The Magazine


How to Read a Provocateur and Why We Should;

Feb 24, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 23 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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More than half a century ago, Lionel Trilling wrote an essay on T. S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society, calling upon his liberal and Marxist friends to be more appreciative of a mode of "religious politics" that was familiar in Victorian times but that was now regarded as reactionary. "When he [Eliot] says that he is a moralist in politics," Trilling explained, "he means most importantly that politics is to be judged by what it does for the moral perfection, rather than for the physical easement, of man." Trilling's essay, "Elements That Are Wanted," took its title from that Victorian eminence Matthew Arnold, who had said that the function of criticism is "to study and praise elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent."

It is in this spirit that we should read Thomas Carlyle today, prepared to study and praise him for those elements that "for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted" -- yet in full recognition of their possibly " maleficent" effects when put in practice. And it is in this spirit that his contemporaries read him. We tend to think of the Victorians as conformist, complacent, self-serving. Yet the most eminent of them were highly individualistic, even eccentric, self-questioning, and remarkably self- critical. Thus the most conventional and liberal of them could appreciate, even revere, so iconoclastic and reactionary a thinker as Carlyle.

Thomas Carlyle is a biographer's dream. His life was uneventful in the usual sense; he never had a regular job, or held office, or engaged in any notable activity apart from writing. Yet by sheer force of character he conveys a sense of drama that few public figures could match. The biographer has ample materials to draw on in his personal life: his marriage (probably unconsummated); his tormented relationship with Jane, his intelligent, quick- witted, and sharp-tongued wife (the one much-publicized episode of violence, leaving her with bruised wrists, was less traumatic than years of emotional neglect); his lifelong devotion (platonic, but nearly obsessive) to Lady Ashburton, causing much misery to Jane (although not, apparently, to Lord Ashburton); the constant complaints about household problems, servants, noises (a crowing rooster or piano-playing neighbor), each of which took on the proportions of a major crisis; the chronic ailments (with their evocative Victorian names -- dyspepsia, colic, biliousness, bowel troubles, lumbago) which somehow did not interfere with travels abroad, visits to family in Scotland and friends in the country, and a regimen of exercise that included twenty-mile walks and many hours on horseback; an aversion to socializing, in spite of which he managed to see a multitude of friends and to meet almost everyone of any importance in England and visitors from abroad.

All the while it was "scribble, scribble, scribble," as was memorably said of Gibbon. And, like Gibbon's, Carlyle's scribbling involved strenuous research. The three volumes on the French Revolution (the first of which had to be rewritten after the manuscript was accidentally burned by John Stuart Mill's housemaid), four on Cromwell, and six on Frederick the Great may not measure up to modern scholarly standards, but they did represent, for their time, impressive feats of archival research. And they all had respectable sales, in America as well as Britain.

That multivolume works on these subjects, representing views as unconventional as Carlyle's and in his unique style, should have been so well received is itself remarkable. Only Carlyle could have made heroes of Marie Antoinette, Cromwell, and Frederick, and persuaded the public to give them a sympathetic hearing. But his shorter writings were no less unconventional and were even more enthusiastically received. In many circles Carlyle himself was seen as a hero -- or, better yet, a prophet.