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  • "Spiritual Enfranchisement"Sartor Resartus and the Politics of Bildung
  • John B. Lamb

"I am for a radical inward Reform"

(Thomas Carlyle to John Carlyle, Dec. 19, 1830)1

By March 22, 1831, when a second reading of the Reform Bill was carried in the House of Commons, Thomas Carlyle was already well underway with the writing of Sartor Resartus. By October 8, when the Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, he had been in London nearly two months looking for a publisher. While Carlyle believed that the book trade in general and Sartor in particular suffered because of "Reform-Bill agitations," he nonetheless felt that Sartor was a "'word spo[ken] in season,'" confirming thereby both its political and prophetic character: "My persuasion that Teufk is in his place and time grows stronger the more I see of London and its philosophy: Doctrine of the Phoenix, of Nat. Supernaturalism and the whole Clothes Philosophy … is exactly what intelligent men are wanting" (CL, 5:410, 327, 354). In contrasting Sartor with the "character of the Times," Carlyle told the publisher John Murray in September of 1831 "that now … were the best season for emitting it" (CL, 5:404).

Indeed, Carlyle had suggested in July of 1831 that he viewed the question of reform "thro Teufel" (CL, 5:297), testifying to the relationship between Sartor Resartus and contemporary politics noted by James Anthony Froude: "'Sartor' was indeed a free-flowing torrent, the outbursting [End Page 259] of emotions which as yet had found no escape. The discontent which in a lower shape was rushing into French Revolutions, Reform Bills, Emancipation Acts, Socialism and Bristol Riots and rick burning, had driven Carlyle into far deeper inquiries—inquiries into the how and why of these convulsions on the surface."2 Froude's intuition that personal emotions and an interest in the origins of contemporary social and political unrest were brought together in Sartor is of more than biographical import. For the intersection of the personal and political that Froude claims marks Carlyle's text is an important aspect of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century concept of Bildung, a concept that would play an important role in Carlyle's response to reform and radical politics in the 1830s. To see English politics in the age of reform "thro Teufel" was to view it through the lens of an ideal of self-formation that had important ideological ramifications. The question that Carlyle put to himself in November of 1831—"Will any Parliamentary Reform ever reform me!"3—suggests the extent to which Carlyle saw the question of reform as having to do more with the improvement of the individual than with the progress of Victorian party politics.

The Rebellious Needleman

In his seminal edition of Sartor Resartus, G. F. Harrold speculates that Carlyle got the title for his first major work from a well-known Scottish song,4 but I believe that it is not too fanciful to suggest that it also points elsewhere, that the title Sartor Resartus refers, if only obliquely, to the man Carlyle dubbed "the rebellious Needleman," Thomas Paine, whose works remained a mainstay of British popular radicalism from the time of the French Revolution throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly during those periods of radical political mobilization, like the one preceding the passage of the first Reform Bill.5 Widely circulated, [End Page 260] the Rights of Man and the Age of Reason were the most celebrated texts of English republicanism, and in the early nineteenth century, they "underpinned the hopes of ultra-radicals for reorienting popular radicalism, for shifting its center of gravity toward an outright commitment to revolutionary republicanism."6 Regardless of one's political persuasion, from the Peterloo Massacre in 1812 to the first stirrings of Chartism in 1838, Paine, "the rebellious Needleman," was synonymous with the ideology and iconography of English radicalism. In claiming this relationship between the figure of Paine and the title of Sartor Resartus, I am making two assumptions that it will be the purpose of this essay to explore: that Sartor Resartus is, in part, a particular response to English radicalism and to renewed interest...


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