Why did I love this book?
Loomis bases his account on the life and work of three principals in the Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary demagogue, self-styled ‘People’s Friend’ and proponent of some of the grimmest excesses of the Terror; Danton, the moderate, whose increasing distaste for those excesses and his clash with Robespierre ultimately took him to the scaffold; Robespierre, the prissy, virginal, orphaned lawyer who had once argued passionately against the death penalty and then oversaw the herding of droves of citizens – mostly not aristocrats but largely what the French call the "menu peuple", humble artisans, shopgirls, social nobodies – to the guillotine. Inflexible as a Commandment, he became increasingly obsessed with ‘virtue’ in the twisted belief that legislation alone can enjoin decent behaviour or "civisme". Danton, the ebullient bon viveur rebuffed this nonsense cheerily: ‘Virtue,’ he said ‘is what I do with my wife every night.’
Loomis writes vividly, his book is replete with anecdote – some of it of rather dubious provenance, admittedly – but he evokes brilliantly the claustrophobic atmosphere of a time of overheated emotions, the propensity for wild hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, distorted manipulation of fact, wildly engrossed report, overblown journalism, the paranoia and toxic climate of suspicion, and the sheer horror of living in the French capital through one of the nastiest periods of any nation’s history.