Saturday, January 3, 2015

Thomas Carlyle on the French Revolution

In 1834, 39-year-old Thomas Carlyle sat down to write the history of the French Revolution. Eventually he had a a single full copy of the entire book, which he lent to his friend John Stewart Mill for comments. Someone in Mill's household, apparently an uneducated boor, mistook the manuscript for trash and put the whole thing into an oven, where it gave off a few minutes of heat. At which point Carlyle re-wrote the entire book. It has been in print ever since: Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution: A History

I admit I've never read a book anything like this one. More's the pity.

The language is, well, different. It's English, it's early 19th century, and English is a rapidly transforming language (remember the word "gay"?). I haven't read much early-19th century English, but I have read enough to think that Carlyle's language was his own even at the time. There are almost 800 pages in the edition I read, and I easily needed the first 100 if not more to figure out what he was doing and how: slow reading, since there were so many words I'd either never seen before or had never seen them in the way he was using.

Once I'd figured it out, however, and began to get the hang of his vocabulary, I began to figure out his unique method. Basically, he tells the story in present tense, and changes the perspective whenever the whim takes him. At one moment it's the perspective of a young Parisian woman who is about to be lynched by a mob. Or it can be the perspective of a hapless prime minister trying to balance the French budget before the revolution. The pensive populace of Paris in the tense few days before the storming of the Bastille. The Royal soldier waiting in vain for the enormous yellow Royal carriage trying to escape revolutionary Paris to loyalist Metz. No historian today would dare do anything remotely like this - but once you've got the hand of it, it's very compelling. The figures leap to life!

Which of these six Hundred individuals in plain white cravat, that have come up to regenerate France, might one guess would become their king? For a king or leader they, as all bodies of men, must have: be their work what it may be, there is one man who, by character, faculty, position, is fittest of all to do it; that man, as future not yet elected king, walks there among the rest. He with the thick black locks, will it be? with the hure, as he himself calls it, or black boar's head, fit it be shaken as a senatorial portent? Through whose shaggy beetle-brows, and rough-hewn, seamed, carbuncled face, there look natural ugliness, small-pox, incontinence, bankruptcy - and burning fire of genious, like comet-fire glaring fuliginous through murkier confusions? It is Gabriel Honore Riquetti de Mirabeau, the world-compeller; man-ruling deputy of Aix! According to the Baroness de Stael, he steps proudly along,though looked at askance here; and shakes his black chevelure, of lion's-mane, as if prophetic of great deeds. (p.116)

I admit I referred often to Google to figure out who various actors were: writing 30 years after the events, Carlyle assumed his readers would recognize folks I had never heard of 150 years later. The challenge of the language and vocabulary, the slippery perspective which is never announced, merely is, and the wealth of information made this book a striking read. Compelling, memorable - wonderful. Immortal, too, at least as of 180 years later.

And so here, O Reader, has come the time for us to part. Toilsome was our journeying together, not without offense; but it is done. To me thou wert as a beloved shade, the disembodied or not yet embodied spirit of a Brother. To thee I was but as a voice. Yet was our relation a kind of sacred thing, doubt not that! For whatsoever once sacred things become hollow jargon, yet while the Voice of Man speaks with Man, hast thou not there the living fountain out of which all sacredness sprang, and will yet spring? man, by nature of him, is definable as "an incarnated word". Ill stands it with me if I have spoken falsely: thine also it was to hear truly. farewell. (p.775).

1 comment:

Silke said...

Dear Yaacov,

Jane Austen wrote around that time and nothing in my Penguin editions of her novels says anything about the language having been adjusted.

thus I bet that Carlyle being Carlyle is more to the mark than the time and language changes.

but thinking of other examples: I dearly love the few prose fiction pieces by Friedrich Schiller they read as easy as any contemporary crime novel. But when I tried my eyes on one or two of his highly praised essays on history I gave up in despair.

Could it be that writers used different languages for different subjects at the time?

I have recently been most rewarded by 2 books

a) Simon Sebag Montefiore Life of Potemkin - quite a doorstopper of a book and often rather tedious but I never knew how much defeat the Osmans had to swallow from the Russians. Since all history "experts" keep telling that the Osmans got humiliated only when Napoleon took over the humiliating I wonder why according to our "experts" getting beaten up by the Russians never let to them feeling humiliated at least not to the point that it is ever mentioned at all. ;-)

2. Mr. Britling sees it through by H.G. Wells published in 1916. The thing seen through is WW1 up to that point. A sending shivers up and down the spine glimps into the past written while that past was present and while their young men went away into harm's way. (

Wells mentions at one point that he (Mr. Britling) thinks that the Kaiser's sons were the most evil war mongerers. In all that commenting and explaining that went on last year I have never heard them getting mentioned at all.