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Heads Will Roll: Three Bastille Day Reads

Chris Dawson

For visitors new to Paris, one of the most transcendent experiences has to be when they first come upon the Place de la Concorde. The sheer enormity of this plaza, with its careening, circling cars and Egyptian obelisk in the middle, causes visitors to swoon.

What not everyone realizes is that here, starting in 1793, thousands of French citizens lost their heads to the guillotine before jeering and sometimes even picnicking crowds.

While the following three books are based on research into this bloody uprising, they're also feel-good volumes, in a way. For each one will vividly remind you how lucky you are to be alive and reading — and with your head still attached.


Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution

By Simon Schama, Paperback, 976 pages, Vintage, list price: $29.95

While earlier historians tended to edit out the Revolution's relentless bloodshed, Schama restores it blazingly. He explains that "in some depressingly unavoidable sense, violence was the Revolution itself."

Almost anyone could be a victim; the notion of guilt and innocence was quite elastic. One might be carted away on the strength of a rumor or for revenge. And what awaited the unlucky wasn't necessarily the guillotine: People might be torn apart by mobs or drowned en masse. And there were grim ironies as Schama dryly recounts: "Among the last batch to be guillotined were the executioner Jean Ripet and his assistant, whose hard work over the months did not succeed in sparing them." Schama is a master at making events that are over two centuries old seem vividly, terrifyingly present.


Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution

By Michelle Moran, Hardcover, 464 pages, Crown, list price: $25.00

Centuries after she lived, the name Madame Tussaud is still known the world over. Museums of eerily lifelike wax figures, made in her name, can be found from Las Vegas to London. And their contents are fascinatingly up to date. Among the latest to receive the Tussaud treatment are Lady Gaga and Sean "Diddy" Combs.

But the real woman behind the wax lived in a pre-pop culture world. Madame Tussaud's talent as a sculptress earned her a place at the royal court at Versailles. Born into poverty, yet exposed to fabulous wealth, her life provides an example of the yawning gap between rich and poor that prevailed at the time, fueling the Revolution.


A Place of Greater Safety

By Hilary Mantel, Paperback, 768 pages, Picador, list price: $18

This evocative novel follows the fate of three famous revolutionaries — the pamphleteer Camille Desmoulins and the lawyers Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton — from their childhoods to their deaths by guillotine.

The world they inhabit is the Paris streets. And these are terrifying. You can almost hear the braying mob as it chants:

Soon doors are being splintered and locks smashed. Before long the mob was "up on the roofs of the Rue Montreuil. ...The soldiers fell back under the barrage, hands to their faces and scalps, blood dripping between their fingers, tripping on the bodies of men who had been felled. They opened fire. It was 6:30 p.m."

When I read that passage, it was evening, too. I savored the fact that I was indoors, the street outside was quiet, and I was safe from any roaming, bloodthirsty crowds. I think you will, as well.

Penelope Rowlands was raised in London and New York and has lived in Paris. She has written for Vogue, The New York Times Magazine and ARTnews. Her most recent book is Paris Was Ours. She now lives in Princeton, N.J.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

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Penelope Rowlands