January-October 1859

The Collected Letters, Volume 35


INTRODUCTION; 2007; DOI: 10.1215/ed-35-introduction; CL 35: xiii-xx


This volume includes letters from January to October 1859.1 In some ways this is an unusual volume of the Letters, in that the Carlyles spent a great deal of the year together, rather than separated by holiday or other travel, as they had been in previous years. Thus the hectic exchange of daily letters that each demanded—indeed insisted on with increasing vehemence—is less evident in this volume's crop. Instead, we have a rather fuller number of letters to others from Jane Welsh Carlyle (JWC) during the months when Thomas Carlyle (TC) was locked away in his attic study laboring in “the valley of the shadow of Frederick,” trying to increase his momentum (and raise his interest) after the excitement of publishing the first two volumes in 1858. He little realized at the time that he had seven more years ahead. There is a fascinating run of letters, planning their summer in Scotland. They wisely traveled separately, moving about Fife and in the lowlands between family and friends, battling with weather, with railway timetables, with variable health and thin nerves. Finally, the letters provide a vivid insight into the return to Chelsea, the almost audible sigh of regret as TC picks up his pen and JWC the reins of managing 5 Cheyne Row and all the human dramas it seemed to contain.

The early months of 1859 show JWC's irritations with her husband with great clarity; going on holiday with him did little to mend the situation. When he was writing TC was a creature of habit; he locked himself away most of the daylight hours, emerging in anything but a good mood for his daily ride or walk, his daily sleep, his late dinner, and the stimulus of whichever visitors came to call before he took his late-night walk to smoke a final pipe, trying for a night's sleep. While he might be in the same house as his wife, she saw little of him; when she did see him it was not always at a propitious moment for relaxed conversation—breakfasts were often fractious and dinners were eaten apart, for JWC ate much earlier than TC. There was often company in the evenings but even then, if the company was Joseph Neuberg or Henry Larkin, the talk might well be of Frederick and of Frederick the Great, of maps, of proofs, and of printers.

Small wonder, then, that JWC had her own circle. At its heart was Geraldine Jewsbury, whose frequent visits were remarked on by others. But there was a much wider circle and beyond that some close and confidential correspondence with those like Mary Russell to whom she could pour out the accumulated tensions that life in Cheyne Row could generate. As well as a ferociously sharp wit JWC had, it is perfectly plain, a real gift for friendship:

My dear! I haven't time—nor inclination for much letterwriting— Nor have you, I should suppose;—but do let us exchange letters now and then—a friendship that has lived on air, for so many years together, is worth the trouble of giving it a little human sustenance. / Give my kind regards to your Husband— I like him. And believe me your ever affectionate / Jane Welsh Carlyle. (JWC to Susan Stirling, 21 Oct.)

When she was less inclined to show her affection, she could write of unwelcome guests with merciless parody, as she did to Walter Mantell; this no doubt reinforced the message that he should beware of demonstrative women, since Geraldine was at that moment making very obvious advances to him, to the disapproval of both Carlyles:

When your note was brought in, I was in the act of telling Miss Pardoe, authoress of The City of the Sultan (good god!)—a woman who makes calls with a head bobbing all over with waterlillies! and who is just the person for spreading news with moral and sentimental Comentaries—was just in the act of telling her the shocking catastrophe at London Bridge!—and Politeness of course exacted that I should not read your note till the Waterlillies had sailed out in a high state of excitement!— (JWC to Walter Mantell, [9 Oct.])

This volume's letters show the width of JWC's correspondence, which (despite her claims that she had little time for letter writing) was impressive, as was her gift of adapting tone and content to the receiver. She could show real sympathy as well as feline wit; she writes to Betty Braid (her mother's old servant) of the Donaldson sisters in Haddington: “Miss Donaldson … is wearing away; but so slowly! and painfully! It breaks my heart to think of her! And Miss Jess is as much to be pitied as the other—about to be left solitary at her age—and she a confirmed invalid since before I was born!” (JWC to Betty Braid, [3 March?]). The feline wit shows in her comments to her young admirer, John George Cooke, about the engagement of Isabella Barnes, her doctor's daughter:

([Y]ou remember her? remember her! will you ever forget her?) has found a Being she can love! and who loves HER!!—. … As odd as any other part of my news is, that the little girl was moved in spirit to write and tell me of her happiness! … [T]he whole of her letter, which is excessively sentimental, breaths a spirit of beautiful HUMILITY (!!) towards me, and of young girl enthusiasm towards her lover and her Father and me and every body! … I could have taken my Bible Oath, that this little girl hadnt one spark of sentiment or humility (of all things) in her whole composition! (JWC to George Cooke, [2 Sept.])

TC meanwhile was locked in a furious battle with his German sources, with books, with maps, with a language that obviously gave him problems (he was glad of Neuberg's help in both translation and transcription), with libraries (here also he was very glad to let others suffer the inconvenience and the bad air of the libraries of the time)—above all with the sense that Frederick the Great was a rock he was pushing up a long hill to which he could see no summit. He was unaware when he made his ridiculously optimistic early forecasts that the final volumes would not be published until 1865, nor did JWC know that TC's labors on the book would last almost as long as the remainder of her life. The writing of Frederick the Great is the ground bass to this volume of their letters, as it was to the previous volume and will be to the next few. The problems were the same whichever volume TC was tackling: a profusion of sources that he found inexact, badly organized, wretchedly indexed, and often contradictory; the enormous amount of material that he collected and wrote on slips and on odd pages (many of which survive) and that he slowly assembled into coherent sections, battle by battle, campaign by campaign, footnoting and annotating his sources often with sarcastic or abusive comment, and always with the sense that the job would never finish.

Last year was not a propitious one to me: I returned, rather before this day of the month, out of Germany … and in a few days farther I started the attempt to finish my miserable big Task, as it were by sheer force, and violently cut my way to the end of it. Alas, the attempt had no success with me. (TC to Alexander Carlyle, 7 Oct.)

It does not appear to me hitherto that the History of Fredk can be written; that I, or any mortal, can make a human Book of it to Englishmen of this day. So inhuman has it grown, under the continual manipulation of stupid men; so inhuman (in another kind) have they grown under do! If one cannot write it, one can let it lie unwritten? That will be a sorry condition too. On the whole, one must do one's very utmost bad-best,—& had better, for this reason, hold one's peace in the interim. (TC to Sir George Sinclair or Unidentified Correspondent, 3 Oct.)

TC had a gift for friendship as much as JWC, and a reservoir of charm that he could display when he chose, however infrequently. To Henry Larkin, for instance, on whose volunteer help he relied so heavily in the Frederick years, he wrote a really handsome letter of gratitude, enclosing a rather self-interested gift:

I got you a Life-Ticket for the London Library; of which, if it be not so very useful till our hands are a little freer, I hope you will get a great deal of good in future years. It is the best Lending-Library I know of in London or anywhere else. … If I had been King Friedrich, I would have given you a pretty little mansion and grounds, for your merits to me; but that not being so, I have on cheap terms procured you a small spiritual freehold, whh you are to occupy wisely, for my sake and your own, during the many years whh I hope are still ahead for you. (TC to Henry Larkin, 6 Jan.)

And JWC noted how TC could make himself agreeable to guests—when it suited his mood: “‘At Home’ we are ‘every night and all’!— That man will go nowhere! But likes seeing a very few rare samples of Humanity in his own room; and looks as pleased as a young ‘Miss’ over her first Ball-invitation, at the purport of your note— So pray don't fail us when the hour comes” (JWC to Lady Stanley, [1859?]). While both Carlyles were prone to fail people when the hour came—calling off on pretexts of health or business—their letters underline strongly the intellectual excitement, as well as the human warmth, that characterizes the Carlyle circle in the parlor at Cheyne Row. With company there, the conversation flowed richly, and there was little indication of the tensions that could rise when things did not go smoothly.

Much of January into February deals with a tale of fresh eggs sent from Scotland and smashed in transit—agreeably told by JWC and exaggerated in her typical style, but hardly concealing the irritation of living with someone who could himself exaggerate small discomforts into a major scene: “[E]ver since your promise of ‘fresh eggs’ reached Mr C; it had been, not absolutely only, but without exaggeration—the only pleasant idea of his mind! ‘in a few days there would be Gill Eggs to one's breakfast, Thank God!’ And in the meantime, his chronic discontent with his fried bacon, with his Yarmouth bloaters, because they were NOT fresh eggs was gradually rising to phrenzy pitch!” (JWC to Mary Austin, [mid-Jan.?]). Even on holiday in Scotland, far from home and work and the everyday, JWC could find the temper tantrums trying as she confided in writing to Henry Larkin in London:

Oh Mr Larkin! Catch me ever again taking my holiday in the country along with a man of genius! I saw from the first that instead of a holiday it was going to be the hardest workday I had had for some time! I saw from the first what all that walking as in seven league boots, and galloping like the wild huntsman, and bathing in season and out of season like a merman and all that consumption of “soft food was working together towards!—a bilious crisis bad enough to make a poor wife's hair stand on end! and to make her ask herself twenty times a-day—if it wouldnt be better to tie herself up to her bedpost and be done with it! / We might have been so comfortable here—if he had not already overdone himself at Humbie!—a beautiful airy house, with kind little cousins close by to help us and cheer us. … / Mr C has settled to go to Annandale in ten days—where most fortunately there is no accommodation for me. (JWC to Henry Larkin, [23? Aug.])

A characteristic judgment in the same letter underlines how much JWC saw through even her closest confidantes: “Don't tell Geraldine you have heard from me—above all never tell her I write in bad spirits— She is a person with whom it is prudent to always make the best of oneself— And she is frightfully jealous.”

For JWC, one of the attractions of braving the horrors of a long railway journey from London was the chance to go to Haddington to see her beloved godmother and her sister, Jean and Jess Donaldson (both of whom were to die in 1860), and to revisit the scenes of her youth—though, as her brilliant account of her trip in 1849, “Much ado about Nothing” (see JWC's MAAN, 2 Aug. 1849), had made painfully clear, revisiting the scenes of her early life was anything but an uncomplicated pleasure. When the Donaldsons at Tenterfield (or Sunny Bank, its old name, which JWC persisted in using) were gone, she feared that “Haddington will be turned all into a church-yard for me!” (JWC to Mary Russell, [ca. 8 Feb.]). Any change to the Haddington of her memory was a shock and something to be resented. Venturing into the half-ruined St. Mary's Church to locate her father's grave, she was horrified to find the venerable building covered with scaffolding and undergoing extensive repair and restoration:

Nobody had told me—nor had I noticed till inside it, that anything was doing to the old Church, and when a scene so revolting to any interested person presented itself, it was like a stunning blow on the face, taking away for some moments all power of distinguishing whether his grave was still there—undisturbed!— That, and the sorrowful state of things at Sunny Bank made my last visit to the dear old place so painful to me—that I left it, privately determined to return no more! (JWC to William Dodds, [3 Sept.])

Neither Carlyle particularly enjoyed admitting to it, but they were growing into something approaching old age and, while the return to Scotland was a powerful summer ritual that was attractive in anticipation (particularly to TC, who found London in the summer heat unbearable), the reality often carried a sting in its tail. For TC, for instance, arriving at the family farm in Scotsbrig, the memories of his sister-in-law Isabella Carlyle (who had just died) and his adored mother (who had spent her last years there) were still very much present: “Here all is a changed affair, except the old cordiality of welcome; sadly changed: ah me! … I find it to have been imprudent to have come along with John; one of us shd not have been here: but I must make it do now” (TC to JWC, 9 Sept.). In Scotland, as these letters brilliantly illuminate, they lived with memory but failed to find much health:

In the village, Aberdour, whh stands low down nestled between woody mountains & the sea, there are quantities of visitors, Edinburgh snobs mainly as I judge, with whom we have nothing to do: being rustics we, and living on our own hilltop, half a mile off.— In the way of work I do nothing at all, or next to nothing; but do not want for confused thoughts, and multifarious remembrances, as I saunter about. (TC to Lady Sandwich, 23 July)

Their summer months in Scotland were an interlude in a London life clouded with ill health, with seemingly intractable writing, and with occasional outbursts of bad feeling. Paradoxically, the period covered by this volume was also one of friendships made and maintained, of often brilliant correspondence, and obviously of a lot of fun behind the trivial everyday. JWC showed her sharp critical sense by fastening on the best book she had read, Scenes of Clerical Life, “and that is by a man” (JWC to Georgiana Craik, [8 Feb.]). JWC's intelligence burned bright, however frail her health. And upstairs, while he cursed over the labor of Frederick, TC continued to enthrall a generation of admirers and friends with the acuity with which he observed his country, its writing, its politics, and its personalities. A letter to his brother John A. Carlyle refers to the political situation in Dominica because Alan Ker, an old friend, chief justice there, was home on leave and called at Cheyne Row. We can hear corroboration of TC's opinions in the reports of his conversations in other people's letters (for example, the letters of Thomas Woolner to Emily Tennyson). We also learn of visits to TC and JWC from the rich store of surviving letters written to them; for example, Mantell's visit to them in Fife, unmentioned by either of them at the time, is implied in one of John A. Carlyle's letters to TC.

TC's checkbooks (both the check stubs and returned cashed checks) show evidence of his finances and his generosity. It was gratifying to TC to be able to afford to travel, to send gifts to friends and family, and, from a fund bequeathed to him by Lady Harriet Ashburton, to help impecunious authors in London. The letters in this volume show how tactfully he could write with a small check. Poverty was no longer a concern; it is almost startling to read the casualness with which he writes to Charles Butler (24 Feb.) in the United States about his railway investments of thousands of pounds, with another £1,000 available for Butler to invest for him in the United States if he wished. JWC, too, felt the change, as she wrote to her sister-in-law: “Just now I am obliged to break off—to prepare for a drive in ‘a neat Fly’ which Mr C has forced on me twice a week—and the expense of which seems to me to greatly outride the project!” (JWC to Mary Carlyle Austin, [7 Feb.?]). JWC, who had braved convention and rode on omnibuses for exercise and fresh air, now had a carriage twice a week; she appreciated gifts, but she could now afford clothes whenever she wanted to buy them. The letters in this volume, unlike many of their predecessors, are not filled with complaints about money or about servants. Little Charlotte Southam, who traveled with them to Scotland and enjoyed her holiday—it seems—far more than her employers did theirs, was to give a period of welcome calm and stability to JWC's household arrangements; she was to remain a friend for many years after she left their employment.

What these letters do give us is a picture of the Carlyles—ten months' worth of their lives and their remarkable correspondence. The letters' quality is as remarkable as is the fact of their preservation. First, the Chelsea letters underline the strain of life in the “valley of the shadow of Frederick.” Spring and autumn, the letters reveal TC in his attic growing more and more morose with a task that seems to be going nowhere, and slowly; spring and autumn, JWC chafes at the limitations of life with the massive writing task going on overhead and the uncertain temper of her husband morning and evening. Reading the letters of January to October 1859, the results of that strain are very visible in JWC's health, poor as always in winter, gradually improving in spring, never really rising to the challenge of fresh air and exercise in Scotland (TC's imagined cures for all ills), and soon collapsing back into nagging ill health on the return to London. As his wife saw, once in Scotland TC flung himself into bathing, riding, and farm diet too quickly and soon paid the price in bilious attacks, which left him in poor shape to face the coming winter's writing. Second, and paradoxically, despite the unceasing refrain of poor health and aggravation, the letters reveal the crackling intellectual and emotional energy of both Carlyles, as they continue to form the nucleus of a very varied circle in London, while through their correspondence, they remain in touch with friends and relations in Scotland, Canada, and the United States. While the private writings of both reveal deep melancholy, and their letters to confidants (JWC's to Mary Russell, TC's to his brother Alick in Canada) sound negative in the extreme, the fact remains that people came to Chelsea, offered their services freely to help TC with his writing, courted JWC's friendship, and continually invited her to visit. Visitors frequently left exhilarated by the conversation, the occasionally malicious wit, and the energy of both. These months reveal a couple married for thirty-three years, TC approaching his mid-sixties, JWC approaching sixty. TC is, beyond question, an eminent Victorian, JWC no longer has to remind people that “I too am here” (see JWC to JOST, [4 June 1835])—she has her own circle and her own place in her husband's circle. As the Collected Letters approach the end of the 1850s, they continue to illuminate two of the most remarkable lives of the nineteenth century.

Ian Campbell