Synthesize the numerous biographies of the leaders of the French Revolution during the high period of radical Jacobinism, and perhaps the first thought to emerge is what an improbable collection of characters they were. Ruth Scurr begins her biography of Robespierre with the masterly understatement: ‘Political turmoil can foster unlikely leaders’—indicating that, at a deeper level of explanation, the sheer contingency of political fortunes at a time when traditional sources of authority and legitimacy were collapsing might be very much to the point. Joseph de Maistre famously described the Revolution as God’s retribution for human folly; if so, His purpose in selecting precisely these individuals as the instruments of His vengeance remains profoundly inscrutable. Nothing here seems remotely foreordained or even moderately predictable. Danton, Marat, Fabre d’Eglantine, Saint-Just came out of nowhere: middle-class provincials with little or nothing in their backgrounds to suggest they were qualified for major parts in a great world-historical drama, and—especially in the cases of Fabre and Saint-Just—much to suggest that they were not. Paradoxically, given his own stress on the Rousseauist ideal of ‘transparency’, the most mysterious of them all was Maximilien Marie Isidore de Robespierre.

The prim lawyer from Arras, courteous, diligent, sartorially fussy, a trifle burdened by the shame of having been conceived out of wedlock, but altogether boringly conventional (Scurr represents him—a nice touch—as ‘meticulously unflamboyant’) was not on the face of it destined to become one of the chief architects of a political experiment whose ‘meaning’ has been debated ever since. True, even in Arras there were tentative signs of things to come: the lawyer with a burning sense of ‘justice’, prepared to represent those who could not pay their legal fees and eloquently opposed to the death penalty. Drawing on his sister Charlotte’s account, Scurr writes with sympathy of the six-year-old boy’s character change after his mother’s death: previously boisterous and light-hearted, he became ‘serious, poised, responsible and diligent’, preferring ‘solitary pursuits like building model chapels or reading. He had a small collection of pictures and engravings that he liked to arrange in exhibitions for his sisters, delighting in their admiration.’ In 1769, aged eleven, a Church scholarship took him to the Louis-le-Grand college in Paris, and his first encounter with the works of Rousseau, his ‘mental companion for life’. (Scurr depicts as ‘apocryphal’, but ‘too alluring to pass over’, a possible meeting of the two: ‘an attic in the rue Plâtrière: the author bedridden, the frail student breathless from climbing the stairs . . .’) Maximilien distinguished himself sufficiently to be chosen, aged seventeen, to give the school address to the young King Louis xvi after his coronation in 1775. But, returning to Arras to practice law in 1781, Robespierre at his beginnings seemed destined for a humdrum existence in a provincial backwater.

That it was all to be otherwise rests on a historical joke of which the Cunning of Reason could have been proud. Robespierre’s career could never have taken off without the machinations of the party of the Nobles in 1787. Faced with deadlock in their running dispute with the Absolutist state over the fiscal reforms brought forward by the King’s successive chief ministers, Calonne and Brienne, they devised what they thought of as a smart ruse. Instead of continuing with the futile tactic of refusing to ‘register’ royal edicts (a traditional constraint on executive power), the Parlements—the juridical institution representing the interests of the nobles—simply declared themselves ‘incompetent’ in matters of taxation. The deadlock, they suggested, should be broken by the only body that could properly decide the matter, the Estates-General, which had not met since 1614. The belief was that, if reconvened, it would proceed as in 1614, with the two most powerful estates, the clergy and nobility, combining electoral forces to block the royal will. It was thus to be game, set and match to Privilege.

Its proponents, however, made one major error of political calculation; they assumed the docility of the Third Estate. Thus was set in train a sequence of events that would lead from the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789 to the Third’s self-declaration in June as a National Assembly and, after July 14, both the King’s recognition of the new Assembly and the formal abolition of ‘feudal’ rights. As it turned out, game, set and match to the People, though not without substantial retranslations of the Tennis Court Oath further down the road. One of the deputies from Arras who arrived in Versailles for the May gathering (roughly one year later he spoke of ‘the hatred with which the aristocrats regard me’) and who was to be at the very heart of those retranslations was Robespierre.

The rest is the extraordinary tale that has been rehearsed so many times, from so many points of view. That of conservative England was graphically depicted by John Wilson Croker in 1835: ‘The blood-red mist by which his last years were enveloped magnified his form, but obscured his features. Like the Genius of the Arabian tale, he emerged suddenly from a petty space into enormous power and gigantic size, and as suddenly vanished, leaving behind him no trace but terror’. To this we might juxtapose Michelet’s more companionable yet slightly eerie postscript to his great epic work, Histoire de la Révolution française, mourning, with the departure of his book for the press, the loss of ‘my pale companion, the most faithful of them all, who had not left me from ‘89 to Thermidor; the man of great will, hard-working like me, poor like me, with whom I had, each morning, so many fierce discussions’. Michelet’s discussions were fierce indeed; he certainly did not canonize Robespierre as a hero of the Revolution. Others proved more ardently hagiographic. Georges Sand, rarely at a loss for hyperbole, wrote that Robespierre ‘was not only the greatest figure of the Revolution, but of all history’.