July 1847-March 1848

The Collected Letters, Volume 22


INTRODUCTION; 1995; DOI: 10.1215/ed-22-introduction; CL 22: firstpage-22-ix-lastpage-22-xiv


It is important to emphasize how much in these volumes is new to the study of the Carlyles.

First, indisputably, is the proportion of letters not published before. The present volumes contain 634 letters, of which 484 are by Thomas Carlyle and 150 by Jane. Of these, 51 percent appear for the first time, and, of the remainder, 16.4 percent of the full total have been seen only in an incomplete form. One hundred and forty-two letters, or 16.4 percent, can be found with some difficulty in earlier publications of the Carlyles' letters, and nearly 8 percent have appeared only in journals, biographies, catalogues, and so on. The figures for Thomas on his own are similar, although a larger proportion have not been published before. In addition, although we are reaching the central point of Thomas's career, a greater proportion of material is new than in earlier volumes. Therefore, the year of the two-hundredth anniversary of Carlyle's birth gives an increasingly fresh opportunity to see why the Carlyles survive and to look at their circle and times.

In addition to the unpublished letters we have used other unpublished material, and are enjoying the growing accessibility of contemporary journalism and the entire range of letters to the Carlyles. The correspondence with Emerson connected with his visit in 1848 is not new, but came at a turning-point in their relations. These years also bring us dramatic letters about the Carlyles written by their friend Amalie Bölte, almost a domestic spy at 5 Cheyne Row, which, surprisingly, have been totally unused by anyone writing about the Carlyles. Finally, 1849 is the year when Thomas Carlyle first met his biographer James Anthony Froude. It is also the year he published an “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”; wrote the first of the Latter-Day Pamphlets, “The Present Time”; and decided to undertake the life of his friend John Sterling. Jane Carlyle's old rivalry with Lady Harriet Baring (who became Lady Ashburton in 1848) meanwhile continued to threaten disquiet.

In his writing, as in much else, Carlyle developed. His Cromwell was not entirely behind him, as he had to publish a third edition and take up the challenge of the forged letters thrust on him by William Squire. But it was a time dominated by revolution in Europe and the threat of Chartism at home to which Carlyle responded with a spate of journalism, mainly concerned not with Germany, Italy, and France, but with Ireland. He determinedly toured and wrote about Ireland in 1849, where so much that he had foretold, with keen insight rather than “prophecy,” was being fulfilled. Many of these aspects deserve more direct comment than can be slipped into separate footnotes.

Amalie Bölte introduced herself to the Carlyles in 1841, when we might have noted more about her; but even now reference must simply be made to the Carlyles' comments on her in the previous two sets of volumes (16–21), and in the present one (JWC to HW, 15 July 1847). In fact much more has come to light about Bölte through her letters to Varnhagen von Ense, which were captured in 1945 and now are in the Jagiellonian University Library, Cracow. From these letters full excerpts dealing mainly with the Carlyles were edited by Professor Walther Fischer and Dr. Antje Behrens, in Amaly Böltes Briefe aus England an Varnhagen von Ense (1844–1858) (Düsseldorf, 1955), from notes made as early as 1916. With the generous help of Professor N. A. Furness of Edinburgh we have translated from the published excerpts in our own notes, and reference has been made to Varnhagen's replies in his Briefe an Eine Freundin [i.e. Bölte]. Aus den Jahren 1844–1853 (Hamburg, 1860), the originals of which are untraced. The Saturday Review (25 August 1860) deplored the edition, noting that Bölte “appears to have been living in Mr. Carlyle's family, and to have sedulously hived up for the amusement of her old Friend in Berlin” the gossip and opinions of his circle. It said more to the same effect, disapproving of Varnhagen's liberalism and expressing dismay that any future visiting young German lady would be “shunned in society like a leper or a police spy.” The review was exaggerated, but friends such as Charlotte Williams Wynn entirely sympathized with the Carlyles.

Varnhagen's printed letters may have been expurgated but Bölte's are frank, both praising and criticizing Carlyle. We need to allow for their immediate and personal nature, her own radicalism, the rather difficult position she was in, and her spitfire independence. Rosemary Ashton, in her Little Germany: Exile and Asylum in Victorian England (Oxford, 1986), finds Bölte insecure, resentful, and touchy (pp. 212–17), as no doubt she was. Like many others Bölte had been drawn to Jane. Writing to Varnhagen on sending him Jane's letter to her of 26 November 1845 (see JWC to AB, 26 Nov. 1845), she declared that it would show him “what a rare woman has been granted to this man—a woman in whom the highest intellectual refinement and strength of character are combined with the most delicate femininity, and the deepest, warmest emotion.— All his friends appreciate her greatly, and her wit and intellect are almost, and often even a greater attraction than the profundity of her husband” (Böltes Briefe 37, trans.).

Already in February 1846, Bölte had roused Carlyle to speak “for hours” about Frederick the Great (p. 39). She found him brilliant but obstinate and delighted in telling him that he laid down the law for others without following it himself (p. 41). When the Carlyles were away, she longed for his return, but, once back, she wrote:

It pains me to discover, gradually, that his books are everything and their author nothing. Nor can I discover a single virtue in him, no sense of the beautiful, the good. He writes for humanity and human beings mean nothing to him. He hates the aristocracy and worships an aristocrat. He talks of the freedom of nations, and wants to rule them all with a sword…. Today he builds a temple to one idea right up to the clouds, only to tear it down tomorrow. It is always paradoxes that he offers, and because he alone defends them, and is never contradicted, he is always one-sided…. But I am on such good terms with his wife, that I am there almost every day. (p. 43)

Jane in fact often found her tiresome, and in Bölte's next letter she and Carlyle were “the best of friends. … He spun me the yarn for hours,” and was “very witty and agreeable” (p. 44). “London is miserable” when “Carlyle is in Scotland” (p. 47). Her disapproval of his liking for some of the aristocracy came from her own radicalism and discomfort as a governess. She enjoys standing up to her hero. They accepted each other's teasing with uproarious laughter, and in general their relationship was a sound one.

Autographs that she and the Carlyles collected were often letters sent to the Carlyles from 1843 to 1851, to which Thomas frequently added his comments, and were sent to Varnhagen von Ense for his great collection, once in the Royal Library at Berlin but now at Cracow. It should be possible to include some of the later ones in their proper chronological place and to write a separate account of the rest.

Bölte was probably right to find Carlyle a man of paradoxes, which may make us think him almost heroic in his attempt to learn the facts about Ireland, look famine in the face, and actually listen to all sides of the question. Froude talks of Carlyle's Reminiscences of My Irish Journey as noted hurriedly on his return, hastily given away, and forgotten as valueless. But Carlyle always put his travel journals aside once they had been used to define his experience. He chose to travel in the company of Gavan Duffy, recently tried four times for treason, and for whom we now have Carlyle's eloquent appeal to the Viceroy when Duffy was under trial (TC to LC, 27 Oct. 1848), just as we have Carlyle's powerful letter on behalf of the more militantly revolutionary John Mitchel, for whom he continued to retain an affection (TC to LC, 26 May 1848). His visits of 1846 and 1849 were etched on his mind, taking a different form in his “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”: “What is to be done? asks every one” of Ireland. “‘Blacklead those 2 million idle beggars,’ I sometimes advised, ‘and sell them in Brazil as Niggers!’” (TC to RWE, 13 Aug. 1849). Memories of his visits reappeared in the Latter-Day Pamphlets, and may have helped to confirm his choice of a new work in Frederick. It was a time he never forgot, when he turned to the supreme place of suppuration in Europe, and presumably no one now wants to deride him for failing to find a cure.

It was more effective than his performance over the forgeries proffered him by William Squire. Once more, these have been played down or unexamined by most biographers, but leave us with an uneasy doubt of Carlyle's judgment once he grew tired of a subject, as he had with the later editions of Cromwell. Once again, Froude, silent on the subject, was undoubtedly not only aware that Carlyle's inclusion of Squire's “Thirty-Five New Letters of Oliver Cromwell” in an article and then in the third edition of Cromwell had been authoritatively challenged, but also he must have sensed that Carlyle himself was beginning to suspect that they were dubious, and so fraudulent. But there has been a long-running biographical economy with the truth. The whole story is nonsense unless it is seen how cleverly Squire baited his copied letters and dangled them before Carlyle, who refused to budge from his book-lined study and escaped any penalty of exposure by stout denial and some self-deception.

Yet we owe much to Froude for his cleverness, narrative ability, and grasp of some essentials of Carlyle's life, even if he is not to be trusted with the last word. He remembered his first visit to Cheyne Row in June 1849 more vividly than much else about the Carlyles, though it was passed over in their letters:

He was then fifty-four years old; tall (about five feet eleven), thin, but at that time upright, with no signs of the later stoop. … His head was extremely long, with the chin thrust forward; the neck was thin; the mouth firmly closed, the under lip slightly projecting; the hair grizzled and thick and bushy. His eyes, which grew lighter with age, were then of a deep violet, with fire burning at the bottom of them, which flashed out at the least excitement. The face was altogether more striking, most impressive every way. And I did not admire him the less because he treated me—I cannot say unkindly, but shortly and sternly. …
We went afterwards into the dining-room, where Mrs. Carlyle gave us tea. Her features were not regular, but I thought I had never seen a more interesting—looking woman. Her hair was raven black, her eyes dark, soft, sad, with dangerous light in them. Carlyle's talk was rich, full, and scornful; hers delicately mocking. (Carlyle 3:459)

What grows more immediate in these years is the way in which the Old Testament tones of Cromwell and some of the earlier works is partly replaced by Carlyle's skepticism. He wrote cautiously of his mother's leaning to “the Semitic side of things” (TC to JWC, 17 Sept. 1847) and about old friends in the Borders as sunk in Hebraic Calvinism, “the dreary abysses of Old-Jewhood and Old Genevahood” (TC to JWC, 29 Sept. 1847); he clearly shook W. E. Forster and disturbed Tennyson and Emerson, who felt confronted by his “utmost impatience of Christendom & Jewdom … plainly biding his time, & meditating how to undermine & explode the whole world of nonsense which torments him” (JWC to LHB, 28 Oct. 1847). Carlyle recognized his own hatred of the institutionalized belief in an Old Testament faith, which was bound up with wanting to peel off “fetid Jewhood in every sense from myself” (TC to RWE, 31 Aug. 1847) and in which a “liberal” demand for truth is tainted with a degree of antiSemitism born of frustrated longing to release yet another book about what he calls the “Exodus from Houndsditch” (TC to JSB, 16 April 1849). But it is mainly the Judeo-Christian faith he scorns, not the race.

He had not altogether changed: we can trace in the letters for some years his growing exasperation; it will be impossible to escape it after the Latter-Day Pamphlets; and Ireland had just shown him a land in which he thought there was no religion corresponding to reality; so that, if we are to understand him, it may be necessary to read back some of this suppressed skepticism into earlier works. Already Cheyne Row was being seen as a rallying place by younger heretics, like Arthur Hugh Clough (see TC to AHC, 17 Dec. 1845; TC to JWC, 3 April 1849). The Rev. Thomas Wilson, for example, vicar of St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich, must have been in touch with Carlyle at this time. After giving up his living in 1847, unable to accept the Thirty-nine Articles, he was “Reverentially and Affectionately” to dedicate his Catholicity Spiritual and Intellectual (1850) to Carlyle as “an Example of Transcendant Genius Hallowed by the Purest Life and Worthiest Work.” For it was seen that Carlyle stood for skeptical honesty, which is why James Spedding came to see him with Froude after the latter's ejection as a tutor from Exeter College (TC to JF, 4 April 1849), and why Anthony Sterling wanted Carlyle to write a more truthful account of his brother's life than the Rev. Julius Hare's Memoir claiming him for the church. We often hear the apocryphal story of Clough's farewell to Emerson, on his embarking for Boston in 1848, when Clough said that Carlyle had led his followers out “into the desert, and … left us there” (see Slater, CEC 42–43), as if this were meant as a reproach. It is an alluring figure of speech, but it equally means that this was where they had chosen to follow him.

As regards Emerson, Carlyle hardly does himself justice in some of his accounts; in fact, their friendship was to survive the arrival of the American apostle of reasonableness and detachment on his doorstep, his appeal to many of Carlyle's own followers, and even his lecturing at Exeter Hall in complete independence of or contradiction to what his friend had been saying.

In many such ways Carlyle was speaking in a new tone or in new voices, which may have come as a surprise after he had been concealing himself under the cloak of history.

All the Carlyles' letters, as Thomas told his sister, represent “an hour,” now and then, snatched from “the gulph, as it were by the hair of the head” (TC to JCA, 19 July 1848); but some hours and letters have been saved.

Kenneth J. Fielding