Friday, April 4, 2014

The French history that was written all over

Book burning can occur due to many reasons. It could be an intentional act, targeting the books, as in Nazi book burnings and the burning of the library in Maha Viharaya in Anuradhapura by King Mahasen. It could be the targeting of a building where books are kept, like in the case of Jaffna library burning. It could be an accident, or even a mistaken identity.

It is said that a mistaken identity destroyed the first volume of a large book on the French Revolution. It could well have been curtains for the project and people might not have heard of such a project at all. Even worse, if that had happened, the bestselling novel of 19th century world literature may never have been written. Fortunately, it was not so.

The story begins when the English philosopher John Stuart Mill signed a contract with his publisher to write a history of the French Revolution. However, Mill was too busy with his other commitments and instead suggested that his friend, the Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle write the book. Carlyle accepted. By 1834, he was busy with writing the book.
Thomas Carlyle, by Eliott & Fry Studio
When the first volume was finished, Carlyle sent the only complete manuscript he had to Mill. Here, the mistaken identity reportedly took place. Thinking that the papers were trash, his housemaid took the papers as fuel to light the fireplace.

Understandably, Carlyle must have been shattered by the knowledge that his effort and time had been literally burned out. However, rather than crying for spilled milk, he set out to rewrite the volume. Since he had written in once, with great effort put into it, he found it much easier to do it the second time. As he once said, it came “direct and flamingly from the heart.” Eventually, the book titled “The French Revolution: A History” contained three volumes and was published in 1837. A revised edition was published two decades later.

“The French Revolution: a History” charts the revolutionary events that took place in France from 1789 through the reign of terror until 1795. Coincidentally, 1795 had been the year in which Carlyle was born. The book helped Carlyle establish himself as a leading philosopher in the 19th century. Although his literary style is complex, he inspired other fiction and non-fiction writers. In particular, Charles Dickens used Carlyle’s work as a guideline to French Revolution while he wrote his masterpiece “A Tale of Two Cities.” This novel is by far the all time best seller for any 19th century novel, with an estimated 200 million books sold worldwide.

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