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December 20, 2014

Caroline L. Arnold: Revolution Tied in Ribbon

Posted by emily

Caroline L. Arnold has been a technology leader on Wall Street for more than a decade, leading software development teams as large as 500 technologists. It’s a good thing, then, that she knows a thing or two about goal-oriented behavior. Her book SMALL MOVE, BIG CHANGE is all about how creating and sticking to “microresolutions” are the key to personal success. Here, Caroline talks about the book that changed her entire perception of cause and effect --- and the way history is driven by the actions of individuals, not impersonal, abstract forces. It’s a timely lesson we could all bear to learn as the new year fast approaches!

Knowing how much I had relished reading Hilary Mantel’s historical novels WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES, my 13-year-old daughter made me a Christmas present of Mantel’s A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, an earlier historical novel about the individuals who brought about the French Revolution. I was so entranced by the prospect of the next Wolf Hall installment that it somehow never occurred to me to check out what Mantel had written before she won back-to-back Booker prizes. WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES are rightly considered the pinnacle of Mantel’s literary genius, yet it was A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY that rocked my consciousness and changed my worldview forever.

Prior to reading A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY, my understanding of the French Revolution could pretty much be summed up as Marie Antoinette got her head cut off after letting them eat cake for too long. Mantel’s book focuses not on the out-of-it King Louis or the scandal-plagued Marie Antoinette, but on the lives of the improbable revolutionaries Maximilien de Robespierre, Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins. Unlike Mantel’s Tudor series, where we experience the life and times of Henry VIII from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell, the narrative in A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY explores the intersecting thoughts, passions and actions of its three protagonists and their relationship to events within and beyond their control. As in the Wolf Hall series, the life of each character is both factually deep and richly imagined, so that the reader experiences the psychological texture of the gestures, large and small, personal and professional, conscious and unconscious, that determine history.

I knew the end of the story at the beginning, but nothing prepared me for the shocking annihilation of the exquisite sensibilities that Mantel had so intricately and intimately portrayed. I grieved for weeks after finishing the book, stoking the passion Mantel had ignited in me by prowling the online world for portraits, Wikipedia entries and French Revolution memorabilia. I found a copy of the original political pamphlet The Old Cordelier on Google books and picked my way through it with my bad French.

A family visit to Paris a few months later was taken over by my obsession to get closer to the people, events and wild spirit of the Revolution. It turned out that the small hotel we had always stayed at was located in the old Cordelier District, the epicenter of the café society of intellectuals, artists, politicians, journalists and liberal aristocrats who set the Revolution in motion. I peered through the iron gates at the remains of the old convent where the Cordelier's political club had met under the leadership of the political journalist Camille Desmoulins. I loitered outside the apartment building where Desmoulins and his beautiful wife, Lucie, had lived until he was suddenly escorted to “a place of greater safety” --- a pre-trial holding pen a few blocks away at the Luxembourg Palace. I stood on the approximate spot in the Luxembourg gardens where Lucie held up Desmoulins’ baby son, Horace, in the hope that Desmoulins would glimpse him in the days before he was sent to the guillotine. (Lucie followed Desmoulins to the scaffold just eight days later, leaving Horace --- Robespierre’s godson! --- an orphan.) The house of the resourceful, lusty and pragmatic Danton (who rode in the same cart as Desmoulins to the guillotine) had stood just outside Café Danton where I went mornings for coffee.  

I cased the 16th Century Collège de Louis Le Grand, where Robespierre and Desmoulins had studied together. King Louis XVI, trying to achieve a more common touch, once visited the school where the young Robespierre had been selected to make a speech marking the occasion. The King never descended his coach and cut off Robespierre’s address by simply driving away in the middle of it; Robespierre was later part of the Revolutionary government that gave the order to cut off Louis’ head. Walking further east, I stood in the doorway of the apartment building where the radical political writer Jean-Paul Marat was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday. I went west and hung out in a café in the Palais-Royal near the site where Desmoulins had hopped onto a café chair and, suddenly freed of his lifelong stammer, roused the crowd to the storming of the Bastille.

Life goes on, and history advances even after a history-stopping event such as the French Revolution. Parisians live in charming apartments once occupied by murdered revolutionaries, who fought to bring France liberty, equality and fraternity. The French Senate meets in the Luxembourg Palace where thousands were detained before their trip to the scaffold. Children gambol at a playground where the Bastille once stood, marked by a few of the great prison stones that remain. Traffic snarls up around the glam Place de La Concorde where the guillotine hacked away during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. The past is present; in fact, as Faulkner said, it isn’t even past. 

I haven’t been the same since I read A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY. My empathy and idealism are now more often tempered by the realization that making revolution is easier than making and sustaining a new political order. The Arab Spring began with Egyptians toppling a tyrant, and collapsed once the revolutionaries began working to destroy each other. The U.S.S.R. is over, but the Russian people are allowing a new strongman to chip away at fragile freedoms in exchange for more stability and robust nationalism. Near the end of Mantel’s book, her narrative begins to weave in reports of a young general making his name --- Napoléon Bonaparte, who filled the vacuum created by political chaos by crowning himself France’s divine Emperor. In America, we owe the strength of our power-sharing, three-branch government in part to the executive restraint George Washington exercised as president and his precedent-setting gesture of stepping down after two terms in office.

Mantel’s special gift to readers is allowing them to experience, as if firsthand, that history is not the result of abstract forces, but of individual actions, driven by personal experience, perspective, personality, intelligence and psychology. The interplay of individual actions creates the force that drives events, and a small move can ignite a change beyond the power of any individual to contain. I had probably learned this in theory at school, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I opened that Christmas package and plunged myself into A PLACE OF GREATER SAFETY.