The Collected Letters, Volume 25


TC TO WILLIAM ALLINGHAM ; 4 September 1850; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18500904-TC-WA-01; CL 25: 192-194


Scotsbrig, Ecclefechan, N.B. 4 Septr, 1850—

Dear Sir,

There is not much that I can say to you on the study of General History, except what Nature herself will suggest to you if you be, as I hope you are, intent on prosecuting it.1 The Books that exist on it are far from being such as one could wish them; and no man, least of all one in a retired situation, has command of what Books do exist. Let not that discourage you: in this, as in all things, you have to endeavour honestly, with all the virtue, ingenuity and earnestness that are in you; and it is on this latter condition, much more than on your means and appliances, that your real progress will depend. One Book leads to another: begin with almost any Book on the subject, read it faithfully with all your faculties awake, it will gradually lead you towards better Books, and the subject growing more luminous at every step, you will see more and more where the real centre of it lies for you, and how you are to strive towards that. For every subject, and History above all others, has what we may call a difft “centre” for every difft man; and it is of great importance that every man shd candidly listen to the monitions of his own mind in regard to what is really interesting and nutritive to him as an individual, and try all foreign monitions, with patience, with modesty yet with courage, and silently reject them if they do not fit with this.

Probably you have already read the fashionable Modern Historians, Robertson, Hume, Gibbon;2 if not, it will behove you to read them, especially the two latter, and most especially for your present object the last: Gibbon with all his faults is a man of great talent, worth meeting upon any subject, and his Book3 is by far the best Bridge between the Ancient and the Modern world that has yet been constructed anywhere. Johanness von Müller has a little Book on Universal History, three voll., translated into English about 30 years ago;4 this I think I cd recommend you to purchase and keep about you: it is a solid work, and will serve to open the subject for you better than most others. The same Müller's Book on Switzerland5 has a high reputation, whh I did not find that it quite deserved; at any rate it is not translated, and must lie over. There is further a Rotteck's (German) Universal History (translated and abridged lately in America);6 of which I hear some talk; a Bossuet's Discours (in French) very obsolete now:7—nay there is the old English Collection in 50 or 60 volumes;8 this, where I have read in it, is still as worthy of its place as another. Watson's Philip II will tell you of the Dutch Revolt; an interesting, highly readable Book.9 Voltaire's Histories you must read, tho' they will disappoint you.10 Mentzel (unknown to me, at least not favourably known) has a Histy of Germany, probably the eligiblest in your position.11 Geijer (done into German), a solid earnest man, will by and by tell you about Sweden, Gustavis Vasa &c:12 Vertot is not worth much on these subjects13— But I need not continue this list, which might be indefinitely extended. Do you possess a Biographie Universelle? If not, perhaps you had better buy this too: it costs 10 or 12 guineas (50 volumes and odd); will teach you a great many things; and is by far the best Biographical Dicty I have used.14

One specific very simple precept is perhaps more important than any I have now room to add: Never read a Book of History without a map. Follow out the details of the localities (chronologies &c &c): it forces you to pay a livelier attention;—till you have put the event into its place and into its time, in every detail, you cannot be said to have read it at all. And be diligent; and labour faithfully, virtuously; and fear not!

As to German, which I also greatly approve of for you, the best plan is to begin directly after you have done the grammar with Goethe, Schiller &c (avoiding Richter), and on the whole to read resolutely on, labouring towards the meaning,—if possible in some Book your heart is in. Do you know Mme de Stael's Allemagne?15 That for guide-book;—and persist and prosper!

Yours very truly (in haste)

T. Carlyle