My wife and I are still reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, a fat and satisfying novel about the French Revolution, and I thought I’d pass on this paragraph from page 400 of my Penguin paperback (the narrator is Danton):

I looked at his [Robespierre’s] books. Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the yard; few other modern authors. Cicero, Tacitus, the usual: all well-thumbed. I wonder — if we go to war with England, will I have to hide my books of Shakespeare, and my Adam Smith? I guess that Robespierre reads no modern language but his own, which seems a pity. Camille, by the way, thinks modern languages beneath his notice; he is studying Hebrew, and looking for someone to teach him Sanskrit.

A few sentences about books and languages say something interesting about three of the main figures of the Revolution (making a dry joke about Desmoulins in the process) and provide a quick meditation on what happens to international cultural relations in time of war. A good writer, Mantel is.


  1. Have you read Wolf Hall yet? It’s her latest book, taking on Thomas Cromwell this time, and it’s wonderful.

  2. Belloc has an appendix with the catalog of Danton’s library. I guess the LibraryThing Legacy Libraries project should get on it, though the editions are pretty vague for their taste.

  3. Have you read Wolf Hall yet?
    No, and I thank you for the recommendation.
    Belloc has an appendix with the catalog of Danton’s library.
    Fascinating, and I agree LibraryThing should do something with it!

  4. Of course Adam Smith was Scots and on the ‘my enemy’s enemy’ principle they weren’t exactly unfriendly with the French. The Act of Union was in 1707, and I suppose things changed a bit after that. Underneath they still both hate us, though.

  5. John Emerson says

    Toward the end of his life Karl XII of Sweden put together a plan to invade Britain via Scotland (with French help) and stir up the Jacobites.
    After Queen Kristina left the Swedish throne she had a plan to make herself Queen of Naples.
    Th Swedes are no fun any more. All they do nowadays is produce really horrible pop records.

  6. That looks like a great book, John. Those were the days.
    The Jacobites can’t have been helped by having a character named Lord Douffus on their side.

  7. That does look like a great book. It has an interesting discussion on nationality in the 17th-18th centuries, with this bit on p. 56:

    For example, James Daniel Bruce has been described as the highest-ranking foreigner in Russian service, despite the fact that Bruce was born and bred in Russia. He was the son of Colonel William Bruce of Clackmannan in Scotland and served Russia as a military general, statesman, diplomat and scholar…. Bruce was Russian-born and commanded the artillery in the Great Northern War before eventually retiring with the rank of Field Marshal in 1726. Despite his service it seems he was considered a foreigner in Russia by himself and his contemporaries, and still is today by Russian academics.

    (James Daniel Bruce is known as Яков Вилимович Брюс, Yakov Vilimovich Bryus, in Russian.)

  8. And of course if you’re not even born in Russia, you’ll get entirely ignored, even if you wrote the first Russian novel.

  9. I wonder why he was known as Вилимович when his name was Daniel.

  10. “He was the son of Colonel William Bruce of Clackmannan…”

  11. There was a James Alexandrovich Bruce who was Governor of Moscow, evidently distantly related. Countess Bruce was a lady-in-waiting to Catherine the Great, though I don’t suppose she had any Scottish blood.

  12. I had thought that the poet Bryusov was descended from the Bruces, but apparently it’s not clear what the origin of the family name is.

  13. The Mark Of The Scots, by David Bruce:

    Famous Americans of Scottish descent include George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; Katharine Hepburn and Elvis Presley; John D. Rockefeller and Ty Cobb. World figures include Winston Churchill, Sir Laurence Olivier, and Immanual Kant.

    They’re a sneaky people, the Scots. Trying to imply that Kant was a Scotsman, without actually saying anything of the kind.

  14. No true Scotsman would have written Untersuchung über die Deutlichkeit der Grundsätze der natürlichen Theologie und Moral.

  15. Wikipedia confirms that Kant had Scottish ancestors, but I can’t make out the details. There is, at a minimum, some pronoun trouble in the relevant passage.

  16. But it would account for the Critique of Pure McReason.

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