January-July 1843

The Collected Letters, Volume 16


INTRODUCTION; 1990; DOI: 10.1215/ed-16-introduction; CL 16: firstpage-16-ix-lastpage-16-xii


Full as the record of the Carlyles seems, they are unknown in many ways, and the present set of volumes continues to show what a high proportion of their letters is new to readers. The introduction to volumes 13 to 15 reviewed the situation at that stage, when we claimed that as many as 70 percent of their letters had not been completely printed before and that well over half had not been previously published. Of 633 letters in the present set, over 42 percent have never appeared before: 233 by Thomas and 37 by Jane; and of the remainder though 22 percent can be found with some difficulty in various collected volumes, the others have appeared incomplete, so that once more well over half these letters are only now delivered to whatever new readers they will find.

It might possibly be said that they tell a familiar story, with no other advantages than being complete, correctly transcribed, properly dated, explained and chronologically arranged. But this would hardly be true. They are also qualitatively different, affecting our judgment of the writers and their times. The Carlyles have often been seen as typically and conventionally Victorian; but the question arises whether we know either of them well enough for such judgments. Some of their activities are certainly unfamiliar.

As Jane, for example, begins to play a greater part in these years, the emphasis falls differently; more of her letters began to be kept and, as well as having an increasingly prominent role in Carlyle's circle, she developed one of her own. Among many who belonged to it were her feminist Liverpool and Manchester friends, Elizabeth Paulet and Geraldine Jewsbury, with whom she had meant to write a novel after the manner of George Sand; and although Jewsbury was left to finish it alone, she continuously discussed it with Jane, who arranged with Chapman and Hall for the publication of the three-volume Zoe in 1845. It is only recently that we have begun to appreciate the extensive influence of Sand on early Victorian fiction and opinion, which with Jane Carlyle was reinforced by her friendships with Mazzini and Godefroy Cavaignac, who knew the French writer personally; but she was also generally alert to advanced ideas from France, Germany and Italy. It would be wrong to overstress her liberality, but we can find similar feelings focused through such friends as Anna Jameson or correspondents such as the novelist Martha Lamont, congratulated by Jane for her protests at male complacency (JWC to MML, 29 Dec. 1843).

This is only one example and it would be easy to illustrate Jane's originality and independence, whether in her personal behavior, moral and religious opinions, or political judgments in which she differed little from her husband. It is less usual to recognize that Carlyle himself was a spokesman for independence and political freedom. Their friendship with the Italian revolutionary Mazzini was chiefly kept up by Jane, but it was Carlyle who took a strikingly outspoken liberal position on the British government's interception of Mazzini's mail. Carlyle's letter to the Times (TC to EOT, 18 June 1844) was strongly effective in its support of justice and liberty, and was repeated in private company with a re-proof to the arrogant Lady Holland for absurdly believing the slander that Mazzini had “kept a gaming-house”: “the proudest person” in their company could not be further above it than Mazzini (TC to JWC, 8 July 1844).

We are reminded that in these years Carlyle was seen as a champion of national independence, and was the friend of many European revolutionaries, German, French, Polish, and Italian. We notice his caring little for the Prussian ambassador (“Alas, Bunsen is not beautiful to me!” [TC to LHB, 22 Dec. 1844]), but much for Richard Plattnauer, a Prussian political exile, even to the extent of cheerfully welcoming him to their own home after Plattnauer's cautious release from a lunatic asylum. Much of this independence came from Carlyle's Scottishness, his “Covenanting” sympathies, or can be found in his attraction to the seven-teenth-century Puritan revolution; and his essential truth and integrity were recognized at this time in Past and Present and were to attract even the national and revolutionary leaders of Young Ireland (Gavan Duffy and others) who were to meet him in 1845.

The Scottishness of the Carlyles has had surprisingly little attention, and for the moment can have no more than a momentary reference. But these were the heroic years of the Disruption of the Scottish Church, when more than a third of its ministers were ready to give up their homes and stipends in the cause of independence. To the visiting American Julia Ward Howe it seemed a rather inexplicable “movement tending to disestablishment” (JWC to JW, 27 May 1843), but to Jane it was a concern for tears (JWC to TC, 14 July 1843), and to Carlyle, as to many of his countrymen—for he cared little for the Church itself—a matter of national pride and independence. He rises to admiration at the “lump of an old woman, half-haveril [idiot] half-genius” who acted in defiance of the great magnate the Duke of Buccleuch by giving for a new church the only unoccupied patch of ground he did not control: “‘I got it from the Lord and I will give it to the Lord’;—and there the Free Kirk it seems in spite of Duke and Devil is to be!” (TC to JWC, 30 Aug. 1843).

Carlyle's published works can speak for themselves, but the letters of this time show the completion and reception of Past and Present and the end of his persistent struggle to find the right form for his work on the Cromwellian period; and only by collecting the letters and studying them with his scattered drafts for Cromwell has it been possible to see why he found the book so difficult to write. In both Past and Present and Cromwell he turned from history to fundamental questions of the day: “There is no use in writing of things past,” he told Emerson, “unless they can be made in fact things present” (TC to RWE, 19 July 1842). Nor was his radicalism confined to the rhetoric of the published works. His chosen correspondents were often radical or reformist, such as Samuel Bamford, friends such as Mill, Harriet Martineau, the Wedgwoods, or the younger Charles Buller, or Thomas Ballantyne, the free-trading liberal editor of the Manchester Guardian.

Both the Carlyles carried their convictions into practice. His sense of distress among the people runs through his letters, like his recollection in The French Revolution of how the voice of the Viennese populace “crying to their Kaiser: Bread! Bread!” had given Glück “the ground-tone of the noblest passage” in his opera Iphégenie en Aulide (Works 2:194). Early in 1843 such distress seemed less in London than elsewhere, “yet you cannot walk along the streets without seeing fearful symptoms of it. I declare I begin to feel as if I should not hold my peace any longer” (TC to MAC, 6 Jan. 1843). As best they could, both he and Jane tried to help individuals directly, and both were closely bound to Carlyle's family—shopkeeping, tenant-farming and housepainting in Scotland—who kept them in touch with everyday realities.

Carlyle writes to his emigrant brother Alick, “No abatement … yet visible of the Universal distress. Rejoice that you are out of it”; for the younger brother and family had felt driven to leave for North America. Most of the letters they exchanged have been published before; but we can now see how the whole Carlyle family was involved, not only giving financial help but in preparation, obtaining expert advice, helping with the actual departure and continued communication which was eventually to lead to a family reunion through the marriage of Carlyle's Scottish niece Mary Aitken to Alick's son Alexander, who went on to live with him at 5 Cheyne Row and edited many volumes of his letters. Nor was it only Alick who experienced emigration: he had been preceded by their elder stepbrother, John, their brother-in-law Robert Hanning, numerous friends, and several more distant relatives. There is, in fact, no other collective contemporary record which so vividly tells what the experience of emigration meant, from the scene of departure among their tearful neighbors (TC to MAC, 23 June 1843) to Carlyle's imagining (from his brother's description) the family on their new farm, “planting Indian corn, the Father digging holes, and the little ones dropping-in grains” (TC to AC, 18 Aug. 1844). It is an aspect, like others, neglected by historians.

These are no more than a few examples of many changes in our conception of the Carlyles and their times which biography has not been able to take into account; and, extensive as the whole archive is, new letters are still being found. The last set of volumes made use for the first time of a large collection of family letters which came from a solicitor's office in Arbroath. The present one begins to draw on the vast correspondence of both Carlyles with the Barings and Ashburtons, to which we have been able to add many letters previously unknown. Later volumes will begin to reveal much more of the remarkable circle which gathered round the Ashburtons.

The introduction to volume 13 briefly mentioned the extent to which texts in various collections of the letters have been bowdlerized or modified for the convenience of both biographers and editors, and this continues to be apparent. In the present volumes we have continued to follow, as exactly as possible, what the Carlyles wrote. As Jane's letters increase in relative extent, her misspellings and other eccentricities begin to be an embarrassment, but only a proportion of them are noted. It is hoped that readers will feel that they can trust the editors and will not be inconvenienced.

One editorial complexity connected with Jane was not explained in the introduction to the first volume. Almost all of her letters are given from her own manuscript, but many of the notes that Carlyle wrote for them are taken from what are referred to in the headnotes as “long-hand copies” in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library (and which in subsequent volumes will be referred to as “copies”). These were from copies of the letters made for Carlyle and bequeathed to Froude, who had agreed to finish Carlyle's undertaking, most of which eventually appeared, mainly as the Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle Prepared for Publication by Thomas Carlyle edited by James Anthony Froude. In fact, as Alexander Carlyle tells us and newly discovered papers confirm, there were once two such sets of copies, though the second, less-complete one now seems lost. Hence it arises that we have a partial explanation for the survival of some of Carlyle's notes as recorded by Froude even when they are not to be found with the copied letters in the Berg Collection. If this mainly concerns the editorially minded, it raises the hope that there may be still further letters of the Carlyles yet to be found and added to their great record.

Kenneth J. Fielding