Peter McPhee: Robespierre

Portrait of a sea-green enigma

Philip Dwyer


Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life
by Peter McPhee
Yale University Press (Inbooks), $49.95 hb, 333 pp, 9780300118117


The ‘good’ biographer always opts for a nuanced portrait, and this is what Peter McPhee has given us in his well-written, reflective, sympathetic account of one of the most enigmatic, complex leaders of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94). McPhee had his work cut out for him. Those familiar with the period may come to this book, as I did, with somewhat preconceived ideas. Robespierre conjures up a rather distasteful character, a revolutionary with all the negative connotations that word can conjure: a zealot, cold, calculating, idealistic, paranoid, the prototype of the totalitarian bureaucrat capable of sending friends and colleagues to the guillotine for the ‘cause’. So I was curious as to what McPhee, a leading historian of the French Revolution, made of the man, and how he accounted for Robespierre’s condemnation to death of so many people.

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Philip Dwyer

Philip Dwyer

Philip Dwyer is the Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle. The first volume of his Napoleon biography won the 2008 National Biography Award and was shortlisted for the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Non-Fiction.

Published in May 2012 no. 341

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