A tragic circumstance was connected with the writing of Carlyle's famous history, The French Revolution. Carlyle had given his manuscript to his friend, the eminent economist John Stuart Mill, to read, and Millšs servant accidentally used the sheets to build a fire one morning. Carlyle had kept no notes and at first could not recall any of the wording. He took a week off to calm his mind by reading novels and then laboriously rewrote the whole book.
The following selection shows Carlyle's highly individual style with its broken, exclamatory sentences. He gives the reader the feeling of being actually present and experiencing the excitement and suspense of the scene. His method is "history by lightning flashes."
The gloomy Bastille prison, surrounded by a moat, had stood since the fourteenth century at one of the gates of Paris. With its long history of unjust imprisonment and forgotten prisoners, it had become a symbol of the oppressions of the French monarchy and the Old Regime. The day of its destruction, July 14, 1789, became the date for the French nation an annual celebration of independence, just as July 4th is Independence Day in the United States and July 1st Canada Day.
Based on the introduction to the Carlyle selection in Adventures in English Literature (Toronto: W. J. Gage; Harcourt Brace, 1952), p. 452.
In power of graphic description and portraiture, whether of battle, human incident, or distinguished personality, Carlyle has no superior in English. Moreover, the energy of his utterance, especially in such a work as The French Revolution, is the energy of a Titan.
William Frederick Roe, "Thomas Carlyle," Victorian Prose (New York: Ronald, 1947) 5.
Last modified 18 August 2004