Robespierre

A Revolutionary Life

Peter McPhee

View Inside Price: $29.00


November 12, 2013
320 pages, 5 x 7 3/4
31 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300197242
Paper

Also Available in:
Cloth
e-book

Read Peter McPhee's essay on writing a "human" biography of Robespierre on the Yale Press Log.

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, and his tragic shortcomings.

Peter McPhee gives special attention to Robespierre's formative years and the development of an iron will in a frail boy conceived outside wedlock and on the margins of polite provincial society. Exploring how these experiences formed the young lawyer who arrived in Versailles in 1789, the author discovers not the cold, obsessive Robespierre of legend, but a man of passion with close but platonic friendships with women. Soon immersed in revolutionary conflict, he suffered increasingly lengthy periods of nervous collapse correlating with moments of political crisis, yet Robespierre was tragically unable to step away from the crushing burdens of leadership. Did his ruthless, uncompromising exercise of power reflect a descent into madness in his final year of life? McPhee reevaluates the ideology and reality of "the Terror," what Robespierre intended, and whether it represented an abandonment or a reversal of his early liberalism and sense of justice.


Peter McPhee is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne. He lives in Abbottsford, Australia.

"Peter McPhee seeks to get under the skin and into the mind of Robespierre, juxtaposing personal and political factors in a gripping narrative. Robespierre emerges less as the man who ruined the Revolution than as a man the Revolution ruined—by the time of his death in 1794 he was an ailing exhausted husk very different from the bright-eyed, committed and courageous politician of 1789. McPhee's interpretation will surprise and intrigue in equal measure."—Colin Jones

‘A wonderful, convincing study, splendidly analytical and evocative, and beautifully penned.’ - John Merriman, author of A History of Modern Europe and Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-siècle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror

‘This book is a triumph: an important, open-minded and often moving account of Robespierre, that will stand as a very worthy successor to the previous great biographies. Peter McPhee’s lifetime of research on the French Revolution draws out the context within which Robespierre’s words and actions can be better understood, and his insights into Robespierre’s youth, and the way he changed, displays a real understanding of Robespierre’s psychology. A great and lasting achievement.’ - Marisa Linton, author of The Politics of Virtue in Enlightenment France

“A thorough and well-written account of Robespierre’s life…a solid contribution to the scholarship of this key figure of the French revolution.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This book is a valuable addition to that process of interpreting Robespierre, not as the man who ruined the revolution but the man ruined by the revolution.”—Gwyn Griffiths, Morning Star

“Peter McPhee’s fine new life of Robespierre relies on the first hand, day-to-day accounts rather than the posthumous vilification and hagiography, and in it emerges a quite different portrait of the man.”—Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman

“McPhee brilliantly evokes the weaknesses as well as the strengths of this thin-skinned, diminutive figure, who suffered recurrent bouts of nervous exhaustion and withdrew from the fray at vital moments. As this stimulating book shows, those who come to play a leading part in times of upheaval are shaped by events rather than controlling them.”—Malcolm Crook, BBC History Magazine

"Readers. . . will love this wise book about an important and enigmatic figure."—Library Journal

"A fine piece of work. McPhee has a sure command of the period, has mastered the voluminous sources on Robespierre, and writes a clean, robust prose."—David Bell, The New Republic
Liberty or Death

The French Revolution

Peter McPhee

View details