INTRODUCTION ; 1970; DOI: 10.1215/ed-01-introduction; CL 1: firstpage-01-ix-lastpage-01-xliv
The first editor of the Carlyle letters was Carlyle himself, but the letters which he edited were his wife's, not his own. A little over two months after her death on 21 April 1866, he put aside for some days the work which he was doing on a memoir of her, later published in the Reminiscences, in order to engage in “a strenuous search for, and collection of all her letters now discoverable.” His wife's cousin, Maggie Welsh of Liverpool, who was keeping house for him at the time, and later his niece, Mary Aitken, helped him with this work. The letters written before 1842, many of which he found later, eluded him for the moment. Those which he found and put in order presented him with some very formidable editorial problems, as they have later editors. But he realized clearly how invaluable his knowledge was in annotating these letters, and during the next few years he edited thoroughly and well all of Mrs. Carlyle's letters that he could get his hands on. The work was a labor of love to him. Yet it was much more than a sentimental gesture. He knew that these letters had very high value as literature and that he owed something to posterity as well as to her memory in the custody which he held over them. On 8 July 1866 he wrote of them:
Usually, before annotating the letters, Carlyle had them copied, many of them by Maggie Welsh and others by his niece Mary Aitken, who married Alexander Carlyle, Carlyle's nephew and editor of many of the letters. Today most of the original letters are in the National Library of Scotland, but the copies with Carlyle's annotations on them are in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. Carlyle himself did not publish the letters, but Froude and Alexander Carlyle used most of his annotations in their editions of Mrs. Carlyle's letters.
Carlyle's tact in collecting the letters and conscientiousness in editing them are illustrated by the methods through which he got and dealt with those to Mrs. Betty Braid, maid in the Welsh household at Haddington when Jane was a girl, and to Mrs. James H. Stirling, born Susan Hunter, who had been an intimate friend of Mrs. Carlyle. To Betty Braid he wrote on Jane's birthday, 14 July 1869:
Mrs. Braid sent the letters promptly, and Carlyle thanked her in a letter of 22 July. Carlyle got the letters from Mrs. Stirling through his brother Dr. John Aitken Carlyle. After they had come, Carlyle wrote to his brother, 14 January 1873:
Some of Carlyle's own letters came back to him with Jane's letters from time to time, so that when he died in 1881 he left at Froude's disposal a much larger collection of letters than most literary men are able to leave. Most of these are in the National Library of Scotland today. Although Carlyle rarely annotated his own letters, he delighted in autobiographical as well as biographical writing and clearly wished the letters preserved as a record of his life that would be as full as possible. There can be no doubt, moreover, that he realized their intrinsic value as literary letters.
Before working with his wife's letters, Carlyle had collected and edited those of Oliver Cromwell, and he had demonstrated the value of letters in biographical writing in his Life of John Sterling and Frederick the Great. In his Cromwell (1845) he writes eloquently concerning the value of letters, the careful preservation of them, the authentic presentation of them, and the adequate elucidation of them:
Carlyle did not insist that Cromwell's letters had any considerable merit as literature. Containing the authentic words of a great though somewhat enigmatic and not altogether articulate man, they were valuable chiefly in that they enabled the reader to understand the history of Cromwell's time and as so many dim points of light showed the “Past” in true outline. Biography was always to Carlyle one of the highest forms of literature, and he did not think of his Cromwell as true biography but entitled it, choosing his words carefully, The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell. He thought of his task here as essentially an editorial one, just as he had pretended to be performing such a task in dealing with Teufelsdröckh's imaginary manuscripts in Sartor Resartus. He liked editing, both the textual problems and the elucidation. Past and Present (1843), written rapidly while Cromwell was also under way, likewise deals editorially in the broad sense with text and ideas drawn from Jocelin de Brakelond's twelfth-century chronicle through selection, quotation, and comment. Carlyle may owe something to Coleridge here, who wrote his Aids to Reflection by quoting passages from Archbishop Leighton and other seventeenth-century divines and then commenting on them.
But another major influence on Carlyle was Boswell, and Boswell valued letters in an age of great letter writers both as art in themselves and as material for great biographical art. When Carlyle turned to the writing of The Life of John Sterling (1851), he realized that he not only had a subject excellent for biography but also letters by Sterling, many of which had been written to himself, that were excellent as autobiography and therefore valuable material for biography. Though they could not represent fully the glow of life characterizing Sterling's speech, much of Sterling was in them, and they were reasonably good as literary letters. Carlyle sums up his comments on them and appraises them in the following passage:
The praise which Carlyle bestowed upon Sterling's letters was the same in kind, though not as high, as that bestowed by Sterling on Carlyle's when he began one of his letters as follows: “My dear Carlyle,—I have to thank you for two Letters, which, unlike other people's have the writer's signature in every word as well as at the end.”
Carlyle did not work in ignorance of the great tradition of letter writers, English and French. In the early 1820's he contributed an article on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Dr. David Brewster's Edinburgh Encyclopædia in the final paragraph of which he said:
A great admirer of Boswell's Life of Johnson, cognizant of the high merit of many of the letters quoted in it, he knew further how effectively Moore had used Byron's letters in his life of the poet and how skilfully Lockhart had used Sir Walter Scott's letters to show the reader the true quality of the man. To Carlyle, however, Scott's letters were not among the best. His discriminating comment on them reflects the keen interest which he took in letters as such and the thought which he gave to the problem of determining the qualities which go to make up a really good letter.
Carlyle knew Horace Walpole's letters, too, so far as they were available to him. In a letter to Lady Ashburton of 26 October 1844, after speaking somewhat critically of Emerson's essays, soon forthcoming in England, he added: “A much better Book for you, if you have it not already, will be Walpole's last series of Letters to Horace Mann. They are full of English news, written during and after the American War. Harsh, bitter, withered, so far as I have looked; but full of vivacity, pictorial distinctness, and very amusing to read.” Voltaire looms large in Carlyle's Frederick the Great (1858–65), and Carlyle was well aware of his versatility and brilliance as a letter writer. The letters of Dickens, too, as quoted by John Forster in his biography of the novelist (1872–74) delighted him, and in a letter of 16 February 1874 he commended Forster for the effective way in which he had used them:
The qualities which Carlyle considered most desirable in letters, however, are most clearly indicated in the letters which he wrote to members of his family and to Jane Baillie Welsh, before his marriage in 1826. In the early years he did not hesitate to scold his brothers and sisters if their letters proved disappointing to him in any way. More than once he rebuked his brother John for writing him what he called a “dud.” On another occasion he would commend him: “I thank you very kindly for your letter. It is of the right open-hearted kind, written without reserve from the fulness of your thoughts; and that is just the thing I want.” To another brother he wrote: “When you write, … be not too careful of what you shall say, but especially in letters put down the thoughts warm and vivid as they present themselves before your fancy. They often gain in vigour what they want in elegance.”
It is well known that Carlyle in the years from 1821 to 1826 conducted his courtship of Jane Welsh in considerable part by playing the role of literary mentor to her. Her talent for writing letters was distinctly different from his. Furthermore, we can never know to what extent a good writer can be taught, or what the exact nature of the teaching is. But we may safely assume that he was a reasonably effective teacher as well as a successful suitor. Like all other good teachers, he got results by bestowing upon his student a judicious mixture of criticism, praise, and constructive advice. He was teaching the most apt student of the art of writing letters produced by the nineteenth century, and he very early discovered the fact. His own best letters would be very different from hers, but he soon became aware of where her highest talents lay, and he skilfully drew them out in all their brightness. On 26 February 1822 he wrote to her: “It seems to me that the chief end of letters is to exhibit to each a picture of the others soul—of all the hopes and fears that agitate us, the joys and sorrows and varied anxieties in which a heart's friend may be expected to sympathize.” In June of the same year he commended her for the carefree, happy spirit of her last letter: “It is when letters are thrown off in that gay cheerful social way, that one has some pleasure in them.” On 3 January 1823 he wrote: “Let [your letters be] as long and careless as you possibly can.” With perfect consistency he wrote on 20 January: “Throw by your books and papers, and be again a lively thoughtless racketting girl as you were before. There is much improvement to be got in such things; they give an exercise to the mind as difficult and valuable as any literary study can.” And on 18 February he repeated: “Write to [me as] soon as possible: let the letter be as long and careless and garrulous and true-hearted as it can be made.” When for the moment she became discouraged in the midst of her other literary efforts, he burst forth in loud praise of her work, her letters in particular, in a letter of 6 April: “I shall yet ‘stand a-tiptoe’ at your name. Not write! I declare if I had known nothing of you but your letters, I should have pronounced you to be already an excellent writer.” Further encouragement, with repetition of basic principles, followed in Carlyle's letter of 10 August. And the tutor-lover became self-conscious, as he did on some other occasions, about the role that he was playing:
On 12 October he resorted to argument from personal need but kept his tone light by asking for nonsense in her letters: “I cannot exist without your letters—at least I do not think I can. Write also without the smallest care; nonsense from you is the best of all. Do I not set you an example?” Almost a year later his advice and his praise were given in the same vein: “Tell me every thing, in your dear chatting style. There is nothing in life like one of your right letters.” And on 2 September 1824, several weeks later, he wrote: “What skills it how we write to one another, so we write enough, and with sufficient want of care!”
The mixture of suitor's motive with literary principles in these passages need not blind us to the validity of the principles themselves. Good letters, Carlyle suggested to his brothers and insisted in his advice to Jane Welsh, must be spontaneous and conversational in tone; open, free, and full in conveying thought and feeling; never niggardly, never empty (though they need not convey facts), and never contrived or calculating; always intensely personal, self-revealing, and intimate; and always sincere, not the least so when revelling in nonsense and playfulness. The movements of a good letter, like those of a minuet, must be quick and light. Carlyle may be heavy-handed at times in his books and at times even in his letters, but he sensed and fully appreciated the qualities in Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters which were not only most compatible with her own unique genius but which indicate that she had much in common with the other great letter writers of literature. And Carlyle's own letters and books are to be fully understood only when we remember how fully, freely, and often the spirit of fancy and playfulness enters into them.
About twice as many of his letters have survived as those of Mrs. Carlyle, roughly six thousand against more than three thousand. The explanation lies only in part in the fact that he lived about twenty years longer than she did. Actually, throughout her life she suffered much more than he did from bad health and morbid moods. Remembering and adhering consistently to the principle which Carlyle had laid down that a letter should reveal oneself without restraint, she did not like to write letters when in low spirits. In a letter to John Sterling of 1 February 1837, she made a very succinct statement of the matter:
More humorously, excusing herself for not writing more often in a letter to her Liverpool cousin, Helen Welsh, she wrote in a letter of early December 1843:
She was quite conscious, furthermore, of the faults as well as the merits of her husband and old teacher as a writer of both books and letters. Although she tried to avoid the subject of her bad health and gloomy state of mind in her letters, she could understand and forgive him for sometimes dwelling on these things at undue length. She could also forgive and even justify the labored, heavy, extremely emphatic manner in which he sometimes wrote. Regenerating, unconventional truths such as his must, she once told her husband, be shot from the mouth of a cannon if they are to take effect. Yet there was fully as much truth in what she said when she told her Chelsea neighbor, Mrs. Alexander Gilchrist: “Carlyle always writes well when he writes fast.” And she never forgot or abandoned the primary lesson Carlyle had taught her about the nature of good letters when he had said that they must be intimate and self-revealing. Queen Victoria complained that Gladstone addressed her as if she were a public meeting. After her husband had become a celebrity and a public figure, Jane Carlyle complained with considerably more feeling when on rare occasions he forgot his own basic principle in letter writing, particularly important in a letter to his wife. When Carlyle was touring Ireland in July 1849, Jane sent a letter which she had just received from him on to Scotland to his brother John to be read by him and the rest of the family there. It was a full letter, but she did not like it, and her comment to John gives the reason why: “Here is a letter from him—which I wish you all much good of. That sort of letter all about everything and for the public good is nothing to me.” The only moral that can be drawn from this seems to be that teachers, even if geniuses, who are not going to follow their own precepts with perfect consistency should beware of marrying their best students.
II. Other Collectors and Editors
Other editors of the letters have been numerous and of many varying degrees of competence. Edwin P. Hood in his Thomas Carlyle (1875) printed letters and excerpts from letters. In the year of Carlyle's death, 1881, two biographies of him, one by Richard Herne Shepherd and the other by Moncure D. Conway, contained a considerable number of letters. Froude's four-volume biography of Carlyle (1882–84) draws extensively on the correspondence of both Carlyles; and his Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle in three volumes, enriched by Carlyle's annotations, came out in 1883. Froude was one of the most intelligent of all the editors, but his handling of texts was inexcusably careless and even irresponsible. Charles Eliot Norton was a fairly good editor. His Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1883), Early Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1814–1826 (1886), Correspondence between Goethe and Carlyle (1887), and Letters of Thomas Carlyle, 1826–1836 (1889) are usually though not always trustworthy as to text; they also have helpful notes, but the notes are not always full enough, and there are regrettable though perhaps justifiable omissions (always indicated) in the letters. Norton's own collected letters (1913) contain his letters to Carlyle and two letters from him. His “Recollections of Carlyle,” New Princeton Review, II (July 1886), 1–19, is well worth reading.
Probably the most able editor of the letters so far has been Alexander Carlyle, son of Carlyle's brother Alexander and husband of his first cousin Mary Aitken, Carlyle's niece and amanuensis. Educated in literary studies in Canada, Alexander Carlyle came into possession of the large collection of letters and manuscripts which Carlyle in his will had placed at the disposal of Froude, with further instructions that Froude was to give them to Mary when he was through with them. From this large collection of letters and still others which he found, Alexander Carlyle selected the letters which he published in a considerable number of books and articles. Except for his tiresome habit of sniping at Froude, whose faults soon become well known and may thereafter be taken for granted, his editing deserves considerable praise. He knew literature and its disciplines; he made a lifetime study of Carlyle's life and writings; he was familiar with the family history and knew all the ramifications of the family relationships; he knew the Scottish background and the fine points concerning the Scottish language; and he had an abundance of materials to work with. There are many omissions in the letters which he published; but these are almost always indicated, and the omissions were in the main judicious in his day. He published the following collections of letters: New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, two volumes (1903); New Letters of Thomas Carlyle, two volumes (1904); The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh, two volumes (1909); “Eight New Love Letters of Jane Welsh,” Nineteenth Century and After, LXXV (January 1914), 86–113; “More New Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle,” Nineteenth Century and After, LXXVI (1914), 317–49; “Correspondence between Carlyle and Browning,” Cornhill Magazine, N.S., XXXVIII (May 1915), 642–69; “Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Spedding,” Cornhill Magazine, N.S., L (May–June 1921), 513–37, 742–68; Letters of Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, John Sterling, and Robert Browning (1923).
Many other editors and writers of biographies, of pamphlets, and of articles for newspapers and magazines have been attracted to the Carlyle letters like bees to the honeycomb. Listed chronologically by publication dates, these include “Leigh Hunt's Poetry” (signed “K. R.”), Macmillan's Magazine, VI (July 1862), 238–48; Letters to Mrs. Basil Montagu and B. W. Procter (pamphlet) (1881); Henry Larkin, “Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle: A Ten-Year Reminiscence,” British Quarterly Review, LXXIV (July 1881), 15–45; Glasgow Herald, 16 February 1882; John Howells, “Carlyle's Holidays in Wales,” Red Dragon Magazine, VI (April, May, June 1884), 333–41, 461–69, 553–63; [Thomas Sadler], “Carlyle and Neuberg,” Macmillan's Magazine, L (August 1884), 280–97; “Five Letters of Carlyle's” (to Coventry Patmore), Athenaeum, 17 July 1886, pp. 81–82; David G. Ritchie, editor, Early Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (1889); Blanche Atkinson, “My Four Letters from Carlyle,” Good Words, XXXIII (1892), 459–62; Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Conversations and Correspondence with Carlyle (1892); Richard Preuss, editor, “Letters from Carlyle to von Ense,” New Review, VI (April, May 1892), 408–29, 593–608; “Concerning Leigh Hunt,” Cornhill Magazine, LXV (May 1892), 480–506; George Strachey, “Carlyle and the ‘Rose-Goddess,’” Nineteenth Century, XXXII (September 1892), 470–86; the same, “Reminiscences of Carlyle, with Some Unpublished Letters,” New Review, July 1893, pp. 17–33; “Unpublished Letters of Carlyle,” Scribner's Magazine, XIII (1893), 416–25; Sir Edward Strachey, “Some Letters and Conversations of Thomas Carlyle,” Atlantic Monthly, LXXXIII (June 1894), 822–34; Charles Townsend Copeland, editor, Letters of Thomas Carlyle to His Youngest Sister (1899); Richard Garnett, “Eight Unpublished Letters of Thomas Carlyle,” Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Litteraturen, N.S., II (1899), 317–30; “Carlyle and Robert Chambers: Unpublished Letters” (signed “C. E. S. C.”), Littell's Living Age, CCXXV (1900), 211–16; Reginald Blunt, “Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle to Her Housemaid,” Cornhill Magazine, N.S., II (1901), 456–67; “Letters of Thomas Carlyle to the Socialists of 1830,” New Quarterly, II (April 1909), 277–88; Glasgow Herald, 22 January 1910, p. 13; D. Gorrie, “Letters by Carlyle to a Fellow Student,” Fortnightly Review, CI (April 1914), 628–39, CXVI (October 1921), 677–84; Reginald Blunt, “Mrs. Carlyle and Her Little Charlotte,” Strand Magazine, LXIX (March, April 1915), 280–91, 413–20; “Carlyle's Unpublished Letters to Miss Wilson,” Nineteenth Century, LXXXIX (May, June 1921), 802–11, 1017–23; Reginald Blunt, “Jane Welsh Carlyle's Unpublished Letters,” Forum, LXVI (1921), 394–400, 538–43; LXVII (1922), 46–53; Edith J. Morley, “Carlyle in the Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson,” London Mercury, VI (October 1922), 607–18; David Alec Wilson, Carlyle, six volumes (1923–34) (prints and excerpts many hitherto unpublished letters); Leonard Huxley, Jane Welsh Carlyle: Letters to Her Family, 1839–1863 (1924); Leonard Huxley, “Letters from Jane Welsh Carlyle,” Cornhill Magazine, N.S., LXI (1926), 493–510, 622–38; William A. Speck, “New Letters of Carlyle to Eckermann,” Yale Review, XV (July 1926), 736–57; Isaac Watson Dyer, A Bibliography of Thomas Carlyle's Writings and Ana (1928) (provides an extremely valuable though not complete list of editions of collected letters and of printed sources of many uncollected letters); Townsend Scudder, editor, Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle to Joseph Neuberg, 1848–1862 (1931); W. Forbes Gray, “Carlyle and John Forster: An Unpublished Correspondence,” Quarterly Review, CCLVIII (April 1937), 271–87; John Graham, Jr., editor, Letters of Thomas Carlyle to William Graham (1950); Trudy Bliss, Jane Welsh Carlyle: A New Selection of Her Letters (1950); the same, Thomas Carlyle: Letters to His Wife (1953); Grace J. Calder, “Carlyle and ‘Irving's London Circle,’” PMLA, LXIX (December 1954), 1135–1149; Suzanne H. Nobbe, “Four Unpublished Letters of Thomas Carlyle,” PMLA, LXX (September 1955), 876–84; Waldo H. Dunn, “Carlyle's Last Letters to Froude,” Twentieth Century, CLIX (1956), 44–53, 255–63, 591–97, CLX (1956), 240–46; C. R. Sanders, “Carlyle's Letters to Ruskin: A Finding List with Some Unpublished Letters and Comments,” BJRL, XLI (September 1958), 208–38; the same, “Carlyle and Tennyson,” PMLA, LXXVI (March 1961), 82–97; the same, “The Correspondence and Friendship of Thomas Carlyle and Leigh Hunt,” BJRL, XLV (March 1963), 439–85, XLVI (September 1963), 179–216; the same, “Some Lost and Unpublished Carlyle-Browning Correspondence,” JEGP, LXII (April 1963), 323–35; and a new and more complete edition of the Carlyle-Emerson correspondence with a valuable introduction and notes by Joseph Slater (1964).
Other editorial work on the letters is now in progress. G. Allan Cate is editing the Carlyle-Ruskin correspondence and studying the relationship between the two men. Herbert E. Spivey is re-examining the Carlyle-Mill relationship in the light of letters not published when the late Emery Neff made his studies. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr., has edited the correspondence of Carlyle with his brother Alexander, about 245 letters, many of them unpublished, and is making a study of the Canadian branch of the Carlyle family.
Throughout the years before the death of Carlyle and up to the present many Carlyle letters have come to light incidentally in works not dealing primarily with the Carlyles. Taken in order of publication dates, these include James Grant, Memoirs of Sir George Sinclair (1870); William Hanna, editor, Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (1877); The Poetical Works of Thomas Aird (1878); James Dodds, Lays of the Covenanters (1880); H. H. Gilchrist, Anne Gilchrist (1887); Theodore Bacon, Delia Bacon (1888); W. A. Wright, Letters of Edward FitzGerald (1889); T. Wemyss Reid, Richard Monckton Milnes (1890); Samuel Smiles, Memoir of John Murray (1891); Sir Henry Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (1892); Francis Espinasse, Literary Recollections and Sketches (1893); W. G. Collingwood, The Life of John Ruskin (1894); Anna M. Stoddart, John Stuart Blackie (1896); Andrew Lang, Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart (1897); Charles and Frances Brookfield, Mrs. Brookfield and Her Circle (1906); Frederic Harrison, Carlyle and the London Library (1907); E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Volumes XXXVI–XXXVII, Letters (1909); H. Allingham and E. B. Williams, editors, Letters to William Allingham (1911); E. T. Cook, The Life of John Ruskin (1911); Amelia H. Stirling, James Hutchison Stirling (1912); E. A. Helps, Correspondence of Sir Arthur Helps (1917); Amy Woolner, Thomas Woolner (1917); F. R. Barton, Some New Letters of Edward Fitz-Gerald (1923); James Pope-Hennessy, Monckton Milnes (1949); and F. L. Mulhauser, The Correspondence of Arthur Hugh Clough (1957). Other printed letters have appeared in widely scattered places, many of them in newspapers. Judging by the excellence of the steady stream of letters by the Carlyles which has appeared through the years, we may infer that as letter writers they have been in the main blessed with good editors.
III. Number, Range, and Distribution of the Letters
A new era in Carlyle studies began in 1928 when Miss Margaret Carlyle Aitken presented 700 autograph letters of her uncle, Thomas Carlyle, to the National Library of Scotland. This gift was followed by large donations of letters and manuscripts by her cousin, Alexander Carlyle, from 1929 until his death in 1931. Many important accessions have been made by this library since then, and it now has more than eighty-four bound volumes of Carlyle letters. They are in the main made up of the great mass of material that Carlyle himself collected and left to Froude in his will, with stipulation that they were to be given to Mary, Carlyle's niece and Alexander Carlyle's wife, when Froude was through with them. About 1934, also, Carlyle scholars were further encouraged by the appearance of copious excerpts from the 282 letters that the Carlyles wrote to the Ashburtons, an indication that these extremely important and interesting letters might later be made available for complete publication. Through the kindness of the present owner, the Marquess of Northampton, they will all be published complete in this edition.
The present project to find, edit, and publish all letters by Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle was begun in 1952. To date, about 9,500 letters have been found. Of these about 4,500 have not been published, 3,700 by Thomas and 800 by Jane. Many of the published letters are incomplete, some of them mere quotations or excerpts.
More than half of the letters, 4,780, are in the National Library of Scotland in the great collection begun by Carlyle himself, which contains many accessions added since Carlyle's death. Roughly 3,400 of these are by Thomas, and 1,380 by Jane. The National Library of Scotland also contains some hundreds of letters written to the Carlyles. The other letters by the Carlyles are to be found in various libraries and private collections all over the world, as the following table listing the largest holdings indicates.
|National Library of Scotland||4,780|
|The Marquess of Northampton's collection of letters to the Ashburtons||282|
|Victoria and Albert Museum||248|
|The Alexander Carlyle Family, Canada||245|
|Trinity College, Cambridge||194|
|Private collection of Professor Frederick W. Hilles||174|
|Norman H. Strouse Collection, University of California at Santa Cruz||124|
|Henry E. Huntington Library||113|
|Carlyle's House, Chelsea||92|
|New York Public Library||89 *|
|State University of Iowa||39|
|Wellcome Historical Medical Library, London||36|
|The Arched House (Carlyle's birthplace), Ecclefechan||33|
|The National Library of Ireland||33|
|Hornel Collection, Broughton House, Castle-Douglas, Scotland||30|
|Private collection of Dr. Gordon N. Ray||27|
|Chelsea Public Library||21|
|University of Texas||14|
|Historical Society of Pennsylvania||14|
|Mitchell Library, Sydney, Australia||12|
|Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand||12|
Many other letters to the Carlyles are in libraries widely scattered throughout the world. In the period from 1812 through 1834 out of a total of 1,150 letters found, only 153, or 14 per cent, have been found in printed form only, leaving 86 per cent for which the text is based on facsimiles of the original letters. This ratio improves with the later letters, for which at least 90 per cent of the manuscripts have been found.
The largest number of letters written to one correspondent is 1,050, the letters to Dr. John A. Carlyle, of which 1,009 were written by Thomas. The next largest number of letters received by one correspondent is the 949 which Thomas wrote to Jane. Others who received fifty or more letters from the Carlyles are Mrs. Margaret A. Carlyle (Carlyle's mother), Jean Carlyle Aitken (his sister), Joseph Neuberg, John Forster, Alexander Carlyle (Carlyle's brother), Emerson, John Stuart Mill, Lady Harriet Baring (later Lady Ashburton), Richard Monckton Milnes, Henry Larkin, and John Sterling.
The letters found indicate that the Carlyles were much more prolific in writing letters during some years than in others. During the last five years of his life Carlyle wrote an average of only seventeen letters a year. On the other hand, from 1841 through 1845 his yearly average was 169 letters. Jane appears to have written very few letters before she began to live in London in 1834. During the first eight years of her married life, from 1826 to 1834, when she lived at Comely Bank, Edinburgh, and Craigenputtoch, our figures based on the letters found indicate that she averaged writing only nine letters a year. Certainly she must have written many more in this period, some of them now lost, others perhaps destroyed. The undoubtedly numerous letters by both Carlyles to Jeffrey and the Bullers have not been found. Dickens, we know, destroyed most of his letters from the Carlyles. Most of the letters from the Carlyles to Edward Irving have been lost. Jane's best years were those which were also Carlyle's, 1841–45, when her yearly average was 116. In the last six years of her life, despite much illness and suffering, she managed to write sixty-two letters a year, a really heroic achievement.
IV. Questions, Problems, Difficulties, Editorial Policies
The original plan for the project was that of collecting only the letters of Thomas Carlyle. It soon became clearly apparent, however, that Mrs. Carlyle's letters were essentially and vitally complementary to his, that the letters of each threw light on those of the other which could come from no other source, that each was the indispensable commentator on the other, and that the two correspondences gained much in interest and meaning when put side by side. Actually, to publish the two correspondences separately would mean unjustifiable proliferation of explanatory footnotes and a great waste of editorial apparatus. It would also impose an unnecessary inconvenience upon scholars dealing with a closely related body of literature who would repeatedly have to refer to two editions with two sets of indexes instead of one.
The problem of finding and getting copies of all the letters has not been an easy one. Even though more than half of the letters were in the National Library of Scotland, about four thousand fugitive letters scattered all over the world, in large lots and in small ones, had to be found. Finding those in large libraries like the British Museum, Harvard, Yale, and the Huntington was not difficult; but there are hundreds of letters, usually in very small lots, in many libraries and in many countries. Letters of inquiry had to be sent systematically to libraries and other depositories in Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and India, in addition to hundreds of libraries in the United States. A considerable number of letters, moreover, are in the hands of private collectors. It is not always easy to discover who they are; and, when found, these collectors are not always willing to have published the letters which they have collected. But most of the collectors of Carlyle letters who have been found have been very generous, some of them even magnanimous, in allowing their letters to be included in this edition. Some letters remain untraced if still extant, conspicuously some early letters written by Jane Welsh to Mrs. Basil Montagu and the letters by Carlyle to the Buller family, to Jeffrey, to William Fraser, and to Lord George Hill. From time to time additional letters come to light, but to find them is always a mixed pleasure, for to find some is to realize that there may be others in unexpected places. Every year, furthermore, some Carlyle letters come out of hiding and are sold on the market. The problem with these is to be able to buy them or at least get copies of them before some of them become lost again in the hands of unknown private collectors. It is not always easy to buy the letters, since the price of them has risen considerably in the last ten years. In 1952 a fairly long Carlyle letter could be bought for $25 or less; in 1962 a dealer quoted a two-page letter, already published, by Thomas Carlyle at $150, and a nine-page unpublished letter by Jane Welsh Carlyle at $325. In 1969 a four-page letter by Jane brought $672. Another difficulty lies in the fact that several of the correspondences of Carlyle with well-known people are being edited for publication by other scholars who do not wish to release the letters with which they are working until they have been published.
Facsimiles of all the letters of which the manuscripts have been found (about 90 per cent of the letters) are kept at Duke in a chronological file indexed by correspondents. These will be available for scholars to study after the edition has been published. Once the file has been assembled, however, the letters may still provide problems and difficulties. Jane's letters, in particular, are in a very unconventional form. Her handwriting is not particularly difficult, but she almost never dates her letters, her use of the capital letter is hard to relate to any fixed principle, and she punctuates chiefly with dashes. Despite his cramped hand, Carlyle's letters, nearly always dated, are reasonably legible. At times, however, he seemed vexed at having to write a letter and wrote “In haste” apologetically at the end. Often too he would get hold of a bad pen or bad paper and scold it, perhaps more than once in the letter. What a blessing a modern fountain pen would have been to him! He was not as careful and consistent as he could have been in forming his letters. Practically all his K's seem to be in upper case. His e's often close and look like undotted i's, his a's like e's. His lower-case r's also usually look like i's without dots. The second t of tt and the second l of ll fall away and may be about half as high as they should be. The a's are often not properly closed at the top. After 1869, when Carlyle's right hand began to give him a great deal of trouble, he often used various symbols, not always easy to decipher, for omitted letters, such as cd for could and wd for would. Many letters by both Carlyles have additions, often cramped, in the margins, and occasionally one is cross-written. In the main, the manuscript letters have been well preserved, but some have holes or torn places in the paper. In others the ink has faded badly. And in still others there are missing pages.
It has appeared wise to the editors to retain the original punctuation and spelling of the letters, often without the use of sic to indicate peculiarities and with additions and explanations in square brackets or in the notes when needed. In some instances, however, where there appears to be a special need for confirming the accuracy of a peculiar spelling or usage, sic in square brackets follows the reading. Some names, such as James Johnston and William Graham, frequently and characteristically misspelled, have not been corrected. An occasional sentence beginning with a lower-case letter has been retained without capitalization. Superscript letters, which are more common in the later correspondence, have been lowered and letters have been supplied in square brackets when necessary for clearness. Dates supplied by the editors are invariably placed in square brackets. The writer's address is placed where he placed it, usually at the top of the letter on the right side, but sometimes at the end. The address of the addressee, given when the writer gives it and taken usually from the cover, is provided as the first item in the first note, a general note giving miscellaneous information and descriptive details concerning the letter. The name of the addressee is given at the top of the letter in its normal form without titles and repeated in the first note only if the writer wrote it in a peculiar or particularly interesting way. Words underscored by the writer are italicized, followed by a statement in square brackets when words are underscored more than once. Words cancelled by the authors are either omitted or commented on in the notes. The abbreviations used by the editors are the same as those in the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature and the annual bibliographies of PMLA except for some special works relating to Carlyle studies, for which a key is provided at the beginning of each volume of letters. Editorial interpolations in square brackets are explained in the notes when such explanations seem called for. In general, every effort has been made to present the printed text in letter-perfect fidelity to the original letters so far as possible and with such illumination as the editors could provide.
Cross-references in the notes treat each letter as a unit without differentiation between the text of the letter and the footnotes, but readers pursuing the references will usually find that they save time by going to notes first and working up from them to the text of the letter. Since maps are included in the first volume, it has been assumed that place names which can easily be found on them do not need identification in the notes. The old spellings of the names are retained in the letters, on the maps, and in the index; but the modern spellings follow the old spellings in the index. Scotticisms are so numerous in the letters that it seems gratuitous to label them as such. Because the letters of both Carlyles are richly allusive, the editors have cited when possible the sources of the allusions, whether given as direct quotations or as echoes. References to Shakespeare's plays give the act and scene but not the line, since line numbering may vary from one edition to another. There have been times, admittedly, when the editors have been humbled by the allusions they could not trace, the notes which they could not write. In the main they have tried to suffer this humiliation in silence rather than to call attention to it in empty or negative notes.
Another question which the editors have had to face relates to what, if anything, in the correspondence may be omitted. Should short notes and snippets, perhaps undated, making appointments, accepting invitations, asking about health, seeking information about train schedules, be included? Should long and tedious passages dealing with technical details when a book is being put through the press or should repetitious details concerning health or the weather be left out? The editors have been forced to conclude that in a critical edition of the complete letters everything should be retained.
It is expected that each volume will contain about three hundred letters. Hence, the more than nine thousand letters which the edition will contain should require thirty or more volumes. In addition, index volumes must be provided. The present plan is to issue indexes from time to time with successive sets of volumes and to combine these into one index after the last volume has been published.
Biographical notes on more or less obscure persons, not easily found in the ODNB or encyclopedias, are given in the notes in an appropriate context as soon as possible after they become noteworthy in the correspondence. The pages on which these notes are to be found, as well as Carlyle's pen portraits of his contemporaries, are indicated by bold type in the index. Well-known persons who have been written up in standard reference works are merely identified by their dates and perhaps by some brief information pertinent to their relation to the Carlyles and the correspondence.
V. The Characteristics, Value, and Significance of the Letters
The letters of both Carlyles are not only rich in ideas but have a power of description remarkable for both sight and insight. Tedious passages may at times appear in Carlyle's letters, almost never in Jane's; but brilliance of metaphor and vigor of expression are the rule rather than the exception in all the letters, and in them the reader finds not merely sudden sentences but whole paragraphs and long passages of great literary splendor. Again and again the letters drive their point home, with a quick, sure thrust into the heart of whatever is being discussed. In them readers will always find a vivid and invaluable record of a changing world from 1812 to 1879, as the scenes shift from time to time to Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Liverpool, the hills of Scotland and of Wales, country houses in southern England and sea resorts, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Paris, and Mentone. London, of course, predominates; and what other city since the time of ancient Athens has been as well described and preserved for posterity as Victorian London by Dickens and the two Carlyles? As the long, varied, and picturesque procession moved slowly forward before their eyes, the scenes were not merely observed and described but everything was evaluated, whether it was the burning of the Parliament buildings in October 1834, the appearance of Halley's comet in 1835, the repeal of the Corn Laws, Dr. Gulley's watercure establishment at Malvern, the funeral cortège of the Duke of Wellington, the opening of Mazzini's mail by the British government, the rise and fall of prime ministers, the great Reform Bills, the coming of beards about 1853, the Crimean War, the rise of the workingman, the coming of the railroads and penny postage, the growth of empire, the discoveries of scientists, the rise of Bismarck, new poems and novels as they were published by Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Dickens, and Thackeray, controversies in religion, the doings of society at Holland House and Bath House, progress in the education of women and the masses, changes made in the Chelsea Embankment, or the death of Prince Albert. The letters reflect a keen interest in Germany and Russia as the Carlyles looked toward eastern Europe, in India, China, and Australia as they looked toward the Far East, and in the United States, Canada, and Latin America as they looked toward the West.
They are as valuable for the biographer as they are for the historian. No letters could be more fully self-revealing, and in them the Carlyles not only provided abundant materials for later biographers but also wrote their own autobiographies. If we do not altogether understand them after we have read their letters, it is not because they have been reticent or inarticulate but it is rather that like Hamlet they have a substantial opaqueness and remain significant specimens of enigmatic humanity even after they have repeatedly revealed themselves to us fully and even eloquently.
Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters unquestionably deserve the high opinion which Carlyle and many of the Carlyles' contemporaries had of them. They are consistently, even in brief notes, ingenious, witty, and lively, with an electric fire constantly flashing out from them and with a quickness of perception and power of observation which reveal much in the world around her. Her predominant quality is verve, reflecting a vitality of mind and spirit truly remarkable in a woman often so ill that she said she felt like a snake trying to stand upright on its tail. Her view of life is not the less impressive because of a dash of cynicism that colors many of the letters and prevents her from seeing eye to eye with such an unmitigated and robust optimist as Robert Browning. People were her chief study, and though she was a kindhearted woman, at times almost sentimental in dealing with unfortunate persons, she was essentially a satirist whose eye could explore and whose tongue and pen could exploit the never-ending oddities, foibles, and shortcomings of human behavior. Her sense of the dramatic was keen, and her pen portraits, many of which in their own way are as delightful as Carlyle's, are usually not still pieces but dramatic revelations of character through anecdote and exaggeration. In her love for telling a good story reflecting the always amusing behavior of human beings, she realized that bald, straight narrative would never do, but that flavor and a flare for the dramatic were everything; and the flavor which she supplied most generously was that of black pepper. Sugar she kept in reserve and used occasionally, but sparingly.
Her resources of language were remarkable, involving abundant use of metaphor and great variety and cleverness in making use of the principle of association. Her use of “coterie speech,” which delighted Carlyle, certainly contributes one of the most distinctive qualities which her letters possess. The consummate skill with which she exploited coterie speech in her letters has been the subject of an extended study by Mrs. Janet Ray Edwards, who has assisted the Duke editorial staff in working on the letters.
Carlyle's letters are often much more than a record of the times with a running commentary. He was not content to be a mere observer of what was happening—a sort of Greek chorus who observed the action and philosophized about it. He had strong practical instincts which are reflected in his books and are confirmed by Emerson's remarks upon his very appearance. When we speak of the remarkable influence which Carlyle exerted we should bear in mind, without discrediting at all the power of his books, that his letters and conversation were practical instruments by which he sought, often with success, to impinge upon the minds and control the behavior of people in clearly defined terms. The whole series of letters relating to the founding of the London Library in 1840 illustrates the point. Here he was completely successful, and we still rejoice at his success. He was less successful in his efforts to get Margaret Fuller and Emerson to bring The Dial out of the clouds and down to earth (see the letter to Emerson of 19 August 1842). He was less successful, too, fortunately, in his advising the poets of the age to give up verse and write prose. Carlyle was too forthright to be completely successful politically and too individual to create disciples in his own image. But he did, partly through his letters, shock the aristocrats and the middle class out of their smugness and moral indifference; and at his best he did for some individuals what was much better than shaping them to be like himself: he taught them how to find and how to be truly themselves.
John Burroughs, Logan Pearsall Smith, and others have called Carlyle the Victorian Rembrandt. Certainly, no instinct in him was stronger than that which led him to observe with burning interest and intensified powers of observation men and women in the world around him. No talent in him was more marked than that through which he skilfully delineated their features. The influence of Chaucer was always strong upon him. Whatever value the world may attach to his moral and political ideas (just now his reputation as a philosopher is clearly at ebb tide), the portraits which he drew of his contemporaries will always be too important and too fascinating to be ignored by students of the period.
Some of Carlyle's pen portraits are to be found in such works as The Life of Sterling and the Reminiscences. Most of them, however, and some of the best ones are miniatures embedded in the letters, many of which have been published only in part or not at all. Hence it is that we shall never be able to study and enjoy Carlyle's work as the “Victorian Rembrandt” in its entire range, variety, and richness until we can see all the portraits in relationship to one another and to the times against the context of the collected and ordered correspondence.
A particular reason why Carlyle's portraits yield most when studied in relation to the letters is that his method was that of a painter who required his subjects to sit a considerable number of times. Carlyle's portraits grow, develop, are touched up, gather depth of shadow and richness of coloring, find their true proportions and emphasis, and at times undergo organic change and readjustment of line as the artist realizes his opportunity to observe his subject from time to time and sends off letter after letter. Those who wish evidence for this assertion may study his treatment of Samuel Rogers, Tennyson, Macaulay, and Thackeray.
Despite Carlyle's scoffing at “artists” and “dilettantism” (a word to him synonymous with all aesthetic studies), he was himself greatest when he was most the artist. And he was undoubtedly an artist—a conscious artist—when he worked on the portraits. Whether studying history or observing his contemporaries, his first object always was to get an actual likeness of indisputable authenticity of the persons to be considered. He praised Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, for first collecting the best painted portraits of important Englishmen and later drawing brilliant portraits with his pen. In the early 1850's he showed himself strongly in favor of establishing national portrait galleries for Scotland and England, for which the pictures would be carefully selected and in which only the most trustworthy portraits would be found. When he wrote history, whether it dealt with the French Revolution, Cromwell, or Frederick II, he first searched for authentic likenesses of all important characters in the story and placed these on or near his desk where he could see them as he wrote. He grieved that there was nowhere a true portrait of Christ; the works of the great Italian masters were to him idealizations, glorifications, luminous pieces of ecclesiastical symbolism, and romantic imaginings which were to him a poor substitute for a real likeness.
On the other hand, Carlyle knew that a merely photographic likeness could never be an adequate portrait. It had to begin, of course, with the physically real or it would be completely false. But having once grasped this reality clearly and firmly, it proceeded to discover and reveal the inner and essential reality of which the physical details merely provided the outward tokens. Such a method, making much of swift evaluations, rigorous exclusion of unessentials, and a form which was compact, picturesque, and bright, Carlyle believed he had inherited from his father. One of his father's most notable gifts, he said, was that of throwing off “little sketches of Annandale biography … clearest brief portraiture and life-history of all the noteworthy, vanished figures whom I had known by look only, and now wished to understand … so admirably brief, luminous, true, and man-like.” The word man-like here is not used loosely. Carlyle uses the word man as Hamlet does in praising his father. Carlyle says that his father gave him a set of “human delineations of human life.” Thus, the chief purpose of the portrait artist is to find the precious and indefinable humanity in his subject, to distil it and draw it out, through methods permitted by a rigorous economy, until it hangs like a rare, rich, and exquisite perfume over and around the portrait. Here lies the charm of Rembrandt's work, and of Carlyle's when he is most successful.
Carlyle's metaphors are merely one of the most striking means which he employs, but they are often like brilliant jewels flashing out from the portraits, and they do much to render the portraits unforgettable. Bronson Alcott, with his vegetarianism, is a “Potato Quixote”; Coleridge is a “seventy-four-gun ship, but waterlogged, dismasted, cannot set a thread of sail!”; Thomas Erskine of Linlathen was like a “draught of sweet rustic mead served in cut glasses and silver tray”; Margaret Fuller's books suggest a “spiritual Aurora Borealis”; she does not use words but rather expresses herself through “symbolical tunes on the bagpipe”; hers is a “predetermination to eat this big Universe as her oyster or her egg”; Leigh Hunt is a “talking nightingale”; Samuel Rogers has a “toothless horse-shoe mouth drawn up to the very nose”; and Southey, whose “grand bodily [characteristic] is leanness and long legs,” is when he rises “like a lean pair of tongs.”
A surprising number of the metaphors in Carlyle's characterizations refer, like those in King Lear, to animals and birds. They are used, for instance, to intensify the unfavorable impression which he had received of Charles Babbage, the mechanical genius and mathematician: “Babbage continues eminently unpleasant to me, with his frog mouth and viper eyes, with his hide-bound, wooden irony, and the acridest egotism looking through it.” Jeremy Bentham is “a rhinoceros—strong and clumsy.” Benjamin Jowett is “a poor little good-humoured owlet of a body,—‘Oxford Liberal,’ and very conscious of being so; now knowing right hand from left otherwise.” Two leading Oxford High Churchmen fare even worse than Jowett: “Your two Oxford ‘Dignitaries’ are interesting scarecrows; hard to say which is uglier,—Pusey with his praying [?] suffering contracted weazel countenance, Sewel[l] with his small triumphant ferret one.” Emerson's visit to Craigenputtoch in 1833 was like that of an angel, Carlyle told Longfellow; but Emerson's face, he said to Lady Ashburton in 1847, was like that of a cock. G. H. Lewes, to Carlyle another extremely ugly man, is “Ape Lewes” or “hairy Lewes, rather ludicrous in his role of gallant, Adonis, and conqueror of hearts in George Eliot's life drama.” Although Carlyle had some praise for Walt Whitman after reading Democratic Vistas, in general he could not like him: “If you could endow the parish bull with the faculty of human utterance and holding a pen between the halves of his hoof, this, I imagine, is much the thing he would write,” he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton of Whitman's poetry. When he visited Connop Thirlwall in 1843, he was greatly but not altogether favorably impressed by Thirlwall's chaplain, whom he describes as follows: “Turned of forty; lean and yellow; has boiled big eyes; a neck head and nose giving you a notion of a gigantic human Snipe. Is not that a beauty? … We are alone all but this Sucker-Chaplain or Snipe.” Although these comparisons with animals and birds often bring out unfavorable or unpleasant features and characteristics of Carlyle's subjects, Monckton Milnes' cheerful good-nature, liveliness, and smallness of stature are all suggested by Carlyle's delightful description of him as “a pretty little robin-redbreast of a man.” Sometimes the metaphor may be involved in dramatic action, as in the following account of Carlyle's clash with the well-known radical, J. A. Roebuck:
Carlyle looked for what was solid and substantial in personality and for what yielded practical results in human activities. One extremely valuable practical result was that which brought order out of chaos. Writing to his brother Alexander in Canada on 3 July 1847, Carlyle said: “And train the children, each in its own little garden, to respect fruit-trees, honourable profit, industry, beauty, and good-order: it is the summary of all Gospels to man!” Were these merely the values which strengthened and confirmed the Victorian middle class, Matthew Arnold's Philistines, in their ways? Carlyle includes beauty in his short list of highest values. The question whether he himself had a deficient sense of beauty is an important one, but it is much too difficult and complex to be dealt with adequately here. Two brief comments on the subject may be helpful. In the first place, Carlyle did not like to talk about beauty or hear others talk about it. He did not believe that those who talked about beauty most were sure to reach the level of the highest artists any more than that those who talk about Heaven most are sure to go there. In the second place, his sense of beauty was very much like Browning's. Reality was highly complex to both, and they frequently discovered beauty amid surroundings which appeared strange, uncongenial, even grotesque. They sought for reality first and would not sift it in order to find and keep apart the pure grains of beauty. Nevertheless, many of Carlyle's portraits are lit up by intensely lovely flashes of beauty. As for order, the instinct for it was highly developed in Carlyle's nature. In the age of the Gothic revival, he cared nothing for Westminster Abbey but carried down to old age the feeling of wonder and admiration with which he first gazed upon St. Paul's. “It was and is,” he told Allingham in 1874, “the grandest building I ever saw.” And he never grew tired of praising his wife for the skilful management which made it possible for him to live in an orderly household in Chelsea. Such values as these compose the essential fabric of ideas in Past and Present.
And undoubtedly they count for much in the portraits. Samuel Wilberforce, he believed, had neither individual integrity nor substantiality in his nature; and so Carlyle dismisses him as one who “has got all he has by pure soapiness, suppleness, and sycophancy.” Witty spoof was no better substitute than frothy soapsuds for substantiality.
Hence Carlyle's rejection of Sydney Smith as an extremely boring person with an everlasting desire and effort to be witty. Hence also one of Carlyle's even more shocking heresies, his rejection of Charles Lamb. This, like his uncharitable comments on Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge, cannot be justified, but shows us Carlyle at his worst, when artistic subjectivity allowed ignorance, prejudice, and intolerance to warp and even distort the portrait. He was thrown with Lamb more than once on his visit to London in 1831 and was always filled with disgust. Here is a passage from a letter of 29 August 1831:
After seeing more of Lamb, he made a detailed entry in his Notebook (2 November 1831):
He never changed his mind about Lamb. Many years later he spoke to Duffy about Lamb's “fantastic method of looking at things.” There was no practical sense in him, Carlyle said, and he had formed the habit of turning into quips and jests whatever turned up; hence he was an ill example to younger men, who had to live their lives in a world which was altogether serious. In the late 1870's he still refused to yield to the slightest degree after W. H. Wylie warmly maintained that Lamb's humor was admirable. Lamb had no humor, Carlyle said; he had “only a thin streak of Cockney wit.” He had known “scores of Scotch moorland farmers, who for humour could have blown Lamb into the zenith!” The only thing really humorous about Lamb was his personal appearance: “His suit of rusty black, his spindle-shanks, his knee-breeches, the bit ribbons fleein' at the knees o' him: indeed he was humour personified!” And Carlyle ended, “Puir silly cratur!”
Shelley, whom Carlyle never saw, he found even less substantial than Lamb. He was a poor, shrieking creature who had said or sung nothing worth remembering. Carlyle was both blunt and frank in a letter to Browning of about 1850, when Browning still had almost unreserved enthusiasm for Shelley:
To Milnes he described Shelley in similar terms: “Shelley is always mistaking spasmodic violence for strength. I know no more urned books than his. It is like the writing of a ghost, uttering infinite wail into the night, unable to help itself or anyone else.” Keats, Carlyle believed, though not without substance, was a spoiled child begging for sweets. Coleridge was a ship without a rudder. To Carlyle, Swinburne was unsubstantial like Lamb and Shelley. His verses were froth, “a fuzz of words,” and there was “not the least intellectual value in anything he writes.”
Yet the high value which Carlyle placed on humor does something to make amends after the worst has been said about his portraits. Much has been written about his own vein of humor, his indebtedness to Swift and Sterne, and the power which his own loud, rich outbursts of laughter had to delight those who heard him talk. When George Bancroft visited him in 1847, Carlyle was pleased to find in him “a certain small under-current of genial humour, or as it were hidden laughter, not noticed heretofore.” He enjoyed the humor in Sir David Wilkie's pictures. They contained, he said, “a great broad energy of humor and sympathy.” Wilkie was a real painter, “alone among us since Hogarth's time.” Carlyle also enjoyed humor in Dickens, in his readings especially. In Dickens, as in Garrick, the genius for humor manifested itself mainly in mimicry. In Jane Welsh Carlyle, too, one of the qualities most endearing to him was her alert, sure sense of the ridiculous and her habit of exploding nonsense with laughter. A fine sense of humor was also in Carlyle's early friend and benefactor, Edward Strachey, grandfather of Lytton Strachey, to whom the grandfather may have bequeathed something. Carlyle describes him as one who above all things “loved Chaucer, and kept reading him.” He was the colleague of Thomas Love Peacock and worked near him, so that the two were often found laughing together over the absurdities of the world. He had “a fine, tinkling, mellow-toned voice” and “a pretty vein of quiz.” Humor was a part of the armor with which he faced the world:
To Carlyle, the greatest wit of the day was Charles Buller, nephew of Strachey's wife and Carlyle's own pupil in the early Edinburgh days. Buller's wit, according to Carlyle, was not based on pure nonsense and insubstantiality like that of Charles Lamb. Buller was a man of great practical abilities, of integrity, of “a constant veracity of intellect and character.” Neither was it like the contrived wit of Sydney Smith, ostentatious and affected. It was a natural stream of brilliance flowing from the mind, “an airy winged turn of thought, flowing out in lambencies of beautiful spontaneous wit and fancy.” Buller expressed his inborn detestation of the base and false by “showering witty scorn upon it, … in which, indeed, I never saw his rival.” Yet Buller's was “a kindly, genial nature; clear, productive, with a rare union of decision and benignity.” He died young in late 1848, with what appeared to be a brilliant career in the direction of colonial affairs ahead of him. At his death Carlyle wrote to Lady Ashburton, 29 November 1848:
Buller's humor was not merely intelligent and clever; it was the product of a remarkable humanity, fully vitalized, glowing, warm, and substantial.
The indefinable humanity which Carlyle found in Buller counts for much in various portraits as the artist evaluated his subjects. Carlyle sought it out wherever it could be found, had a quick eye to discover it or the lack of it, judged his subjects according to the degree of it which they possessed, and had great skill in suggesting in the portraits precisely how much humanity his subjects possessed. Here again his portraits remind us of Rembrandt's. This quality of humanity he thought of in the way that traditional humanism has always thought of it, both as whatever in man's nature may raise him above the level of the lower animals and as whatever liberates his faculties, allowing the natural man to function, and displaying him, fully alive, as a creature of the earth. Jesus he praised as “that grandest of all beings” who have helped to make us something better than “wild beasts of rapine and havoc.” Goethe he acclaimed as “a man, not a dwarf of letters.” “Be men,” he said to the other authors of the day, “before attempting to be writers.” To friends in his old age he said that he had “tried to put some humanity” into Frederick II but that it was hard work. One of his early disappointments came from his discovery of what seemed to be a fundamental lack of humanity in the poet Thomas Campbell, whose poems he had read with admiration. The poet had a smirk on his face like that of an auctioneer; his eye had “the cold vivacity of a conceited worldling his talk is small, contemptuous, and shallow: [every detail of his dress] proclaimed the literary dandy.” “The aspect of that man jarred the music of my mind for a whole day,” Carlyle declared. There is no living well of thought or feeling in him; his head is a shop not a manufactory; and for his heart, it is dry as a Greenock kipper.” The same fundamental deficiency appeared in John Wilson Croker. Carlyle wrote in 1851, “No viler mortal calls himself man than old Croker at this time”; and he objected to an attack on Maurice, Kingsley, and other liberals which he had read in the Quarterly Review as “very beggarly Crokerism, all of copperas and gall and human baseness.” Lacking humanity too was the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, with his monotonous, uninspired voice and “the clear leaden twinkle of his small bead eyes.” When Carlyle visited Sir William and Lady Beecher in County Cork, Ireland, he was astonished to find in Lady Beecher, formerly the famous actress Eliza O'Neill, no suggestion of human warmth or gracious hospitality, but instead cold rigidity and formality. Her eyes were cold and cruel. Her air was silent, reserved, disagreeable. She sternly and rigorously imposed her character upon her whole household. She lived in constant obedience to what she called her duty and was a thrall to the Thirty-nine Articles. Very different to Carlyle was a true saint, Martin Luther. When he saw a picture of Luther which he admired in Germany, he exclaimed: “Martin himself has a fine German face: eyes so frank and serious, a look as if he could take a cup of ale as well as wrestle down the devil in a handsome manner.” True humanity is never stiff or stuffy. One of the first Lady Ashburton's tributes to Carlyle himself is significant here. After a visit to Oxford in 1853, she said, “Coming back to the society of Carlyle after the dons at Oxford is like returning home from some conventional world to the human race.” It is pleasant to know that Carlyle found plenty of unmistakable humanity in Turgenev, whom he got to know on his visits to England. He said, “A fine faculty is in that Russian big man; the heart of him somewhat too sensual, but full of noble melancholy, and fine qualities.” Turgenev was good company and an excellent talker. Carlyle's skill in suggesting what is indefinable in humanity is perhaps nowhere illustrated better than in his description of a corpse which he saw in Paris in 1824:
As Carlyle paints the picture, the death of the artisan is merely the last stroke in a long succession of blows by which the struggling man was beaten back and denied the possibility of fulfilling himself as a human being. It is well to note here, furthermore, that the many important questions which Carlyle raised concerning modern industrialized society have to do largely with its dehumanizing tendencies.
The touch which counts for most in Carlyle's portraits, however, is a magic one which defies analysis. With it he makes us suddenly aware that his subject belongs not to the earth merely but is a creature of infinitude, staring out at us from a strange, mysterious place where immensity and eternity meet. We are filled with awe and wonder, and exclaim with Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man!” This gift for suggesting the close conjunction of the natural with the supernatural seems to have been born in Carlyle. It operated in his treatment of places as well as of persons. It sometimes frightened him. He wrote in 1843:
But this very gift accounts for the splendidly luminous quality of his portraits of Coleridge in his Sterling and of Jeffrey and Jane Welsh Carlyle in the Reminiscences. It suggests, furthermore, a scale of values which refused to come to terms with the prevailing science, industrialism, and materialism. In the words of one of his contemporaries, “The marvels of industry did not awe him, the progress of humanity he did not place in the triumphs of matter; in his eyes a man was a man only on condition of being a tabernacle of the living God.” The shadows which are so important in Carlyle's portraits, as in Rembrandt's, not merely suggest depth but reveal to us earthly creatures partaking of eternity and infinitude.
The importance of Carlyle's work in handing down to posterity portraits of his contemporaries cannot be exaggerated. The scope and range of the gallery of Victorian portraits which he has bequeathed to us are tremendous. He was consciously trying to do for those of us who come after him what he wished had always been done for him by those who came before him. His portraits vary greatly, not only according to their subjects, but also in the methods which he used in dealing with them. Some are made up merely of a bold stroke or two, with charcoal on white paper. Many others are more full and complex but are in the brief, bright, compact manner of Chaucer's Prologue. In this group we find portraits of Lady Holland, William Godwin, Samuel Rogers, Robert Southey, Sir James Stephen, Thiers, Daniel Webster, Hartley Coleridge, Bronson Alcott, Mazzini, Gladstone, Disraeli, and many others. A third group of portraits is that dealing with subjects who completely fascinated him or who had gripped his mind, imagination, and emotions strongly. These portraits, much fuller than any of the others, he returned to again and again through his various published writings and letters. They are thus composites of passages which he wrote through the years as his mind returned to them and his experience presented them to him from time to time in a fresh light. Such are his splendid portraits of his own father, James Carlyle, of Jane Welsh Carlyle, of Edward Irving, of Francis Jeffrey, of S. T. Coleridge, of John Sterling, of Browning, of Dickens, of Emerson, of Leigh Hunt, of Macaulay, of J. S. Mill, of Ruskin, of Thackeray, of Tennyson, of Wordsworth, and of Queen Victoria. Those who jump to the conclusion that Carlyle's portraits always lack charity and are distorted by prejudice should study the careful discrimination and remarkable balance in the portraits of Irving, Jeffrey, and Sterling, and the affectionate tolerance and warm friendliness which run through the many sketches of Leigh Hunt. We may be willing to forgive Carlyle for much when we remember that he could appreciate Jeffrey and could love Leigh Hunt, even though both were radically different from him in temperament and philosophy.
One further observation may be helpful to the reader. He must not expect too much from the very earliest letters, beginning as they do with a letter from a schoolgirl of eleven and letters from a somewhat pedantic and self-conscious student still in his teens. The strong claims made in this Introduction for the literary value of the letters are based on the whole range of the letters. The alert reader, however, will soon find that his patience is not being unduly tried, for delightful literary qualities are not long in appearing, and from the very beginning he has an inside view into university and family life in Scotland and of Edinburgh flourishing in the days of John Wilson, Francis Jeffrey, and Sir Walter Scott. The young Carlyle reads and comments on the Waverley novels as soon as they appear and enjoys the excitement of reading Don Juan as it comes out in instalments. Fired by the romance in his blood, he is by 1821, when he meets Jane Welsh, ready to contribute his part to the love letters, which may be counted on to dispel any vestige of boredom that may have remained up to their beginning. Henceforth the fabric of the correspondence is rich and varied indeed. Taken as a whole, the letters have a vital unity and unfold a story resembling that of an enormous multi-volumed, crowded-canvas, cross-section-of-life, realistic novel, swarming with major and minor characters, containing much dialogue, and having a moving and complex plot with subplots and auxiliary anecdotes, and with many bright comic colors providing relief for some deeply tragic shadows. Hence it is possible that the Carlyle letters may prove to be among the most readable in English literary history.
Charles Richard Sanders