A Disimprisoned Epic: Form and Vision in Carlyle's French Revolution

A Disimprisoned Epic: Form and Vision in Carlyle's French Revolution

A Disimprisoned Epic: Form and Vision in Carlyle's French Revolution

A Disimprisoned Epic: Form and Vision in Carlyle's French Revolution

Excerpt

The French Revolution has received far less critical attention than we might expect to have been directed toward a work of such importance; despite its claim to be the heroic prose poem of its time, and despite its undoubted influence on Charles Dickens and other mid-century writers, it has remained remarkably peripheral to our conception of the Victorian era. The reasons for its relative neglect are not hard to find. Long and complex, even by Victorian standards, it has not found a place on university curricula as easily as the more compact Sartor Resartus has. And it does not accord with our preexistent categories of academic study, inasmuch as it is too literary for historians, and too historical for students of literature. Though fictive, it is not fiction, in the normal senses of the word, and though poetic, it is not likely to be found in a course on Victorian poetry. It does not readily fit even into the most popular categories of Victorian nonfictional prose: art criticism, social criticism, autobiography, or apologetics. Nevertheless, recent study has moved Carlyle's history in from the margins, to a position more closely resembling the one it held at the end of the nineteenth century -- at the center of any understanding of his work and his time.

The French Revolution presents to its modern readers the same two crucial interpretive problems that it offered to those who welcomed its first appearance in 1837. The first -- arising from the expectation that Carlyle's text will, as a history, offer an interpretation of the French Revolution -- is to establish what the work means, to discern its ideas, perspectives, and, if possible, allegiances. The second -- arising from the perception that Carlyle's text is cast in an arresting new form, which transgresses the conventional generic boundaries of a history -- is to establish what the work is. For anyone who has read The French Revolution, or indeed for anyone who knows Carlyle through Sartor Resartus, there can be little surprise that the first problem (What does the work mean?) is inseparable from the second(What is the work's kind?). Carlyle himself protested in response to censorious critics . . .

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