The Collected Letters, Volume 2


TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 16 December 1822; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18221216-TC-JBW-01; CL 2:226-232.


3. Moray-street, 16th December, 1822.

My dear Friend,

I am doubly vexed at the large mass of soiled paper which you receive along with this; —both because of its natural qualities, and because it has detained me a whole week from writing to you. I have need of motives for exertion; and I wished to keep this prospect before me throughout my stupid task. It is at last accomplished, and I am now to reap my reward.

My dear Friend, if you do not grow more cross with me soon, I shall become an entire fool. When I get one of those charming kind letters it puts me into such a humour as you cannot conceive: I read it over till I can almost say it by heart; then sit brooding in a delicious idleness, or go wandering about in solitary places, dreaming over things—which never can be more than dreams. May Heaven reward you for the beautiful little jewel you have sent me! How demurely it was lying in its place, when I opened the letter,—bright and pure and sparkling as its mistress! I design to keep it as long as I live; to look on it after many years, when we perhaps are far asunder,—that I may enjoy the delights of memory when those of hope are passed away. You are indeed very kind to me: would it were in my power to repay you, as I ought!

I thank you for the clear outline you have traced to me of your daily life: it gratifies me by the persuasion of your diligence, and enables me to conceive your employment at any hour I like. Even now I can see you—the time of “playing with Shandy or your reticule” being past—bending over your Rollin with lexicons and maps and all your apparatus lying round—toiling, striving, subduing the repugnancies within, resisting the allurements to dissipation from without— vehemently stedfastly intent on scaling the rocky steep “where Fame's proud temple shines afar.”1 It is well done, my dear and honoured Jane! Go on in this noble undertaking; it is worthy of your efforts: persevere in it, and your success is certain.

I always knew you to be a deceitful person, full of devices and inexplicable turns: but who could have thought you would shew so much contrivance in the plain process of getting on with your studies? To “sew skirts and waists together,” to discard and combine, so that you accomplish in ten minutes what to an ordinary belle is the great business of her day! And then how convenient to have letters to write (bless you for being so good a correspondent to me, in truth!)—to take cold so exactly in the nick of time! I believe I ought to send you out Andrew Thomson's2 Sermon on the gross sinfulness of bidding your servant say not at home, or give you a lecture on that solemn point myself; but so it is, you have such a way of setting things forth, that do what you will I cannot get angry at you—I must just submit. Still, however, I must seriously protest against the over-labour which you describe: it is greatly more than you are fit for; and I heartily pray that some interruption may occur every second evening, to drive you away from books and papers, to make you talk and laugh and enjoy yourself, tho' it were but with the “imbecilles” who drink tea and play whist in such a place as Haddington. You ought to thank your stars that you are so circumstanced: if left to yourself with that fervent temper and that delicate frame, you would be ruined by excessive exertion in twelve months. This to an absolute certainty. For the rest, I rejoice that you are proceeding so rapidly with M. Rollin, and gathering so many ideas even from that slender source. I love you for admiring Socrates, and determining to be a philosopher like him; tho' I do wish that your nascent purposes may sustain no more shocks so rude as the one you mention. Have you found the amethyst? I question if there are a dozen philosophers in this country that could bear such a trial much better than you bore it. After all, it is a fine thing to be a lover of wisdom: yet there was also a good deal of justness in your version of the quantis non egeo, which I once got from you as we walked along Princes' street, and which has often brought a smile across me since. “How many things are here which I do not want” said I affecting to be a philosopher; “how many things are here which I cannot get” said Jane speaking the honest language of nature, and slyly unmasking my philosophy. The truth is, every thing has two faces: both these sentiments are correct in their proper season, both erroneous out of it.

It is certainly a pity that M. Rollin should be so very weak a man: he moralizes to the end of the chapter, and all his morality is not worth a doit. Yet you will [get] many useful thoughts from him, many splendid pictures of men and things,—of a mode of life which was not only highly interesting in itself, but also which has formed the basis of many principles that still give a deep colour to the speculations and literature of all civilized nations, and which is therefore worthy of your study in a double point of view. You must continue in him to the conclusion; you will get better guides thro' other portions of your pilgrimage. In the mean time, as I am anxious to reward the industry you have already shewn, I propose that by way of vacation you shall suspend the perusal of M. Rollin, whenever you are thro' the seventh volume, which most likely you now are—for the period of three days, till you examine this Novel which I have sent you. Three days will do the whole business, and you will go on with greater spirit afterwards. You see I am not absolutely without mercy in my nature; I would not kill you all at once. In this “Anastasius”3 I hope you will find something to amuse you, perhaps to instruct; it will at least give you the picture of a robust and vigorous mind, that has seen much, and that wants not some touches of poetry to describe it eloquently, or some powers of intellect to reflect well upon it. I enjoyed Anastasius, the “oriental Gil Blas” very much. Let no man despair that has read this book! In the year 1810 Mr Thomas Hope brought forth a large publication upon fire-screens and fenders and tapestry and tea-urns and other upholstery matters which seemed to be the very acme of dulness and affectation:4 ten years afterwards he names himself the author of a book which few living authors would be ashamed to own. Let us persist, my friend, without weariness or wavering! Perseverance will conquer every obstacle.— It is right in you to employ some portion of your time in light reading: this too you may turn to advantage as well as pleasure. Have you read all Pope's works? Swift's? Dryden's and the other classics of that age? Tell me, and I shall know better what to send you out. There is no way of acquiring a proper mastery of the resources contained in our English language, without studying these and the older writers in it. Many of them also are exceedingly amusing and instructive. What are you doing with Wallenstein? I will send you Faust whenever you have finished: I fear you will not like it so well as you expect—or will think I have misled you: but you shall try. I admire your inflexibility in the reading of Tacitus; it is a hard effort, one which few in your circumstances would be capable of making. Do not toil too much over it.

But I must not trifle away your paper and time in this manner: I promised to send you some intelligence about our opus magnum, an enterprize which, too like the great work of the Alchemist,5 appears to be attended with unspeakable preparation and discussion, and with no result at all. I must now tell you what I can say on the subject. You will be very angry at me; but nevertheless I must go thro' with my detail. One virtue at least I may lay some claim to, the virtue of candour; since to you, whose good opinion it is about my very highest ambition to acquire, I am brave enough to disclose myself as the most feeble and vacillating mortal in existence. Perhaps you will impute this practice less to the absence of hypocricy than to the presence of a strong wish to talk; perhaps with reason. On veut mieux dire du mal de soi-meme que de n'en point parler. So says La Rochefoucault.6 Be as merciful to me as you can; and you shall hear.

After writing the last long letter to you, I seriously inclined myself to the concoction of some project in the execution of which we two should go hand in hand. I formed a kind of plan, and actually commenced the filling of it up. We were to write a most eminent novel in concert: it was to proceed by way of letters; I to take the gentleman you the lady. The poor fellow was to be a very excellent character of course; a man in the middle-ranks of life gifted with good talents and a fervid enthusiastic turn of mind, learned in all sciences, practiced in many virtues,—but tired out, at the time I took him up, with the impediments of a world by much too prosaic for him, entirely sick of struggling along the sordid bustle of existence, where he could glean so little enjoyment but found so much acute suffering. He had in fact met with no object worthy of all his admiration, the bloom of novelty was worn off, and no more substantial charm of solid usefulness had called on him to mingle in the business of life: he was very wretched and very ill-natured; had determined at last to bid adieu to the hollow and contemptible progeny of Adam as far as possible—to immure himself in rustic solitude, with a family of simple unaffected but polished and religious people who (by some means) were bound in gratitude to cherish him affectionately, and who like him had bid farewell to the world. Here the hypochondriac, was to wander about for a time over the hill-country, to muse and meditate upon the aspects of Nature and his own soul, to meet with persons and incidents which should call upon him to deliver his views upon many points of science literature and morals. At length he must grow tired of science, and nature and simplicity just as he had of towns; sickening by degrees till his heart is full of bitterness and ennui, he speaks forth his sufferings—not in the puling Lake-style—but with a tongue of fire—sharp, sarcastic, apparently unfeeling, yet all the while betokening to the quick-sighted a mind of lofty thoughts and generous affections smarting under the torment of its own overnobleness, and ready to break in pieces by the force of its own energies. Already all seems over with him, he has hinted about suicide and rejected it scornfully—but it is evident he cannot long exist in this to him most blasted, waste and lonely world,— when you—that is the heroine come skipping in before him, with your éspiegleries [tricky ways] and fervency you[r] “becks and wreathed smiles”7 and all your native loveliness. Why should I talk? The man immediately turns crazy about you. The sole being he has ever truly loved, the sole being he can ever love; the epitome to him of all celestial things, the shining jewel in which he sees reflected all the pleasures of the universe, the sun that has risen to illuminate his world when it seemed to be overshadowed in darkness forever! The earth again grows green beneath his feet, his soul recovers all its fiery energies, he is prepared to affront death and danger, to wrestle with devils and men that he may gain your favour. For a while you laugh at him, and torment him, but at length take pity on the poor fellow, and grow as serious as he is. Then, oh then! what a more than elysian prospect! But alas! Fate &c obstacles &c &c—You are both broken-hearted, and die; and the whole closes with a mortcloth, and Mr Trotter and a company of undertakers

I had fairly begun this thing, written two first letters; and got the man set down in a very delightful part of the country. But I could not get along: I found that we should require to see one another and consult together every day; I grew affrighted and chilled at the aspect of the Public; I wrote with no verve: I threw it all into the fire. Yet I am almost persuaded that we might accomplish such a thing; nay I often vow that we will accomplish it yet, before all is done: but first we must have better auspices, we must be more near each other, we must learn to write more flowingly. What then was to be tried. I thought of a series of short tales, essays, sketches, miscellanies. You are to record your thoughts and observations and experience in this way, I mine. Begin therefore; and let me have a little story with descriptions of manners and scenery and passion and character in the Highlands or Lowlands, or wherever you like best and feel yourself most at home. Do not say you cannot: write as you are used to write in those delightful cunning little lively epistles you send me, and the thing we want is found. I too will write in my own poor vein, neither fast nor well, but stedfastly and stubbornly: in time we shall both improve: and when we have enough accumulated for a volume, then we shall sift the wheat from the chaff, arrange it in concert sitting side by side, and give it to the world fearlessly, secure of two suffrages at least, and prepared to let the others come or stay as they like best. Now will you do this? Think of it well, then give me your approval, you shall be my task-mistress, and I promise to obey you as a most faithful vassal. Consider it; and tell me next time that you have begun to work.

The stupid farrago which you receive along with this, is the first of the series!8 Do not absolutely condemn me for that lumbering piebald composition. A man must write a cart-load of trash, before he can produce a handful of excellence. This story might have been mended in the names and many of the incidents but it was not worth the labour: I gave it as I heard it. It is a sooterkin9 and must remain so. I scarcely expect you will read it thro'.

Now, my dear Friend, my time is done and I must leave you. I could sit and talk with you here forever; but the world has other humbler tasks in it. I had many things more to tell you, had not my irregular confused mode of writing exhausted all my room. There is not a word more of Sandhurst: I understand the man is to be here at Christmas, and tell me all verbatim. You would not have me go?— Jack is delighted with your compliments—delighted that you should know such a being as he exists in the world. He bids me return his kind and humble services, and hope to know more of you before the end. He is a good soul, and affords me some enjoyment here—a well formed mind too, but rudis indigesta10—much [more pla]cid and contented and well-conditioned than the unfortunate person you have ma[de a] friend of.

Now do not be long in writing to me. If you knew how much your letters charm me, you would not grudge your labour. Write to me without reserve—about all that you care for—not minding what you say or how you say it. Related as we are, dulness itself is often best of all, for it shews that we are friends and put confidence in one another. What an impudent knave I am to ask this of you, to affect to be on such terms with you! It is your own kind way of treating me that causes it. I have often upbraided fortune: but here I ought to call her the best of patronnesses. How many men, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unbind,11 have travelled thro' the world and found no noble soul to care for them! while I—God bless you my dear Jane!—if I could deserve to be so treated by you I should be happy. Now you must not grow angry at me. Write, write!— I am “hungering and thirsting” to hear of you and all connected with you.— I am ever your's

Thomas Carlyle—