Carlyle believed that the historian should be an artist. According to Hadva Ben-Israel (English historians on the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1968 -- my quotes here are from him), unlike the scholar who was frightened by the vastness of the canvass and retreats into detail, Carlyle was excited by the scope of the topic and conveyed its immensity in his writing. At the same time, unlike conventional accounts of the time that were concerned to tell the reader what to think about the French Revolution, Carlyle presents ‘a pure narrative, a story told by the traditional omniscient observer’ -- and urges us to think about what it all means, not assume we know. Where the general British reaction was horror at the carnage, Carlyle points out that, for instance, during the Terror bread was affordable to ordinary people as it not been ever before in human memory and would not be afterwards.
He ‘presents both situations and questions of judgment in the confused, uncertain way in which they appear to the people concerned,’ and one of the most immediately striking features of his history is that he writes for the most part in the present tense as if he were indeed an observer at the time (though he sometimes reveals when he writes of what will happen that he in fact knows how things subsequently turned out). Most of all, the narrator's role makes me think of the Chorus of a Greek play, mostly narrating but often also addressing us directly as if we were contemporaries, and addressing the characters with rhetorical questions and exclamations.
Carlyle was influenced by recent German historians (and corresponded with Goethe) but also by Romantic literature: Scott and Byron. Like them he was interested in the use of the ‘dramatic genius’ outside theatre and sought to write a story as vivid and dramatic as a Scott novel, but true: he cared only about what ‘really happened’, the ‘human facts’.
Consequently, I feel having read the book not only that it’s been a gripping story but that for the first time I know about the French Revolution, never having read anything except summaries before.
If I keep to my plan, in future postings I'll say more about what Carlyle makes of the Revolution (and specifically of the Terror); and will also reproduce some passages to give a flavour of his treatment of key events and developments. For now, though, something about his people. I've said that reading The French Revolution is not easy. One of the main reasons is its complexity: the cast of characters, for instance, is huge, and I found myself frequently using the index to look up where a particular name had cropped up before. With the main characters, however, we have no problem because Carlyle has made them distinct and memorable in the manner of Scott. Here are two of them, Mirabeau and Robespierre. (Text taken from Gutenberg online, page numbers refer to the edition I'm using, Modern Library (New York), 2002).
Count Gabriel Honoré Mirabeau:
Towards such work, in such manner, marches he, this singular Riquetti Mirabeau. In fiery rough figure, with black Samson-locks under the slouch-hat, he steps along there. A fiery fuliginous mass, which could not be choked and smothered, but would fill all France with smoke. And now it has got air; it will burn its whole substance, its whole smoke-atmosphere too, and fill all France with flame. Strange lot! Forty years of that smouldering, with foul fire-damp and vapour enough, then victory over that;—and like a burning mountain he blazes heaven-high; and, for twenty-three resplendent months, pours out, in flame and molten fire-torrents, all that is in him, the Pharos and Wonder-sign of an amazed Europe;—and then lies hollow, cold forever! Pass on, thou questionable Gabriel Honore, the greatest of them all: in the whole National Deputies, in the whole Nation, there is none like and none second to thee. (Chapter 1.4 IV p.119)
The National Assembly, in one of its stormiest moods, is debating a Law against Emigration; Mirabeau declaring aloud, "I swear beforehand that I will not obey it." Mirabeau is often at the Tribune this day; with endless impediments from without; with the old unabated energy from within. What can murmurs and clamours, from Left or from Right, do to this man; like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved? With clear thought; with strong bass-voice, though at first low, uncertain, he claims audience, sways the storm of men: anon the sound of him waxes, softens; he rises into far-sounding melody of strength, triumphant, which subdues all hearts; his rude-seamed face, desolate fire-scathed, becomes fire-lit, and radiates: once again men feel, in these beggarly ages, what is the potency and omnipotency of man's word on the souls of men. "I will triumph or be torn in fragments," he was once heard to say. "Silence," he cries now, in strong word of command, in imperial consciousness of strength, "Silence, the thirty voices, Silence aux trente voix!"—and Robespierre and the Thirty Voices die into mutterings; and the Law is once more as Mirabeau would have it. (Chapter 2.3 VI p.355)
But whoever will, with sympathy, which is the first essential towards insight, look at this questionable Mirabeau, may find that there lay verily in him, as the basis of all, a Sincerity, a great free Earnestness; nay call it Honesty, for the man did before all things see, with that clear flashing vision, into what was, into what existed as fact; and did, with his wild heart, follow that and no other. Whereby on what ways soever he travels and struggles, often enough falling, he is still a brother man. Hate him not; thou canst not hate him! Shining through such soil and tarnish, and now victorious effulgent, and oftenest struggling eclipsed, the light of genius itself is in this man; which was never yet base and hateful: but at worst was lamentable, loveable with pity. They say that he was ambitious, that he wanted to be Minister. It is most true; and was he not simply the one man in France who could have done any good as Minister? Not vanity alone, not pride alone; far from that! Wild burstings of affection were in this great heart; of fierce lightning, and soft dew of pity. So sunk, bemired in wretchedest defacements, it may be said of him, like the Magdalen of old, that he loved much: his Father the harshest of old crabbed men he loved with warmth, with veneration. (Chapter 2.3.VII p.368)
But the Chief Priest and Speaker of this place [the Jacobin assembly], as we said, is Robespierre, the long-winded incorruptible man. What spirit of Patriotism dwelt in men in those times, this one fact, it seems to us, will evince: that fifteen hundred human creatures, not bound to it, sat quiet under the oratory of Robespierre; nay, listened nightly, hour after hour, applausive; and gaped as for the word of life. More insupportable individual, one would say, seldom opened his mouth in any Tribune. Acrid, implacable-impotent; dull-drawling, barren as the Harmattan-wind! He pleads, in endless earnest-shallow speech, against immediate War, against Woollen Caps or Bonnets Rouges, against many things; and is the Trismegistus and Dalai-Lama of Patriot men. Whom nevertheless a shrill-voiced little man, yet with fine eyes, and a broad beautifully sloping brow, rises respectfully to controvert: he is, say the Newspaper Reporters, 'M. Louvet, Author of the charming Romance of Faublas.' Steady, ye Patriots! Pull not yet two ways; with a France rushing panic-stricken in the rural districts, and a Cimmerian Europe storming in on you! (Chapter 2.5.IX, p.452)