candlestick

January-September 1845


The Collected Letters, Volume 19


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INTRODUCTION; 1993; DOI: 10.1215/ed-19-introduction; CL 19: firstpage-19-ix-lastpage-19-xiii

INTRODUCTION

The present volumes contain 572 letters, of which 274, or over 47 percent, have not been previously published; of the rest, nearly half have appeared before only in incomplete form or as short quotations. Seventy-eight can be found, with some difficulty, in earlier volumes' collections, and altogether 448 are by Thomas and 124 by Jane. In comparison with previous volumes a greater proportion is new, so that these volumes give an increasingly fresh opportunity to understand and interpret the Carlyles, their circle, and their times.

These letters cover a period when Thomas confessed that he had come through at last. He could tell his sister, “These poor Books of mine … have become a kind of landed property to me, and yield a certain rent more or less considerable every year” (TC to JCA, 7 May 1847). New editions of the Life of Schiller, Sartor, Heroes, and the French Revolution were coming out; also, in the United States, another edition of the Critical and Miscellaneous Essays and other authorized republications. Then, in November 1845, the first two-volume edition of Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations was an unexpected success, followed by an expanded second edition, in three volumes, in June 1846.

Preparation and revision of Cromwell was demanding because of Carlyle's haste; he often relied on his friends and willingly accepted proffered aid. It was too hurried; once published, readers rushed to point out what had been overlooked, and Carlyle was exasperated to find it needed a thorough revision. It has not been clear before how far this went, how much he owed to various contributors, nor how faulty was the first edition, few copies of which survive. Many letters from readers and correspondents about Cromwell are now in the Yale University Library, along with some of Carlyle's working papers; and though we have not given the full story, they give a unique opportunity not only to see Carlyle at work but also the detailed methods and processes of a leading nineteenth-century historian. They show the practice as well as the theory of history.

It is not always reassuring. Carlyle's ideas on writing history or biography were partly given to his friend, the Rev. A. J. Scott: “it is a battle between the material and you. Do not aim at too much perfection” (TC to AJS, 5 December 1845).1 He had strong opinions about editing, its pedantry, obtrusiveness, and inaccuracy. The conflict between faithfulness to fact and to what he believed true—“what,” he told Scott, “you at last have living in your own memory and heart”—is a conflict, a problem, and a working method throughout all Carlyle's histories. But, in spite of his exasperation at being forced into revision, the second edition is better than the first, and what was remarkable was that Carlyle's insight and controlling thought made it possible to repair Cromwell so that it held its place as a serious account long after his death.

Especially since his method often lay in conflict and confrontation, Carlyle often seems inconsistent when different phases of his career are brought together without distinction, but through seeking the truth in extremes and the clash of opposites he challenged his readers. Gavan Duffy understood him when he wrote that though he did not teach Duffy's young associates what to think, he “confirmed their determination to think for themselves” (Duffy 23). As well as this, Carlyle's own views and fundamental convictions were changing as we continue to see in his letters of this period. Carlyle tells Emerson on revising his own earlier works: “It is really painful, looking at one's old face; said ‘old face’ is no longer extant now!” (TC to RWE, 17 July 1846). So though it is easy to construct intricate schemes of what Carlyle taught and meant, his letters often should force us to realize that he was a man of inconsistency, variety, and unexpectedness, an ironist consistent mainly in his challenging sincerity.

This is particularly true in religion. Close friends of Carlyle, such as the skeptical Erasmus Darwin or James Spedding, would tease him about what his religion really was. He was more skeptical than metaphysical. Part of his attraction for the inquiring Elizabeth Paulet and Geraldine Jewsbury lay in his constant but undogmatic concern with belief. On the other hand, the no-more-orthodox Edward FitzGerald still recoiled at times from his long tirades, such as the one he noted about bishops being “stupid fetid animals in cauliflower wigs” (TC to WKB, 5 May 1846). Yet a wide range of admirers—headed by Emerson and including James Martineau, George Dawson, and a host of mainly unitarian Americans—were drawn to Carlyle because they found his teaching liberating through its speaking to their inner experience. Skeptical as he was, Thomas could write to reassure Jane: “As for the Redeemer,—yes ‘the Redeemer liveth’ … the Unnameable Maker of us, voiceless, formless within our own soul” (TC to JWC, 14 July 1846). The response of Emerson's friend Margaret Fuller, after meeting Carlyle, was that one had to have experienced Victorian England and “stood in the shadow of that mountain of shams” to appreciate the value of his explosive inconsistencies (TC to JAC, 8 November 1846). She evidently felt like R. H. Horne, in his A New Spirit of the Age (1844): that Carlyle had “knocked out his window from the blind wall of his century.” Harriet Martineau, again, could sharply disagree with Carlyle, but writes of him as “the man who has most essentially modified the mind of his time” (TC to MAC, 16 November 1846). Henry David Thoreau finds in his writing an “entire absence of cant and dogma” (TC to RWE, 18 May 1847). Agreement in such tributes shows how forcibly Carlyle struck many contemporaries, and suggests that he was best understood by those who enjoyed his contradictions.

It is precisely a sense of these conflicting elements that sometimes comes from descriptions of the Carlyles that often give an unexpected view. We have drawn attention to these, thinking them often more illuminating than conventional correspondence. Margaret Fuller, again, sought them both out, willing to show respect but ready to strike a few sparks in her interview for the sake of her published travel sketches. For Emerson's sake Thomas submitted, little as he liked her generally optimistic and liberal attitudes, though he stuck to his guns on their last encounter when Mazzini was present in her support (TC to JAC, 8 October, and 8 November 1846). Even so, she felt his “charm” and left “with feelings of the warmest friendship and admiration” for a “great and noble nature.” Jane she thought “wise, sincere, accomplished,” and “entertaining,” whereas Jane, we now discover, sent an account to the advanced Geraldine Jewsbury biting enough to draw the reply that she agreed in loathing Margaret Fuller “heartily” for her hypocrisy and “theoretical profligacy. … It does the heart and soul more harm than a course of blackguardism!” (Ireland 215).

Gavan Duffy and his Young Irishmen felt the same attraction, some like John O'Hagan (the future lord chancellor of Ireland) returning to Cheyne Row again and again; others, such as the revolutionary John Mitchel, who had to make the most of his single short visit to London and meeting with the Carlyles (not mentioned in the letters) on 14 May 1846. He already “venerated” Carlyle, for leading him to believe in Irish independence, and never forgot the evening he spent with the Carlyles, during which Mitchel “scarcely agreed with a single thing he said the whole night.” Thomas's “talk seemed like the speech of Paul or Chrysostom, and his presence and environment almost godlike.” It is an extraordinary account. They remained deeply attached if sharply divided, each influenced by the other, though no letters from Carlyle to Mitchel survive (JWC to TC, [23–24 August 1846]).

The letters must modify some ideas about Carlyle. In a long reply to Dr. Thomas Chalmers, for instance (TC to TCH, 20 February 1847), although we have to allow for its being the polite expression of his liking for Chalmers as a fellow-Scot and “a good and really pious-hearted and beautiful … old man” (TC to MAC, 21 May 1847), we find Carlyle cheerfully uncompromising in accepting criticism of his former “Germanism,” ready to declare against “all Metaphysics and Mental Philosophy” in favor of looking out, “as an eye should, over the Universe which is not we.” In a similarly gentle vein, he replies to F. D. Maurice's presentation of his lectures on The Religions of the World, with its surprising prefatory tribute, both perfectly aware of their divisions but mutually respecting their deep concern with the same issues (TC to FDM, 8 January 1847). These letters are new (to most of us), though not perhaps one to his friend the sainted fellow-Scot Thomas Erskine, in which Carlyle declares of Christianity in their time that it is “a paltry mealy-mouthed religion of cowards” (TC to TE, 12 June 1847); and yet he agrees with Caroline Fox in applauding Erskine's rejection of Calvinism, in company with associates such as J. McLeod Campbell. The time has passed for classifying Carlyle as a modified Calvinist tempered with “Germanism.” The letters show Carlyle responding to the times, as he leaves the seventeenth century and passes on to the period of the Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850); though he writes to his sister, “It is with a kind of shudder I go to a new Book” (TC to JCA, 19 November 1846).

He then sought a new subject, thinking to find it in Ireland. It was to preoccupy him almost as long as Cromwell, with only a partial outcome in Latter-Day Pamphlets. We see it growing in Carlyle's mind as he reads Duffy's Nation and decides to visit Dublin, still haunted by accounts of the dark period of the famine: “Ireland is a perpetual misery to me; lies like a kind of nightmare on my thoughts” (TC to EF, 12 January 1847). This is all clearer than before, and there is more to tell in the next few volumes, with the Irish rising of 1848 and the second visit in 1849.

Thomas needs more explanatory comment than Jane because of the greater number of his letters, their detailed involvement with his published work, and his wider social and intellectual reach. Jane, it can be argued, speaks even more expressively for herself. Nor need we play off one against the other. Perhaps surprisingly, many who visited Cheyne Row, such as the level—headed David Masson, found it peaceful and harmonious. He says of them at this time that their private “demeanour” was “uniformly exemplary and loving in all essential respects,” with the most admiring affection for him on her part “in all that he said and did” (Memories of London in the ‘Forties [1908] 53). Young Julia Paulet even writes to Jane about “mama who always thinks that you are some kind of angel married to some kind of god!” (JWC to TC, [28 Sept. 1845]), while Jane herself complains that she hides her distress too well. If we had her despairing letters to Mazzini at the time of the crisis concerning Lady Harriet Baring, the picture would be different, but his replies merely suggest what she may have written: “Your life proves an empty thing, you say?” (JWC to TC, 6, and 15 July). It is not possible to find an objective standpoint from which to understand the full range of her changing feelings.

The enigma of Lady Harriet remains, although we can now show that Jane discussed her with Geraldine Jewsbury, who shared the view that, “not being brought up by a mother,” Lady Harriet had been “driven back within herself.” She baffled them with her self-sufficiency. Perhaps, Geraldine fancied, Jane and Lady Harriet were not unalike, and she may have cared “a great deal more for you than you suspect, and … more too than accords with her general theory of things” (Ireland 127, 197). Clearly Lady Harriet, with her good sense and regard for Thomas, refused to allow an antagonism to develop. Moreover, she was not the only member of the Ashburton-Baring family to delight in friendship with the “dear old Prophet Carlyle,” as she once called him, asking “and has one any right to more than one such friend in a lifetime?” (C. and F. Brookfield, Mrs. Brookfield and Her Circle [1906] 2:382). Yet we may need to see more of the letters before trying to define their relationship. She evidently enjoyed exacting his homage, expressed in several almost burlesque letters, apparently like a few which made Froude call her “an evil spirit” (12 June [1881?]; MS: Marquess of Northampton) and perhaps drove Jane to require a suspense in their correspondence (TC to JWC, [21 July 1846]).

For the Carlyles loved letters, especially from the family, still more from each other; and we have to appreciate that it was not as a duty that, when he was away, Thomas asked for one from her nearly every day. Silence meant real distress, as in late August 1846; he even thought that it was used as a weapon against him; and Jane was even more desperate if she did not hear. On her birthday, after the Seaforth postmistress had twice denied having anything for her, she wrote: “I wonder what love—letter was ever received with such thankfulness. … I am as much broken to pieces by that little accident, as if I had come through an attack of cholera or brain fever” (JWC to TC, 14 July 1846). In a lighter tone from Thomas: “My Goody what in the world is the meaning of this? … This morning no Letters at all—— Whew!” (17 September 1845). Careless as she seems of her writing, Jane knew her value. Anna Montagu had said it should be her life—mission “to write little notes” (JWC to TC, [27 September 1845]); and already fashionable ladies had been known to cross London just to beg to see their author. In the present edition we have nearly another twenty years of them, and thirty-four of Thomas's, to look forward to.

Kenneth J. Fielding