Magazine article The Spectator

All under the Influence

Magazine article The Spectator

All under the Influence

Article excerpt

THOMAS AND JANE CARLYLE: PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE by Rosemary Ashton Chatto, L25, pp. 548, ISBN 00701167092

Even Carlyle's contemporaries occasionally suspected that his phenomenal reputation might, in the end, amount to less than they, and he, readily supposed. The interesting thing about the decline of Carlyle's once stupendous fame - indeed, the only interesting and accurate thing to say about it - was first said, long ago, by George Eliot. In her 1855 essay on Carlyle, she wrote:

It is an idle question to ask whether his books will be read a century hence: if they were all burnt, as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile, it would only be like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest. For there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle's writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or 12 years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived. The character of his influence is best seen in the fact that many of the men who have the least agreement with his views are those to whom the reading of Sartor Resartus was an epoch in the history of their minds.

That, pretty well, is the history of Carlyle's reputation, set down with remarkable prescience. Dickens is soaked in Carlyle, and if The French Revolution, that gigantic exercise in rhetoric, is no longer much read, its manner and approach saturate A Tale of Two Cities, as its author frankly acknowledged, claiming hyperbolically to have read `this wonderful book' 500 times. Sartor Resartus is still bearing fruit; its bizarre and fantastically digressive manner, pretending to be a biography of a German professor called Teufelsdrockh and the setting out of a coherent Philosophy of Clothes, has its roots in the 18th century, in Sterne, Diderot, and, particularly, Jean Paul. But its real significance lies in what it led to, and the many modernist and postmodernist writers who are still pursuing its line of all-encompassing irony.

What is missing from Eliot's otherwise astute comments is a sense that Carlyle, in the long run, could prove influential in quite different and deplorable ways. Orwell somewhere calls him the intellectual father of Fascism, and there is something in that. His theory of history as a procession of great men, most coherently set out in Heroes and Hero-Worship, bears heavily on some of Nietzsche's most deplorable pages, and everything they led to. And, even by the standards of the time, he was astonishingly bigoted in matters of race. The Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question of 1849 shocked and horrified his contemporaries, and has become only more appalling with the passage of time, with its talk of idle blacks in the plantations `sitting yonder with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins' and letting the sugar crops `rot around them'.

As Eliot saw, what had once seemed a great river has gone underground, and if Carlyle is little read now, it cannot be denied that he waters the land we walk on. Oddly, the one thing of his which does seem to be read is the essay on the Negro Question, which is too fabulously extreme a statement for American professors of racial relations to pass over. In a way, it is a great shame. Much of Carlyle has become almost completely unreadable, so elevated is its manner and eccentric its methods of argument. Many readers now will find it easier to agree with the first reviewer of The French Revolution, Lady Sydney Morgan, who complained of an `all-pervading absurdity of mannerism', than with the many people of the time who regarded Carlyle with awe. …

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