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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 (1793-4) 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.

Carlyle happened upon the idea of writing a general history of the French Revolution when John Stuart Mill, a friend of his, found himself caught up in other projects and unable to meet the terms of a contract he had signed with his publisher for just such a work. Mill therefore 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 of his epic account, Carlyle sent his only completed manuscript of the text to Mill, whose maid famously mistook it for trash and had it burned. It was said that Carlyle then rewrote the entire manuscript from memory, achieving what he described as a book that came "direct and flamingly from the heart."

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, most notably, perhaps, upon Charles Dickens, who compulsively read and re-read the book while producing A Tale of Two Cities, one of the novelist's most popular works.

Style

As an historical account, The French Revolution has been both enthusiastically praised and bitterly criticized for its style of writing, which is highly unorthodox within historiography. Most historians attempt to assume a neutral, detached tone of writing, in the tradition of Edward Gibbon. Carlyle unfolds his history by often writing in present-tense first-person plural: as though he and the reader were observers, indeed almost participants, on the streets of Parismarker 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.

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." Take, for example, Carlyle's recounting of the death of Robespierre under the axe of the Guillotine:

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, and one that is still in print nearly 200 years after it was first published.

Trivia

  • This work is the origin of the term "Bakers' queues", used to describe discontent around the time of the French Revolution.
  • This was one of Mark Twain's favorite works, and he said it changed his views every time he read it.


Notes

  1. Eliot, Charles William, Ed. "Introductory Note" in The Harvard Classics, Vol. XXV, Part 3. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14.
  2. Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. 1837. New York: The Modern Library, 2002. pp. xviii.
  3. Andrew Jay Hoffman, Inventing Mark Twain: The Lives of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (New York: William Morrow, 1997), p. 8, cited in Helen Scott's "The Mark Twain they didn’t teach us about in school" (2000), in International Socialist Review #10, pp. 61-65.


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