The Voracious Pen of Thomas Carlyle

Historians in the News

When Thomas Carlyle sat down in 1834 to write The French Revolution: A History, he wanted to do more than chronicle the mere procession of events. He wanted readers to smell the fear in the streets during the Terror, to taste the decadence of the Bourbon monarchy, to observe the sartorial cavalcade when the Estates-General meets for the first time since 1614, to picture blood spilling from guillotines. To accomplish his task he marshaled the same tools used by novelists—shifting point of view, imagery, and telling details—and borrowed tone and grandeur from Homer, Virgil, and Milton. What sprang forth from Carlyle’s pen was not a dry account of the French Revolution, but a book brimming with passion and philosophy, one that offered a new style of storytelling that influenced a generation of Victorian writers.

That Carlyle would produce such a fervent account is somewhat surprising given his dour upbringing. Born in Ecclefechan, Scotland, in 1795, he was the eldest son of a household defined by his father’s temper and consuming devotion to Calvinism. A bright but sickly boy, he mastered French and Latin, and excelled at mathematics. His father agreed to let him attend university provided he study to become a minister. At fourteen he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, continuing his math studies, tutoring students on the side, and devoting his free time to reading. As he grew more confident socially, he began to participate in debate clubs, where he was celebrated for his wit.
Each year Carlyle spent at Edinburgh, the less inclined he was to fulfill his promise to become a minister. Near the end of his studies, he grudgingly enrolled in a nonresidential divinity course, convinced that he would never finish, but aware of his promise to his parents. In 1814, with neither divinity nor arts degree in hand, Carlyle took his first in a series of teaching jobs, first in Annan, later in Kirkcaldy. His days were spent instructing indifferent young men, while his nights were devoted to literature. In the spring of 1817, he abandoned all pretense of becoming a minister.

A growing disaffection with teaching and a surety that his future career lay in writing led Carlyle to give up his teaching post and move back to Edinburgh in the fall of 1818. He cobbled together a meager living doing translations, tutoring, and hack writing. Carlyle continued his voracious reading, looking for hints of craft and style that he could adopt. He considered Coleridge “very great but rather mystical, sometimes absurd.” Essayist William Hazlitt was “worth little, tho’ clever.” Alexander Pope was “eminently good,” while Thomas Gray was found to be “very good and diverting.” Carlyle lamented the death of Washington Irving: “It was a dream of mine that we two should be friends!” He regarded Byron and those like him to be “opium eaters,” people who “raise their minds by brooding over and embellishing their sufferings, from one degree of fervid exaltation and dreamy greatness to another, till at length they run amuck entirely, and whoever meets them would do well to run them thro’ the body.”

He found solace and inspiration in an unlikely place: the writings of the German Romantics. After struggling to teach himself German, he made it through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, in which God and Mephistopheles fight over the soul of scholar Heinrich Faust. Goethe’s ideas and writings electrified him, prompting him to encourage his friends to persist with studying German, because “in the hands of the gifted does it become supremely good.” It wasn’t long before Carlyle was privileging German over French literature. His enthusiasm led to a book-length essay on Friedrich Schiller and then a translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship that earned him his first big paycheck, in the amount of £180.

In October 1824, Carlyle took a trip to France that he later claimed helped him to write the vivid descriptions in The French Revolution. He did not go to Paris as a young man taking his grand tour, ready to indulge in the delights of French culture; he went as a man who, despite having renounced life as a minister, still viewed the world through the lens of Scots Presbyterianism. After only a few days in Paris, he observed: “France has been so betravelled and beridden and betrodden by all manner of vulgar people that any romance connected with it is entirely gone off ten years ago; the idea of studying it is for me at present altogether out of the question; so I quietly surrender myself to the direction of guide books and laquais de place [local flunkeys], and stroll about from sight to sight.”

Carlyle grudgingly respected Napoleon and his attempts to rationalize French civil life, but held contempt for anything that smacked of the ancien régime. ...

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