Erratic Star

Michael Foot

  • Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle by Simon Heffer
    Orion, 420 pp, £20.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 297 81564 4

Tory political philosophers are not easily come by, even in the atmosphere of intellectual body-snatching unloosed by the Peter-house School of historians. Confronted with the raw clash between rich and poor brought about by Thatcherite-Lawsonite-Majorite policies, Adam Smith would have recoiled. The social policy he sought to develop was more civilised than anything on offer today from the Howards and the Heseltines, the Portillos and the Lilleys.

To be fair to them, most of the Peterhouse School have chosen to expose skeletons in liberal or left-wing cupboards rather than attempt to exhume a real hero of their own. They thought they could finish off poor John Stuart Mill, but they never succeeded, except in their own estimation. Now, however, we are faced with what may be an even more forlorn effort, to fold Thomas Carlyle to their collective bosom. It so happens that Carlyle had a famous quarrel with Mill, in which most observers would have favoured Mill. Something deep in Mill’s outlook offended Toryism, old or new, whereas something deep in Carlyle’s has been potent enough to persuade Simon Heffer to follow in the footsteps of his Peter-house mentor, Maurice Cowling, and see whether Carlyle can be given the final accolade. It seems a pretty tall order, even though, as every schoolchild knows (as Macaulay used to say), Carlyle became in old age a frantic exponent of racism and other comparable barbarities. It is barely conceivable that this can be part of the Peterhouse doctrine; but we shall see.

Here I must declare an interest, as even ex-MPs occasionally do. I was brought up in a home where the name of Carlyle was greatly honoured, and for excellent reasons. First and foremost among these, according to my father, was what Carlyle had achieved by transforming the reputation of Oliver Cromwell. ‘Our chief of men’ was the title given to Cromwell by Milton. So he was, but the truth was long concealed or suppressed. Even without Carlyle, his greatness would surely have been established eventually. But what Carlyle achieved was still stupendous. Without him, Cromwell’s statue would never have been accorded its position of pre-eminence in Parliament Square, with one eye defying the world at large, the kings and Popes and all the other potential enemies of England’s true glory, and the other eye keeping the House of Commons in order. Carlyle had an abiding contempt for Parliamentary squabbles; Cromwell, too, had some trouble with them. But thanks in no small measure to Carlyle, the truth about the great, near-democratic English Revolution was established, so that its triumphs could be carried forward by a whole range of later historians, by Veronica Wedgwood, Christopher Hill and the rest. Carlyle hated democracy, both the word and the idea, which is no doubt one source of his appeal at Peterhouse. But Cromwell’s army was much more truly representative of the English people than was Parliament, and Carlyle it was who originally discerned that strange truth.

Two other of Carlyle’s accomplishments strike me as stunning in their implications for his reputation. His French Revolution is still the best account, in English, of that most significant event in modern history. All the revisionist efforts to tell a different tale, especially when they imply some acquittal of the Old Regime, collapse in the face of Carlyle’s assault; at every turn he exposes the moral awfulness against which the Rights of Man were mobilised. The only narrative which equals or surpasses his is that of Michelet, who shows a French democrat’s superior judgment when dealing with several of the Revolution’s later developments. Yet, as with the Puritan Revolution in England, it was Carlyle who saw most clearly the epic scale of the events he was describing, which, we shouldn’t forget, had taken place in the world of his own childhood.

Carlyle was not himself a revolutionary, but he could describe better than anyone the ardour that made revolutions, the burning hatred which the rich could implant in the hearts and minds of the poor, and those of their spokesmen and champions, some of them charlatans and betrayers for sure, but not all. Carlyle did not share Michelet’s faith in the people but even today the force of his invective is unimpaired.

His account of the Chartist troubles shows how well he understood that comparable infamies were then being perpetrated in supposedly civilised England. He foretold a terrible retribution for the monstrous repressions the Chartists suffered, though it didn’t quite work out that way. It could be argued against Carlyle that he refused to turn his literary genius to the task of describing the remedy. That, indeed, was one of the grievances expressed against him by such new-fangled democrats as Mill. But if the claim is now to be made that he remained intellectually detached from these developments, his previous achievements as the historian of revolutions would have to be discounted. Such a perversion must not be allowed. The great Carlyle remains the Carlyle of the Cromwell Letters, The French Revolution and the Chartist revolt. If the revisionists see an entirely different Carlyle, it must be a simple case of mistaken identity.

Simon Heffer starts his book with an elaborate Introduction in which he describes, sensitively and skilfully, how Carlyle’s reputation suffered terrible blows soon after his death in 1881, and how much this was due to the scandalous treatment of Froude’s biography of him. Froude tried to tell the truth but both he and his subject suffered nothing but injury on that account. Heffer upholds Froude’s reputation effectively and justly; but in this same Introduction, he fails to do justice to another Carlyle scholar, Herbert Grierson.

In 1930, Grierson gave a lecture entitled ‘Carlyle and Hitler’, in which he seemed to find some resemblance between the anti-democratic attitudes of the two men. To think this is to misread him, however. Herbert Grierson was one of the great teacher-critics of the century, the greatest, I would claim, when writing of the Scottish subjects of which he was a master – which is not to forget that he also had an inspired appreciation of the writers who had carried the reputation of English literature across the continent of Europe, Swift, Milton and Byron.

Grierson had a special title to speak about Scotland. Another lecture, on ‘Scott and Carlyle’, begins: ‘The lives of the three greatest of Scottish imaginative writers – Burns, Scott and Carlyle – overlapped in an interesting and, for each successor, an influential manner.’ Carlyle himself could often be grudging in his tributes to his literary contemporaries, but he knew what he owed to Scott: ‘He understood what history meant,’ he wrote, and had Carlyle not secured that tuition, he might not have turned to writing history himself. Grierson understood perfectly how the particular Scottish tradition in which Carlyle was born and bred shaped his thinking.

It was the Presbyterian Church which made Scotland democratic. Its General Assembly was the first real Scottish parliament. And though they emancipated themselves, both Burns and Carlyle remained in that tradition. For Carlyle, wrote Grierson, ‘all forms of institutional religion but that of his mother and father, which he had perforce abandoned, were Mumbo-Jumbo, old clothes in Houndsditch.’ And he continues: ‘Burns is the most fiery star in the heaven of Scottish letters, radiating laughter and love. Carlyle is a splendid erratic-star, a comet with a glittering tail, who, like other comets, will return from time to time to startle and delight us. But Scott is the largest and most beneficent luminary. He has built this golden bridge that will for ever connect the Scotland of today with the Scotland of the past.’

In Carlyle Scott acquired his most brilliant pupil, which is why Grierson took such trouble to present them together. Carlyle at his most cantankerous could make no complaint about the sympathy and competence of this judge. Grierson had the whole rich parade of English literature before him, and could select for Carlyle an apposite place. Moreover, he had the sense to realise that Carlyle’s artistry should never be separated from his politics, and provided enough quotations from Carlyle’s essays, not quoted by Simon Heffer, to undermine any Tory complacencies: ‘Let inventive men cease to spend their existence incessantly contriving how cotton can be made cheaper; and try to invent a little, how cotton in its present cheapness could be more justly divided between us.’ Or slightly better known: ‘The haggard despair of Cotton-factory hands in these days is painful to behold; but not so painful, hideous to the inner sense as that brutish, God-forgetting Profit-and-loss philosophy of life theory which we hear jangled on all hands.’ Or hardly less potent, Grierson’s own mild peroration, written in 1930: ‘We are paying dear today for laissez-faire, for refusing, while we had the wealth, the national demand, as he affirms it in Past and Present, of every working man for two things, a living wage and security of employment.’

Simon Heffer has written a fresh, engaging, conscientious account of one of the great Victorians, who deserved some form of rehabilitation. What he has not shown, however, is that Maurice Cowling understood the age of Carlyle better than anyone else. It was the young Carlyle, in all his Scottish revolutionary glory, who captured it best. His tragedy, which was even more so that of Jane Welsh Carlyle, is that somehow London and all its works corrupted his vision and his will and his art. Other reviewers of this book have suggested that the Carlyle Heffer discovered when he was rather more than halfway through was very different from the man he had set out to find, but that he ploughed on, regardless but creditably. Some great modern biographies have been written in that manner: I would cite Enoch Powell’s Joseph Chamberlain and Robert Blake’s Disraeli – two other Tory heroes who incidentally, or not so incidentally, turned out to be rogues, Disraeli a most engaging one and Chamberlain the opposite.

Powell’s experience with Chamberlain led him to remark on the tragedy of all political life. Carlyle’s life was certainly a tragedy of the first order – even though he had Jane at his side to capture the moments of boisterous humour along with the exruciating humiliations. At one stage he loved her, and she loved him; it was the best of them both. Other Carlyles perhaps; no other Janes.