Black Electricities

John Sutherland

‘I told the Führer that I had recently been reading Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great,’ Goebbels records in his diary of 27 February 1945:

He knows the book very well himself. I repeated certain passages from the book to him and they affected him very deeply. That is how we must be and that is how we will be. If someone like Göring dances totally out of line, then he must be called to order. Bemedalled idiots and vain perfumed coxcombs have no place in our war leadership ... For instance it is simply grossly bad style for the senior officer of the Reich, in the present wartime situation, to strut around in a silver-grey uniform.

It would seem, from the apposite allusion to ‘the dandiacal body’ and the ‘philosophy of clothes’, that Goebbels was as familiar with Sartor Resartus as with the later biographies. On 23 March, one of the Reich’s lattermost days, we find Goebbels again settling down at bedtime with ‘Thomas Carlyle’s book’ drowning out the rumble of Soviet artillery and the RAF’s Mosquito raids.

This is not an endorsement which brings a prophet honour in his own country. But Carlyle’s reputation was sunk long before the Nazis took him along to their Götterdämmerung. Simon Heffer gives a useful account of the ‘long and damaging fall from the pedestal’ in the first chapter of his 1995 Life of Carlyle. The extent of that fall can also be gauged in the acres of cheap Victorian editions still to be found in secondhand bookshops and the dearth of Carlyle titles on offer from classics-reprinters.

A row of entries in the current Books in Print is not the sole criterion of influence, however. A book need only be read by one generation to take lasting root. George Eliot’s encomium is often quoted: ‘It is an idle question to ask whether Carlyle’s books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile,’ she wrote in 1855, ‘it would only be like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest.’ Carlyle’s acorns seem to survive in the late 20th century less as texts than as a lexicon of talismanic keywords and resonant catchphrases: ‘the Gospel of Work’, ‘the Gospel of Mammon’, ‘the Working Aristocracy’, ‘the Unworking Aristocracy’, ‘Captains of Industry’, ‘Cash-Nexus’, ‘Cant’, ‘Machinery’, ‘the Condition of England Question’, ‘the Everlasting No’, ‘Hero-Worship’, ‘the Dismal Science’.

Although it gravitates naturally towards radical conservatism, Carlylism can also be discerned at work beneath the surface of Tony Blair’s Christian Socialism, a line which descends via F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley. Blair contrives to put an upbeat spin on his ‘muscular Christianity’ (‘tough’ is his favoured term) but the essence of Carlylism is gloom, its energy, as Heffer stresses, the perverse recklessness of despair. ‘Pessimist Anticant’, Trollope called him. Recently a number of would-be Tory sages have attempted to rehabilitate Carlylism and the pugnacious Carlylean rhetoric for Party ends: among them, Heffer, of course, whose well-regarded Life ‘reinterprets Carlyle’s writings, with special attention paid to their political thought’, and Paul Johnson, whose high-pastiche polemic, Wake Up Britain! A Latter-Day Pamphlet (1994), was resolutely slept through. The Carlylean inflection can also be heard in the newspapers and magazines with which these writers are associated: the two Mails, the two Telegraphs and the Spectator. A kind of ‘vulgar Carlylism’ has resurfaced with the grossly unreconstructed interventions at the recent Conservative Party Conference by Norman Tebbit.

Although most of his major works are out of print, Carlyle’s letters, and those of his wife Jane, are in the process of being edited and published. It is a massive task, but they are among the finest literary letters of the century and the Carlyle archive (largely preserved in the National Library of Scotland) is one of the most coherent major collections to have survived the Victorian bonfire. The series has just reached the halfway mark and will probably be completed around 2020. The Carlyle edition, like the concurrent (but bonfire-reduced) Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters, was launched in the optimistic Sixties (the late John Butt was associated with both initiatives).

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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