his is not so much a history, as an epic poem; and notwithstanding, or even in consequence of this, the truest of histories" (Seigel, 52). So began J. S. Mill's enthusiastic notice of The French Revolution just two months after its appearance in May of 1837. For the first time, a work appeared with the name "Thomas Carlyle" on the title page; he was now an author, an authority.' Mill's early notice set the tone for the enthusiastic reviews that followed, including those by Thackeray in the Times, Thomas Anstey in the Dublin Review, John Heraud in Fraser's, and John Forster in the Examiner; even reviewers who did not approve of The French Revolution acknowledged that Carlyle was someone to be reckoned with. By 1840, he had been discussed in all the major reviews — the Edinburgh, Quarterly, London and Westminster, and Dublin Reviews — the latter three publishing extensive, omnibus reviews of his collected works. With this success, his publishers rushed out new editions of Sartor Resartus, his collected essays, and his translation of Wilhelm Meister. Satisfied that the book was admired and confident that he had finally found an audience, Carlyle felt at last that he had been granted authority to speak (CL, 9: 2 7 2; see 311, 3 16, 3 2 8, 3 3 5)
The elite of London society — " Ladies this and Ladies that ... old men of four score; men middle-aged with fine steel-grey heads; young men of the Universities, of the Law professions" — now came to hear him lecture (CL, 10:94). He was introduced to leaders of the Whig aristocracy, including Lord and Lady Holland, Lord Morpeth, Lord and Lady Harriet Baring, as well as Thomas Spring Rice, the chancellor of the Exchequer (CL, 9:335, 10:28, 66, 11:19, 38, 40, 130, 12:80, 104; Kaplan, 257). He also made the rounds of London's intellectual and artistic circles, encountering the likes of Henry Hallam, [90-91] William Whewell, Alfred de Vigny, Charles Babbage, Daniel Webster, William Gladstone, William Charles Macready, Charles Dickens, Geraldine Jewsbury, and Alfred Tennyson. He was in demand not only as a guest at dinner parties, but as a supporter of public causes like the copyright bill, the penny post, and the founding of the London library (CME, 4:205-7; CL, 10:79-81; Christianson, "Universal Penny Postage"; Kaplan, 262-63). And now that he had succeeded in literature and no longer had need of them, the academic posts he had sought in vain were offered to him.
Having been granted authority, he wished to use it to author a new social order. The French Revolution had been an inverse epic — not the belief, but the unbelief — of his culture. He now sought to author an epic that expressed belief and would restore authority to English society. The theme of "past and present" that dominated his writings during this period was the natural outcome of his attempt to create an epic out of the history of the past that would function as the mythic expression of belief for the present. Throughout the next decade he returned again and again to Cromwell and the Puritan era, while at the same time he was persistently drawn to the problems of the present day. Out of this dual concern, he shaped a new genre of social criticism that found its finest expression, naturally enough, in Past and Present.
Carlyle responded to the severe economic hardships Britain suffered between 1838 and 1850 with his most important works of social criticism. The first of the series of economic recessions that were to keep England in economic and political turmoil until the end of the 1840s began in 1837, almost at the same time he finished The French Revolution. Although The French Revolution depicted the failure of the French to author a constitution and become epic, it created an English audience that was willing to listen to Carlyle. Carlyle now sought to shape this audience, which was as yet the unheroic product of the era of revolution, into an epic nation. He wrote Chartism and Past and Present toward the beginning of this epoch, when he had the greatest confidence in his ability to use his writing to effect this change. "The Negro Question" and Latter-Day Pamphlets, written at the end of the period when he had lost his confidence, brought his reputation to the nadir of his writing career. Throughout this period, he was absorbed in the history of the Puritan era. From December 1838, when he began reading up on the Protectorate, until the denouement of the [91/92] Squire papers controversy in December 1849, Cromwell dominated Carlyle's thoughts and writings as he sought, unsuccessfully, to create his English epic.
Contents last modified 2001; reformatted 2006 & 2015