The ethics, aesthetics and politics of Thomas Carlyle’s 'French Revolution'

Malecka, Joanna (2017) The ethics, aesthetics and politics of Thomas Carlyle’s 'French Revolution'. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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‘The Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Carlyle’s French Revolution’ examines the work of Thomas Carlyle as a crucial aesthetic intervention in the modern reception of the French Revolution in Europe. It interrogates the prevalent critical constructions of Carlyle’s work and finds them to proceed predominantly from the Whig historical agenda, structured around such key nineteenth-century concepts as utilitarianism and civilisational and moral progress. Within this critical framework, Carlyle’s largely conservative cultural stance and Christian spirituality are hardly allowed any creative potential and, ever since the famous fabrication of James Anthony Froude who depicted Carlyle as ‘a Calvinist without the theology’, they have been perceived as artistically-stunted, irrational, and out of touch with the nineteenth-century political, social and cultural realities. In examining Carlyle’s involvement with German Romanticism on the one hand, and with contemporary British periodical press on the other, this thesis proposes a more comprehensive reading of Carlyle’s politics, aesthetics and spirituality in an attempt to represent his radically open, catholic and indeed cosmopolitan artistic agenda which taps into the Scottish Enlightenment concept of rationality, Calvinist scepticism towards nineteenth-century progressivism and acute perception of evil in this world, and post-Burkean Romantic aesthetics of the sublime. We chart the aesthetic movement from Carlyle’s early dialogue with Schiller and Goethe to ‘The Diamond Necklace’, Carlyle’s first artistic rendition of the French pre-revolutionary scene, delivered as a (Gothic) moral tale and anticipating The French Revolution (a historical work that uniquely employs the Gothic genre within historical narrative, arguably unparalleled in British post-Burkean Romanticism). The critical reception of The French Revolution in Britain is examined, with special attention paid to the highly unfavourable review by Herman Merivale in The Edinburgh Review, in order to challenge the Whig line in Carlylean criticism and to expose the fundamental artistic, political and moral disagreement between Carlyle and Merivale. Carlyle’s Calvinist stance sees both Merivale’s and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s facile exorcism of the categories of good and evil from their historical agendas as irrational given the recent French terror (which, in Carlyle’s reading, released its demons precisely through such a botched ethical deal). Similarly, I highlight Carlyle’s close dialogue with John Stuart Mill both in their correspondence, and in the publications in the London and Westminster Review, while I argue that this intellectual exchange is crucial for the reading of The French Revolution as a text challenging Mill’s utilitarianism, and written within the institutional framework of the contemporary periodical press. Finally, Carlyle is seen to make capital of the concepts of Gothic and sublime, introduced by Edmund Burke and popularised by the Anti-Jacobin Review in Britain, by applying them directly to the French mob in search of a new spiritual tongue for his times (a move that even a nineteenth-century radical liberal thinker such as Mill sees as politically, if not artistically, far too subversive and revolutionary). Creative non-conclusiveness and playful deconstruction of the prevalent post-revolutionary narratives of 1789 characterise Carlyle’s deeply spiritual and artistically-sophisticated text, which, in an orthodox Christian reading, rejoices in the messy, dark and complex residue of human history, through which Christian providence acts in mysterious and unexpected ways that do not allow for any simple, de-mythologised reading.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Thomas Carlyle, French Revolution, nineteenth-century British Politics, Calvinism, nineteenth-century Scottish Literature, Whig politics, nineteenth-century historiography, religion, aesthetics, politics.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BS The Bible
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
D History General and Old World > DC France
J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
P Language and Literature > PQ Romance literatures
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
P Language and Literature > PT Germanic literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > Scottish Literature
Supervisor's Name: Carruthers, Professor Gerard and Brown, Doctor Rhona
Date of Award: 2017
Depositing User: Dr Joanna Aleksandra Malecka
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8182
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 23 May 2017 15:33
Last Modified: 14 Jul 2017 16:13

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