Friday, March 24, 2017

Two men, a book, and a bonfire

by Lindsay Thompson
for the March 25 edition of Rare Book Cafe

John Stuart Mill

Whistler’s Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was not an easy man to live with.

A dour Scot out of central casting, he tended to say whatever was on his mind in the moment. At a dinner party, after the American transcendentalist Margaret Fuller (introduced to Carlyle by Emerson, a lifelong friend) exclaimed, “I accept the Universe!”, Carlyle stage-whispered,

By God, she’d better.

Of his tempestuous forty-year marriage, a critic wrote,

One hour in No. 5 Cheyne Row, Virginia Woolf observed, will tell you more about the Carlyles than all the biographies. The house lived in by Thomas and Jane Carlyle from 1834 until their respective deaths, and now owned by the National Trust, was one of the great battlegrounds of domestic history. Here Jane warred against bedbugs and coal dust and her husband’s obsession with the vast and unstoppable Lady Harriet Ashburton (there were three people in her marriage), and Carlyle warred against the intrusions of the outside world.

Thomas Carlyle is now more famous for his feisty wife than his life of Frederick the Great, and observers of their marriage disagree over who was the most long-suffering. For some, he was the victim of a shrew who mockingly recorded his every gesture; for others she was the victim of a brute who failed to see her brilliance. ‘Being married to him’, said Jane’s friend Anna Jameson — having just braved the consequences of interrupting the sage in one of his monologues — must be ‘something next worse to being married to Satan himself’. Samuel Butler refused to take sides. ‘It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another,’ he quipped, ‘and so make only two people miserable and not four.’ Their quarrels might have been spared, thought Woolf as she toured the house, had the Carlyles possessed hot and cold running water. Domestic tensions are inevitable when taking a bath requires the maid, supervised by her mistress, to pump water from the well, boil it on the range, and transport it — soundlessly, of course — in bucketloads up three flights of stairs.

Set by his father for the clergy, Carlyle was a mathematics instructor at Edinburgh University (his Carlyle Circle proof is still in use) when lost his faith and found salvation in the work of the German Romantics: his first big payday as a writer was a translation of Goethe.

Carlyle quickly won fame as an essayist, poet and reactionary. Such was the tenor of the time, however, that- despite their differences- Carlyle also became fast friends with another world-class British oddball and fellow Scot, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Adam Gopnik writes of Mill,

So when, in 1834..., Mill began a new journal, the London Review, the contributor he sought most eagerly was no utilitarian but the great Scottish reactionary prose-poet Thomas Carlyle. (The keen friendship between these two utterly unlike men would itself be a good subject for a book.) Mill revered Carlyle’s originality of vision and soul, while Carlyle, though he mocked Mill’s pensive faith in rational argument, recognized that the younger man had the far more finished and exact mind…

Throughout the eighteen-thirties, the give-and-take between Carlyle’s deeply pessimistic sense of the primal violence that lay beneath the surface of civilization and Mill’s insistence that the cure for the primal illness was more civilization was one of the creative engines of English thought.

Mill’s boyhood was one of the strangest of the nineteenth century, and is one subject of his own matchless memoir, published posthumously. He was born in 1806 to a driven Scottish writer, James Mill, and a passive and mostly invisible mother. Chosen for an experiment in education, he was crammed with learning by his father and his father’s mentor, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The aim was to produce a mind distended out of all proportion—force-fed facts, as unlucky geese are force-fed corn. The foie gras of the boy’s mind was then to be dined on by a grateful nation; the boy’s life, like the goose’s comfort, was secondary. Latin, Greek, ancient history, political economy: “By the age of six,” Reeves notes, “young Mill had written a history of Rome; by seven he was reading Plato in Greek; at eight soaking up Sophocles.” By twelve, he more or less sat his examinations for university entrance.

The curriculum had no room for new poetry, and not much for old music. It was nothing but history, math, economics, the classics, and the Benthamite axioms: actions could lead to pleasure or pain, happiness or distress, and the right action was the one that led to the most happiness for the most people. In hard hands, the principle could seem like a mechanical parody of ethics, but it had its points. Bentham’s real achievement was to squeeze the piety out of Enlightenment talk of “rights.” People didn’t have rights because their creator endowed them with rights; they had them because rights were useful to have.

Mill’s is a story of a man out in the pure sun of reason and rational inquiry, lit at night by the romantic moonlight of a little bit of love and just enough madness.

Gopnik concludes,

Whatever the subject, Mill surveys the ground, clears it of underbrush, builds a house of straw to demonstrate what a shoddy house looks like, sets it on fire, and in its place builds a house of brick, which he dares you to knock down. The house of brick is, as Victorian brick houses usually were, lacking in grace and lightness and charm, but it still stands. You don’t come away from Mill dazzled, as you do with Ruskin or Carlyle, but you come away with a place to live your life.

Historian Meredith Hindley writes,

In 1834, 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 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.

To help Carlyle along, Mill also handed over the library of books and pamphlets he had collected. Carlyle agreed and plunged into the project. “I am busy constantly studying with my whole might for a Book on the French Revolution. It is part of my creed that the only Poetry is History could we tell it right,” he wrote Emerson.

After two years of study, Carlyle started to write in September 1834. He predicted that he would finish the book by March 1835, but after finishing three chapters he realized his ambitions did not match his progress. One volume would not suffice, so his plan changed: in December, one book became two; in January 1835, he determined he would need to write three.

Carlyle was a writer who soaked up all his research, then sat down to write. And he wrote his French Revolution like a man possessed, completing the 380-page draft of volume one in early 1835. He gave his manuscript to Mill to read.

Disaster struck. Lost Manuscripts picks up the story:

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.

At midnight on the evening of March 6, a hysterical Mill appeared at Carlyle’s door and delivered the news that one of his servants mistook Carlyle’s manuscript for waste paper and threw it in the fire. “Poor manuscript, all except some four tattered leaves, was annihilated!” he wrote of the upsetting news. 

Carlyle now had to reconstruct the first book. There were no drafts or backup copies from which to work. He didn’t take notes. His method was to read, then write like mad. Sections he found lacking were tossed in the fire. “I was as a little Schoolboy, who had laboriously written out his Copy as he could, and was shewing it not without satisfaction to the Master: but . . . the Master had suddenly torn it, saying: ‘No, boy, thou must go and write it better.’” 

Mill felt terrible and asked if Carlyle would accept £200 to “repair . . . the loss . . . of time and labour—that is of income?” Embarrassed by the offer, but in financial straits, Carlyle accepted half the sum. Wanting to demonstrate there were no hard feelings, Carlyle suggested that Mill read the first section of book two. Grateful for the renewed trust, Mill agreed, but suggested that Carlyle give the manuscript to Harriet Taylor for safekeeping. Carlyle did not approve of Mill’s intimate relationship with the married Taylor. He also believed that she played a part in the accident, as Mill had confessed he’d read the manuscript to her. Carlyle never delivered the pages and the book went to print without Mill’s comments. 

Rewriting the first book was torture for Carlyle. The destroyed manuscript became an ideal in his mind, allowing him to despair at the poor quality of the new draft. He initially made good progress, but abandoned its writing in favor of reading the “trashiest heap of novels.” After his reading holiday, he began again, completing the first and second chapters by the beginning of May. By September 1835, he had rewritten book one. He finished the second book at the end of April 1836. Book three went slower. “The Revolution History goes on about as ill as anybody could wish,” he wrote his brother. “I sit down to write, there is not an idea discernible in the head of me; one dull cloud of pain and stupidity; it is only with an effort like swimming for life that I get begun to think at all.” On January 12, 1837, two years after he began, Carlyle completed book three, “ready both to weep and pray.”

The book was something entirely new: you-are-there-history. Meredith Hindley wrote in 2009:

What emerged from Carlyle’s pen was not an epic poem, but an epic history. Although full of lyrical writing, The French Revolution: A History is, of course, a work of prose. Many standard conventions of the epic are absent, such as opening mid-story and intervention of the gods into human affairs. Carlyle does, however, invoke Clio, the muse of history, to guide him and his reader. And like the epics, The French Revolution tells a story that is central to the history of its people. But instead of the founding of Rome or the victory over Troy, Carlyle writes of a revolution that unseated a long-standing monarchy and gave way to the new France.

To judge it as a conventional work of history would not be fair. Writing more than four decades after the French Revolution, Carlyle had enough material to reconstruct the outlines of what had happened. Printing presses ran constantly during the revolution, turning out broadsheets and pamphlets. And, in the aftermath, those who managed to avoid the guillotine penned memoirs. But, despite such abundant sources, Carlyle rejected the model offered by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with its objective approach and use of notes to document sources. If he acted as the disinterested narrator, he would remain above the action, unable to put the reader outside the walls of the Bastille the way that Homer put his reader outside the walls of Troy. Carlyle admired Gibbon, citing his ability to offer his readers a “rich and various feast,” but he was not interested in the lessons of history. Instead, he wanted to write a book that captured the frenzy of the revolution, its dramatic power, its most unforgettable details.

To do this, Carlyle had to invent a new way of writing history. From the beginning of book one, Carlyle calls upon readers to move with him through time and space. He asks us to gaze upon the dying King Louis XV and to follow the newly crowned Louis XVI as he retires to his chambers. He constantly assumes the roll of fortune teller. When he first introduces Marie Antoinette, he writes: “Meanwhile the fair young Queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of Beauty, the cynosure of all eyes; as yet mingles not with affairs; heeds not the future; least of all, dreads it.”

For the procession that marks the opening of the Estates-General, Carlyle invites us to “take our station on some coign of vantage.” From his omniscient perch, Carlyle sketches vivid descriptions of the men who will influence the course of the revolution, while speculating as to who will emerge as “king.” Will it be Jean Paul Marat, a “squalidest bleared mortal, redolent of soot and horse-drugs” or the “swart burly-headed” Riquetti Mirabeau, who cuts a “fiery rough figure, with black Samson-locks under the slouch-hat”? Or the “meanest” of the six hundred, Maximilien Robespierre, “that anxious, slight, ineffectual-looking man, under thirty, in spectacles . . . complexion of a multiplex atrabiliar colour, the final shade of which may be the pale sea-green”? Carlyle’s character studies double as moral judgments: He likens Mirabeau to a biblical hero, while painting Marat and Robespierre in putrid terms. He uses their exteriors to caricature their souls.

The combination of eyewitness account and commentary runs throughout the book, allowing Carlyle to make us part of the action. The storming of the Bastille: “A slight sputter;–which has kindled the too combustible chaos; made it a roaring fire–chaos! Bursts forth Insurrection, at sight of its own blood (for there were deaths by that sputter–of fire), into endless rolling explosion of musketry, distraction, execration;–and over head, from the Fortress, let one great gun, with its grape-shot, go booming, to show what we could do.” Carlyle uses the third person to describe the scene and action, then switches to the royal “we” (more precisely the antiroyal “we”) as he and his readers join the mob as it takes the Bastille.

For Louis XVI’s beheading, he puts us in the crowd: “Executioner Sampson shews the Head: fierce shout of Vive la République rises and swells; caps raised on bayonets, hats waving; students of the College of Four Nations take it up, on the far Quai; fling it over Paris. . . . And so, in some half-hour it is done; and the multitude has all departed. Pastrycooks, coffee-sellers, milkmen sing out their trivial quotidian cries.” Carlyle’s use of present tense to describe the sequence of events lends an almost journalistic quality to his work. He is in the moment, recording the scene as it happens, breathing energy and emotion into history.

The French Revolution won rave reviews. It was Dickens’ constant companion as he wrote A Tale of Two Cities. It influenced every mid-century British writer:

Kathleen Tillotson, a scholar of Victorian literature, believes The French Revolution had a profound influence on a generation of Victorian novelists, including Thackeray and the Brontës, showing them “the poetic, prophetic, and visionary possibilities of the novel.” Indeed, George Eliot observed in 1855 “there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.” For Eliot and others, Carlyle’s charm lay not in his history, but in his literary talents: “No novelist has made his creations live for us more thoroughly than Carlyle has made Mirabeau and the men of the French Revolution, Cromwell, and Puritans.”

The publication of The French Revolution and its popularity solved Carlyle’s financial problems, earning him not only acclaim but profits and lecture invitations. More books followed on Chartism, the political and social reform movement that swept England from 1838–1848, the role of heroes in history, a study of Oliver Cromwell, and a biography of Frederick II of Prussia. But The French Revolution would remain Carlyle’s greatest achievement, providing a literary history for a post-revolutionary age.

Carlyle’s Revolution remains in print, and widely read. Carlyle remained cantankerous to the end (though after Jane’s death in 1866 he realized how much he’d lost and wrote a highly self-critical memoir of her life): in 1843, frustrated with the first draft of his life of Cromwell, Carlyle heaved it into the fire himself, and started over.

The friendship survived, but Carlyle kept the charred remnants Mill brought him in his study for the rest of his life.

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