The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/French Revolution, The (Carlyle)

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The Encyclopedia Americana
French Revolution, The (Carlyle)
Edition of 1920. See also The French Revolution: A History on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FRENCH REVOLUTION, The. Everyone knows the story how the manuscript of the first book of Carlyle's masterpiece, ‘The French Revolution,’ was lost. He lent it to his friend, John Stuart Mill, who in turn lent it to his Egeria, Mrs. Taylor; and Mrs. Taylor's housemaid used it to light the fires with. But everyone does not know how Carlyle took the loss. Mill and Mrs. Taylor went together to tell him the news. It was a long and painful interview, for Mill most injudiciously stayed talking for three hours. All through the ordeal, Carlyle's whole endeavor was to relieve Mill's distress at having caused such an irreparable loss. His own distress came later when the visitor was gone. The “ill-bred Scotch collie-dog,” as he had been called, played the part of a very chivalrous gentleman. No Chesterfield could have done more. Then, consoled by his admirable wife, he sat down and rewrote the whole book, a marvelous feat of memory and determination.

The completed work has been called drama rather than history; and the usual advice to the tiro is to read some plain forthright narrative of the events of the Revolution before attacking Carlyle's version; but a very bare outline will suffice. If the reader but surrender himself to the poet-historian's dramatic method and rouse his mind to co-operate, he will come to know this period as he can know no other; for Carlyle will make him live in the heart of it. This most artistic of all Carlyle's works is cast on the lines of a great tragedy with a definite beginning, middle and end. The curtain rises on the room where Louis the Well-beloved is dying of smallpox, and falls on the streets of Paris cleared of the Revolution by Napoleon's “whiff of grape-shot.” The central catastrophe is the violent death of the false, effete, bankrupt ancien régime. Carlyle realizes the events himself so strongly that he almost persuades the reader he is a living witness of the scenes portrayed. Urged by hunger, the women of Paris stream out in long procession to Versailles and bring the royal family back with them, “the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's little boy,” as they call them; for the people still have faith in their king's power to relieve their distress. At the time, it seems no more than another bread-riot. The reader is not conscious of the implications or consequences of this act, just like any observant Parisian of the time. But events march swiftly on; the net of fate tightens around the luckless king and queen; they become prisoners; they must stand trial; they must set their heads under the axe of the guillotine. Equally vivid is his portraiture of the actors in the great drama, Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre, Marat, for Carlyle possessed what his friend Emerson called “portrait-seeing, portrait-painting eyes,” which were as effective in dealing with the past as with the actually visible present.

Carlyle's own account of its composition is the best criticism. “It all stands pretty fair in my head, nor do I mean to investigate much more about it, but to splash down what I know in large masses of colours, that it may look like a smoke-and-flame conflagration in the distance, which it is.” When he had completed the manuscript in January 1837, he wrote to Sterling: “It is a wild savage book, itself a kind of French Revolution . . . it has come hot out of my own soul, born in blackness, whirlwind and sorrow.” These remarks are illuminating. All history is interpretation of events; and the interpretation is conditioned by the historian's training, outlook, opportunities, political and religious views, even when he does not try to make history fit a theory. Other histories of the Revolution, such as Taine's, are stronger in analysis of the origins and causes of this cataclysm; but Carlyle succeeds in giving back the actual impression the Revolution made upon the world at the time, the impression of storm and earthquake, volcano and eclipse. Nor must it be inferred that his work was superficial. It was based on “indefatigable investigations,” pursued with a rare love of truth. Modern criticism may gnaw at slight defects, but it cannot impugn the solidity of this great book. Traill says that it has made this terrible drama of a foreign people as real to many English readers as any passage in English history delineated by Shakespeare or by Scott.

“This book gave Carlyle at a single step his unique position as a man of letters,” says Carlyle's friend and biographer. It established his reputation as a man of extraordinary gifts among the greatest of the time. Dickens carried a copy of it with him wherever he went. From it he derived the inspiration for ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ Southey read and reread it six different times. Thackeray welcomed it in an enthusiastic review. Even Jeffrey, an outspoken critic of the old school, admitted its success in the teeth of all the rules and precedents.

Dr. J. Holland Rose, the learned authority on Napoleon, has produced an annotated edition of ‘The French Revolution’; but perhaps the most illuminating aid to the understanding of this masterpiece is Mr. Edmund J. Sullivan's graphic interpretation of the text in a remarkable series of symbolic designs for the two-volume edition of Chapman and Hall, 1910. The genius of Carlyle is matched by the art of this master of black and white.

Archibald MacMechan,
Professor of English Literature, Dalhousie College, Halifax, N. S.