Novel Possibilities: Fiction and the Formation of Early Victorian Culture

By Joseph W. Childers | Go to book overview

I
Politics and Interpretive Discourse

While Thomas Carlyle was in London in the autumn of 1831 searching for a publisher for Sartor Resartus, he wrote an article reviewing Thomas Hope Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man ( 1831) and Friedrich von Schlegel Philosophische Vorlesungen, insbesondere über Philosophie der Sprache und des Wortes ( 1830), which in December of that year he published in the Edinburgh Review. In this review, "Characteristics," Carlyle is less concerned with discussing the relative merits of these books than he is with surveying the dominant features of the current intellectual landscape, which he finds gloomy and foreboding, dependent on political panaceas and physical and social "mechanisms," and in the grip of unhealthy passions for analysis, organization, and utility. Highly critical of many popularly held social and political notions, this scathing article so outraged and offended the Review's influential Whig contributors that it effectively ended Carlyle's association with the journal.

Despite the content and tenor of the largest portion of the essay, however, "Characteristics" -- especially toward the end of the piece -- focuses on one particular over-arching issue that concerned Tory and Whig, Popular, and Philosophic Radical alike -- change. "Change," writes Carlyle, "is universal and inevitable.""In Change...there is nothing terrible, nothing supernatural: on the contrary, it lies in the very essence of our lot and life in this world" (223). And while neither essential truth nor essential goodness ever dies or "can die; but is all still here, and recognised or not, lives and works, through endless changes," the primary impetus to social and political change is material: "The new omnipotence of the Steam-engine is hewing asunder quite other mountains than the physical" (224). Second, and directly linked to the changes in the material world, though perhaps with greater possible ramifications, change is caused by the inability of established institutions to cope effectively with society's increased potential: "What is it, for example, that in our own day bursts asunder the bonds of ancient Political Systems, and perplexes all Europe with the fear of Change,

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