The Collected Letters, Volume 26


INTRODUCTION; 1998; DOI: 10.1215/ed-26-introduction; CL 26: firstpage-26-ix-lastpage-26-xvi


To continue the record that we have had in previous volumes, this one includes 218 letters, of which Carlyle wrote 175 and Jane Carlyle wrote 43, while of the total 218, about 51 percent, or 111, have not been published before. Of the rest, 42 have appeared only in an incomplete form, many of which were in works or periodicals that are not easily accessible. We see an increasingly high proportion of unpublished writing, which shows the tendency noted (in volume 22 and at 19:introduction), from which the same conclusion can be drawn: that we have a continually improving basis for understanding the Carlyles and their times, giving a truer as well as a fuller story.

Yet a sharper picture is emerging in other ways, and one of the most important of these is in connection with the Carlyles' friends William Bingham Baring, the second Lord Ashburton, and Lady Ashburton, formerly Lady Harriet. Since 1839 when Carlyle first met them (TC to MAC, 8 March 1839), the question of his relation to Lady Harriet has been to some extent bypassed in explanations and comments, and this has been because it is difficult to be precise about its nature and how it developed. The reader who needs an explanation mainly has to look back over earlier notes and letters because, as suggested, Lady Harriet often seems an enigma. She sometimes baffled observers with her apparent self-sufficiency (19:introduction). After all, even Jane Carlyle wrote, in March 1846: “She is ‘a bit of fascination’ (as the Countryman said of ‘Tagglioni’) a very large bit. I profess never to this hour to have arrived at a complete understanding of her—but that I fancy is just part of her fascination—the insoluble phsycological puzzle which she is and bids fair to remain for me!” (JWC to JW, 10 March 1846).

Relations between the three were close and friendly until the middle of 1846, when it is clear from letters at that time and later that Jane Carlyle believed that she had reasons for jealousy, because Carlyle had too openly shown his admiration for Lady Harriet. Jane was keenly hurt, and in the five years since then, we see this expressed, stifled, overcome, and breaking out again. This is not the moment to double back to retell the whole story. At times Carlyle tried to keep away from her. With partial success he and Lady Harriet agreed not to write to each other or to reduce their correspondence. Everything was entirely innocent, except that he could not conceal fascination for her whether in her company or writing and receiving letters, which were always an essential part of actual life for the Carlyles, and even an agreeable substitute for it.

The present volume has not yet reached the point when Jane Carlyle felt the full tension of the relationship, which was about 1855, when she wrote in her Journal of Carlyle's attendance at that “eternal Bath House” (LM 2:258), and which was to end with Lady Ashburton's death in 1857. Much has been said about the affair in the Carlyles' biographies by such writers as D. A. Wilson, the Hansons, and Fred Kaplan, who all had access to the full Ashburton-Carlyle correspondence, or by previous editors of the letters. For the moment, some familiarity with this, or its possibility, has to be assumed. Yet what is needed is the realization that we can make better use of what is known and that there is more to be discovered. It is inadequate to trade in stray scraps of information, and not enough to use Froude's metaphors from myth and Greek tragedy any more than what he calls Carlyle's “fanciful flatteries.” We need both a sharper and a broader interpretation. We should begin to question, for example, what the Ashburtons were like, and we could try to answer by looking at them through the eyes of less biased observers than the Carlyles.

The recent acquisition of the surviving Ashburton papers by the National Library of Scotland gives some hope of adding to our knowledge if not our understanding, and a brief chance has been given us to look at them before most are temporarily lost to sight for twelve months while changes happen at the library. Yet, though it is too soon to attempt a review and reassessment, we can glance at a few examples of what these papers now show, particularly about 1851, the year of the present volume. Two figures are selected as representative: W. M. Thackeray, who was close to Lady Harriet; and J. A. Froude, who wrote two or three letters of special interest to Lord Ashburton's second wife, Louisa. Thackeray, especially, was an outstanding figure in the group of distinguished men who met at the Grange and Bath House. Froude, who was Louisa, Lady Ashburton's friend well before he began writing about the Carlyles, is of interest because of what he says about the problems of Carlyle's biography. Still in the shadows are the Carlyles' past and future companions such as John Stuart Mill, Macaulay, Tennyson, Thiers, Edward Ellice, Charles Buller, relatives of the Ashburtons, and many more who, to use Froude's expression, were “satellites” in Lady Harriet's “planetary system” (LM 2:255). It is a remark that may betray too impersonal a way of seeing them, which can now be changed. As Thackeray's and Froude's letters to the Ashburtons are elucidated, they will tell us more about the Ashburtons and their circle. Certainly, the letters of this first representative pair could hardly be more expressive.

Thackeray was a dominant figure within Lady Harriet's set, willing to be seen as an admirer, to play his part in her court, and to perform when called on. Soon after being introduced by Charles Buller, he had begun by resenting what he thought was her disdainful attitude to some of her guests; but, after expressing an open dislike for her, he was won back, returning one of the Ashburtons' invitation cards to dinner (says Lord Houghton) with a sketch of himself at her feet, his head being heaped with glowing coals of fire. Their pact of friendship was complete when she asked him to write to her after Charles Buller's death, and he did so with direct and sympathetic tenderness.

This reminds us of how closely Thackeray belonged to an even more compact inner circle of Lady Harriet's intimates, which included Carlyle, who had tutored the Buller sons, and, who was also a close friend of their parents and who had looked after Mrs. Buller when she was dying. They were all dear to each other, and we miss much that is important about Carlyle if we concentrate only on his contentious side. We should probably play down the differences between Thackeray and Carlyle on such matters as “heroes,” or the incident of the novelist's upset about what Carlyle said when he accepted a free return passage from the P. & O. Steamship Company when gathering experience for his From Cornhill to Cairo (1846), that he was like the “old fiddler going to and fro on a penny ferry-boat in Scotland and playing tunes to the passengers for half-pence” (Duffy 76–77).

In the present volume we find the Carlyles loyally attending Thackeray's public lectures, an affectionate interchange with them about his difference with John Forster, their joint presence with his children at the family party left over after Christmas at the Grange, and their obvious pride at Thackeray's calling on them one evening, even if only on his way to a grander affair. A little earlier there had been an affectionate sense of fun in one of Thackeray's letters to Lady Ashburton at the end of 1849, when he told her of Carlyle's outburst against Henry Reeve (journalist and secretary of the Privy Council) at a dinner at the Procters' (see TC to LA, 18 Jan. 1850). They had, in fact, also dined at Thackeray's on Christmas Day 1850:

But it was a great privilege to have him a few nights before assaulting Reeve of the P. Council Office. He was offended I think and very justly by Reeves white neckcloth wh. was a great deal too tall and white, and he ran at him and tossed him and gored him in a way wh. every body admired. At my house he said Genius was universal & could do anything it had a mind to, when I asked him if he could dance like Taglioni or sing ravishingly or paint like Landseer upon the whole he was rather inclined to think he could—about wh. some people may have their doubts. But the very vagaries and errors of men of Genius are rich and instructive. (29 December)

It happens that the pre-dinner call was made just when Thackeray was about to review Carlyle's Life of John Sterling, a work that we have always known he found “delightful,” though by accident he has been burdened with the disgrace of being thought the author of a savage attack on the biography in the Times, which was really by a journalist, Samuel Phillips. Thackeray's daughter Annie, who was then only a child, must have got it into her head that her father had written about the work, and much later foolishly declared that he was responsible for this bigoted and prejudiced assault on Carlyle, which thus went on to be included in the Centenary edition of her father's works. In fact, we now see that when he replied to Lady Ashburton, in November 1851, accepting her invitation to the Grange for himself and the children, he added:

Of course you have read Sterling's life. It is delightful I think (though Sterling a poor critic speaks very slightingly of somebody [William Baring, later Lord Ashburton] whom he met at Madeira and who has I believe 10 times more brains than gentlemen with longer tongues): but I am so glad when I can read and like something writ by the great Master of Craigenputtoch. It feels like a reconciliation: and having admired and believed as a lad, and revolted and doubted as a man, I feel guilty and as it were treacherous towards him. I have written a little notice in the Leader—not about the feelings with wh. one reads it, and recals the friends of dear Youth. I send my best regards to Lord Ashburton. Poor Brookfield is gone & going to Madeira for 6 months very ill indeed but not so ill as he thinks himself I think.

Attractive as such letters are in themselves, they have much to say that bears on this period of the Carlyle Letters. The “little notice” is remarkable in what it tells of Thackeray's feelings, his “glimpses of the biographer,” and Carlyle's delicacy and tenderness. For Carlyle is shown as far from being the Calvinistic prophet of a lame tradition that is still so desperately hard to dispose of. As soon as Sterling's Life appeared, it was attacked by hacks and bigots precisely because it was liberal and open-minded, which is something reflected in notes elsewhere in this volume. But, writing with tight-lipped anonymity in the socialist Leader, Thackeray remarkably champions it:

Turning to other considerations, let us not forget to note the plain and emphatic language in which at last he speaks out his deep-rooted antagonism to all Established Churches. Much abuse, much hatred, this will probably draw down. Is not the Times article an alarum? To all orthodox minds Carlyle must now unhesitatingly stand confessed as not of them. Hitherto he has written on religious subjects, as if he hated Cant and Shams; but somehow, by the very ambiguity of his language, he has always seemed to have a Bishop in tow. Now he has fairly cut cables, and leaves the Bishop to tow himself as best he may. … Not that Carlyle has passed over to our camp. We cannot accurately determine what his religious opinions are. In the greater cause, however, … Carlyle is working by his powerful denunciations against the make-believe which reigns at the present day.

The same letter that mentions the Leader may remind us of other matters: that Henry Esmond, for example, which Thackeray was then writing and was to publish next year, was dedicated to Lord Ashburton, and that this was because of the “great kindness and friendship” he (and his wife) had shown him at a time of difficulty and unhappiness. They, at least, would have understood that this was caused by the deep distress that Thackeray felt at the sudden disruption in his affectionate relations with Jane Brookfield, which came about after her uncle Henry Hallam had spoken on the subject to her husband, the Rev. William Brookfield. And though the Carlyles were not present at the Grange on the weekend at the end of October 1851 when the Ashburtons worked without success to reconcile Thackeray and the Brookfields, it is hard to imagine that they can have been unaware of what was going on. That, after all, is why the relationship was broken, because it was being noticed; and the affair, in itself, once more suggests something, about the genuine kindness of the Ashburtons, evidence for which does not rest solely on the testimony of such friends as Monckton Milnes, writing about Lady Ashburton long afterward as Lord Houghton in his Monographs (1873). We see it again in the present volume when the Ashburtons drive over to invite the Brookfields to stay while they are waiting to embark for Madeira. They were clearly respected for both their generosity and affection as well as their munificence. So, though there are already lights and shades, even in Carlyle's pictures of the Grange and their other homes, they are sure to be more apparent when we can look more closely at the new papers.

Yet there is more to see in the presence of Thackeray at the Grange and the dedication of Esmond, though that did not appear until 1852. Perhaps Carlyle also felt a touch of jealousy at Thackeray's being invited with his daughters at the end of the year, since he wrote at the time to his brother John that Thackeray was “not a good or well-found ship in such waters on such a voyage” (A. Carlyle, NL 2:122). Perhaps Carlyle was not fully aware how sympathetic Lady Harriet was to Brookfield, who was rather in the same position as Lady Castlewood, and that Carlyle may have felt much the same.

More could be said of these relations, though not perhaps about 1851, and there is more to find out in connection with other familiar names whose letters are in the Ashburton Papers, such as Edward Ellice, Thiers, John Stuart Mill and Charles Buller at an earlier period, and even Theresa Revis, otherwise Becky Sharp, and so on. It is less likely that other figures will reveal themselves so well as such a supreme writer as Thackeray. Yet they remain to be explored if we are to understand the Carlyles' milieu when they were with the Ashburtons, for the Carlyle letters themselves are not simply about their own domestic drama.

It is important to think what Lady Ashburton was like, and to reinterpret what the letters say without accepting the generalizations of those who did not know her. This means that the comments of someone such as Lord Houghton are important; his frankness about her disdainful wit is balanced by a sense of her ability to make “high comedy” from everyday life and her encouragement of the “freest exercise of intellectual gaiety.” He said the same scribbled in a copy of his Palm Leaves (1844) given to her:

Take a leaf and write on it
Thanks that still on earth
Grecian Art and Gallic Wit
Blend with English worth:
Palm-Leaves are a poor exchange
For the friendship of ‘the Grange.’
(J. Pope-Hennesy, Monckton Milnes [1949–51] 1:161)

Yet it is also said that Lady Harriet did everything possible to bring rich and poor into “sympathetic communion,” that her dying thoughts were of “her villagers,” and that she “would postpone any … pleasure to the calls of duty.” That it is difficult to generalize about her can be seen by reading Froude's careful comments on her in his life of Carlyle, and then certain of his remarks to her successor, Louisa, Lady Ashburton.

For, acting freely with papers that had been left to Carlyle's niece Mary Aitken Carlyle, Froude wrote to Louisa,18 February (1881), saying that he had found “a great many letters of yours and many of your daughters,” and asking her wishes about them: “There are also a great many of Lady Harriet's.” Froude and Louisa were already friends, so this was natural. In fact, before Carlyle's death, he had refused an invitation from her, when on 20 April (1880) he felt

entirely drowned in the Carlyle Papers. Weeks ago I was up to the eyes in them; and now they are flowing in my head, and only by desperately sticking to this work can I hope to escape suffocation. I have put it off too long. In fact I had not meant to take up things in earnest while he continued with us. But he has grown anxious that some progress should be made or at least that I should be able to tell him what I intended to do— He grows perceptibly weaker, month after month, & believes perhaps with reason that his release is not far off.
What a story it is! They had, both of them [TC and JWC] a faculty of attracting vehement Platonics affection. If we had Don Quixote's letters to Dulcinea they would [be] extremely like Lord Jeffrey's letters to Mrs Carlyle which I have been arranging this morning— The world I fancy must be wickeder than it was 45 years ago. No one now a days would know what to make of expressions of such passionate adoration. Only Carlyle's genius could succeed in describing it as it really was. She was less a woman than a half human elf.— C. in one of his letters to her quotes a sermon which he had heard about Ananias & Sapphira in which the preacher said: ‘I fear my brethren he was tempted by a spirit more wicked than his wife.
But I must not trouble you with all this.

Then on 2 June 1881 or 1882, Froude writes:

I find the two accompanying letters this morning. There must not be so much as a chance of their falling into Mary Carlyle's hands, so I enclose them to you.
Oh dear. I sometimes think Lady Harriet was an evil spirit. No malignant Elf could have caused more misery.
And yet, I suppose it was to be. It had been much the same at Craigenputtoch. If one provocation had escaped, there would have been another in its place.
Was there ever in this world a man with such extraordinary powers, yet with no more power over himself than a crying baby?
The wise world which is so ready with its criticisms knows so well what it is talking about.

One might wonder about the last sentence, or ask did the image from Don Quixote seem so happy that it was transferred—as it was—from Jeffrey to Carlyle in the biography? Or, what were the purloined letters about? Or was Froude, who never knew Lady Harriet, right in thinking that he was getting out of his depth? Questions remain, and so far as the rest of the Ashburton papers go, much must be left for future volumes.

The year 1851 remains of continued interest as shown in other new letters. Public affairs, for example, sometimes overshadowed private. The Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was a symbol of peace as well as industry, a Peace Congress was held at Exeter Hall, and even Carlyle was cajoled into declaring in support that, “sure enough, ” peace “is the perpetual law for every man in his individual and social capacity” (TC to HR, 18 July). Both Thomas and Jane continued to be concerned about Mazzini. After Louis Napoleon's coup in Paris in December, Jane Carlyle at the Grange found that “We talk the French Revolution from morning to night; till I am perfectly sick of it.” The home of Lady Ashburton's mother was in Paris; her son-in-law was French ambassador to Britain; and in October, Carlyle had paid Paris a short visit with the Ashburtons, all apparently unaware of the impending change.

Religious controversy continued to be intense in 1851, but Carlyle's opinions, though passed freely, were rightly recognized by Thackeray as contemptuously above contemporary fears of “papal aggression.”

Carlyle's attention was returning to history. In November the long shadow of Frederick the Great cast itself across his life when he began reading the pedantic biography by Johann Preuss, “One of the dullest Books of this era, and one of the greatest men” (TC to LA, 22 Nov.). It was a task he had considered for several years, though he declared that he had no clear intention of writing on him. For the next fifteen years this was to dominate life at 5 Cheyne Row.

Kenneth J. Fielding

[Particular thanks are due to the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland and the library staff, on the eve of temporary closure, for the opportunity to make use of some of these papers, MSS: Acc. 11388; all letters quoted are taken from them, unless otherwise stated.]