Carlyle on the Death of Louis XVI

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.

Imaginative Power: Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

safetyGeorge Eliot considered the writing of historical fiction “a task which can only be justified by the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius,” requiring “a form of imaginative power [which] must always be among the very rarest, because it demands as much accurate and minute knowledge as creative vigour.” Novels of “the modern antique school have a ponderous, a leaden kind of fatuity,” she complained, “under which we groan.” The extraordinary difficulty of the genre is testified to by her own attempt “to reanimate the past” in Romola, the only one of her novels set back more than a couple of generations. She began writing Romola as a young woman and ended it an old one, she said herself, and having worked through the novel recently in my graduate seminar, I know that the effort it demands can make it feel as if it is having the same effect on its readers. To be sure, Romola does have its thrilling moments, and it certainly demonstrates both “accurate and minute knowledge” and “creative vigour”–just not always at the same time, or always in harmony with each other. And there’s the whole “cheese to the macaroni” moment…but I digress from my main point, which is that really good historical fiction is really hard to write, and thus really rare to read.

This brings me, of course, to Hilary Mantel. Like so many others, I admired Wolf Hall a great deal, not least because it was so unlike what I have come to expect of run-of-the-mill contemporary historical fiction. Unsentimental in its approach, economical in its prose, uncannily sideways in its perspective, Wolf Hall evoked the ‘difference’ of the past without condescending to us with faux antiquities or excessive explanation. Its momentum was achieved by Mantel’s gift for the evocative moment or detail, and by her tacit confidence that her reading audience could handle complexity without handholding. Rather than yoking her narrative to one of the reliable moneymakers of the period, she chose a man of  some principle but also much ambition, who not only loves and hates but befriends, alienates, and outmaneuvers. Then she had the courage to portray him as neither the hero nor the attendant lord, but as a man at work and at home, a man being, simply, himself–or, rather, never simply himself but always intensely himself, and thus, in many specific ways, not Everyman, and not us. Mantel’s Cromwell is (in the spirit of, say, Scott’s Fergus MacIvor) a man of his time, shaped and motivated by currents of ideas, by situations, by contexts and opportunities, by values and beliefs, that are not universal. The slight but persistent sense of disorientation created by the odd point of view Mantel adopts for the novel, putting us at Cromwell’s shoulder, in his mind but not of it, helps to keep us at an appropriate distance from that other time towards which we can, after all, only reach out imaginatively but never truly enter. But by not providing elaborate passages of exposition, Mantel also allows us to take that other place for granted, as a reality we can, provisionally, inhabit. We aren’t told about historical trends or events–the shift, for instance, from sacred to secular power–but we are there as they are happening. It’s a risky strategy, a difficult balance: not enough information, after all, and we’d just be confused, but too much information and we might disengage.; not enough excitement or pathos, and we might cease caring, but tip into histrionics and the book’s literary integrity would be compromised. The critical and popular success of Wolf Hall (and sucha long book, too, as so many readers seem compelled to remark!) speaks to Mantel’s achievement.

place-safetyMany of the same qualities and techniques are evident in Mantel’s earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, particularly the lack of sentimentality and the sharpness of the writing, which is at once prolix and poignant, even uncomfortable–if, as I recently suggested, reading Ian McEwan’s prose is like getting acupuncture to your brain, I found reading A Place of Greater Safety akin to walking barefoot across a stretch of gravel towards a graveyard: you aren’t particularly enjoying the experience, but it has its own vividness and particularity, and there’s a morbid fascination in the direction you know you’re headed. (I seem to be finding my reading especially, if only metaphorically, tactile lately.) A Place of Greater Safety also, like Wolf Hall, builds momentum gradually by developing our relationship, with not just one complicated protagonist this time, but with three, the revolutionary triumverate of Georges-Jacques Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre. Again, there are neither heroes nor villains in this crowd, though each has his heroic, as well as his villainous, moments. (Desmoulins, beautiful, erratic, alternately effervescent and enervated, and writing, always writing, seemed to me a particularly brilliant characterization.) And just as Wolf Hall only incidentally informs its readers about the causes and contexts of the Reformation, A Place of Greater Safety eschews the potential pedagogical role of the historical novel. At the end of its 750 pages I really didn’t feel much better informed about the events or even the political and philosophical stakes of the French Revolution than I was already. Here again, Mantel adopts a slantwise approach: not altogether personal, not just the ‘human story’ of the men and women who lived it, but not abstract, theoretical, or fully contextualized either. Here’s a rare but characteristic ‘explanatory’ passage, terse and ominously proleptic:

Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread in Paris will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman of the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’

There’s as little exposition here as in Wolf Hall, and the overall impression is one of a great deal going on that wasn’t well understood by, and certainly wasn’t under the control of, even the major participants. But Mantel only very rarely steps in to explain to us what they can’t know, or even, most of the time, what they do know: we get fragments of debates, pamphlets, laws, and contexts, in a kind of swirl of partial information and misinformation. I found this effect frustrating at times: I wanted to know just what the Girondins or the Cordelier Club stood for, what (if anything) was accomplished at and by the Tennis Court Oath or the storming of the Bastille. But it isn’t really a book about that. Though her people are intensely political, the novel is primarily personal, more so than Wolf Hall, with more emphasis on relationships, but without the sentimental premise that, for instance, home is the ‘place of greater safety’–or, if it is so, or if it feels so, that safety is temporary, or illusory. It’s a novel, then about the personal side of politics, or about political personalities, and above all it emphasizes the ways politics, especially revolutionary politics, are ultimately antithetical to personal loyalties. Principles have consequences to which even cherished friendships may ultimately need to be sacrificed. “From now on,” Louis Suleau tells Desmoulins, “personal loyalty will count for very little in people’s lives,” and we feel the inexorable truth of this statement as the Revolutionaries turn, eventually, on each other.

wolf-hallIt’s tribute to Mantel’s peculiar gifts and strategies as a storyteller that she assembles an even less attractive crew here than in Wolf Hall and yet what matters is not how appealing they are but how compelling they are, and how intensely themselves, so that by the final chapter, as the Revolution devours its children, I didn’t care who they were, really, only that they were going to die, after my having known them for so long. Mantel manages their end (known from the novel’s beginning because, after all, it is history) without any of the tumbril sentimentality the inevitable Dickens comparisons on the jacket blurb might lead us to anticipate. None of the characters comes across as heroic or noble, but they have such great vitality (even Robespierre, with his tedious incorruptibility), that their deaths felt like great losses–losses, quite simply, of life, of the energy and lust for life, for words, and for action, that characterized them all. Again, a sample of her terse, epigrammatic style:

There is a point beyond which–convention and imagination dictate–we cannot go; perhaps it’s here, when the carts decant onto the scaffold their freight, now living and breathing flesh, soon to be dead meat. Danton imagines that, as the greatest of the condemned, he will be left until last, with Camille beside him. He thinks less of eternity then of how to keep his friend’s body and soul together for the fifteen minutes before the National Razor separates them.

But of course it is not like that. Why should it be as you imagine?

And the famous final flourish:

He watches each death, until he is tutored to his own.

‘Hey, Sanson?’

‘Citizen Danton?’

‘Show my head to the people. It’s worth the trouble.’

In that predictable Dickens allusion, the Library Journal says he “did it first in A Tale of Two Cities.” But Dickens got his information from an earlier and far, far better, far more revolutionary, account of the Revolution: Thomas Carlyle’s 1837 The French Revolution. There’s no overt reference to Carlyle in A Place of Greater Safety, but I feel Mantel must have read it and learned from it that the only way to approach the reality of that wild, idealistic, turbulent, violent period was through story-telling that itself embraces confusion. Her book is far more orderly than Carlyle’s, of course: you couldn’t write The French Revolution today, I think, and indeed it was rightly felt and understood to be extraordinary in its own time. Just to give a sense of how crazy and yet compelling it is, here’s Carlyle’s version of Danton’s execution:

Danton carried a high look in the Death-cart. Not so Camille: it is but one week, and all is so topsyturvied; angel Wife left weeping; love, riches, Revolutionary fame, left all at the Prison-gate; carnivorous Rabble now howling round. Palpable and yet incredible; like a madman’s dream! Camille struggles and writhes; his shoulders shuffle the loose coat off them, which hangs knotted, the hands tied: ‘Calm, my friend’, said Danton; ‘heed not that vile canaille (laissez la cette vile canaille).’ At the foot of the Scaffold, Danton was heard to ejaculate: ‘O my Wife, my well-beloved. I shall never see thee more then!’–but, interrupting himself: ‘Danton, no weakness!’ He said to Herault-Sechelles stepping forward to embrace him: ‘Our heads will meet there‘, in the Headsman’s sack. His last words were to Samson the Headsman himself: ‘Thou wilt show my head to the people; it is worth showing.’

So passes, like a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection, and wild revolutionary force and manhood, this Danton, to his unknown home. He was of Arcis-sur-Aube; born of ‘good farmer people’ there. He had many sins; but one worst sin he had not, that of Cant. No hollow Formalist, deceptive and self-deceptive, ghastly to the natural sense, was this; but a very Man: with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself.

This is history as philosophy and prophecy, which is not Mantel’s history. Her theory of the revolution, as far as she offers one, is economic (“the price of bread”). But she too feels, or at least conveys, the urgency of understanding that whatever it means, if anything, history is lived (as Carlyle said in another context) “not by state-papers and abstractions of men” but by “very” men.

The bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men…

I’m back. I had a wonderful time playing tourist in both Oxford and London, though of course both cities are so saturated with potential delights for a lover of literature and history that it was impossible to take in everything I would have liked to see. But I was very happy with the priorities I had set. All of the ‘big ticket’ sites I visited–the Bodleian, and Christ Church, and Westminster Abbey, and Hampton Court, and the Tower–were thoroughly satisfying, but equally delightful was wandering down Chancery Lane past Lincoln’s Inn, or roaming through Chelsea and Bloomsbury. I went relatively light on museums and galleries this time, spending the most time at the National Portrait Gallery, with just brief stops at the National Gallery, the British Museum (I kept meaning to go back and never made it), the V&A (almost literally just passing through), and the Natural History Museum. It was just more fun doing other kinds of things.

Of all the places I went and things I saw, I was most moved by those that most vividly reminded me of Carlyle’s words about Scott, that he had “taught all men this truth … that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state papers, controversies and abstractions of men.” For instance, at the Hampton Court exhibit on Henry VIII’s wives, on display was a locket containing some of Katherine Parr’s hair and a manuscript letter from Catherine Howard to her alleged lover, Thomas Culpepper. To someone who grew up on Jean Plaidy’s Tudor series and worked on Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England for her thesis research, these are thrillingly personal remnants of an oft-told tale. In Oxford, I was enormously (and unexpectedly) stirred by seeing Newman’s pulpit in St. Mary’s:

pulpit

Of course, I sought out this location in Chelsea:
ge-house

But it was Carlyle’s house that was really exciting to be in:

carlyle-house

carlyle-garden

You can really imagine the Carlyles’ life there: it is all set up as they had it (90% of the items and furnishings, the staff told us, were actually owned and used by the Carlyles), and on display are all kinds of touchingly intimate artefacts including Valentine’s Day cards from Thomas to Jane, a screen decoupaged by Jane herself (if she were alive today, she’d be a scrapbooker), and even a fragment of the manuscript of The French Revolution burned by J.S. Mill’s hapless maid. Below are a couple of the most familiar contemporary images of the Carlyles’ home:

chelsea-interior

carlyle-garden-tait

I sat in the garden by the door, and stood right where TC is standing in the painting! The guide told us that Chopin once played on their little piano, and of course they received all our favourite Victorians in that sitting room. The “soundproof” attic was particularly interesting, and another special treat was the 80th birthday ‘testimonial’ signed by George Eliot, Thackeray, Lewes, David Masson, and almost every other literary figure you can think of who was around in 1875.

The Dickens House Museum was good too, of course. Here’s his sitting room, with the “Cruikshank” chair”:

dickens-house

He didn’t live in this particular house that long, and many of its furnishings are approximations of what the Dickenses would have had, rather than their own pieces. Still, it’s something to stand in the room where Mary Hogarth died and see Dickens’s own report of the event. Best of all the many interesting items on display there were Dickens’s reading copies of his novels, complete with highlighting, annotations, and insertions. I love to feel the people behind the books and ideas I spend so much time talking about.

Although it’s impossible not to feel there’s something obvious, even cliched, about the Tower (and Hampton Court and Westminster Abbey too), still, to me these are irresistible places. I was interested in how much slicker these sites have become, with their guide ropes and audio tours and gimmicks (Clarence’s face projected in a butt of malmsey? really?)–but the enormous solidity of the stones and walls and towers speaks for itself of the continuity of history. I’m not sure the new memorial on Tower Green is an improvement on the simpler plaque that was there before:

But you can still stand and look around and think about Anne Boleyn seeing virtually the same scene as she walked to the scaffold, and that’s what it’s all about: not abstractions, but men and women making their way along.

I did do some reading while I was away, including Murial Barbery’s very engaging The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Alaa Al Aswany’s Chicago. And at Heathrow I calmed my pre-flight nerves by browsing W. H. Smith and came away with Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? and Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which was A. S. Byatt’s book of the year. So once I recover from the travelling (and from my daughter’s birthday and my son’s Grade 6 ‘graduation’, both of which happened the day I got back), I should be able to do some novel blogging again. And our Villette reading starts soon. Oh, and as if all this isn’t exciting enough, waiting for me at my office was a box of actual hard copies of my Broadview anthology, a bit later off the press than originally planned but looking very handsome, if I may say so myself.

This Week in My Classes (September 16, 2009)

I don’t have a lot to say about our first week on The Moonstone in Mystery and Detective Fiction that I didn’t say around this time last year. I notice that in last year’s post I didn’t say much about Miss Clack, though, who was the main subject of today’s meeting. I like Miss Clack for many reasons, including for her name (clickety-clack! it captures and trivializes her annoying persistence with Dickensian precision) and for how well she illustrates one of the novel’s major formal interests–the effect of character on both language and perception. Her narrative is extremely comic, but because it is funny at the expense of her religious attitudes (especially her missionary zeal), the humour inevitably has larger thematic implications. Her major charitable project, for instance, is the “Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society”: “the object of this excellent Charity is . . . to rescue unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent, by abridging them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.” Actually, that’s not a bad idea: recidivism might just plummet with severe enough applications of pantsing among the “irreclaimable,” especially when, as here today, the temperature is a bracing -33 C in the wind. I also enjoy her as a case study in sublimation, as she attempts to translate her erotic interest in Godfrey Ablewhite into spiritual terms:

He beamed on us with his beautiful smile; he held out a hand to my aunt, and a hand to me. I was too deeply affected by his noble conduct to speak. I closed my eyes; I put his hand, in a kind of spiritual self-forgetfulness, to my lips. He murmured a soft remonstrance. Oh the ecstasy, the pure, unearthly ecstasy of that moment! I sat — I hardly know on what — quite lost in my own exalted feelings. When I opened my eyes again, it was like descending from heaven to earth. There was nobody but my aunt in the room. He had gone.

“Unearthly ecstasy.” Uh huh, sure.

In my Faith and Doubt seminar we are also looking at religion with an ironic and occasionally skeptical eye, but there it is important to be clear, with this week’s reading, that there’s religion, and then there’s religion: we’ve been working on bits of Carlyle, excerpts from Sartor Resartus and Past and Present, and God is everywhere acknowledged, though every imaginable doctrine seems to be dismissed as Sham, Cant, and Quackery. We worked to clarify the notion of “Natural Supernaturalism” today. I had recourse (legitimately, I hope) to a couple of passages from Aurora Leigh which have always seemed to me to pursue something very close to Carlyle’s idea of Nature as a system of “celestial Hieroglyphs,” even relying on the same metaphors he uses, and pressing us (as Carlyle does in Past and Present) to see consequences for our social responsibilities and behaviours resulting from what EBB calls that “double vision” by which the “temporal show” is “built up to eterne significance” (AL VII:807-8):

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God. (VII: 821-22)

If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyph of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man, —
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use …. (AL VII:857-66)

As I understand it, Carlyle’s objection is that we have (mis)taken the surface show for all, forgetting or denying the greater reality which, on his view, is simply ‘clothed’ in what we can see and measure (“We have quietly closed our eyes to the eternal Substance of things, and opened them only to the Shows and Shames of things”). We have become materialists, scientists, even (gasp) atheists. And the result is a world in which the only concept of Hell is “not succeeding…chiefly of not making money”–we are become believers only the the “gospel of Mammonism”: “We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash payment is not the sole relation of human beings.” Soon after this part comes his well-known story of the “Irish Widow,” which I routinely circulate to my students when we discuss the fate of Jo in Bleak House.

As noted in my previous post, there’s a head-punching-needed quality to Carlyle’s prose (the editors of my edition of Sartor Resartus quote his one-time friend J. S. Mill writing to him cautiously to ask whether his points could not be “as well or better said in a more direct way? The same doubt has occasionally occurred to me respecting much of your phraseology”). But there are moments of sheer delight, too, and this time it was the seven-foot hat that did it for me, so here it is for you to enjoy as well. It’s hard not to feel, when reading it, that Carlyle is, in his own crazed way, a prophet for our time as well as his own. It is part of his general indictment of society for having “given up hope in the Everlasting, True, and placed its hope in the Temporary, half or wholly false.”

Consider, for example, that great Hat seven-feet high, which now perambulates London Streets. . . The Hatter in the Strand of London, instead of making better felt-hats than another, mounts a huge lath-and-plaster Hat, seven-feet high, upon wheels; sends a man to drive it through the streets, hoping to be saved thereby. He has not attempted to make better hats, as he was appointed by the Universe to do, and as with this ingenuity of his he could very probably have done; but his whole industry is turned to persuade us that he has made such! He too knows that the Quack has become God. Laugh not at him, O reader; or do not laugh only. He has ceased to be comic; he is fast becoming tragic. To me this all-deafening blast of Puffery, of poor Falsehood grown necessitous, of poor Heart-Atheism fallen now into Enchanted Workhouses, sounds too surely like a Doom’s-blast! . . .

We take it for granted, the most rigorous of us, that all men who have made anything are expected and entitled to make the loudest possible proclamation of it, and call on a discerning public to reward them for it. Every man his own trumpeter–that is, to a really alarming extent, the accepted rule. Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat: true proclamation if that will do; if that will not do, then false proclamation–to such extent of falsity as will serve your purpose, as will not seem too false to be credible!

“Make loudest possible proclamation of your Hat”–here, indeed, is a motto for our times. Carlyle’s view, of course, is that “Nature requires no man to make proclamation of of his doings and hat-makings.” And a “finite quantity of Unveracity” may leave real life and Faithfulness sustainable, but beware when “your self-trumpeting Hatmaker” becomes emblematic of “all makers, and workers, and men”:

Not one false man but does uncountable mischief: how much, in a generation or two, will Twenty-seven millions, mostly false, manage to accumulate? The sum of it, visible in every street, market-place, senate-house, circulating library, cathedral, cotton-mill, and union-workhous, fills one not with a comic feeling!

Indeed. I’m off now, to try to make a better Hat, in accordance with the Universe’s plans for me. O reader, go thou and do likewise! (OK, no more Carlyle for me…)

Wondrous Indeed is the Virtue of a True Book…

Not like a dead city of stones, yearly crumbling, yearly needing repair; more like a tilled field, but then a spiritual field; like a spiritual tree, let me rather say, it stands from year to year, and from age to age . . . ; and yearly comes its new produce of leaves (Commentaries, Deductions, Philosophical, Political Systems; or were it only Sermons, Pamphlets, Journalistic Essays), every one of which is talismanic and thaumaturgic, for it can persuade men. O thou who art able to write a Book, which once in the two centuries or oftener there is a man gifted to do, envy not him whom they name City-builder, and inexpressibly pity him whom they name Conqueror or City-burner! Thou too art a conqueror and Victor, but of the true sort, namely over the Devil; thou too hast built what will outlast all marble and metal, and be a wonder-bringing City of the Mind, a Temple and Seminary and Prophetic Mount, whereto all kindreds of the Earth will pilgrim.

It always seems nearly futile to comment on Carlyle (this is a bit from the “Centre of Indifference” chapter of Sartor Resartus–technically, the words are those of the fictional Philosopher of Clothes, Diogenes Teuefelsdrockh, which, yes, translates as “God-born Devil s–t”). His prose is at once exhilirating and infuriating; the same can often be said about his ideas (I think it was William Morris who acknowledged his genius but said someone should always have been stationed beside him to punch his head every few minutes). Do you think he would consider much contemporary criticism ‘talismanic and thaumaturgic’?

Carlyle Letters Online

A fabulous new resource has just been opened up online by Duke University Press: the letters of Jane and Thomas Carlyle. I’ve only peered around briefly, but the site is very attractive and seems easy to use. More to the point, it gives us easy access to all kinds of gems, such as this one, from TC to Elizabeth Gaskell just after the publication of Mary Barton:

Dear Madam (for I catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well),—We have read your Book here, my Wife first and then I; both of us with real pleasure. A beautiful, cheerfully pious, social, clear and observant character is everywhere recogniseable in the writer, which surely is the welcomest sight any writer can shew us in his books; your field moreover is new, important, full of rich materials (which, as is usual, required a soul of some opulence to recognise them as rich): the result is a Book seeming to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels,—a Book which every intelligent person may read with entertainment, and which it will do every one some good to read. I gratefully accept it as a real contribution (almost the first real one) towards developing a huge subject, which has lain dumb too long, and really ought to speak for itself, and tell us its meaning a little, if there be any voice in it at all! Speech, or Literature (which is, or should be, Select-Speech) could hardly find a more rational function, I think, at present.

The letters are fully indexed and footnoted. Thanks to Jack Kolb on the Victoria listserv for making sure we found out about this right away! I can hardly wait to browse around some more.