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Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) is a difficult figure to categorise. He might be better described as a 'man of letters' than a historian, although much of his writing was on historical topics. Indeed, he based his own work entirely on secondary sources and developed a deep hostility towards historians who took a more orthodox approach towards researching their work, arguing that fine factual accuracy was less important than getting at the heart and soul of the subject. His hostility towards orthodox historical writing grew so fierce that some have wondered whether his mind might not have been a bit unhinged on the subject.

Carlyle's written style was highly characteristic, neither quite that of the novelist nor that of the historian, though with elements from both. He wrote breathlessly, as if commentating on events unfurling before his eyes, addressing some of the historical characters directly and very clearly taking sides: not for him the detached objectivity of the professional historian. He made his name with his vivid account of the French Revolution which was remarkable both for its florid writing style and for Carlyle's unorthodox stance on the events he described. Since it broke out in 1789, the French Revolution had provoked two broad schools of reaction in Britain. On the one hand were the radicals, of whom the most notable was Tom Paine, who welcomed the revolution, the overthrow of the monarchy and aristocracy and the establishment of a republic; indeed some were able to maintain their enthusiasm for the revolution even after the institution of the revolutionary Terror, which saw thousands of innocent people executed by guillotine. By the far the majority of British people, however, took a more hostile approach. They recognised the need for change in France and criticised the reluctance of the king to grant it, but they were appalled by the revolution itself, both because of its violence and because of the way it overturned the established order of society. This antirevolutionary attitude survived well into the nineteenth century and beyond and is perhaps best exemplified by the popularity of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

Carlyle was not a radical in the normal sense of the word. He hated the industrial transformation of Britain and yearned nostalgically for an imagined (and largely imaginary) idyllic rural past. However, in The French Revolution he seems to revel in the violence of the events he describes and to welcome the destruction of the old order of society. Despite, or perhaps because of, its highly individual take on events in France, Carlyle's account was widely read and his name rightly belongs among the great writers of history in English, though he is perhaps more honoured than imitated.

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