The Collected Letters, Volume 28


INTRODUCTION; 2000; DOI: 10.1215/ed-28-introduction; CL 28: firstpage-28-ix-lastpage-28-xiv


This volume shows a striking increase in the number of letters not published before, reinforcing the continued claim that the Carlyles' story is incompletely known. In the past, several sources have been passed by and many generalizations ill-founded. Of the 316 letters in this volume, as many as 199 (or about 63 percent) have not been previously printed, compared with 51 percent in volume 25 and 47 percent in volume 26. Of the other 117 letters, 43 have appeared incomplete. Of them all, 269 were written by Thomas and 37 by Jane Carlyle, showing a slight fall in the number written by Jane, though what that signifies is partly uncertain. We have to take into account that she had given up writing regularly to her cousin, Jeannie Welsh. Perhaps she was growing increasingly withdrawn in this difficult year. Or the increase in the number of previously unpublished letters may be because editors and biographers have thought that what was happening between Carlyle's Life of John Sterling and the history of Frederick the Great was less dramatic than earlier. But we certainly now have a chance to get a closer grasp of the Carlyles' development at this time and a better basis for understanding them.

We gain this from detailed application to the actual letters, but some examples of how the letters more clearly define the story can be seen in a few of the Carlyles' friendships and family relationships. For example, the death of Carlyle's mother at the end of the year may mark a special change in his development; the question persists of their relations with Lady Harriet Ashburton; and some of the Carlyles' other friendships ask to be reconsidered, such as their association with Giuseppe Mazzini and a new one with Delia Bacon, an American Baconian to whom Carlyle was remarkably courteous and sympathetic.

The most important and moving event of the year was the quiet drama of the decline and death of Carlyle's mother, who had clearly begun to fail, though she still had all her senses. Once Peggy Aitken, an untaught farm servant and bankrupt farmer's daughter, she cheerfully kept up her spirits, being able to read “the whole day if she have any Book worth reading,” her tastes “not at all silly or squeamish,” but welcoming anything with a “glimmering of human sense” (TC to AC, 24 Oct. 1851). Even so, the end had almost come, though for a while she was fortified with a supply of overproof “whisky, porter, wine and brandy,” until “a bad turn” in July. Jane Carlyle had been due for a holiday in the summer, calling at places in Scotland associated with her own mother, starting with a visit to Moffat and her brother-in-law, Dr. John. At once she was caught up in the alarm of the family in Scotsbrig, and she went to see her mother-in-law to report to Thomas. Jane wrote that Carlyle's mother had turned “better rather than worse,” recovering from her “natural strength,” since Dr. John could do nothing against his “Mother's sole disease,” old age (20 July). The crisis was over for a few months, till it became so serious that Thomas was called.

Once he came, the account written to his brothers and sisters is even more powerful than his Reminiscences. He tells how, on walking from the station, his one thought was, “‘Shall I see her yet alive?’ She was still there; weary very weary, and wishing to be at rest. I think she only at times knew me; … once she entirely forgot me; then, in a minute or two, asked my pardon” (Reminiscences, 152). He wrote to his brother Alexander that toward the end when he left the room, she sent his sister Jean to call him back “with apologies, ‘That I was Tom, that she knew me right wee'l. … She looked kindly at me, as she had done even in the worst pain, and she was now somewhat easier; I kissed her cold lips; and she took leave of me in these words, ‘I'm muckle obliged t'ye,’ audibly whispered, which are forever memorable to me” (28 December).

He recalled in the Reminiscences: “It was my Mother, and not my Mother; the last pale rim or sickle of the moon, which had once been full, now sinking in the dark seas. … ‘All the days of my appointed time,’ she had often said, ‘will I wait, till my change come.’ The most beautiful religious soul I ever knew. … On the religious side, looking into the very heart of the matter, I always reckon her rather superior to my Jane, who in other shapes and with far different exemplars and conditions, had a great deal of noble religion too. Her death filled me with a kind of dim amazement and crush of confused sorrows, which were very painful, but not so sharply pathetic as I might have expected” (152).

He noted the scene in his Journal, with further intimate details, and his response to an event “henceforth memorable to me. … It cannot be said that I have yet learned this severe lesson I have got; I must try to learn it more and more, or it will not pass from me” (8 January 1854). It was to stay with him when dwelling on past or future problems: “Poor old mother, father, and the rest of us bustling about to get dressed in time and down to the meeting-house at Ecclefechan. … On the whole I have a strange interior tomb life, and dwell in secret among scenes and contemplations which I do not speak of to anybody. My mother! My good heavy-laden dear and brave and now lost mother! The thought that I shall never see her more with these eyes gives a strange painful flash into me many time” (Journal, 28 February 1854).

Perhaps it marks a boundary in his life rather than a development. Sir Herbert Grierson's belief that her death released Carlyle's reserve about his religious skepticism seems mistaken. Like Gladstone, he supposed that Carlyle used a religious language “to which he” and his mother “were accustomed,” because he could not “bear to give” her “pain” (Grierson, Carlyle and Hitler [Cambridge, 1933], p. 14; Gladstone Papers, BM. Add. Mss. 44776, f.6). But we have already seen how openly he wrote (CL 19:introduction, 22:introduction, and 26:introduction); his outlook, relieved mainly by work, had already grown darker, and, with or without concern for his mother, he was outspoken.

He was always a man of contradictions and paradoxes; that he could also be extremely sensitive to others is shown, for example, by his reception of Delia Bacon, whom Emerson had rather too thoughtlessly passed on to him. Carlyle showed his gentler side when she called at Cheyne Row in May with Emerson's introduction. As his letters partly explain, she had come to England convinced that Shakespeare's plays were really composed by a group led by Francis Bacon. She was extraordinarily single-minded, and far from easy to deal with, though she had found support from Emerson, the financier Charles Butler who had sailed with her from the States, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his admirer Francis Bennoch, and was to add various influential friends recruited by Carlyle. Her determination eventually led to her vigorous article on “William Shakespeare and His Plays: an Inquiry Concerning Them,” in Putnam's Magazine (January 1856), and her weighty The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespere Unfolded, prefaced and subsidized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and published in London in 1867 by Groombridge & Sons. She was to give good reason for Hawthorne to regret his support, and he was eventually to advise her to go back to Carlyle among others if she wanted another literary adviser (Theodore Bacon, Delia Bacon, 281–82).

The article made her the first Baconian in Britain or North America, though others quickly followed, such as William Henry Smith, who brought out a pamphlet Was Lord Bacon the Author of Shakespeare's Plays? A Letter to Lord Ellesmere (1856). Some doubts had already been expressed about Shakespeare's works being by Shakespeare of Stratford, but it is hard to say why she put forward Bacon in his place, apart from her having the same name. The curious feature of her book is that it is almost entirely theoretical. She wanted to replace Shakespeare by Bacon not for any given biographical or historical reasons, but because thoughts and phrases in their works or their “philosophy” seemed alike. Her book speaks about temporarily withholding the “historical” part of her work, and of not wanting to deal with anything but their philosophy. For she declared that Shakespeare's works did not come from an unthinking “brutish, low-lived, illiterate, unconscious spontaneity,” but expressed the “new philosophy” of the “Court of the last of the Tudors and the first of the Stuarts,” and were originated by a “reflective, deliberate and designing mind” (p. xviii). She argued that such Elizabethan wits and men of letters and science were disappointed and defeated politicians using the theater for political effect. This accounts, or was her excuse, for not wanting to listen to such experts as James Spedding, or to follow up other introductions and lines of inquiry that Carlyle gave her. Her work is well-written, and she was obviously convincing to such intelligent men as Emerson, Hawthorne, and Butler, who took a patriotic pride in her daring and persuasive eloquence. For his part, Carlyle, though sensibly skeptical and deeply opposed in principle to such theorizing, was unremittingly and chivalrously considerate and kind. In the end, in spite of her distaste for mere historical associations, she went on to haunt places associated with Shakespeare, whom she dismissed at other times as “Lord Leicester's stable boy.” Seeking for proof, she sought to have his tomb opened; and, mocked by reviewers, she died insane in 1859.

The immediate result of her approach to Carlyle and his recommendation of J. W. Parker, was that after considerable delay her proposed article for Fraser's Magazine was rejected, as Carlyle had to tell her on 10 December. Yet, as she was to tell Charles Butler, she was already pursuing her arguments in a substantial volume, which she expected to be ready in the form “of a clear strong statement of the whole matter … which will be able to stand alone.” She had come to identify herself with the wits and scholars of the new philosophy of the “Advancement of Learning,” who she said were to be “a means to the Advancement of the Welfare of the World” (1 January 1854, Hopkins 183).

Her various biographers have not adequately told her story. We have a clue to her desire to escape from reality in one of Emerson's casually apologetic remarks about her having “a private history which entitled her to high respect,” which he thought could “be helped only by facilitating her Shakespeare studies” (to TC, 10 August). Her history was what Carlyleans might call an “open secret,” and is perhaps associated with Emerson's tendency to make eminent men represent his own ideas, combined with his liking for paradox. Her story is too complicated to give in detail, but an unhappy love affair with a younger man, a broken engagement, and a series of misunderstandings, resulting in her betrayal or rejection by a Yale theological student, had led to an unfair inquiry conducted by academic authorities more interested in preserving their good name than hers. It ended in scandal and gossip, openly discussed and publicized in Truth Is Stranger than Fiction (New York, 1850) by Catherine Beecher (1800–1878), Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister and a prominent educator, writer, and reformer. For a while, Bacon had found relief in her great success as a teacher and public lecturer, as well as escape into her elaborate Baconian fantasy. Her friends obviously advised that this be diverted by a visit to England; and Charles Butler's academic and theological connections may have led him to sponsor her, though he otherwise kept a wise distance. Her story is told by Theodore Bacon, Delia Bacon A Biographical Sketch (Boston and New York, 1888), and Vivian C. Hopkins, Prodigal Puritan: A Life of Delia Bacon (Cambridge, Mass., 1959); but Delia Bacon has not featured before in Carlylean biography or letters.

In contrast, relations between Lady Harriet and the two Carlyles ran almost smoothly in 1853. If Jane was reserved and somewhat distressed, it scarcely shows. She accepted that her husband should sometimes visit Addiscombe and the Grange without her, and she even found it convenient. The Carlyles speak of it openly; she is happy to back out of a visit when she has a cold. The year begins with her submissively presenting Lady Harriet with a pincushion and gratefully passing on Lady Harriet's gift of £10 to a destitute friend, William Maccall. It ends with her being surprisingly willing to do what she deeply disliked by buying the cheapest possible presents for the Ashburtons' annual children's Christmas party.

Carlyle usually writes to Lady Harriet as an intimate friend, mainly without the exaggerations he sometimes used (perhaps partly in self-mockery) as with, “Before the Queen, so bounteous, gracious in all things. … I kiss the hem of your garment” (28 November), or, “I mean to keep related to you, noble Woman of a thousand, and by all the means that Heaven permits me; and Heaven, I suppose, will not yet refuse to let me think of you, whatever else is forbidden” (9 June). The tone may be subdued, as he tamely signs off with “Good be with you ever more,” or just “Yours ever” (8 and 11 November). Yet he also writes with sensitive affection, drawing her into his memories when he is left alone with the cat, while Jane sets off to Reigate: “Oh my noble Lady, do not ever you quite forget me,—not if you can rightly help it! I wish this for reasons of my own,” as he goes on to remember his first being taken to Annan Academy by his father one bright May morning (18 May). At another time, probably in late 1853, he thanks her for a print of Friedrich Duke of Saxony by Dürer, adding, “Do not give anything more, O my Bountiful; have you not given me enough already, more than I can ever repay!” (28:372). We have been denied Lady Ashburton's answering letters in reply, but a deep sense of friendship, at least on his part, is clear from his writing to her so promptly on his mother's death. Her tears of sympathy, he says, are “still present to me; and no part of your noble goodness to me is or can be forgotten”; she is his “dear Friend” (23 and 25 December).

Both the Carlyles sought friendship, and we cannot pass by the note of despair in Carlyle's Journal as, finding comfort in nothing but work, he writes of “the worthless, empty, and painfully contemptible way in which (with no company but my own, with my eyes open) but as with my hands bound, I pass these days and months and even years” (13 April).

He was never able to find an active outlet, unlike such friends as Mazzini whose apparently vain schemes, as Thomas and Jane observed, continued to erupt, as he struggled for Italian revolt and eventual freedom. He and the Carlyles had first come together about 1838 (see TC to JSM, 6 Dec. 1839), gradually growing closer. Carlyle had recognized him, from the first, as a “valiant, faithful, considerably gifted and noble soul,” though “hopelessly given up to his republicanisms, his ‘Progress,’ and other lamented fanaticisms, for which I had at no time the least credence” (Reminiscences, 94). He was to go on by saying that “we soon tired of each other,” leaving Mazzini, “off and on,” to Jane Carlyle's share, “for a good many years, yielding her the charm of a sincere mutual esteem.” In crisis, Jane had turned to Mazzini for help (July 1846; JWC to TC, 6 July 1846). Carlyle always had a deep personal respect for Mazzini, supporting him as “a man of true genius, an honourable and gifted man” (TC to HC, 25 April 1840); but even the admiring Jane had had misgivings about some of his plans, including the serious proposal to take her with him on an invasion of Italy by balloon (22 October 1842; JWC to JW, 22 Oct.).

February 1853 brought the foredoomed fiasco of the Milan uprising. We have to see Mazzini as justified by his hope that such failures were part of a sustained long-term revolution. Yet Carlyle was neither alone nor wrong in his immediate response to the news from Milan as a “mad insurrection.” Perhaps, he told his mother, Mazzini was a man “of much worth,” who “could not well help its taking place” (13 February), but to Clough he declared that the rising was “insane.” It left Mazzini badly shaken, but still content to surround himself with a circle of admirers, and immediately ready to return to violent revolt. There was nothing reactionary in the belief of both Carlyles, in company with most Italians, that “it all ends in blood—and that is horrible” (JWC to JAC, [7? September]; Dennis Mack Smith, Mazzini [1994] 104).

As far as we can, we have made use of surviving letters written to the Carlyles, which help to put them in a sharper context, however impatiently Carlyle felt that they should sometimes be flung “into the fire” (CL TC to JCA, 12 Feb. 1852). He saw Jane as still possessing “an art in writing” (JWC to TC, 23 Aug. 1852). She yearned for the time, when there had once been the quiet and leisure to write deliberately, however expensive postage had been (JWC to KS, 29 Dec. 1852). For us, such letters and their own still give an unrivaled access to their life and times.

Kenneth J. Fielding and Sheila McIntosh