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. 

The books I picked & why

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The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

By Norman Hampson,

Book cover of The Life and Opinions of Maximilien Robespierre

Why 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.


Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Why 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. 


Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

By Ruth Scurr,

Book cover of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Why 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.


The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

By David P. Jordan,

Book cover of The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre

Why 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.


Robespierre

By J.M. Thompson,

Book cover of Robespierre

Why 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!


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Interested in France, Maximilien Robespierre, and revolutionaries?

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