The Collected Letters, Volume 13


INTRODUCTION; 1987; DOI: 10.1215/ed-13-introduction; CL 13: firstpage-13-ix-lastpage-13-xiii


With volumes thirteen through fifteen we can review progress since the first appeared in 1970. When work began the aim was to publish in chronological order and in full all the letters of Thomas and Jane Carlyle to be found; and this is now done to the end of 1842. There is still a long way to look ahead; but a point in time has been reached well beyond Froude's halfway mark in his four-volume biography of Thomas Carlyle, and we have so far given 1,978 of Thomas's letters, 347 of Jane Carlyle's, and a few others directly about them, and with this period we have consulted, listed, and quoted from more than 1,080 surviving letters to them.1 The present edition is clearly indebted to previous editors of their letters, without whose work many of them might have been lost; but it is also very far from being simply a rearrangement and reprinting of what is already available in a scattered form. In spite of the attention both Thomas and Jane have attracted, many, if not most, of their letters have not been printed before, others have been given incompletely, and still more are to be found only in newspapers, periodicals, biographies, catalogues, and other works difficult to consult. With the present set of volumes it appears that more than originally expected have not been published before. In addition, not only are they now given as fully and correctly as possible, but they are more exactly dated and explained than before; and events, correspondents, and figures of the Carlyle circle are better accounted for.

To some degree this has already been shown in headnotes to the letters which indicate their previous history. Over the whole fifteen volumes, 33.85% of all letters by Thomas and Jane have not been published before, and another 23.95% have previously been printed only in part. Of the remainder, 29.45% have been published in various collected volumes, and 11.95% have been printed but uncollected, while a few others (about .8%) of which there are no surviving texts are now systematically recorded for the first time.2 This means, therefore that though the general account provided by the letters may seem vaguely familiar, well over a half will be new to any reader.

In the present three volumes the proportion of new letters is much more marked. The penny post and the Carlyles' changing reputations meant that they wrote more short letters, more of which were kept. In the current set more than half of Thomas's letters have not been published before (50–75%), or nearly half (49%) of those of both Thomas and Jane. If to these are added those that have been printed only partly before (Thomas 16%, Thomas and Jane 20%), then as many as 70% have not been previously published in full. In other words, the current volumes may or may not be thought to show us the familiar figures of the Carlyles, but their texts are new, and the picture a fresh one. In addition, though a reader might gather together with some difficulty the letters that have appeared in collected volumes, those from other sources are by no means easily available.

Much else is new both in text and notes. Where appropriate some of Thomas and Jane's other papers have been appended or recorded which extend the record: these have included previously unpublished passages and information from Carlyle's Journal (of which Froude made dramatic use) to which we have not called attention before. In the present volumes, for example, we have also begun to draw on dated personal memoranda from Carlyle's drafts made while he was preparing to write on Cromwell, and, in volume 12, there were his informative notes on his reading before composing the first of the lectures on Heroes.3 Letters to the Carlyles have been quoted sparingly, especially if already printed in such editions as those of Joseph Slater of the correspondence with Emerson, or Francis Mineka's letters of John Stuart Mill; but the way in which the Carlyles' papers were preserved has given a new and unmatched opportunity to verify and explain what their own letters were about.

Jane Carlyle's part now increases, and to some readers she may seem of greater interest. Before the period of the present volumes relatively few of her letters survived; from this point her own brilliant contribution will be seen as increasingly balancing Carlyle's. No woman writer in English (unless Virginia Woolf) has written better letters or more extensively. Until now she has been published in various selections, starting with the letters collected and annotated by Carlyle himself (1866–73) from which Froude selected for the substantial three-volume Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Prepared for Publication by Thomas Carlyle, edited by James Anthony Froude (1883).4

In our own editing no comments (apart from redating) are passed on predecessors' mistakes: it can be profitless, and tolerance is desirable. Yet previous publications have often been faulty. Froude's editing, for example, shows mistakes shared by others, and they have the special importance that his vigor and intelligence have largely preempted how Carlyle is seen. In particular, the text of hundreds of letters given in his biography of Carlyle pretends to be exact but often gives a misleadingly dependable impression. For example, his ellipses seem to show where omissions have been made, but these are highly unreliable. Carlyle's Scottish words are turned to English, either intentionally or through misreading. While silent omissions may have been made to avoid repetition, others are deliberate alterations. No doubt it was carelessness that made him quote from one of Carlyle's letters as if the passage came from his Journal (see TC to JOST, 21 Dec. 1842), or that he ran two letters together without indication, as with TC to JWC, 26, and 27 March 1842. Such objections may be dismissed as mere technicalities, like the countless small inaccuracies which do not “conform to modern standards.” But the chief problem lies in the fact that this excuse and his practice disguise the general coloring and bias of his biography, and even lead us to forget that this was in many ways inevitable. In particular, as we read the Life we are often given a generalized account of the Carlyles, contracted into a close circle, with their individuality suppressed—all from someone who proclaimed that he wrote the truth with “no reserve.”5

In the main this can be illustrated only by multiple minor instances. But, to take a single example, in Carlyle's letter to his brother John, of 28 July 1841, written on holiday from the shores of the Solway, he speaks in delight about bathing “in sheer nakedness,” wearing only his brother's old shoes, which is silently expunged; numerous members of the family are reduced to just “Alick, Mary &c”; their gifts of welcome, which Carlyle lovingly details and could “weep over,” are accepted dry-eyed and smothered under a conventional phrase; and the whole passage is rewritten in commonplace generalities but as if straight from Carlyle's pen. Yet Froude (3:218) piously preserves the contrasting solemnities about “the multitudinous everlasting moan of the Frith of the Selgovae,” and references to “Plinius,” changed to Pliny. There may be nothing in such a single instance for indignant reprobation; but it is part of a persistent, if possibly unintentional, dehumanizing of the Carlyles. For the present it can be said only that it may exemplify a general tendency in Carlylean studies: an inclination to shirk the specific and write about him in terms of a Teufelsdröckhian ideal, which, continued long enough, always collapses into the shocking realization that both the Carlyles were mockingly, self-consciously, sensitively, and deplorably human. Nothing is less Carlylean (either with regard to Jane or Thomas) than to rearrange them in a prophetic, pretentious, superior stance. All this might deserve a separate study, for Froude's editorial practice and its result are unsatisfactory just because he aims to appear so smoothly authentic. Other editors, at times, have similar limitations, but fewer pretensions.

Yet whether some of the letters have been unpublished and others known inaccurately is not just a question of how far they let us judge their authors fairly. The Carlyles are central to their age, a touchstone of what was Victorian, certainly a primary source of a period that is often generalized about. The value of a completer edition of their letters also lies in the remarkable insight they give into what was meant by the period and the people who belong to it. Carlyle himself writes to Emerson, 29 August 1842: “Well, I do believe … a man has no right to say to his own generation, turning quite away from it, ‘Be damned!’” He does the reverse, and both he and Jane give what he praised, 29 December 1842, in his friend Varnhagen von Ense, a chance to see “what passes in God's universe. … A Historical Picture of the living Present Time.” What we mean by Victorian or Carlylean, in general or detail, should depend on what we can really know, not what we can most conveniently select. Letters in general have been losing their status as literature or even part of the biographical record, perhaps because though highly expressive their context makes them resistant to reinterpretation. Their value may lie in that very combination.

Kenneth J. Fielding