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Thomas Carlyle's "Revolution" Goes Up in Flames (March 6, 1835)

Today in Odd History, John Stuart Mill arrived at Thomas Carlyle's house with all that was left of the only copy of Volume I of Carlyle's French Revolution—a single burned scrap of paper that Carlyle would keep in his study for the rest of his life.

John Stuart MillMill had fostered Carlyle's interest in the Revolution, so it was natural that Carlyle should ask Mill to review the first volume. Mill took it home to read it, and although he recognized it as a work of genius, his maid mistook it for garbage, and lit the fire with it. Mill was devastated. He rushed to Carlyle's house and offered to pay him for the damage, but Carlyle merely soothed him, saying that he could begin the work anew, although he had already destroyed his notes. He was so successful in his effort to comfort his friend, who was of a nervous and unstable disposition, that Mill felt comfortable enough to stay awhile, making small talk. After he had gone, Carlyle, in a rare, sympathetic mood, said to his wife, "Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavor to hide from him how very serious this business is for us."

Although he had not wanted to cause Mill further pain by admitting to it, Thomas CarlyleCarlyle was terribly upset about the loss of his work. He was, in fact, on the verge of giving the project up entirely. That night, however, he had a dream, in which his father and brother rose from the grave and begged him to give up writing. He awoke with a new determination. He went to Mill, and told him that he would take the money after all. He used it to buy paper, and within a few months, he had recreated his masterpiece.

Carlyle completed the French Revolution in 1837. It was published in three volumes, and received great critical acclaim. Mill, of course, was his most enthusiastic reviewer. The fate of the maid is unknown, although she has occasionally been confused with Betsy Baker, who lined the bottoms of a number of pies with her employer's collection of first edition plays by William Shakespeare.


Portrait of John Stuart Mill from
Whistler's portrait of Thomas Carlyle from The Victorian Web

Dr. Mac's Cultural Calendar
Travel Trade: Carlyle's House
Encyclopedia Britannica Intermediate: Carlyle, Thomas
John Stuart Mill, from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Historian A.T.Q. Stewart on the downside of writing for a living
Biography of Thomas Carlyle at The Literary Encyclopedia and Literary Dictionary
Carlyle and Friends: Anthony Burgess reviewing Neighboring Lives, by Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor
Thomas Carlyle, from Books & Writers
Encyclopedia Britannica Intermediate: John Stuart Mill

Carlyle, as noted above, was able to reconstruct his French Revolution.
The French Revolution


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