I find now that I should have been flagging pages the whole time in order to truly review Carlyle's "The French Revolution," of which this book is the second volume. However, a few things stand out in my memory after these months of reading:
Carlyle’s method of understanding and interpreting the events of history is not scientific. That is to say, it is not materialistic or detached. Carlyle takes for granted that historical events have moral and spiritual, as well as material and political, signI find now that I should have been flagging pages the whole time in order to truly review Carlyle's "The French Revolution," of which this book is the second volume. However, a few things stand out in my memory after these months of reading:
Carlyle’s method of understanding and interpreting the events of history is not scientific. That is to say, it is not materialistic or detached. Carlyle takes for granted that historical events have moral and spiritual, as well as material and political, significance, and that a truly capable and committed historian would not neglect the first two in favor of the second. We don’t encounter that attitude much these days, so modern readers might balk at such statements as “Thou [Louis XV:], whose whole existence hitherto was a chimera and scenic show,….Thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature; the use and meaning of thee not yet known” (v. 1, p. 19). What modern historian would apply such words to, for example, the late Saddam Hussein? Why not? According to my own hypothesis, the nineteenth-century worldview was very different from our twenty-first — while we depend on disposable sources (mostly columnists, “talking heads,” and bloggers) to supply the commentary and analysis that allows us to form opinions as to events’ moral and spiritual significance (odds are, we wouldn’t even call it that), the nineteenth century had no nightly news, no Maureen Dowd. Books were, basically, its media, and history books were allowed — and expected — to make moral judgments. Whether as a cause or an effect, morality then was less flexible, spirituality less relative. Carlyle is working from the assumption that reality is objective and knowable, that there is such a thing as a true narrative, and he is seeking to give it to us.
However, modern readers might be reconciled to reading Carlyle’s moral and spiritual (as well as material and political) version of history by the fact that, to all appearances, he would agree with the modern notion that history is discursive—that with the passage of years come new vantage points from which to look at past events and see truths previously hidden. In introducing the events of the Reign of Terror, he pauses a moment to speculate on history’s difficulties in treating of that subject in the years prior to 1836:
…now, in a new stage of the business, when History, ceasing to shriek, would try rather to include under her old Forms of speech or speculation this new amazing Thing [the Reign of Terror:] … History … babbles and flounders… …what if History were to admit, for once, that all the Names and Theorems yet known to her fall short? … In that case, History, renouncing the pretension to name it at present, will look honestly at it, and name what she can of it! Any approximation to the right Name has value: were the right Name itself once here, the Thing is known henceforth; the Thing is then ours, and can be dealt with. (v. 2, p. 274)
Though Carlyle never abandons the notion that the aim of History is to disclose an objective, knowable, eternally-valid Truth (“were the right Name itself once here, the Thing is known henceforth”), he acknowledges that historians may not be equipped to perceive “the Thing,” as it really is, from each and every historical vantage point. He seems to imply that though the past is knowable and interpretable, it is not unconditionally so, and this certainly is a sympathetic notion for most modern readers. Put another way, both Carlyle and us acknowledge that though we might write our ‘History of the French Revolution’ differently from Carlyle, that fact does not invalidate either version. (Actually, I would venture to ask, who is to say that Carlyle’s moral judgments and spiritual inferences are incorrect? Our modern era, so loath to utter any lasting and definitive opinion in regards to such things?)
More problematic in the last analysis might be Carlyle’s histrionic prose. It is full of (I open a page here at random) expressions like, “one’s New Golden Era going down in leaden dross, and sulphurous black of the Everlasting Darkness!” (v. 2, p. 197). We don’t hear such verbiage much these days, and reading it, I sometimes felt like I was suffering from melodrama overload (similar to an ice cream headache, but more ignore-able). However, I found relief in the reflection that Carlyle is not twittering about getting a facial or losing his bus pass or even about the latest protests in Iran. The events he recalls were dramatic and, in terms of European history, unprecedented as well as seminal. For something approaching a rough parallel in modern times, think 9/11. With his black-blue-and-purple prose, Carlyle is attempting to lay bare the substance of The French Revolution, its causes, and effects; he is attempting to lay bare the psychology of a movement.
At this point, I realize that most of my thoughts in regards to Carlyle stem from bridging the gulf separating the early Victorian era from our current one. (Are we Modern now or Post-Modern? Or just “Information Age?”) Surely, Carlyle’s first readers struggled not half so hard with reading this work, and it would be truer to say that I honed my deductive reasoning skills than that I learned about the French Revolution (though both are true). Certainly one must be tenacious and tolerant to find reading “The French Revolution” worth the time and effort, but for anyone interested in the time period, I’d say it’s a must.
P.S. I also recommend Julian Hawthorne’s very brief Introduction (written c. 1900, for the Colonial Press edition) which details the story of how the original and only copy of Carlyle’s first manuscript was unwittingly destroyed by John Stuart Mill’s housemaid — making it necessary for Carlyle to re-write the whole thing from scratch. Oh, the days before computers. ...more
Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian, critic, and sociological writer. was born in the village of Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, eldest child of James Carlyle, stonemason, and Margaret (Aitken) Carlyle. The father was stern, irascible, a puritan of the puritans, but withal a man of rigid probity and strength of character. The mother, too, was of the Scottish earth, and Thomas' education was begun at hoThomas Carlyle, Scottish historian, critic, and sociological writer. was born in the village of Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, eldest child of James Carlyle, stonemason, and Margaret (Aitken) Carlyle. The father was stern, irascible, a puritan of the puritans, but withal a man of rigid probity and strength of character. The mother, too, was of the Scottish earth, and Thomas' education was begun at home by both the parents. From the age of five to nine he was at the village school; from nine to fourteen at Annan Grammar School. where he showed proficiency in mathematics and was well grounded in French and Latin. In November 1809 he walked to Edinburgh, and attended courses at the University till 1814, with the ultimate aim of becoming a minister. He left without a degree, became a mathematical tutor at Annan Academy in 1814, and three years later abandoned all thoughts of entering the Kirk, having reached a theological position incompatible with its teachings. He had begun to learn German in Edinburgh, and had done much independent reading outside the regular curriculum. Late in 1816 he moved to a school in Kirkcaldy, where he became the intimate associate of Edward Irving, an old boy of Annan School, and now also a schoolmaster. This contact was Carlyle's first experience of true intellectual companionship, and the two men became lifelong friends. He remained there two years, was attracted by Margaret Gordon, a lady of good family (whose friends vetoed an engagement), and in October 1818 gave up schoolmastering and went to Edinburgh, where he took mathematical pupils and made some show of reading law.
During this period in the Scottish capital he began to suffer agonies from a gastric complaint which continued to torment him all his life, and may well have played a large part in shaping the rugged, rude fabric of his philosophy. In literature he had at first little success, a series of articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia bringing in little money and no special credit. In 1820 and 1821 he visited Irving in Glasgow and made long stays at his father's new farm, Mainhill; and in June 1821, in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, he experienced a striking spiritual rebirth which is related in Sartor Resartus. Put briefly and prosaically, it consisted in a sudden clearing away of doubts as to the beneficent organization of the universe; a semi-mystical conviction that he was free to think and work, and that honest effort and striving would not be thwarted by what he called the "Everlasting No."
For about a year, from the spring of 1823, Carlyle was tutor to Charles and Arthur Buller, young men of substance, first in Edinburgh and later at Dunkeld. Now likewise appeared the first fruits of his deep studies in German, the Life of Schiller, which was published serially in the London Magazine in 1823-24 and issued as a separate volume in 1825. A second garner from the same field was his version of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister which earned the praise of Blackwood's and was at once recognized as a very masterly rendering.
In 1821 Irving had gone to London, and in June 1821 Carlyle followed, in the train of his employers, the Bullers. But he soon resigned his tutorship, and, after a few weeks at Birmingham, trying a dyspepsia cure, he lived with Irving at Pentonville, London, and paid a short visit to Paris. March 1825 saw him back; in Scotland, on his brother's farm, Hoddam Hill, near the Solway. Here for a year he worked hard at German translations, perhaps more serenely than before or after and free from that noise which was always a curse to his sensitive ear and which later caused him to build a sound-proof room in his Chelsea home.
Before leaving for London Irving had introduced Carlyle to Jane Baillie Welsh daughter of the surgeon, John Welsh, and descended from John Knox. She was beautiful, precociously learned, talented, and a brilliant mistress of cynical satire. Among her numerous suitors, the rough, uncouth ...more