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The French Revolution: A History by Thomas…
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The French Revolution: A History (1837)

by Thomas Carlyle

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In the opening chapter of his ground-defining book The Symbolist Movement in Literature, the Edwardian critic and poet Arthur Symonds quotes this dictum from Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution: It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works and has his being. First published in 1837 – only 40 years after the events it depicts- and around the same time that Ranke and Comte were trying to establish history as a more scientific discipline, with an underlying theory and a rigorous methodology, Carlyle’s History occupies an ambiguous position in historiography today.

On the one hand, Carlyle’s work is still cited as a source in the most up-to-date studies of the Revolution. It’s a must-go-to text for students of the period. On the other, there are those who argue that Carlyle’s methods and project are not empirical enough; that his high-flown, epic, symbolic style undermines any scientific contribution the work might make for an objective understanding of the Revolution. Modern academic historians have done much to lay open the economic causes of the Revolution, studying tax returns and harvest yields etc, while Marxists have given us a framework for understanding the underlying political and structural causes. Against this kind of academic, objective approach, Carlyle’s work reads more naively, more like a novel, or an epic of Revolution, and less like a serious scientific study.

But to hold this view is to miss the point Carlyle is trying to make about history, and to be blind to the very sophisticated awareness the work displays of the difficulties inherent in doing history. And not to read Carlyle is to miss out on the pleasure of encountering one of the greatest works in English of the 19th century.

The French Revolution may be regarded as a prototype of Symbolist literature, a non-fictional Symbolist work avant la lettre. This Symbolism is present in the work in at least two ways...

read the full review on The Lectern: ( )
9 vote tomcatMurr | Nov 24, 2013 |
In 1834, the philosopher John Stuart Mill discovered that although he had signed a contract with his publisher to produce a general history of the French revolution, he was actually too busy with other commitments to come up with the promised work. So he proposed to his friend Thomas Carlyle that Carlyle write it instead. Carlyle, struggling to make ends meet, and unwilling to stoop to mere journalism, took on the project with a fury — it was, he hoped, the work that would make his literary reputation.

Throughout 1834, Carlyle slaved over his history of the French Revolution with passion late into the night. When he had completed Volume One, he sent it to Mill to for his review.

On the evening of the 6th of March, 1835, Mill turned up at Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Walk, looking, Carlyle later wrote, “the very picture of desperation”.

Mill had left the manuscript at the house of his friend, Mrs Taylor. Her servant, who could not read, had used it to light the fire. All that was left of Carlyle’s passion and fury were a few charred leaves. Mill brought the leaves, as confirmation.

While most of us would greet this circumstance with hysteria and retribution, Carlyle was the epitome of politeness. Mill was beside himself with grief and self-recrimination. Carlyle probably offered him some tea. Mill offered to pay Carlyle for the damage, but Carlyle refused, saying that he could simply start again. Mill stayed very late, meaning that Carlyle, and his wife, Jane, had to stay up late, too, to comfort him.

When Mill left, Carlyle’s first words to Jane were: “Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavour to hide from him how very serious this business is for us.” And it was serious. The Carlyles had no money, and Thomas knew he could never write that book again. He had destroyed his notes and could not remember what he had written: “I remember and can still remember less of it than of anything I ever wrote with such toil. It is gone.” He would have to tell Mill he couldn’t carry on.

That night, however, he had a dream. His father and brother rose from the grave and begged him not to abandon the work. The next morning, Carlyle told Mill that he would take the money after all. He used it to buy paper, and started writing again.

First, he wrote volumes two and three. Then, he recreated volume one. Carlyle wrote the entire manuscript from memory, words that came “direct and flamingly from the heart”.

The three-volume work — a heroic undertaking which charts the course of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1795 — was completed and published in 1837. It has never been out of print and is still in print nearly 200 years later.

Carlyle kept the charred leaves in his study for the rest of his life. Many of his readers have wished they would have been forced to study the charred leaves rather than have had to read his revision. ( )
  jburlinson | Mar 30, 2012 |
1038 History of the French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle (read 27 Dec 1969) This is an account of one of the most fantastic events in the history of the human race. I do not know if Carlyle's account is still good history--but it certainly has verve, Jan 21, 1793: "As the clocks strike 10, behold the Place de la Revolution . . . the Guillotine, mounted near the old Pedestal where once stood the Statue of the Louis! Far round, all bristles with cannons and armed men . . . His hands are tied, his head bare, the fatal moment is come. He advances to the edge of the Scaffold, 'his face very red,' and says "Frenchmen, I die innocent: it is from the Scaffold and near appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies; I desire that France--'. . . The drums drown the voice . . . Abbe Edgeworth, stooping, bespeaks him: 'Son of Saint Louis, ascend to Heaven.' The Axe clanks down; a King's Life is shorn away..." ( )
  Schmerguls | Jun 22, 2009 |
Not only a literary classic, but to my taste a better popular history of the revolution than Schama's Citizens, which has an unpleasantly contemptuous attitude. Carlyle
certainly can be sarcastic, but he takes the revolution
seriously as an important event. ( )
1 vote antiquary | Sep 4, 2007 |
An account of the French Revolution by the nineteenth century sage.
  Fledgist | Jul 20, 2007 |
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Cobb, RichardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375760229, Paperback)

The book that established Thomas Carlyle’s reputation when first published in 1837, this spectacular historical masterpiece has since been accepted as the standard work on the subject. It combines a shrewd insight into character, a vivid realization of the picturesque, and a singular ability to bring the past to blazing life, making it a reading experience as thrilling as any novel. As John D. Rosenberg observes in his Introduction, The French Revolution is “one of the grand poems of [Carlyle’s] century, yet its poetry consists in being everywhere scrupulously rooted in historical fact.”

This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition, complete and unabridged, is unavailable anywhere else.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:27 -0400)

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