new research into Robespierre's dramatic life with a deep understanding of society and the politics of the French Revolution to arrive at a fresh understanding of the man, his passions,…

Book cover of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

Intriguingly, Ruth Scurr’s approach is to give Robespierre ‘the benefit of any rational doubt’ in all the major decisions facing him as a politician. Almost like Robespierre’s best friend, she tries ‘to see things from his point of view’ when seeking to explain his acts. The result is a study that subtly draws the reader in, yet is far from a whitewash. Indeed the more problematic aspects of Robespierre’s character and policies including his drift towards violence, repression, and terror stand out all the more starkly as a result of this fundamentally sympathetic and thoughtful approach.

By Ruth Scurr,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fatal Purity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Robespierre was only 36 when he died, sent to the guillotine where he had sent thousands ahead of him. Only a few months before, this pale and fragile man, formal, anxious to the point of paranoia, steeled by deep-held principles, had held centre place in the new Festival of the Supreme Being, wearing his sky-blue coat and decreeing a new religion for France. Robespierre and the Revolution were inseparable: a single inflexible tyrant. But what turned a shy young lawyer into the living embodiment of the Terror at its most violent? Admirers called him 'the great incorruptible'; critics dubbed him…

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why did I love this book?

Jordan’s is probably the most elegantly written of the five studies and stands out for providing a particularly generous allocation of space to Robespierre’s voice, telling the story of his life as much as possible through his own words. At the same time, Jordan’s intellectual biography is quietly attentive to providing a sense of the complex political environment in which any French revolutionary statesman had to act.

By David P. Jordan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In changing forever the political landscape of the modern world, the French Revolution was driven by a new personality: the confirmed, self-aware revolutionary. Maximilien Robespierre originated the role, inspiring such devoted twentieth-century disciples as Lenin—who deemed Robespierre a Bolshevik avant la lettre.

Although he dominated the Committee for Public Safety only during the last year of his life, Robespierre was the Revolution in flesh and blood. He embodies its ideological essence, its unprecedented extremes, its absolutist virtues and vices; he incarnated a new, completely politicized self to lead a new, wholly regenerated society.

Yet as historian David P. Jordan observes,…


By J.M. Thompson,

Book cover of Robespierre

Why did I love this book?

Thompson published his life of Robespierre in 1935, yet despite its age, it belies its age and is well worth a look. It is a heavyweight two-volumed biography, that is profoundly researched yet gracefully written. Extraordinarily comprehensive, it spans from shrewd analyses of Robespierre’s ideas and actions down to some of the most trivial (and fascinating) minutiae of his life. Thompson was ordained as a priest, subsequently renouncing his faith, and his study is particularly interesting on Robespierre’s contentious religious ideas.

His conclusion that Robespierre was ‘the embodiment of the revolutionary spirit of the French people' is, however, more than a little worrying. Maybe Robespierre is one of those enigmatic characters who is always with us!

By J.M. Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Using the rich documentation of the period, Thompson aims to give a detailed account of the play of intrigue and manipulation that characterized the Revolution. The biography attempts to combine historical accuracy with the excitement of a novel.

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