The French Revolution is a landmark in the history of nineteenth century English literature, the work that, after the comparative public failure of Sartor Resartus (1833-1834), helped to establish Thomas Carlyle. In its dramatic picture of the French Revolution it offers the reader an estimate of an event that disturbed and shocked the consciences of Carlyle’s grandparents. It offers a measure of revolutionary and socially disruptive narrative, but it is neither optimistic and blindly trustful of progress (here Carlyle differed from Utilitarian friends) nor pessimistic and horrified, as Edmund Burke had been at the time of the revolution. Finally, and perhaps most important for readers, The French Revolution is a more successful self-realization for Carlyle than the comparatively nebulous explorations of ideas in Sartor Resartus. That earlier work presents Carlyle’s ideas in a kind of cloud formation that conceals whatever terrain of fact and real human experience they float over; The French Revolution presents the same ideas in relation to and supported by a bewilderingly rich body of facts: the day-by-day events of the unsettling French years.
Impressive as Carlyle’s method of digesting and arranging the body of facts is, still more memorable is the way he musters them in a readable narrative. Like an Old Testament prophet, Carlyle rides the hurricane and directs the storm of the fall of absolute monarchy in France. He produces not simply another history of a vexed period, full of rationalized information. It is true of Carlyle that his view of one period of history is always on the verge of becoming a vision of all human history. The Frenchwomen who march on Versailles stand for the passionate outbreak of all oppressed human beings, and the sorrows of Marie Antoinette in the Conciergerie stand for the agonies of all trivial human beings carried to their doom by forces they cannot control.
It is possible to identify some of the means that Carlyle employs to create his apocalyptic vision—a vision, not of last things, but certainly of the forces that combine to drive history onward. The arrangement of the facts is rigorously chronological. The book begins with the death pangs of King Louis XV; these are represented as the death throes not simply of one aged monarch but of a regime that once justified itself but that had become a hollow shell. The book continues with an account of the suicidal follies of the young king, Louis XVI, and his pretty and thoughtless wife, Marie Antoinette. It notes the efforts of some of the king’s ministers, Necker, Turgot, and others, to stem the advancing tide: to restore financial soundness and yet provide money for all who thought they had a right to spend it. Carlyle, often with a somewhat uneven pace, one that permits him to stop for angry or compassionate meditation when he wishes to point out the “inevitable” chain of disaster and struggle, continues his year-by-year and month-by-month account. He tells of the meeting of the Estates...
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