Blog : Posts tagged with 'Ruth Scurr'

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Great Spectacle Wearers From History

In which we consider Robespierre’s eyesight


Since briefly writing about Maximilien Robespierre the other week – particularly, writing about the biography Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr – I’ve had a couple of search hits from people looking for Robespierre information. And one, in particular, tickled me.

maximilien robespierre glasses

Drinking glasses with Robespierre etched on the side? Possibly. But, I assumed, about spectacles. Because Robespierre was famous for wearing spectacles. His whole life, he had terrible eyesight. He habitually wore glasses with green-tinted lenses, and often when speaking, a second pair over the top.

He was both short- and long-sighted, so everything he saw was slightly blurred. His glasses helped him focus, they filtered the harsh sunlight, and they were also props used to dramatic effect as he spoke at the tribune. (Scurr, p10).

Strangely, though, there are barely any portraits of Robespierre that show him wearing glasses. There were probably thousands of images of him made during his lifetime – his own study was practically papered with him – but in just about all of them his forehead and eyes are bare. There is one portrait showing them resting high on his forehead; and one rough sketch, made the day before his death, in which he’s wearing them.

Maybe it’s something about his depiction, often in an idealised fashion; but that doesn’t apply to all the portraits made of him by a long chalk. Maybe, though, it’s about his own personality. Robespierre had something in common with the modern far-left politicans George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan: a noticeable pride in his own appearance and clothing, bordering on vanity.* He always dressed well, as well as he could afford, and fashionably.** Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in glasses, even though he had to wear them all the time. It’s certainly a possibility. If he was around today, I’m fairly sure that he’d go for contacts.

* Apart from that, and their place on the far left, he had very little else in common with them, of course. On the one hand: Robespierre did achieve a position of high political importance in his lifetime. On the other, he’s unlikely to ever appear on Celebrity Big Brother, what with being dead, and all. Robespierre was often libelled in the press; his response was to start his own political newspaper. Court cases weren’t really an option at the time.

** The BBC’s rather unhistorical Saturday-teatime version of The Scarlet Pimpernel was particularly inaccurate here, showing him always in dour black outfits, when he was famous for his brightly-coloured jackets and embroidered waistcoats.

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Reading list

In which we discuss books and the French Revolution


One thing about yesterday’s post: it gives you a good look at the state of one of our bookshelves. Not a good enough look to make out what most of the books are, though, unless they’re books with distinctive spines that you’re already familiar with – like Peter Ackroyds’s London, for example.

Over on top of that pile on the left, though, is a book I mentioned here a few months ago. Shortly after restarting the regular blogging cycle, I mused aloud as to whether I should restart the Books I Haven’t Read reviews, and predicted one book that might fall victim: Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down. It’s there on top of the pile, in the blue cover. And, I have to say, so far the prediction’s been right. But not because of the book itself; because there’s been too much else to read. Below it on the pile there’s Graves’ White Goddess, also mentioned as a potential Book I Haven’t Read. I still haven’t read it. Further up, though, there’s a biography of Robert Graves, which I picked up on a bookstall outside the Watershed cinema. I thought: if I’m going to write about The White Goddess, I need to know more about him to do it justice. Coming across the biography by chance, I bought it. I started to read it. I still haven’t finished it.

Elsewhere in the house there are many more books I haven’t finished reading. Amazingly, though, yesterday, I finished one, and it was a book I only made a start on a few weeks ago.* Fatal Purity, a biography of Maximilien “The Incorruptible” Robespierre, by Ruth Scurr. A shy, fastidious man, who I find very intriguing; someone who found himself trying to impose morals by whatever means necessary, because his cause was justified. He was shortsighted both literally and figuratively, and was a logical man who became trapped in his own logic. He was willing to execute his oldest friends, because he thought his cause, the Revolution, was more important.

I’m not sure I read the book properly, because it left me feeling I’d stepped through a lacuna at one point: I wasn’t sure at all how he went from being the people’s leader, to giving a speech that he apparently could see was to try to save his own life. One thing I definitely learned about, though, was Robespierre’s inability to ever, at all, admit that he had been wrong, even after his stance had changed, or when condemning people he had earlier supported. I’m still not entirely sure whether, for that, he should be applauded, or condemned himself.

* Because it was a Christmas present from K’s brother.

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