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Barbara Barrow, ‘Bodies, Politic and Social: Language-Origins Controversies in Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution’

2014 August 6

Barbara Barrow is Assistant Professor of British Literature at Point Park University. She will receive her Ph.D. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis in August 2014. Her research focuses the interchange between liberalism and the science of language in Victorian literature and culture. Yous can find her academia profile here.

This post accompanies Barbara Burrow’s JVC 2014 article ‘Speaking the Social Body: Language-Origins and Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution’, which can be downloaded here.

Images of bodies fill Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (1837): bodies of royalty, bodies of massed revolutionaries, the ‘greenish-coloured’ body of Maximilien Robespierre. In a curious aside, Carlyle’s narrator even suggests that language itself has a body.[1] My essay, ‘Speaking the Social Body: Language-Origins and Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution’ links these images of the body to the emergence of the ‘social body’ as a political concept in the nineteenth century. I show how Carlyle’s experimental epic invents a new political language to represent the rise of popular sovereignty in the wake of the Revolution.

Political theory has a long history of associations with the figure of the body. Expanding on Mary Poovey’s identification of a “linguistic shift” from the notion of a body politic, based in the monarch and Parliament, to the more inclusive notion of the social body in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this essay traces Carlyle’s engagement with politics in the context of language-origins debates.[2] While some scientific writers such as Robert Chambers claimed that speech was an evolutionary development rather than a divine gift, Carlyle maintained an opposing belief in speech-as-incarnation, or the word-become-flesh. Carlyle’s belief in the providential force of the vernacular animates his interest in the work of Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a Revolutionary author and playwright who compiled a dictionary of populist coinages, as well as his declaration that ‘Johnsonian English’ was ‘breaking up from its foundations’ as revolution broke out on the Continent.[3] In Carlyle’s correspondence and in The French Revolution, this belief in the divine and political power of speech is apparent in images of overthrown dictionaries, new coinages, and in the chaotic play of spoken dialects. Most of all, it is evident in his closing description of post-Revolutionary ‘Man’ as an “incarnate Word.”[4] In short, if scientific accounts of language like Chambers’ seemed to reduce speech to a matter of mechanics and physiology, Carlyle’s incarnational logic of speech sought to animate the speaking body through the divine logic of the word-become-flesh.

This populist language of incarnation marks the revolutionary transition from hereditary to popular government. As Ernst Kantorowicz and, more recently, Eric Santner have both discussed, the figure of Christ’s incarnated body was central to the notion of the ‘king’s two bodies’, the notion that the monarch had both a physical body and an immortal, divine body.[5] I show how Carlyle’s relocation of this figure of the body from the courts to the French subjects who form political collectives represents this transition from the body politic to the social body. This essay thus seeks to trace the evolution of the concept of the social body in Victorian political thought, an evolution about which there has been little critical consensus despite the central importance of the body to recent work on Victorian liberalism.[6]

Tracing this evolution also helps us better understand the contradictory balance of agency and containment in Victorian conceptions of the social body. Published just five years after the First Reform Bill, The French Revolution hints that a more drastic revolutionary force is available to readers that Carlyle saw as languishing in Reform-era Britain. Yet he also contains this force in the dialectical figure of the social body that shuttles back and forth between providential vengeance and acts of revolutionary violence. The subjects of the social body are always destructive and never creative, speakers of a new political language that Carlyle describes as vital but ‘not yet embodied’.[7] Carlyle’s The French Revolution, then, helped set the terms for an emergent notion of the social body that both legitimizes and contains the political agency of the working classes.


[1] Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, ed. K.J. Fielding and David Sorensen (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1989), vol. I, pp. 148 and 331.

[2] Mary Poovey, Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation 1830-1864 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 7-8.

[3] For Mercier, see Daniel Rosenberg’s ‘LouisSébastien Mercier’s New Words’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 36.3 (2003), 367-386. For Carlyle’s description of revolutionary language see See ‘Thomas Carlyle to John Sterling’, 4 June 1835. The Carlyle Letters Online [CLO], ed. Brent E. Kinser (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), DOI: 10.1215/lt-18350604-TC-JOST-01; CL8:134-138.

[4] FR II.453.

[5] Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957); Eric Santner, The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[6] See Pamela Gilbert, Mapping the Victorian Social Body (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004) and also Elaine Hadley’s discussion of ‘abstract embodiment’ in Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 14.

[7] FR II. 453.

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