Have you ever wondered what you would do if the most important work of your life fell apart without warning—through no fault of your own? When that happened to Thomas Carlyle, the 18th century author of The French Revolution, he promptly forgave the person who had inadvertently destroyed his first manuscript and set about rewriting a magnus opus that scholars still revere today.
Carlyle, born in Scotland on December 4, 1795, was the eldest of nine children. Home schooled until he was six years old, Carlyle entered the University of Edinburgh, at the age of 14, walking the 80 miles from his home to the college. Though his best subject was mathematics Carlyle excelled in foreign languages, especially French.
Following his graduation from college and his subsequent marriage, Carlyle relocated to London, where he became friends with the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. In 1834, Mill discovered that, although he had signed a contract with his publisher to produce a general history of the French revolution, other commitments kept him too busy to fulfill this contract, so he asked Carlyle to write it instead.
At the time, Carlyle was struggling to make ends meet, and so threw himself into the project with unbridled zeal, spending more than a year writing the first volume of his three-volume work by hand. When he had completed it, he sent the work to Mill for his review.
Mill was desperate, but Carlyle was not
A couple of months later, Mill turned up at Carlyle’s house, looking, Carlyle would later write, “the very picture of desperation,” according to the account reported at LostManuscripts.com.
It turned out that Mill had left the manuscript at the house of a woman friend whose illiterate servant girl had used it to light the fire. All that remained of Carlyle’s passion for his historical work was a mere handful of charred leaves, which Mill shamefacedly presented.
Most people would probably have responded with tears and anger. Carlyle initially refused Mills’ offer of recompense. “Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up,” Carlyle said to his wife Jane. “We must endeavor to hide from him how very serious this business is for us.”
Serious it was indeed, for the Carlyles had no money. Thomas had destroyed his notes and could not remember what he had written. “I remember and can still remember less of it than of anything I ever wrote with such toil,” he said. “It is gone.”
Pay attention to your dreams
What happened next is a cautionary tale about the need to pay attention to our dreams. That night, Carlyle dreamt his deceased father and brother begged him to continue the work. The next morning, he accepted Mills’ offer of money, which he used to purchase paper, and began to write again.
However, instead of immediately trying to re-write the first volume, Carlyle wrote volumes two and three before re-doing the first volume. He would later say that the burning of the initial version of the first volume was a blessing in disguise as the rewrite turned out to be much better. The inadvertent conflagration actually improved his work!
The three-volume work was completed and published in 1837. In the almost 200 years since then, Carlyle’s great work has always been in print.
Carlyle kept the charred leaves in his study for the rest of his life.
Sometimes the show just has to go on—and you have to go solo
Once, when legendary French singer Maurice Chevalier was working the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, the musicians who were supposed to support his performance went on strike just before Chevalier was about to walk onto the stage.
Did Chevalier cancel the show? He certainly did not! Instead, of he strode onstage and proceeded to perform the entire show alone, with no musical backup.
It would have been so much easier for Chevalier to cancel his performance and refund the customers’ money. Surely, no one would have criticized him for doing so. But he was dedicated to performing, and committed to the credo that “the show must go on.”
Chevalier’s professionalism aimed for the stars and the audience loved him because they saw what a truly great star he was. In fact, they loved him so much that they gave him five standing ovations, as much for his “true grit” in carrying on as for his actual performance.
In a similar musical vein, the great classical violinist Itzhak Perlman is reported to have done something similar when a string on his violin broke during a performance in New York.
Another violinist might have walked off stage and gotten a string to replace the one that had broken, but for Perlman—who suffered from polio as a child—walking is no easy feat. It’s something accomplished only with the aid of leg braces and crutches.
That night, Perlman was said to have played with extraordinary passion, bringing his audience to tears several times as he did the impossible: He played a violin with only three strings.
As Carlyle so aptly said, “Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.”
By Julie Crawshaw