I had a phrase from Carlyle’s French Revolution circling in my head today: I thought I wanted to use the phrase in the piece I’m writing for Open Letters Monthly (though now I think I won’t), but I couldn’t quite remember how it went (not even enough to try a search for it), so I was browsing through the book trying to bring it into focus, and oh! what an amazing, weird, spectacular, inimitable book it is. So, for no other reason than that we should all read a little Carlyle every so often (and yes, it will inspire us but also make us want to punch him in the head, as William Morris said), here’s some of my favourite chapter, “Place de la Révolution”:
A King dying by such violence appeals impressively to the imagination; as the like must do, and ought to do. And yet at bottom it is not the King dying, but the man! Kingship is a coat: the grand loss is of the skin. the man from whom you take his Life, to him can the whole combined world do more? Lally went on his hurdle; his mouth filled with a gag. Miserablest mortals, doomed for picking pockets, have a whole five-act Tragedy in them, in that dumb pain, as they go to the gallows unregarded; they consume the cup of trembling down to the lees. For Kings and for Beggars, for the justly doomed and the unjustly, it is a hard thing to die. Pity them all: they utmost pity, with all aids and appliances and throne-and-scaffold contrasts, how far short it is of the thing pitied. . . .
They arrive at the place of execution:
What temper is [Louis] in? Ten different witnesses will give ten different accounts of it. He is in the collision of all tempers; arrived now at the black Mahlstrom and descent of Death: in sorrow, in indignation, in resignation struggling to be resigned. . . .
The drums are beating: ‘Taisez-vous, Silence!’ he cries, ‘in a terrible voice, d’une voix terrible.’ He mounts the scaffold, not without delay; he is in puce coat, breeches of grey, white stockings. He strips off the coat; stands disclosed in a sleeve-waistcoat of white flannel. The Executioners approach to bind him: he spurns, resists; Abbé Edgeworth has to remind him how the Saviour, in whom men trust, submitted to be bound. His hands are tied, his head bare; the fatal moment is come. He advances to the edge of the Scaffold, ‘his face very red,’ and says: ‘Frenchmen, I die innocent: it is from the Scaffold and near appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies. I desire that France —–‘ A General on horseback, Santerre or another, prances out, with uplifted hand: ‘Tambours!‘ The drums drown the voice. ‘Executioners, do your duty!’ The Executioners, desperate lest themselves be murdered (for Santerre and his Armed Ranks will strike, if they do not), seize the hapless Louis: six of them desperate, him singly desperate, struggling there; and bind him to their plank. Abbé Edgeworth, stooping, bespeaks him: ‘Son of Saint Louis, ascend to Heaven.’ The Axe clanks down; a King’s Life is shorn away. It is Monday the 21st of January 1793. He was aged Thirty-Eight years four months and twenty-eight days.
I would not be the first one to propose that The French Revolution is best understood as one of the (maybe, the) greatest novels of the 19th century. Certainly it defies conventional expectations for historical writing, then as much as now. It is itself, as Carlyle said, “itself a kind of French Revolution,” or in Mill’s words, “not so much a history as an epic poem.” The memories this all brings back! My undergraduate thesis was ‘Definition More or Less Arbitrary’: Ideas of History and Fiction in The French Revolution and Middlemarch, and my first publication was an essay on Carlyle’s “carnivalesque” historiography. After I read The French Revolution for the first time I couldn’t imagine not writing about it–I had simply never read anything like it before, certainly not in the assigned reading for my history courses! And I’ve never read anything like it again, though when I wrote about Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety I did find some affinities there. Though A Tale of Two Cities has its own kind of genius (a more sentimental kind than Carlyle’s, that’s for sure), there’s nothing of the epic poem about La Vendée, I’m sorry to say.