Two critical editions of Thomas Carlyle's works, each published in 2020, demonstrate the enduring impact of the Victorian sage. In an era of unrelenting polarization, it is more vital than ever to appreciate the diverse perspectives of a writer who resisted political demarcation with such eloquent fury. Indeed, Carlyle is arguably the most complex figure of the nineteenth century, misunderstood both casually and intentionally. His writing is seemingly constructed from contradictions—champion of the working class, but faithful to the monarchy, suspicious of technological progress, but defender of imperial violence. These two critical editions recover and restore crucial example of Carlyle's early work, emphasizing the development of a voice that, following The French Revolution (1837), pierced seemingly every debate of the Victorian period.

The editors of both texts deftly underscore Carlyle's complex thought, but they also show a writer who was keenly aware of establishing his career, cannily choosing projects that would bring him the critical attention and financial security he desired. That the editions each feature hundreds of pages of meticulous notes, while avoiding the pitfalls of subjective interpretation that sometimes doom other academic texts, not only demonstrates the depths of Carlyle's allusive and elusive prose, but also highlights the breadth of the editorial undertaking. The editors' decision, in both editions, to present clear copies of Carlyle's work without in-text notations or remarks disencumbers readers from formatting fetters, allowing them to experience the texts like initial nineteenth-century readers.

The editors of Essays on Literature note that “reliable editions of [Carlyle's] work … have not been readily available” (ix). Previous editions published by the University of California Press have endeavored with similar success to piece together consistent presentations of Carlyle's writings, wading through multiple versions that contain both authorial emendations and printing errors. What sets apart this edition, however, is the use of an “integrated system for the computer-assisted production” (ix). One can only speculate on Carlyle's reaction to his essays, most of which were written in the years surrounding the reactionary “Signs of the Times” (1829), entering the digital age.

One of the many triumphs of this edition of Carlyle's early essays is the thoughtful contextualization of the late-Romantic culture of literary reviews. During the years that Carlyle earned most of his income as a reviewer, the literary review was in transition. At this point, as the editors observe, “[t]he review often metamorphosed into the essay” (xiii), meaning that writers often used review space in periodicals as a venue for philosophical musings or social commentary. For example, Carlyle privately admitted only to “pretend reviewing” (xx) John Gibson Lockhart's biography of Burns, instead intending to offer his own analysis of the poet. Although Carlyle initially exploited this potential, he ultimately stopped contributing reviews as his ambition continued to strengthen. His final commentary on literature, in fact, was his preface to Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays: First Series (1841). By then, Carlyle had fully “trad[ed] his role as reviewer for that of author reviewed” (xv).

Essays on Literature succeeds in many respects, namely its editorial maneuvers and the beauty of its presentation. The edition is also valuable for its contribution to an understudied and undervalued period in Carlyle's career. That the majority of the essays date to the 1820s and 1830s, before and during Carlyle's ascension to the height of Victorian letters, emphasizes the evolution of his critical voice, which emerged already mature in Sartor Resartus (1833–1834) and only intensified in The French Revolution (1837). Carlyle's early essays also provide an interesting test case for the transition between historical/cultural periods. Victoria's June 20, 1837 ascension to the throne marks the official end of the Romantic period, but scholars have also noted the 1832 Reform Act, among other events, as another landmark for the transition. Carlyle's transformation from reviewer to reviewed offers an additional point of departure. Readers can use Essays on Literature, in other words, to understand the terms that inaugurated the Victorian period in less official ways than the transition between monarchs. To use the metaphor of Sartor Resartus, Carlyle exchanged the rags of literary criticism for the robes of philosophical inquiry. The conditions that inspired the exchange present in both Carlyle's early essays and the editorial apparatuses for this collection. To examine Carlyle's development in these reviews is to understand the greater changes in British culture that accompanied, if not overshadowed, Victoria's ascension.

The new edition of The French Revolution also demonstrates Carlyle's development, showcasing the work that established his voice and reputation, allowing him fully to pursue social and historical subjects. As with Essays on Literature, this edition confirms the monumental editorial task. It is extraordinary to see the text, already so expertly edited in the 2019 Oxford edition, be expanded to the breadth of three lengthy volumes. That The French Revolution can support such an editorial endeavor is testament not only to Carlyle's unparalleled memory, but also to the scope of his research. The editors deftly maneuver the contextual circumstances that encouraged and frustrated Carlyle through the composition process, noting that Carlyle saw the study of the French Revolution as “the grand work of our era” (xvii) that had not been adequately addressed. It becomes clear that Carlyle, after deciding against an arguably simpler project on John Knox, increasingly saw himself as the only writer who could adequately tackle the subject. “[T]he Revolution,” the editors observe, “could not be explained by the discursive understanding, but only revealed by the poetic imagination” (xxvii–xviii). Only Carlyle possessed the combined authority of a studied historian, philosopher, and theologian with the soaring imagination of a poet. The voice that he refined in Sartor Resartus, which seeks to elucidate diverse subjects through the guise of an experimental novel, would prove crucial to his construction of The French Revolution, which was “the product of a cold attempt to combine literature and history” (xxxiii). This would not be a dry, distant narrative, but instead an inclusive and immersive experience.

Carlyle's project, as the editors observe, “avoided the two most obvious established lines of argument: the conservative interpretation … and the radical interpretation” (xxv). The French Revolution founds Carlyle's distinctively fluid positioning on the political spectrum, frustrating partisan readers. The Revolution, for Carlyle, was neither a triumph for the downtrodden nor a disaster for social order. He saw the Revolution as “necessary, and even divine” (xxix–xxx), but frequently expressed his disdain for the superficiality of French thought, always preferring the depth of German philosophy. Refusing to fall squarely into either political camp ensured that Carlyle could compose a unique document of the event, “draw[ing] on all of his strengths as a writer: his intensely visual sense of reality, his ability to make history immediate by immersing his readers in the sights and sounds of the moment, his gift for concentrated, suggestive, metaphorical forms of expression, his deft sense of language and register, his immense vocabulary, and his vast stock of verbal allusions” (xxxvi). But Carlyle's greatest contribution was to break the boundaries of historical documentation, demonstrating that history is best understood through both the layering of multiple perspectives and the directive of an urgent present-tense voice.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the editors' introductory overview is to locate the frustrations that Carlyle was forced to endure and to overcome. He knew, from the beginning, the difficulty of the task at hand, and strained over whether it was worth the trouble. But Carlyle also faced roadblocks from the outside. When John Stuart Mill's servant accidentally burned almost all of the volume-one manuscript, Carlyle nearly gave in. But with the support of Jane Welsh Carlyle, he labored to rewrite and revise the volume. From the evidence that the editors present, it is clear that The French Revolution weighed on Carlyle, evidencing some form of enduring trauma. That he never returned to the subject, beyond an early lecture series, suggests that it became part of his past, the details of which have been resurrected by this edition.

The frustrations of the project aside, The French Revolution “forced [Carlyle] to consider himself ‘a kind of successful man’” (xxv). Taken together, these two editions help scholars reconstruct Carlyle's own history, emphasizing the developments and decisions that led him to be the most influential and controversial voice of the nineteenth century. The “faltering literary career” (xiii) that saw him struggling financially and intellectually in the remote environs of Craigenputtock transforms into the celebrity that made him the sage of London's Cheyne Row. The new editions of Essays on Literature and The French Revolution guide readers through this transformation, highlighting Carlyle's development through meticulous notes and thoughtful commentary, while allowing the original texts to speak for themselves.