When Resilient Beats Brilliant: The Story of Thomas Carlyle
Resilience pays off, as the Scottish literary historian found out when he nearly lost his life’s work.
In 1859, Charles Dickens wrote the best selling novel of all times, A Tale of Two Cities, with the opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Dickens may as well have been writing about 2020. When you read his next lines, you might wonder if he was trying to be prophetic: “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” We hope Dickens was right, and this is the spring of hope after a long winter of despair.
Dickens’s book is set in London and Paris in the 1790s, the two cities in the title, shortly after the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. Dickens was not exaggerating about the worst times. In September of 1793, Maximilien de Robespierre, a noble statesman and one of the founders of the Revolution declared:
“It is time to horrify the conspirators. So legislators, place Terror on the order of the day! The blade of the law should hover over all the guilty.” It was why it became known as the Reign of Terror, and it was no exaggeration.
In the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Robespierre sentenced over 40,000 people to death by guillotine. Although he was a nationally known lawyer who led the revolution to obtain freedoms like women’s voting rights and the abolition of slavery in the French colonies, he feared insurrection more than he loved freedom. His methods were overwhelming in their cruelty.
The public tired of Robespierre after a year of his ruthlessness. He went to trial and in a moment of inspired justice, guillotined. One year later, as chaos resumed, a rescuer appeared in the form of a Parisian soldier named Napoleon Bonaparte. He restored order, which is how the world was introduced to one of history’s most iconic leaders.
There is an irony in how we know all of this, and why Dickens was moved to write his novel. Dickens was born in 1812 and as he had no direct experience in the French Revolution, he turned to Thomas Carlyle’s three-volume history for inspiration. If fate had its way, Carlyle’s book would never have been written.
Conveniently, Carlyle was the first serious thinker to make leadership his life’s work in his treatise, On Heroes, Hero-Worship (available for free on Amazon). It laid the groundwork for what became known as the “Great Man theory.”
Carlyle’s theory was based in part on Napoleon in the French Revolution. The French emperor r was not a perfect human being, but he rescued his people from lawlessness and mayhem. Carlyle recognized great leaders were complicated and believed they should be judged less on minor mistakes than major outcomes.
Carlyle worried that later generations would focus on the small failings. “Atlas the titan may have held the world on his shoulders, but he said some derogatory things,” that sort of thing. That is how history gets rewritten, by focusing on sensational anecdotes. Carlyle’s term for this was “valetism” from the expression “no man is a hero to his valet.” We call them “micro transgressions” the kind we should not repeat, but not use as a standard by which to judge a leader. Nowhere were Carlyle’s ideas more relevant than in a politically charged Europe.
He was encouraged by the well-known economist and close friend, John Stuart Mill, to begin work on his history of the French Revolution. Mill had been offered the chance by his publisher, but he thought Carlyle would do a better job. He set out to write The French Revolution.
Then, in 1834, on a wet and gray London afternoon, Carlyle experienced an act of random fate, that turned into the existential crisis of his life. Carlyle slaved for months on the manuscript, working from copious notes and writing in longhand (while typewriters existed, they were for the very rich until 1874). He sent the first volume to Mill to review. The result would be life-changing.
After reading the manuscript, Mill brought it with him to the house of a close acquaintance and accidentally left it there. The servant employed in the home was illiterate. She thought the heap of papers was scrap and promptly used the manuscript to light a fire to warm her bed-chamber.
And that’s how disruption happens. Quickly, silently, with only the crackling of leaves of paper to reveal the lost manuscript. Mill arrived the next day at Carlyle’s house looking forlorn. He carried a satchel under his arm which held the charred remains taken from the hearth. He tried to explain but could barely speak.
Most of us would be in a state of hysteria, Carlyle acted as if somebody had scuffed his shoe. The Scottish historian took Mill aside and said not to worry. Mill offered to pay Carlyle. Carlyle refused. When Mill left, Carlyle’s only words were “Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up.” Then he added,” We must endeavor to hide from him how very serious this is.”
It was more than serious, Carlyle’s work was gone and his notes destroyed. How could he complete the book without them? He gave up any hope of completing The French Revolution. He was also broke, with no money to provide for his family and no way to support himself.
That night Carlyle had a dream. Not an imaginary thing, but a real one. His father and brother came to him from their graves and begged him not to abandon the work. The next morning Carlyle pondered the dream and set off for Mill’s home to say he would accept his generosity so that he could buy writing paper.
Instead of wringing his hands over the loss, he began working on volume two and then finished volume three before painstakingly re-creating the first volume from memory. By 1847, about the time he originally planned to complete the entire work, the three-volume history was published. It was more than a triumph over adversity, it became the best selling history of the century.
Dickens was inspired after reading Carlyle’s work over ten years later while thinking of his next novel after Hard Times. He was so taken with Carlyle’s description of the Reign of Terror he wrote A Tale of Two Cities. If Carlyle had not gone forward, Dickens might not have written the best-selling novel of all times.
Carlyle’s history, The French Revolution, is still being published 200 years later. By the way, Carlyle took the charred leaves of the burned manuscript that Mill brought with him and placed them on the fireplace mantel where they remained for the rest of his life.