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The Redemptive Powers of Violence? Carlyle, Marx and Dickens

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)

Abstract

Among the many questions raised by the French Revolution of 1789, one in particular haunted the imagination of the nineteenth century: its violence. No one could deny that the Revolution had produced momentous and lasting changes. The Europe of the ancien régime had been destroyed and all attempts to restore it had foundered. But these changes appeared to be inseparable from the violence that had brought them about. Violence, it seemed, had not been incidental to the Revolution, but inherent in its popular character. Popular sovereignty had gone together with crowd coercion and a reign of terror. Hunger, long-held grievances and the provocations of the Old Order were among its precipitants. But, by any measure, it had been excessive, and its legacy had been an unforgettable cluster of images of the burning of chateaux, of the destruction of the Bastille, of angry crowds, summary justice and the hanging lamppost (the lanterne), of the execution of a king and queen, and most of the leaders of the Revolution itself, of the Terror and the guillotine, of women with the ferocity of ‘tigers’ — the tricoteuses, knitting while heads fell, of revolutionary armies, of the desecration of churches and the mass drownings (noyades) of Jean-Baptiste Carrier.

Keywords

French Revolution Popular Sovereignty Political Symbol French People Jewish Question 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    In 1832, John Stuart Mill commented that it was ‘the vainest of fancies to look for any improvement in the government or in the condition of the people when even honest men are apt to consider any misconduct on the part of the Government a full justification for civil war, and when every King, every minister, considers every act of resistance to Government a justification for suspending the constitution and assuming dictatorial power’. Cited in Georgios Varouxakis, Victorian Political Thought on France and the French (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, 3 vols. (London, 1837). References in this essay will be to the World Classics one-volume edition, ed. K. J. Fielding and David Sorensen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Anon. (J. S. Mill) review of Walter Scott, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Monthly Review, n.s. V1 (September 1827), pp. 92–5, in ‘Essays on French History and Historians’, ed. John M. Robson, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XX, pp. 58–9.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    James Mackintosh, Vindiciae Gallicae (Dublin: [n. pub.], 1791), p. 195; Madame de Staël stated, ‘My ambition will be to speak of the age in which we have lived, as if it were already remote’. Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, 3 vols. (London: [n. pub.], 1818), I, p. 2.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    R. J. Mackintosh, Memoirs of the Life of Sir James Mackintosh, 2 vols. (London: E. Moxon, 1835), I, pp. 413–14.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Introducing his French Revolution lectures in 1832, Smyth stated: ’During all these lectures, the lesson that I am constantly endeavouring to enforce, is the duty in politics, of moderation’. ‘After all’, he had written earlier surveying the situation in 1792, ‘it is possible, that war might have been avoided by both countries, if the popular party in France (that guilty party), could but have behaved with any tolerable moderation, and justice to their fallen monarch’. W. Smyth, Lectures on History: Second and Concluding Series on the French Revolution (Cambridge: J. and J. Deighton, 1842), pp. 46, 269.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Hedva Ben-Israel, English Historians in the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp. 116–19.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Carlyle, ‘Goethe’, in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 5 vols. (Chicago and New York: Belford, Clarke & Co., 1899), I, pp. 172–223. Carlyle owed this idea to one of his main sources of inspiration, the German romantic writer Jean Paul Richter. Richter wrote, ‘die Geschichte ist... die dritte Bibel’.Google Scholar
  9. Cited in John D. Rosenberg, Carlyle and the Burden of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), pp. 7–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 12.
    See Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘The Return of Language: Radicalism and the British Historians 1960–1990’, in Political Language in the Age of Extremes, ed. W. Steinmetz, forthcoming 2009.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Carlyle described his experience fictionally in Sartor Resartus as the culmination of the ‘Sorrows of Teufelsdrökh’ [sic] in the Rue St Thomas de l’Enfer in the chapter entitled ‘The Everlasting No’. He later recalled that this crisis was based on his own life and took place on the road leading from Edinburgh to the beach and seashore at Leith. See John Morrow, Thomas Carlyle (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2006), pp. 16–17.Google Scholar
  12. 20.
    Carlyle, French Revolution, pp. 39–40. As John Burrow has pointed out, one of Carlyle’s early passions was geology. Indeed, the original reason why he first learnt German was in order to read the geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. Carlyle’s image of the earth-rind and his picture of the material (and cultural) world as an endless cycle of decay, cataclysm and renewal derived from the geology of James Hutton, whose System of the Earth (1785) was strongly advocated by Carlyle’s Edinburgh teacher, John Playfair. See John Burrow, ‘Images of Time: from Carlylean Vulcanism to Sedimentary Gradualism’, in History, Religion and Culture: British Intellectual History 1750–1950, ed. Stefan Collini, Richard Whatmore and Brian Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 206–10.Google Scholar
  13. 33.
    See Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 38–43.Google Scholar
  14. 38.
    Carlyle, Past and Present, p. 190; Catherine Gallagher, The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction 1832–1867 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 195–200.Google Scholar
  15. 44.
    ‘Von der Societe St Simonienne bitte sich fern zu halten’ (‘please keep your distance from the St Simonian Society’). Cited in Georg Bernhard Tennyson, Sartor Called Resartus: The Genesis, Structure and Style of Thomas Carlyle’s First Major Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 143. The Saint-Simonian ‘apostle’ Gustave d’Eichthal visited England in an effort to convert Mill and Carlyle.Google Scholar
  16. See Richard K. P. Pankhurst, The Saint-Simonians, Mill and Carlyle: A Preface to Modern Thought (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1957). Although Carlyle’s embrace of a post-Christian religion resembled the starting point of the socialists, his residual Calvinism with its emphasis on man’s capacity for evil separated him from the optimistic Pelagian or Lockean assumptions which underpinned most varieties of socialism before 1850.Google Scholar
  17. 45.
    On the ‘theocratic’ critique of the Revolution, see de Bonald’s critique of Condorcet in ‘Supplement aux deux premières parties de la Théorie du Pouvoir politique et religieux’, in Oeuvres complètes de M. de Bonald, ed. l’Abbé Migne (Paris: [n. pub.] 1864), I, pp. 722–42; more generally,Google Scholar
  18. see Joseph de Maistre, Considerations on France (1797), trans. and ed. Richard A. Lebrun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 57.
    Friedrich Engels, ‘The Condition of England. Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle’ (London, 1843), in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Collected Works, (hereafter MECW) (London, 1975), III, pp. 444, 450, 455, 464.Google Scholar
  20. 65.
    Karl Marx, ‘Critical Marginal Notes on the Article by a Prussian’, MECW, III, p. 197; ‘The Holy Family’, p. 122; and see also François Furet, Marx et la Révolution française (Paris: Flammarion, 1986).Google Scholar
  21. 73.
    Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (London: [n. pub.], 1794), pp. 234–5.Google Scholar
  22. 75.
    Carlyle, Latter Day Pamphlets (London: Chapman & Hall, 1850), p. 6.Google Scholar
  23. 77.
    On the climate of opinion in the 1850s and the frustrations of the Whig radicalism of Lord John Russell, see Jonathan Parry, The Politics of Patriotism: English Liberalism, National Identity and Europe 1830–1886 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. ch. 4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Gareth Stedman Jones 2009

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