The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture

By Lisa Plummer Crafton | Go to book overview

"Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution

Lowell T. Frye

Born in 1795, not writing about the French Revolution until the mid-1830s, Thomas Carlyle obviously did not participate in the Revolution debate in England during the 1790s--at least not firsthand. But neither the Revolution itself nor the debate about its meaning were safely "historical" during the 1830s. True, in the years following the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, a moderate, emotionally neutral interpretation of the French Revolution seemed distinctly possible. Whig writers for the Edinburgh Review, notably Francis Jeffrey, absorbed Edmund Burke's vision of organic social development along with his belief in the inviolability of property; meanwhile, writers for the Tory Quarterly Review distanced themselves from Burke's unremitting hostility to the Revolution in toto. In 1826 Richard Wellesley, reviewing Prior Life of Burke, judged that "the French Revolution has in the ultimate issue of events, proved beneficial to France," and not to France only, for "other nations of the old and of the new world have, on the sequel, if not in consequence of [the Revolution], advanced in freedom and the general improvement of their institutions" (471). Three years later Robert Southey, surveying "The State and Prospects of the Country," refused "to join Mr Burke in the eulogiums he has bestowed on the court and aristocracy of France. . . . They contradict the whole mass of facts which are before the public." Southey treats almost as a commonplace the conclusion that "it was the degeneracy, corruption, and thoughtlessness of the court and government which was the chief source of . . . the revolution" (483). 1

The fall of the Bourbon monarchy in July 1830, however, even as it reinvigorated the campaign for parliamentary reform in Britain, forced a breach between Whig and Tory interpretations of the Revolution of 1789-1795 as wide as that between the views of Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox forty years earlier. British statesmen and journalists between 1830 and 1832 sought in the French Revolution of 1789, as well as in the English revolutions of the 1640s nd 1688, arguments for and against reform. As a result, the protracted and acrimonious debate leading to the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 clearly

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The French Revolution Debate in English Literature and Culture
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Recent Titles in Contributions to the Study of World Literature ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction ix
  • Notes xv
  • Chronology xvii
  • Burke's Perception of Richard Price 1
  • Notes 21
  • Religion and Politics in the Revolution Debate: Burke, Wollstonecraft, Paine 27
  • Notes 38
  • The "Ancient Voices" of Blake's The French Revolution 41
  • Notes 53
  • Arguing Benevolence: Wordsworth, Godwin, and the 1790s 59
  • Notes 76
  • "Great Burke," Thomas Carlyle, and the French Revolution 83
  • Notes 103
  • Politics of the Episteme: The Collapse of the Discourse of General Nature and the Reaction to the French Revolution 107
  • Notes 118
  • Representations of Revolutionary Women in Political Caricature 123
  • Notes 131
  • Postscript: The French Revolution and Romanticism 137
  • Select Bibliography 145
  • Index 149
  • About the Contributors 155
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