The French Revolution: A History

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The French Revolution: A History
Carlyle French Revolution.jpg
Title page of the first edition from 1837.
Author Thomas Carlyle
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Chapman & Hall, London
Publication date
1837

The French Revolution: A History was written by the Scottish essayist, philosopher, and historian Thomas Carlyle. The three-volume work, first published in 1837 (with a revised edition in print by 1857), charts the course of the French Revolution from 1789 to the height of the Reign of Terror (1793–94) and culminates in 1795. A massive undertaking which draws together a wide variety of sources, Carlyle's history—despite the unusual style in which it is written—is considered to be an authoritative account of the early course of the Revolution.

Scottish people ethnic inhabitants of Scotland

The Scottish people or Scots, are a nation and ethnic group native to Scotland. Historically, they emerged from an amalgamation of two Celtic-speaking peoples, the Picts and Gaels, who founded the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Later, the neighbouring Celtic-speaking Cumbrians, as well as Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons and Norse, were incorporated into the Scottish nation.

Essay piece of writing often written from an authors personal point of view

An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element, humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.

Philosophy intellectual and/or logical study of general and fundamental problems

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?

Contents

Production and reception

Japanese print depicting Thomas Carlyle's horror at the burning of his manuscript Carlyle manuscript burning Japan cph.3g10399.tif
Japanese print depicting Thomas Carlyle's horror at the burning of his manuscript

John Stuart Mill, a friend of Carlyle's, found himself caught up in other projects and unable to meet the terms of a contract he had signed with his publisher for a history of the French Revolution. Mill proposed that Carlyle produce the work instead; Mill even sent his friend a library of books and other materials concerning the Revolution, and by 1834 Carlyle was working furiously on the project. When he had completed the first volume, Carlyle sent his only complete manuscript to Mill. While in Mill's care the manuscript was destroyed, according to Mill by a careless household maid who mistook it for trash and used it as a firelighter. Carlyle then rewrote the entire manuscript, achieving what he described as a book that came "direct and flamingly from the heart." [1]

John Stuart Mill British philosopher and political economist

John Stuart Mill, usually cited as J. S. Mill, was a British philosopher, political economist, and civil servant. One of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism, he contributed widely to social theory, political theory, and political economy. Dubbed "the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century", Mill's conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state and social control.

The book immediately established Carlyle's reputation as an important 19th century intellectual. It also served as a major influence on a number of his contemporaries, including Charles Dickens, who compulsively carried the book around with him, [2] and drew on it while producing A Tale of Two Cities for his crowd scenes in particular. [3] The book was closely studied by Mark Twain during the last year of his life, and it was reported to be the last book he read before his death. [4]

Charles Dickens English writer and social critic

Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.

<i>A Tale of Two Cities</i> novel by Charles Dickens, published in 1859

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) is a historical novel by Charles Dickens, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel tells the story of the French Doctor Manette, his 18-year-long imprisonment in the Bastille in Paris and his release to live in London with his daughter Lucie, whom he had never met. The story is set against the conditions that led up to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

Mark Twain American author and humorist

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer. His novels include The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called "The Great American Novel".

Style

As a historical account, The French Revolution has been both enthusiastically praised and bitterly criticized for its style of writing, which is highly unorthodox within historiography. Where most professional historians attempt to assume a neutral, detached tone of writing, or a semi-official style in the tradition of Thomas Babington Macaulay, [5] Carlyle unfolds his history by often writing in present-tense first-person plural [6] as though he and the reader were observers, indeed almost participants, on the streets of Paris at the fall of the Bastille or the public execution of Louis XVI. This, naturally, involves the reader by simulating the history itself instead of solely recounting historical events.

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic – such as the "historiography of the United Kingdom", the "historiography of Canada", "historiography of the British Empire", the "historiography of early Islam", the "historiography of China" – and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the ascent of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties – such as to their nation state – is a debated question.

Thomas Babington Macaulay 19th-century British historian and Whig politician

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, FRS FRSE PC was a British historian and Whig politician. He wrote extensively as an essayist, on contemporary and historical sociopolitical subjects, and as a reviewer. His The History of England was a seminal and paradigmatic example of Whig historiography, and its literary style has remained an object of praise since its publication, including subsequent to the widespread condemnation of its historical contentions which became popular in the 20th century.

Paris Capital of France

Paris is the capital and most populous city of France, with an area of 105 square kilometres and an official estimated population of 2,140,526 residents as of 1 January 2019. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of finance, commerce, fashion, science, and the arts.

Carlyle further augments this dramatic effect by employing a style of prose poetry that makes extensive use of personification and metaphor—a style that critics have called exaggerated, excessive, and irritating. Supporters, on the other hand, often label it as ingenious. John D. Rosenberg, a Professor of humanities at Columbia University and a member of the latter camp, has commented that Carlyle writes "as if he were a witness-survivor of the Apocalypse. [...] Much of the power of The French Revolution lies in the shock of its transpositions, the explosive interpenetration of modern fact and ancient myth, of journalism and Scripture." [7] Take, for example, Carlyle's recounting of the death of Robespierre under the axe of the Guillotine:

Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery, parataxis and emotional effects.

Maximilien Robespierre French revolutionary lawyer and politician

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre was a French lawyer and politician, as well as one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution. As a member of the Estates-General, the Constituent Assembly and the Jacobin Club, Robespierre was an outspoken advocate for the citizen without a voice, for their unrestricted admission to the National Guard, to public offices, and for the right to petition. He campaigned for universal suffrage, abolition of celibacy, religious tolerance and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. He played an important role after the Storming of the Tuileries, which led to the establishment of a French Republic on 22 September 1792.

Thus, Carlyle invents for himself a style that combines epic poetry with philosophical treatise, exuberant story-telling with scrupulous attention to historical fact. The result is a work of history that is perhaps entirely unique, [9] and one that is still in print nearly 200 years after it was first published. With its (ambivalent) celebration of the coming of Democracy, and its warning to the Victorian Aristocracy, the work was celebrated by Lord Acton as “the volumes that delivered our fathers from thraldom to Burke”. [10]

Edmund Burke 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist

Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman born in Dublin, as well as an author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who after moving to London in 1750 served as a member of parliament (MP) between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons with the Whig Party.

See also

Notes

  1. Eliot, Charles William (ed., 1909–14). "Introductory Note." In: The Harvard Classics, Vol. XXV, Part 3. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, p. 318.
  2. S Heffer, ‘’Moral Desperado’’ (London 1995) p. 173
  3. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 384
  4. Mark Twain is Dead at 74 (The New York Times)
  5. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 384-5
  6. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 382 and 393
  7. Carlyle, Thomas (2002). The French Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, p. xviii.
  8. Carlyle (2002), pp. 743–744.
  9. A Cobban, ‘’A History of Modern France 1’’ (Penguin 1961) p. 275
  10. J Burrow, ‘’A History of Histories’’ (Penguin 2009) p. 380

Further reading

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