The Collected Letters, Volume 27


INTRODUCTION; 1999; DOI: 10.1215/ed-27-introduction; CL 27: firstpage-27-xi-lastpage-27-xviii


The letters of this volume show the same pattern as other recent volumes. It includes 256 letters, of which Thomas Carlyle wrote 195 and Jane Carlyle 61. Slightly more than 49 percent, or 126, have not appeared before, and, of the rest, 73 have not been published in full. A further 10 percent have appeared in periodicals, various biographies, and other publications and about the same number in volumes of collected letters. So the claim is still made that this edition steadily shows for the first time how the two Carlyles saw their lives. The letters relate to Thomas's writing and what the two of them thought, whom they met, what was happening around them, how others saw them, their activities at home and abroad and their response to each other.

Certain features stand out in 1852. It was the year when “scolding” reviewers took up the Life of John Sterling, and Carlyle slightly revised it. If he seemed uncertain what to do next, it was a pivotal time. We see him beginning to turn to Germany again with the challenge of writing on Frederick the Great. He had thought of it in the early 1830s and after, when other writers such as Macaulay were also attracted to him. Unimpressed by British prosperity and recent events in France, and adopting a historical rather than a prophetic perspective, he turned to Frederick's Prussia almost reluctantly. We are brought closer to him as he considers this in his letters and in snatches from his Journal (made use of for the first time since Froude), and on his visit to Germany.

Carlyle can sometimes be easily dismissed; but though even he was often ready to play up to being a caricature of prejudice, he still responded almost as readily to present events as at the time of Chartism, the condition-of-England, or the Irish famine. He was more than a match for Gladstone in resisting his complacent attempt to find a job of running the London Library for his protégé, James Lacaita. What we are to make of Carlyle's scorn for Disraeli is another matter, “that scandalous Jew-swindler,” etc. (TC to LA, 21 December): it may go with his admiration for Peel's integrity, and his own sympathy for free trade and cheap bread. Yet in spite of Carlyle's authoritarianism and the influence of the Ashburton group, he had little time for the new Emperor of France. Nor ought we to marvel that, just as a few years before he had been sought out by the revolutionary Cavaignac, or fervent nationalists from Ireland such as John Mitchel, he was now approached by the great Russian writer and radical, Alexander Herzen, introduced by Mazzini's followers.

It is true that the record of the letters can be extremely tantalizing, as we find for example in their glance at Carlyle's encounter with Herzen. There are no letters between them in 1852. Yet here is a man at the center of political thought and action in Europe who was an intense admirer of Carlyle's The French Revolution and other writings, who had sent him some of his works, and whose respect was returned. Almost as soon as he landed in England he called at Cheyne Row and joined in vigorous discussion. Yet Carlylean biography has known nothing about him; and though there is the record of two letters mentioning him (JWC to TC, [12 Sept. 1852] and JWC to JAC, [15 Sept. 1852]), less is said of their connection than of problems with the builders or Nero the dog. It has been left to Sven Stelling-Michaud to discuss it in his “Herzen et Thomas Carlyle”; in Marc Vuilemien, Stelling-Michaud and others, Autour d'Alexandre Herzen. Documents inédits (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1973, 325–29), in an account unnoticed in Carlylean bibliography, sought out by Professor David Sorensen, and now used here.

Herzen wrote to friends that Carlyle's wife had invited him to Cheyne Row: “Vous connaissez son Histoire de la révolution. Lui-même n'est pas là, et il aime beaucoup mon ‘Vom Anderen Ufer’ [From the Other Shore],” and that Carlyle wished to get to know him (14 September). He explained that it turned out that Carlyle was “un amateur de mes petites choses,” just as in return he had admired The French Revolution (16 September). They at last met at Cheyne Row, about 20 December, when Herzen says that they spent the whole evening together, Carlyle proving to be like his History, with a “talent touchant au génie,” showing boldness mixed with folly. They were in conflict because Carlyle's absurdity was to believe that the world could be saved by despotism, thus averting socialism. Herzen demanded, “Have you ever read Carlyle's History of the Revolution? There's a writer who understands the matter better and more profoundly than you. That brought laughter.” “He's a man of immense ability, but too paradoxical. He could be called a Scotch Proudhon.” For his part, Carlyle is said to have written to Herzen in 1853, “I should be well pleased to have another meeting” (Stelling-Michaud 326).

Herzen's Vom anderen Ufer (Hamburg 1850) was a work to excite Carlyle's attention, and for all its revolutionary fervor was by no means as much in favor of democracy as Stelling-Michaud implies. Nor were they even so entirely opposed about the new Emperor and his recent coup as he suggests; to Carlyle, Louis Napoleon was a mere “Opera King,” not quite as bad as the ineffective “democracy of 900 talking lawyers” that he replaced. They were alike in questioning, as Herzen put it, “the state forms” of France and other European countries, which were essentially incompatible “with liberty, equality, and fraternity,” and always would be even under liberal governments. Himself influenced by Proudhon, Herzen fiercely criticized the new political faiths, which demanded violence for the sake of abstract causes or future generations: inspired by German Romantic doctrine, that kind of thinking appealed to both reactionaries and revolutionaries. The apostles of “progress” invested such words as “democracy” with mythical significance. In strikingly Carlylean language, Herzen warned that “there is no real creation in democracy, and that is why it is not the future. The future is outside politics, the future soars above the chaos of all political and social aspirations and picks out from them threads to weave into a new cloth which will provide the winding-sheet for the past and the swaddling clothes for the newborn” (From the Other Shore, trans. Moura Budberg, introduced by Isaiah Berlin, 1956, pp. 61, 89).

Herzen and Carlyle's mutual interest lay in their scorn for the falsities they saw in the status quo and their wish to expose them as pungently as possible. Herzen tended to anarchy, and he rightly saw that Carlyle's recent visit to Germany was to seek a basis for his stubborn belief in “obedience,” which went back at least as far as Past and Present (1843) when he had praised the Russians for “drilling” their people into civilization (Works 10:158, 168). This was still held against Carlyle in 1857 by Turgenev, who had come to his writings through Herzen, and who also read and appreciated Carlyle, while regretting his admiration for heroes who compelled obedience. It was something already noticed in lengthy reviews in France (see TC to FB, 17 Nov. 1851) which, unlike most English comment, reached beyond the barrier of Carlyle's vehement style to the substance of what he was saying about government, perhaps because more relevant to France than England.

Herzen's seeking out Carlyle alerts us to the latter's attraction for exiled revolutionaries. He was not complacent but vital, ready to listen, talk, and argue. They had seen society overturned, and he agreed that change was possible and even essential. Open to European ideas, unaffected by English insularity, and sceptical of schemes for reforming human nature, he had obviously relived The French Revolution in writing it. He could share Herzen's horror at the brutal suppression of the people's revolutions in France and Italy in 1848, while accepting their reality; and he was at least aware that Louis Napoleon kept effective control after his coup only by firm suppression. Both men were sceptical about German and French political leaders of whatever kind.

Their extremism, exaggerated rhetoric, and biting intelligence meant that Carlyle enjoyed his stimulating encounters with Herzen's work or in person far more, for example, than the tedious company of Lord Ashburton's pro-imperial French associates, such as “Thiers and the two inevitables ([Prosper] Merimée and [Leon de] Laborde” in Paris late in 1851, whom he found “utterly barren” and “not interesting” (Last Words 172, 187). Thiers' talents were “small and contemptible”; though it was to the general amusement of fellow-diners that Carlyle seriously told him that Britain itself might end up with a Louis Napoleon, all idea of a “Constitution” now “coming to an end” (TC to JAC, 23 Feb.). Right or wrong, Carlyle and Herzen thought in fundamentals.

They did not forget each other though it is unlikely that they met again. But for a moment we see Carlyle encountering a mind of equal brilliance and tenacity. Herzen continued to send his books to Carlyle, as we find from a copy (now in Carlyle's House, 24 Cheyne Row) of his edition with an introduction of the Mémoires de l'Imperatrice Catherine II. Ecrite par elle-même (London, 1859). We know that Carlyle enjoyed it, the copy is heavily marked, and he praised it in Frederick (Works 18:428) as “worth all the other” books about Catherine, “if it is knowledge of Catherine that you are seeking.”

The letters of 1852 show how he was steadily drawn to Frederick. All year they express his restless anxiety about his next and possibly last work. Always uneasy between larger projects, we see him circling the new subject as he is drawn into the maelstrom of European history. Not that he admitted any certainty about it at first. He found a strong appeal in Frederick's character which he saw as in his own image, exerting repulsion as well as attraction. The 1852 letters show his first impressions of an actual Germany in company with Joseph Neuberg, and the approach to this major work, as well as the preparatory collection of books about Frederick which were eventually given to Harvard. Together or separately they show much more clearly than before the genesis of Carlyle's new work, its nature, and extremely practical approach to history. Frederick can spark off interesting, and often misleading, ideas about Carlyle and history; but in this present edition we cannot ignore the way that it offers the possibility of an almost complete record of how Frederick was conceived and written.

Carlyle's book collecting was under way before he set out for Germany at the end of August, and it went on throughout the writing of Frederick; yet the main thrust began in 1852 with Neuberg's help. Carlyle always liked to have the necessary tools to his hand; he largely shunned travel and archival research; and these letters show him making this collection, now in the Houghton Library, Harvard, which was catalogued by William Coolidge Lane, The Carlyle Collection: A Catalogue of Books on Cromwell and Frederick the Great (Cambridge, Mass., 1888).

Lane comments that the books are often marked with marginal notes and manuscript additions. Inspection confirms this, but many of the marginalia are brief vertical lines or extremely pithy comments, and the notes Lane mentions are often mere neat indices to help Carlyle find his way about or remember certain passages. All the same there is something to be learned from a closer reading of these interjections and often pointed comments. They leave the impression that Carlyle was gripped by the fascination of looking at a different kind of world or society, or in correcting older versions of history. As well as this he sometimes noted dramatic elements, and the problems of combining them with exactness or accuracy.

When we are directed to Frederick as an awful example of the dangers of Germanic hero-worship, we are often told of Goebbels' bringing the bunkered Fuehrer the story of Prussia's defence and miraculous deliverance, presumably from the fifth campaign of the Seven Years' War, “Frederick is Not to be Overwhelmed” (Book 20). Yet we should take more account of the way that Carlyle's approach was invariably retrospective. He made little of the unified nationalist Germany that was just beginning to stir; without time to spare when in Berlin he was exclusively intent on tracking down authentic information and pictures of Frederick, and had hardly a moment to consider the nature of German history. He was not interested in the contemporary scene; and, about two months after his return, he wrote in some despair to his sister Jean: “The sight of actual Germany, with its flatsoled puddlings in the slough of nonsense (quite a different kind of nonsense from ours, but not a whit less genuine) has hurt poor Fritz (Freddy) very much in my mind: poor fellow, he too lies deeply buried in the midden-stank even as Cromwell did. … In fine why shd I torment my domestic soul writing his foreign history? He may go to—France for me!” (23 December). He seeks out decisive drama in the scenes of Frederick's old battles, says that he has no curiosity about anyone in Berlin, and then is quick to write to Lady Harriet that he has already seen two major battlefields, though “to get any real sight of the man and his existence … is beyond measure difficult. I must restrict myself to that Problem however” (1 October). On his travels he evidently felt that he had to learn about the nature of the country, and the cities Frederick besieged, but usually little about his administration unless it could be cast into dramatic form. All this is understandable. Yet he was constantly driven by an intensity in research, going almost as far back as possible, exercised mainly through printed books, and seeking indisputable facts to be discovered, sifted, digested, and arranged.

What day of the week, what week, what month, what year, or what time something happened, and the evidence for it, set down as exactly as possible: that is what concerns him at first. Did it even happen at all? He possessed in perfection the vital editorial tool, of a persistent and almost perpetual scepticism, suspended at peril. This is what dominated Carlyle. Does the advance take place on the right bank or the left? What fools and rogues these historians, editors, biographers, and memoirists are. He knows perfectly well (and don't we all?) that everything depends on their point of view.

His comments are addressed entirely to himself: this is the peculiar feature of his marginalia. When he wrote them, there was not the slightest thought of his casual remarks being embalmed in a great library. Nor was almost anything in the books or written scraps evaluative of Frederick. The lines had probably already begun to set, or they were being drawn in his head with no need for pencilled underlinings. We see the subject growing in his letters. In February he is seeking a “definite work,” but the idea of writing about Frederick seems “very idle: what have I, here where I am, to say about ‘the lean drill-serjeant of the world’? I do not even grow to love him better: a really mediocre intellect, a hard withered soul; great only in his invincible courage, in his constant unconscious loyalty to truth and fact” (16 February). His military career is just a “Donnybrook Fair” (21 February). But then Carlyle is caught by the fascination of inquiring research, is led to more book collecting, and ready to talk about strategy with the British commander-in-chief (9 April), until by August he can say that he must travel to Germany in spite of everything, because it would be “cowardly” to give up “the shadow of an Enterprise” which is driving him forward like a “kind of bayonet in the back” (17 August).

Such an interest was not confined to Carlyle. Goethe had frequently referred to Frederick's genius, and Schiller had abandoned plans to write an epic poem on the King's life only because “the greatness of the enterprise compared with the uncertainty of its success, were sufficient to deter him” (Carlyle, Life of Schiller, Works 25:119). Carlyle also meant to refute his rival Macaulay, disagreeing with what he saw as his sentimental contrast between the Machievellian king and the virtuous empress Maria Theresa. Yet Carlyle thought that Frederick played the same role in the eighteenth century as Cromwell had in the seventeenth: both failing in their efforts to vanquish chaos and impose order.

At the same time, his chief mentor was the Jewish Joseph Neuberg who was to translate Frederick into German and twice led Carlyle through Germany, and for years was to act as his voluntary research assistant (see TC to JN, 5 Nov.; Neuberg to TC, 8 Nov., and K. J. Fielding, “Carlyle's Sketch of Joseph Neuberg,” Carlyle Annual 13 [1992/93]:6–7). He saw that Frederick was an ideal choice for Carlyle and wrote that he could be master of the subject, which was neither small nor

unworthy of your pen. The whole 18th Century groups itself round Frederick; he is the Hero of it, the greatest it could produce. You have frequently treated, with great insight and pitying impartiality, of that same 18th Centy with its sins and sorrows and tragic existence. Yet also our modern life with its new-birth, is all rooted in it: German literature, English miraculous Industry, European Democracy: the thought and the work that are in us, about us and before us, all date from then. The Old has all gone to wrecks; laid buried (in Germany) under the ruins of the 30 years' War; it had been represented by Kaiser and Pope, and Luther had upset them both. The shattered debris of the Old lay round Frederick (as they had lain round his father and great-grandfather) in depopulated villages, ruined farms, silenced or Hebetated Landstande; in Salzburg-emigrants, Lutheran creeds.— Hannoverian Georges, Saxon Augusts, Hessian man-selling electors, Bavarian and Wurtemburg Charles's—with some half-thousand mistresses between them—bore rule;—and but in Austria an honest, noble woman (Maria Theresa) stood at the head of the doomed ‘Old’.— The voices of Leibnitz, of Lessing, Kant, Goethe were in the air—far off as yet; and the French Encyclopedistes had possession of the field as Prophets and Gods. Frederick worked his work in the midst of this; as well as he could I suppose … . His own life one must think, suffered sufficiently … yet it was heroic and great in its generation.— This surely is a theme worth treating of, and one which might occupy you not unpleasantly for some time; staying at all events the craving appetite for work.” (8 November).

It is the persuasive case for Frederick.

The marginalia in Carlyle's books leave the impression that he knew he would have to wrestle with contradictions, and allow us to see over his shoulder how the account took shape even before he has gripped his pen to write. We fail to understand this stage in his development unless we see that his inquiries were driven from the first by a search for verifiable truth, insight, understanding, remarkable incidents and startling fact, the selection of which was naturally affected by previous knowledge or prejudices, nationalistic, religious, and personal. The clue of biography is his guide. Dogma and theory are not dismissed, but there is a constant contempt for “metaphysics.”

Whether we find it in the structure of his works at this time, his confrontational conversational style, or dismissal of theological “moonshine” in the Life of John Sterling, everything of the kind also reflects a different figure from the writer of the 1830s and early 1840s, though he is usually less ready to discuss his scepticism. He tries to distance himself from hostile reviews of Sterling, though his convictions are only suppressed. A serious assault on his writings by a fervent Methodist, part of the “Blockheadism of England,” arouses and disturbs him because it assails him for being “a tremendous Nightmare descending on this poor man, and the universe, to squelch the Methodism wholly out of him” (TC to JCA, 8 November). He was as ready to tell G. H. Lewes that he had no time for Comte as to turn on a Tory bishop; and he was prepared to question his own views. Even Goethe trapped at Weimar seemed “threatening to become a bigger Lytton Bulwer” (to LA, 1 October). We are bound to feel uneasy at Carlyle's desperate seriousness and political incorrectness, but it is wrong to domesticate and belittle him.

Jane Carlyle was part of all these affairs: the first to see Herzen, as interested as Thomas in the disputes thrown up by the life of Sterling, and still writing with an affectionate interest to Sterling's children. She was even ready to think of accompanying her husband to Germany, though alarmed at the idea of doing so with the Ashburtons “for a whole year,” and with “nothing to fall back on under his and my own gloom” (JWC to HW, [6 May?]). The decision to stay behind was hers, feeling born to be the clerk of works overseeing the builders at Cheyne Row. At this time she has less need of introductory comment than Thomas.

In the year of Mrs. Jellyby and Bleak House, which so offended J. S. Mill for its slights on women, she was probably indifferent to them. Neither of the Carlyles was drawn to the active feminism of Margaret Fuller, with whose affairs Carlyle was involved by Emerson in negotiations about her private papers taken up with Margaret Gillies (TC to JSM, 30 April). But 1852 is a little puzzling as it is also the year when the record of letters from Geraldine Jewsbury stops, which may mean that they had become too outspoken for their editor, Mrs. Ireland.

For Jane Carlyle still had strong resources in herself, as shown in the long and attractive account of her journey to visit the dying Catherine Macready (JWC to TC, [5 August]) or her ebullient response to her old love John Stodart (JWC to JRS, [10 September]). It was also the year of her own slight semi-fictional “The Simple Story of My Own First Love,” contrasting Thackeray's view of love in Esmond, with her husband's who seems to have said that Thackeray's was “false and damnable.” Shadows lay over the future, but the year ends with her account of her readiness to meet burglars with cocked pistols and her hero worship of the Duke of Wellington whom she had met at Bath House. She had queued for his lying-in-state “at the cost of being crushed for four hours” (31 Dec.).—“But to her the charm of such circles,” wrote Carlyle, “was at all times insignificant; human was what she looked at, and what she was” (Reminiscences, 105).

Kenneth J. Fielding