1854-June 1855

The Collected Letters, Volume 29


INTRODUCTION; 2001; DOI: 10.1215/ed-29-introduction; CL 29: firstpage-29-ix-lastpage-29-xvi


This volume covers all of 1854 and January through June 1855. It contains 269 letters, 242 from Thomas Carlyle and 27 from Jane Welsh Carlyle.1 But in celebration of the bicentenary of Jane Welsh Carlyle's birth in Haddington (14 July 1801), this introduction places her letters at the center, despite Thomas's letters making up 90 percent of this volume. Of course, respective approaches to Welsh Carlyle and Carlyle as writers have always had to deal with this imbalance: Thomas, a prolific letter writer as well as author of many essays and multivolumed histories, monolith of the Victorian age, seems overwhelming; while Jane's reputation, even before Thomas edited her letters for publication after her death, rested on her narrative skills in the more domestic, “smaller” field of conversation and private letters. Thomas's contemporary view of her narrative skills depends on exactly that juxtaposition of “domestic” and “small”: “even with nothing to tell but the flight of the Cat, you can make a very pretty story” (see TC to JWC, 1 April 1853). But others were more critical; William Bell Scott, offended in 1854 by Thomas's response to his Poems by a Painter (see TC to WBS, 26 Oct. and TC to WBS, 16 Nov. 1854), retrospectively assessed her storytelling skills as being self-consciously constructed. This, for us, is evidence of her skill, but for him a criticism: “she was evidently a kindly entertainer, and desirous of the reputation of a raconteuse, so she told us the story of ‘the cock that crew in the morn,’ which appeared to me to show symptoms of considerable dressing-up, ‘cooking’ as Sir Henry Cole used to say.”2 Indeed, Jane was the storyteller whose “various misadventures” were to be formed into a “Chelsean Nights Entertainment,” once they became “sufficiently remote to be laughed over” (JWC to TC, 18 Sept. 1850); this 1850 conceit in a letter to Thomas allows Jane to hint both at difficulties hidden from him and the idea that he also has to be placated and distracted like Scheherazade's husband.

More perhaps than Thomas's, her letters reflect back to her correspondents what they both want and expect from her. To one of the surviving Donaldson sisters in Haddington, among the few remaining links with her childhood, she writes of Jess's letters as both a reward and the currency of love: “It gets into my pocket, where no other letters get; and I carry it about on me for days; as one used to one's love-letters long ago! And only when it begins to get worn-looking, do I lay it in the little old wainscoat chest I brought with me from Home; where I keep only relic[s] of my Mother—and the most precious of my paper[s]” (see JWC to JDO, 19 Jan. 1855). She thus both flatters Jess Donaldson and continues to inscribe her mother as a secular saint, a position Grace Welsh had hardly held in her lifetime. She also uses one of her common interpretations of her self, the spoiled child, to flatter Jess: “You are spoiling me—making a downright little spoilt child of me!— Oh you needn't laugh, and say I am too old for that! One never is too old for liking to be much made of; and for feeling a little “carried” (as we called it in Scotland) in consequence! I feel myself “one and somewhat,” when I think how much they care for me at Sunny Bank!” This “one and somewhat” is another expression for her need to assert her individual worth, like her “I-ety,” and the “I too am here” principle (see JWC to JOST, 4 June 1835), which led her to question Neuberg's kindness to her: “Sometimes I think it is because I am ‘Mr Carlyle's wife’—and then I feel tempted to gather all the things you have given me and fling them at your head” (JWC to JN, [14 June 1854]).

She jokes about their brother to Thomas's family. Sending two photographs of Thomas and herself to James Carlyle, “one of your distinguished Brother in his beard, and one of my less distinguished self, without beard or other unusual ornament,” she both pairs and opposes Thomas and herself. But she also customarily satirizes Thomas in relation to the world. In the same letter, she describes a visit from two elderly nieces of a previous minister at Hoddam, “as old as the hills and dressed in clothes that might have been part of a stage-wardrobe in the time of Ben Johnson!—and minds in such a state of trustful innocence that they actually took for gospel every word that Mr Carlyle said!!” (JWC to JC, 24 April 1855). This dramatization of events in her world is a familiar technique, making vivid for her readers the life that she and Thomas led in London, undercutting Thomas and centering herself in a way that her “position as the wife of a literary man” (JWC to MS, 16 Jan. 1854) did not make automatic.

One of Jane's best-known set pieces, “BUDGET of a Femme incomprise” (JWC to TC, [12 Feb. 1855]), is cast in the form of a report of an address to the houses of Parliament, that most dramatic of political arenas. It epitomizes her use of satire to attack Thomas:

Mercy! to think there are women, your friend Lady Ashburton for example (“rumeur” and “sensation”) I say, for example; who spend not merely the “additimental” pounds, I must make such pother about; but four times my whole income in the Ball of one night! And none the worse for it; nor anyone the better!—It is—“what shall I say?”—curious upon “my honour!” But just in the same manner Mrs Freeman might say; “to think there are women, Mrs Carlyle, for example, who spend three pounds, fourteen shillings on one dressing-gown! And I with just two loaves and eighteen pence (from the Parish) to live on, by the week!”

Thus she explains her financial scrimping (foregrounding Thomas's thoughtlessness and lack of attention to her needs as keeper of the household finances) within her reported speech on “My Bill of Ways and Means” and she embeds within it a clever class hierarchy of comparative expenditure where her implicit criticism of Lady Ashburton's aristocratic expenditure is counterbalanced by Mrs. Freeman's view from below of her own “extravagance,” ensuring Thomas's response will be one of humor, “great laughter” and acquiescence: “thriftiest, wittiest and cleverest of women! I will set thee up to a certainty, and thy £30 more shall be granted, thy bits of debt paid, thy will done!” (JWC to TC, 12 Feb. 1855 and his note, 12 Feb. 1855). That Jane as a woman could not speak in the houses of Parliament and that part of their finances rested on money that came from Craigenputtoch, which belonged to her, these are the implicit ironies that give force to what Thomas calls “Jane's Missive on the Budget,” added to by the ambiguity of “Femme incomprise,” a woman both misunderstood and unappreciated.

We have always known that Jane wrote fewer letters than Thomas, and fewer were preserved. Her letters to Geraldine Jewsbury are perhaps the most famously missing, destroyed at Jane's request after her death. But even if they had survived, Jewsbury's removal to London in the summer of 1854 changed her status from correspondent to neighbor, “living under Mrs. Carlyle's auspices” (Clough 2:502), providing friendship as well as material for Jane's own letters: “Poor Geraldine is worst off with me—for having unbounded confidence in her devotion, I don't bother to keep up appearances with her, but scold at her whenever we are together which is twice a day at least” (JWC to KS, [2 April 1855]). Jewsbury also began to appear in reports from visitors; Ellen Twisleton, one of Jane's new admirers, wrote often to her sisters in the United States about visits to the Carlyles; in late May 1855, she was clearly cautious about Geraldine: “The unfailing Miss Jewsbury was there, and some Scotch people. … Mrs. Carlyle is so fond of Miss J. that I think there must be some good in her” (Twisleton, Letters 278).

A category of Jane's correspondence, letters to younger women incorporating advice and tales of her life with Thomas, consistently contains some of her best writing. In earlier volumes her younger cousins, Helen and Jeannie Welsh, had been the recipients. But Helen had died shortly before Margaret Carlyle in December 1853 (see TC to JWC, 27 Dec. 1853), and Jeannie had married Andrew Chrystal and moved to Glasgow in April 1853 (see JWC to JG, 27 Dec. 1853). In this volume she is the subject of criticism for her failings as a correspondent: “I had a long maundering letter from Jeanie … . all full of her happiness as Andrews wife—her comforts—her beautiful house—&c &c—even to the comfort and ease of having no prospect of children (!) all is well with Jeanie!” leaving Jane in a “sort of silent rage” (JWC to JAC, [ca. 18 April 1854]). In July 1854, in her customary birthday letter to Mary Russell at Thornhill, Jane is critical in a way that illuminates old resentments about hierarchies of age and family duty:

From my Cousins I hear very little now. Jeanie in Glasgow, never was a good correspondent, I mean always wrote remarkably bad letters considering her faculty in some other directions, now there is a little tone of married-woman—and much-made-of married woman added to the dullness and longwindedness that irritates me into—silence. As for the others, they all seem to think I have nothing to do AT MY AGE but send them two or three letters for one!— When my dear Uncle was alive—my anxiety to hear of him overcame all other considerations and I humoured this negligence more than was reasonable— Besides Helen wrote pretty often poor Dear—and good letters, telling one something. Now as they are all healthy, and “at ease in Zion,” I mean to bear in mind more than heretofore—that I am not healthy, and have many demands on my time and thought, and am besides sufficiently their elder to have my letters answered. (JWC to MR, 13 July 1854)

As her cousins move out of reach, they are replaced by a new generation of younger women. Like Jewsbury, Mary Smith came to Jane through reading Thomas's works; running her school in Carlisle, and seeking a way to literary fulfilment, she had written to ask Jane about the possibility of becoming an “Assistant to a Literary Lady.” Jane's prompt reply advised her that she knew of none: “Either these ladies follow literature for a trade—to live by—in which case they could not pay an assistant; or following it for their pleasure, they want no assistant.” All she could offer was to bear her in mind for any recommendation for governess that she was asked for. She ends with advice positioning herself as the senior and wiser woman: “Meanwhile, believe a woman older than yourself, who has seen, and seen thro', all you are now longing after. There is as little nourishing for an aspiring soul in literary society as in any civilised society one could name! And for ‘clear ideas’ and ‘broad knowledge,’ they are not secreted in any corner of life, but lie in all life, for whoever has faculty to appreciate them” (JWC to MS, 16 Jan. 1854). This first contact with another radical and single woman making her own way (like Amalie Bölte) was reestablished when Smith wrote again for Jane's advice about her poetry in 1857. Jane's response is one of admiration for Smith's perseverance: “This time you came to me as an old acquaintance whom I am glad to shake hands with again. The mere fact of your being still in the same position after so long an interval, and with such passionate inward protest as that first letter indicated, is a more authentic testimony of your worth, than if you had sent me a certificate of character signed by all the clergy and householders of Carlisle!” (JWC to MS, 11 Jan. 1857; Bliss, JWC 256–58). This letter continues into the tale of bread-making, Cellini, and Jane's life in Craigenputtoch, which has been much quoted and analyzed.3 Although she did not become a friend as Bölte and Jewsbury had, they continued in intermittent touch, and Jane later called on her when passing through Carlisle.

Other young women came to Jane through friendship circles in London. Kate Sterling, one of the daughters of John Sterling and under the guardianship of Anthony Sterling until 1853 (see JWC to KS, 19 Nov. 1853), is the recipient of advice, love, and tales of complications caused by Anthony Sterling's previous passion for and current estrangement from Jane:

But in bringing us together in one room it could not undo the past—could not bring our hearts together— He came and I received him—voila tout—we were as much estranged after the visit as before it— Why he wished to come I cannot imagine for his manner was as disagreeable as if he had been brought there by force— But I will tell you the particulars when you come— I have got a shocking bad cold and am stupid as an owl and seeing every thing thro a sort of moral London fog. (JWC to KS, [mid-March 1854])

Jane may have had Kate in mind when she wrote her “simple Story of my own first Love” (see TC to JN, 5 Nov. 1852), shortly after Kate had been forbidden by Sterling to consider Count Dalwig as a possible suitor (see JWC to KS, 30 May 1852, and JWC to KS, 25 July 1852). She certainly mentioned it to Kate (see JWC to KS, 29 Dec. 1852). But Kate can also be taken as an example of one of the great incidental pleasures of editing the Carlyles' letters: the letters written to them. This volume includes quotations from Kate's letter to Jane, 20 October 1854, when she was staying with the Maurices in Matlock, which gives many details about her family, including Anthony in the Crimea. It also makes clear her own attachment to Jane: “I would have given Republics to be by your side for a moment” (the letter is cited in JWC to KS, [mid-March], and JWC to MR, [7 Nov. 1854]). Despite Jane's statement to Mary Russell, “All my acquaintance lie so far off, that it is mechanically impossible to be intimate with them” (JWC to MR, 13 [July 1854]), both Jane and her correspondents such as Kate practice a passionate intimacy in their correspondence.

The narrative of any volume of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle comes from their own letters and those of their correspondents, the letters of each volume carrying a variety of running themes. In 1853 the impending death of Margaret Carlyle was a major preoccupation. In 1854–55, Thomas's research for the writing of Frederick the Great becomes intertwined with the public drama of the Crimean War. Jane writes a classically gendered response to the war:

Oh arn't you miserable about this war! I am haunted day and night with the thought of all the women over England Scotland and Ireland who must be in agonies of suspense about their nearest and dearest— Thank God I have no husband or brother or father or son in that horrible War— I have some few acquaintances however, and one intimate friend Colonel Sterling … and I read the list of killed and wounded always with a sick dread of finding his name. (JWC to MR, [7 Nov. 1854])

Thomas, meanwhile, in both letters and his Journal, expresses criticism of the fact of the war (to which in 1855 he adds criticism of the critics of the war):

I reckon it one of the maddest of wars lately heard of: Undertaken with immense enthusiasm of all the noisy, unwise classes and with all the quiet and wise indifferent to it, or dead against it. One wish possesses the latter, I think: that of handsomely terminating said war. … it is my private notion, the Czar Nicholas may probably be a king doing more real king work, than all the other kings that now are,—much outweighing the whole lot of them in intrinsic value;—and I have always well understood the Turks to be a set of dark, fanatical and sensual blockheads, waiting, these three hundred years, to be thrown into the Black sea by anybody that was passing that way, and had leisure for the job. (TC to JMA, 10 Dec. 1854)

This effortlessly combines a contrary admiration of the enemy king with Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the “alien” Turks who embody darkness, fanaticism, sensuality, and stupidity in an all-encompassing sweep of prejudice. Thomas is filled with foreboding by his feelings:

the poor Nation altogether were going to cant over, and fall upon its face, with its nose in the gutter, to drown there in two inches of dirty water! There never was such a scene in my time as the Govt of Britain now presents Their Turk war, into whh all the world went voluntarily galloping (like a herd of loose nowt,—really with little more sense in their heads) may come to cost us all very dear I resolutely hold my tongue; but my private sorrow and gloom over the prospect that seems to be opening, is considerable. Is the end come, then, altogether, which I have long been prophesying as inevitable? (TC to JCA, 7 May 1855)

Thomas's prophetic gloom leads him to take the name of Balaclava (after a winter of apparently useless siege) as a metaphor for a useless enterprise. “Balaklava,” he tells Emerson, “is likely to be a substantive in the English language henceforth” (13 May 1855), having already begun to use it as such in relation to his pursuit of a pension for the Lowe sisters, “All a Balaklava, my friend; all a Balaklava” (TC to JF, 1 May 1855). But his feelings about the war intertwine with his feelings of hopelessness in the face of the task ahead of him in writing a history of Frederick the Great. The largest number of Thomas's letters to any one correspondent in volume 29 (in a period when he and Jane were not apart in the summer in their usual fashion) are to Joseph Neuberg.4 Most of these 48 letters contain detailed questions on books relating to Frederick the Great for Neuberg to research for Thomas. Jane (foreshadowing her coming years of illness and depression “in the valley of the shadow of Frederick” [Feb. 1863; Bliss, JWC 302]) writes to Delia Bacon that “Mr. C. is dreadfully busy with his ‘Frederick,’ who I begin to wish had never been born” ([9 Dec. 1854]), and to Kate Sterling: “we live here up to the eyes in Frederick the Great—and he is becoming such a horrid bore to me that I dream about him in my bad nights!” ([2 April? 1855]). It is not surprising that Jane feels this way, as Thomas doubtless expressed the same fears in conversation as he does in correspondence about this “last heavy job I mean to undertake at this time of life” (TC to JAC, 6 Jan. 1855). But, while he was always pessimistic in the face of a new writing task, there seems a curious lack of enthusiasm for the project, even for Thomas, when he writes to Emerson:

Frederick himself is a pretty little man to me, veracious, courageous, invincible in his small sphere; but he does not rise into the empyrean regions, or kindle my heart round him at all; and his history, upon which there are waggon loads of dull bad books, is the most dislocated, unmanageably incoherent, altogether dusty, barren and beggarly production of the modern Muses, as given hitherto … . [I] shall be beaten miserably in this unwise enterprise in my old days. (13 May 1855)

And to Ruskin (with whom both Thomas and Jane were sympathetic in the aftermath of the ending of his marriage with Effie), Thomas explicitly connects Balaclava, that useless enterprise, and the Crimean War as a whole with Frederick: “My Prussian affairs are as bad almost as Balaklava; and indeed resemble that notable Enterprise of the Turk War in several respects,—in this especially, that I had no business at all to concern myself in such an adventure, with such associates; and that a good result to it does not seem (for most part) so much as possible!” (23 May 1855). It is almost as though he is proceeding with the writing of Frederick on the basis only of a kind of personal indoor relief program of work.

Jane's witty and sarcastic approach to her surroundings exemplified in her letters is an easy one for the 21st-century reader to respond to. Thomas in his letters seems more problematic, less immediately attractive, perhaps much as his literary reputation became in the twentieth century. For contemporaries, however, his public self inevitably meant that, as he noted to his sister Jean, “One becomes like a kind of lighted lantern, against which all the dark owlets in Creation are liable to come flapping;—can't be helped” (14 March 1854). Yet Thomas, too, occasionally joked about himself. He concluded one of his several notes to Forster about the Lowe campaign: “I have been boring and digging all day thro' ‘Brandenburg sand’ and shot-rubbish,—properly for nothing at all, too, or next-door to that; and am fit for treasons, strategems and spoils, in spite of my usual gayety of temper!” (1 June 1855). Gaiety of temper may not be the prevailing mood that we connect with the Carlyle household, but it is a reminder of the way that both Carlyles can surprise as the minutiae of their lives continue unwinding before us.

Aileen Christianson