Monday, March 17, 2008

Jane Austen, Great Man of History

Thomas Carlyle, at the beginning of the lectures titled On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History (delivered 1840, published 1841):

“For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” (p. 239, Everyman’s Library edition)

This is a strong statement. One odd thing about it is that I swear Carlyle says the exact opposite in his 1830 essay “On History”, arguing that what is really needed is a bottom-up history of ordinary people.*

I’m more sympathetic with the older Carlyle, the prophet of what we now call social history. But I’m no dogmatist. “Social forces” of all sorts are, intellectual, political, and economic, to me, sufficient causes of, for example, the Reformation or the French Revolution. But within those limits, the specific actions of Martin Luther and Napoleon were consequential. They explain why things happened when they did, instead of fifty years sooner or later, and they direct the “social forces” in specific directions. I sound like a Marxist. Superstructure, vanguard, etc.

Lovers of literature, readers of old books, at least, must all have at least some belief in the Great Man theory. For the reader, the specific work, the exact combination of words, is important. If Jane Austen had died a year earlier, Persuasion would be gone; if a little before that, Emma and Mansfield Park would never have existed. No combination of social forces, no changes in political or economic conditions, would have brought them into existence without her.

It’s easy, in fact, to imagine the social conditions that preclude any Jane Austen novels at all – social breakdown in England (just look at the sad state of literature in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France), or a society so rigidly patriarchal that Austen never received an education. This is the power, at least to me, of Woolf’s invocation of Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own. I imagine all of the wonderful books that could have been.

* For example: "Social Life is the aggregate of all the individual men's Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies." ("On History", 5th paragraph). Although I remember a stronger statement somewhere else.


  1. This is great. I hadn't thought of thinking about history this way but I would agree with your statement that its hard not to have at least some belief in the idea. What we would have missed out on without a record of these people's writings and works. And yes, how mind-boggling to think of all the work/thoughts/contributions we will never hear of because of people who slipped through the cracks.

  2. Incomprehensible, literally so, I suppose.