The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle, 1834-7: I’d never read it and kept hearing and reading about it. I asked a colleague whose judgment I trusted whether he’d read it; when he replied, ‘Oh, yes,’ as if that went without saying, I decided the time had come, so (being retired) I read it, twice.
But it took some doing. What I found on opening the book was profoundly discouraging and it took will-power to keep reading. The first chapter seems to assume that the reader already knows a great deal about the reign of Louis XV: names are mentioned without explanation and mysterious incidents alluded to. (In the end I was able to understand all this, but only by re-reading carefully and looking things up.) A more seriously impediment, though, because it pervaded the whole book, was Carlyle’s style, which seemed overblown and ham-rhetorical in the worst Victorian manner (the book was written between 1834 and 1837 -- and there’s quite a story about the writing, involving John Stuart Mill).
Here, as an example, is a passage from the sixth page of my edition (Chapter 1.1.II: what I'm giving here is taken from the free Gutenberg Project download version):
Sovereigns die and Sovereignties: how all dies, and is for a Time only; is a 'Time-phantasm, yet reckons itself real!' The Merovingian Kings, slowly wending on their bullock-carts through the streets of Paris, with their long hair flowing, have all wended slowly on,—into Eternity. Charlemagne sleeps at Salzburg, with truncheon grounded; only Fable expecting that he will awaken. Charles the Hammer, Pepin Bow-legged, where now is their eye of menace, their voice of command? Rollo and his shaggy Northmen cover not the Seine with ships; but have sailed off on a longer voyage. The hair of Towhead (Tête d'étoupes) now needs no combing; Iron-cutter (Taillefer) cannot cut a cobweb; shrill Fredegonda, shrill Brunhilda have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled. Neither from that black Tower de Nesle descends now darkling the doomed gallant, in his sack, to the Seine waters; plunging into Night: for Dame de Nesle now cares not for this world's gallantry, heeds not this world's scandal; Dame de Nesle is herself gone into Night. They are all gone; sunk,—down, down, with the tumult they made; and the rolling and the trampling of ever new generations passes over them, and they hear it not any more forever.
And yet withal has there not been realised somewhat? Consider (to go no further) these strong Stone-edifices, and what they hold! Mud-Town of the Borderers (Lutetia Parisiorum or Barisiorum) has paved itself, has spread over all the Seine Islands, and far and wide on each bank, and become City of Paris, sometimes boasting to be 'Athens of Europe,' and even 'Capital of the Universe.' Stone towers frown aloft; long-lasting, grim with a thousand years. Cathedrals are there, and a Creed (or memory of a Creed) in them; Palaces, and a State and Law. Thou seest the Smoke-vapour; unextinguished Breath as of a thing living. Labour's thousand hammers ring on her anvils: also a more miraculous Labour works noiselessly, not with the Hand but with the Thought. How have cunning workmen in all crafts, with their cunning head and right-hand, tamed the Four Elements to be their ministers; yoking the winds to their Sea-chariot, making the very Stars their Nautical Timepiece;—and written and collected a Bibliotheque du Roi; among whose Books is the Hebrew Book! A wondrous race of creatures: these have been realised, and what of Skill is in these: call not the Past Time, with all its confused wretchednesses, a lost one.
“And yet withal has there not been realised somewhat?” -- what sort of English was that? It wasn’t, I was sure, the normal English of the 1830s. (I had one answer: it was the sort of English into which our pompous grammar school headmaster would translate the Greek texts we were studying: ‘Yet would she not brook it’ etc.)
How had my colleague managed to plough through this stuff and come away from it with, evidently, respect? Consider: the trite generalisation that ‘all dies’ (really?), all passes on -- dramatic dash: ‘--into Eternity’ (capitalised); semi-colons where we would have commas, separating main and subordinate clauses; inversions -- ‘cover not the Seine with ships’; rhetorical questions: ‘where now is their eye of menace…?’. And what of: ‘…have had out their hot life-scold, and lie silent, their hot life-frenzy cooled’? those strange hyphenated double nouns (elsewhere double adjectives), some of them seeming to belong more to Anglo-Saxon than to 19th century English, or at least to the liberties that Milton took with the language. ‘Neither’ for ‘nor’ at the beginning of that strange sentence, ‘Neither from that black Tower de Nesle descends now darkling the doomed gallant’, with inversion and over-the-top alliteration. ‘They are all gone; sunk,—down, down’: it could be a Kenneth Williams line from a Carry On film. And so it goes on: ‘Thou seest…; the strange italics; the exclamation marks. Excessive to the point of self-parody, it all seems.
Well, I can report that one gets used to the style and before long takes it for granted, as one does the conventions of opera; in time Carlyle’s neologisms, syntactic contortions and rhetorical figures come to seem appropriate for the scale and ambition of the work. In his review, Mill said The French Revolution was ‘an epic poem’, as well as being ‘the truest of histories’: he seems right on the first point and scholarship appears to have concluded that he was on the second too: Carlyle can be faulted for missing some sources he might have consulted but his use of what he had was sound and accurate.
As time allows I’m thinking I'll post a number of entries with extracts that show the characteristics of the book that make it worth reading -- twice, in my case: what I got out of it was vastly increased the second time. Behind this intention is in part a general conviction that what English (in schools) counts as ‘literature’ ought to broadened to include--as it once did--books like this one. If I were teaching now (a phrase I'm aware I've used before) I'd try bits of Carlyle on them.
But mainly I want to persuade you is that Carlyle is worth our reading.
I'll reserve for another posting some of the reasons why I'm glad I read the book--apart from the huge influence he is said to have had on later 19th century writers, including novelists. Meanwhile, here’s another opinion. George Saintsbury (I've written about him before--consult the ‘labels’) in his History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896) describes Carlyle’s overall opus as ‘thirty volumes of the most brilliant, the most stimulating, the most varied, the most original work in English literature’ (p.238):
Carlyle's style is not seldom spoken of as compact of tricks and manners; and no doubt these are present in it. Yet a narrow inspection will show that its effect is by no means due so much in reality as in appearance to the retaining of capital letters, the violent breaches and aposiopeses, the omission of pronouns and colourless parts of speech generally, the coining of new words, and the introduction of unusual forms. These things are often there, but they are not always ; and even when they are, there is something else much more important, much more characteristic, but also much harder to put the finger on. There is in Carlyle's fiercer and more serious passages a fiery glow of enthusiasm or indignation, in his lighter ones a quaint felicity of unexpected humour, in his expositions a vividness of presentment, in his arguments a sledge-hammer force, all of which are not to be found together anywhere else, and none of which are to be found anywhere in quite the same form. And despite the savagery both of his indignation and his laughter, there is no greater master of tenderness. Wherever he is at home, and he seldom wanders far from it, the weapon of Carlyle is like none other--it is the very sword of Goliath.
The French Revolution has to be considered as a work of Romantic literature: there was such a thing as Romantic history, about which good stuff has been written. More of that, and of what Carlyle thought he was doing, another time.