Monday April 19th, 2010

Up in Flames

carlyleIn the TLS, Ruth Scurr has an essay about Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume history of the French Revolution. It’s a great, grueling story, particularly when Carlyle’s friend John Stuart Mill offered to help:

In February 1835, when Carlyle reached the end of his first volume, The Bastille, Mill offered to read it for him. All along, Mill had been supplying Carlyle with books on the Revolution, and he offered to make notes on the manuscript that might be included as footnotes. On the night of March 6, Mill arrived on the Carlyles’ doorstep, semi-coherent and deeply distraught. There had been a domestic accident and Carlyle’s “poor manuscript, all except some four tattered leaves, was annihilated!” Allegedly, a servant, either at Mill’s house, or at his mistress Harriet Taylor’s, had mistaken The Bastille for waste paper and put it into the fire. That night in bed Carlyle suffered the symptoms of a heart attack, feeling “something cutting or hard grasping me round the heart.” He dreamt of death and graves, but in the morning he wrote to his publisher Fraser to explain what had happened and resolved to try again. The labour of five steadfast months had “vanished irrecoverably; worse than if it had never been!”. With astonishing resignation, Carlyle wrote,

“I can be angry with no one; for they that were concerned in it have a far deeper sorrow than mine: it is purely the hand of Providence; and, by the blessing of Providence, I must struggle to take it as such . . . . That first volume (which pleased me better than anything I had ever done) cannot be written anew, for the spirit that animated it is past: but another first volume I will try, and shall make it, if not better or equal, all that I can. This only is clear to me: that I can write a Book on the French Revolution; and that, if I am spared long enough alive I will do it.”