During lockdown I rediscovered my joy of knitting, and recently many of my friends have become grandparents. I haven’t been able to unlock the multi-tasking skill of reading while knitting, but listening to audiobooks with needles in hand is quite achievable, and a great way of finally clearing some chunksters from the TBR. Last month I also indulged in a little supportive role play – everyone has heard about the women who sat knitting by the guillotine during the French Revolution, haven’t they?

These days it’s hard to imagine Hilary Mantel taking 13 years to find a publisher, but that is what happened here. It took her four years to write – from 1975 to 1979 – with the novel finally published in 1992. But in those days Mantel wasn’t the giantess of historical fiction that she is these days, and a novel of 880 pages would be quite a risk. Still it made enough waves to win the Sunday Express Book of the Year Award.

The scope of the novel is huge, following the lives of three pivotal figures in the French Revolution – Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Maximilian Robespierre – from childhood to the execution of the Dantonists in 1794. Three men, so very different from each other: Danton, loud, confident, a natural orator and leader, who never got to lead the country, not against pocketing a corrupt franc or two (!) Desmoulins, the journalist, the propagandist, the libertine (!), Robespierre, the lawyer with an incisive brain, the aesthete, the one who takes control, initially opposed to the death penalty (!) but the future tyrant, master of the Reign of Terror, who ultimately executed both Danton and Desmoulins because of their own growing opposition to the death penalty (!).

You can tell from the number of exclamation marks that there were surprises aplenty in this narrative, particularly as the only thing I remember from O-level history is Robespierre’s bloodthirstiness. To discover that there were others with far greater bloodlust was quite a shock.

Much of the novel focuses on the men’s private lives, their love affairs and marriages, with their women’s experiences front and centre at various points: the loneliness of Danton’s first wife, Gabrielle, as he prioritises political matters, her death in childbirth; the ambiguity of Desmoulins’s marriage to Lucile, a voracious flirt, rumoured to have many lovers but did she really?; the sadness of Éléonore at Robespierre’s refusal to marry her.

The political was never far away, but, maybe I was paying too much attention to a complicated knitting pattern, because I missed the build up to the revolution. Suddenly I was there, and the blood began to flow, streams eventually turning to rivers. In the words of Desmoulins: During these reigns, the natural death of a famous man was so rare that it was gazetted as a event and handed down to posterity by the historians.

Desmoulins also coined the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” in 1790, but there was precious little to be had during the Reign of Terror. Liberty withdrawn in an instant because you had threatened the Republic. Laws made retrospective you could be pulled up for something that was perfectly legal at the time you did it. So much infighting that fraternity clearly still needed to be defined. I did spot some equality though in two memorable trials, each as unjust and fixed as the other: that of the “she-tyrant” Marie-Antoinette in 1793 and that of the Dantonists, who were deemed counterrevolutionary in 1794.

I’m not going to say that I gained a clear overview of the French Revolution from the novel. I will say that Mantel does a sterling job of showing the chaos, confusion and peril of those times. Jonathan Keeble’s audio performance, which runs to 33 hours and 51 minutes, wasn’t a second too long and, indeed, his vocalisation of Desmoulin’s stammer made the man more sympathetic than reading the text may have done. His Danton was arrogant, rambunctious, his Robespierre positively sinister.

At this point the question to be asked is this – am I going to remove my paperback edition from the shelves, thus freeing up 2” of much needed space? No. For some reason, I still want to read it!