This revolution is now seen, from the safe distance of two centuries, as a great and glorious episode, a triumph for democracy, ushering in a new era of liberty, equality . . . blah, blah, blah. It is easy, now, to romanticise the horrible events that marked that grisly decade until France finally ground to a standstill, exhausted by idealism, proclamations, anarchy and bloodshed. The 30-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte took over as First Consul - effectively, dictator - in 1799.
Exactly 200 years ago, the First Republic had not yet completed its first year, Marie-Antoinette had just three months to live, and the reign of terror was about to begin. All these events have been blurred and simplified over time into a few heroic images, dominated by the menacing silhouette of the guillotine. Yet surely it was a great popular uprising; a turning point for modern Europe?
Ignorance and distance make us think so now. Confusion and proximity obscured Thomas Carlyle's perception. The forces that had overthrown law and order in France seemed in the 1830s to threaten Britain as well. He had been born when the revolution was in full swing, and at the age of 40, at the height of his powers as a historian, it was within living memory.
Carlyle's great two-volume history, The French Revolution, was revered by his contemporaries, as was the man himself. Today both are largely forgotten. Last weekend, looking for something to fill a pleasantly idle afternoon, I visited the Carlyles' house in Chelsea.
They lived in Cheyne Row, an area that wasn't smart in 1834 when Jane and Thomas moved down from their native Scotland. All their lives they practised frugality, and the house and its contents are a poignant tribute to hard work and simple tastes.
As we left, I lingered over the books and postcards and lit upon The French Revolution. 'Wonderful book,' the curator said. 'He started writing it in 1834, trying to understand how, and why, the revolution had happened.' I demurred, put off by its 950 pages. 'Don't read it straight through,' she continued. 'Pick an event - Charlotte Corday and the death of Marat, say - and just start reading.' So I did. Five minutes later I bought it. That night, tossing insomniac in the small hours, I read through till morning, enthralled.
First, the style. Carlyle writes with a vividness that astonished his contemporaries. George Meredith said: 'Swim on his pages, take the poetry and the fine grisly humour, the manly independence.' His sense of drama, insight into human emotion and descriptive powers bring the scenes rushing off the page. Just listen to this:
The guillotine, by its speed of going, will give index of the general velocity of the Republic. The clanking of its huge axe, rising and falling there, in horrid systole-diastole, is portion of the whole enormous life-movement and pulsation of the Sansculottian system]
What an image] The writer in me is bowled over by the metaphor of the guillotine as the heartbeat of the French revolution. 'In horrid systole- diastole' - so accurate, so ironic.
Carlyle is equally brilliant at describing humanity great and small. He says of royalty: 'Close-viewed, their industry and function is that of dressing gracefully and eating sumptuously.'
Yet his account of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette's doomed attempt to escape with their children on midsummer night, 1790, is heart-rending. Pride impelled them to travel in a spanking-new coach, thus attracting universal attention - the very thing they didn't need. Add the incompetence of their courtiers and a series of unlucky accidents, and recapture was inevitable.
Or, take the trial and execution of the Queen herself. Carlyle's description would move the most hardened republican:
Marie-Antoinette, in this her utter abandonment and hour of extreme need, is not wanting to herself, the imperial woman. Her look, they say, as that hideous indictment was reading, continued calm: 'she was sometimes observed moving her fingers, as when one plays on the
Those long white fingers . . . that invisible piano]
Thomas Carlyle was also a political thinker - and how rare such deep, clear minds and humane philosophies are today. He can sound remarkably apt for our own time:
Republic for the respectably washed middle classes; how can that be the fulfilment (of this huge insurrectionary movement)? Hunger and nakedness, and nightmare oppression lying heavy on 25 million hearts; this was the prime mover in the French revolution; as the like will be in all such revolutions . . . pride of birth, pride of office, any known kind of pride being a degree better than purse-pride.
These are not the sentiments being invoked when the Tories gibber about 'Victorian values': but they were Carlyle's values and, for what it's worth, they are mine.Reuse content