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Fatal Purity

Robespierre and the French Revolution

Ruth Scurr

Holt Paperbacks

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ISBN10: 0805082611
ISBN13: 9780805082616

Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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Since his execution by guillotine in July 1794, Maximilien Robespierre has been contested terrain for historians, at once the most notorious leader of the French Revolution and the least comprehensible. Was he a bloodthirsty charlatan or the only true defender of revolutionary ideals? Was his extreme moralism—he was known as "The Incorruptible"—a heroic virtue or a ruinous flaw? Was he the first modern dictator or the earliest democrat?

Against the dramatic backdrop of the French Revolution, historian Ruth Scurr follows the trajectory of Robespierre's paradoxical life, from his modest beginnings as a provincial lawyer opposed to repressive authority and the death penalty, to his meteoric rise in Paris politics as a devastatingly efficient revolutionary leader, righteous and paranoid in equal measure. She explores his reformist zeal, his role in the trial of the king and the fall of the monarchy, his passionate attempt to design a modern republic, even his extraordinary effort to found a perfect religion. And she follows him into the depths of the Terror, as he makes summary execution the order of the day, himself falling victim to the violence at the age of thirty-six.


Praise for Fatal Purity

"Lively and well-written . . . the Robespierre who emerges from Scurr's book is a deeply unattractive figure: cold, humorless, touchy, self-regarding, suspicious, unforgiving, paranoid about spies and plots and ‘the enemy within,' sulky . . . and obsessed with death."—David Gilmour, The New York Times Book Review

"Ruth Scurr does for Robespierre and the French Revolution what Quentin Bell did for Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury: she apprehends the complete personality of the man, the moment, and the movement. A work of genuine scholarship and political literature, Fatal Purity is an electrifying biography of an epoch's vaulting ambitions and wounded pride, radical vision and terrifying uncertainty, bracing heroism and decimating energies."—Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea

"Maximilien Robespierre was an ambitious provincial lawyer whose political career came to epitomize the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. Few would argue that his commitment to egalitarian principles was anything less than genuine, but his intransigent commitment to these principles set the basis for a terror-based state whose legacy still haunts the postmodern world. Scurr skillfully uses Robespierre's writings to provide insight into a complex personality of the man called the Incorruptible, who was kind and gentle in private life and a brutal infighter in the public arena. Scurr maintains that Robespierre's iron will sustained the Revolution during its most turbulent period but that within his fanaticism lurked the seeds of his demise. His Reign of Terror eventually devoured him. This is Scurr's first book, and one hopes that it is not her last. She evokes the temper of those times through the copious use of primary sources, and her characterizations of such personalities as Mirabeau, Marat, and Brissot are splendid. This is the best biography of the Incorruptible since David Jordan's The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre over 20 years ago and is highly recommended."—Jim Doyle, Library Journal

"The short, violent life of Maximilien Robespierre was a mass of contradictions crowned with a supreme irony: this architect of the French Revolution's Reign of Terror would in July 1794 be executed by the same guillotine to which he had consigned so many others. Cambridge University historian Scurr says she has tried to write a biography that expresses 'neither partisan adulation nor exaggerated animosity,' but even she must conclude that with the Terror, he 'kept moving through that gory river, because he believed it necessary for saving the Revolution. He can be accused of insanity and inhumanity but certainly not of insincerity.' Robespierre can also be accused of being a revolutionary fanatic who hated atheists, and 'became the living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral'; a dedicated upholder of republican virtues whose hands were smothered in blood; a fierce opponent of the death penalty who helped send thousands to their deaths; and a democratic tribune of the people who wore a sky-blue coat and embroidered waistcoats so aristocratic they wouldn't have been out of place at the court of the Sun King. Scurr's first book scores highly in unraveling not only her subject's complexities but those of his era."—Publishers Weekly

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My dear Croker,

I wish you would think seriously of the History of the Reign of Terror. I do not mean a pompous, philosophical history, but a mixture of biography, facts and gossip: a diary of what really took place with...

About the author

Ruth Scurr

Born in 1971, Ruth Scurr studied at Oxford and Cambridge, where she currently teaches politics and history. A prominent literary critic, she has written for The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement. Fatal Purity is her first book.

Ruth Scurr

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