July-December 1855

The Collected Letters, Volume 30


INTRODUCTION; 2002; DOI: 10.1215/ed-30-introduction; CL 30: firstpage-30-xi-lastpage-30-xxi


In this volume there are fewer letters than usual because of the addition of important new documents. It includes 121 letters, only 9 of which are by Jane Welsh Carlyle. Of Thomas's letters, 80 have not been published before (or about 65 percent), and of Jane's, just 2. Yet the apparent decline in Jane's importance, so far as letters go, is more than compensated for by the discovery of other documents by and about her given at the end of this volume. These include her Notebook, 1845–52, now given in full and not seen since J. A. Froude included passages from it in the Letters and Memorials. There is the full version of “The simple Story of my own first Love” (referred to below as Simple Story) written in 1852 and first published in a complete form in connection with the conference at Edinburgh (2001) celebrating the bicentenary of her birth. Most important, we include the Journal that she wrote between October 1855 and July 1856, which is followed by Geraldine Jewsbury's letter to Froude about it, of 22 November 1876. The versions of the Journal previously given by Froude and Alexander Carlyle were far from complete, and the passages they left out were often the most tantalizing and revealing. They are accompanied by a long account Jane entrusted or dictated to her great friend Ellen Twisleton, the manuscript of which was discovered by Professor Kenneth Fielding at the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Taken together, they bring us closer to Jane Welsh Carlyle: her own account of her uncertainties about herself, the details of her life, and the distress she felt in her marriage, especially at this time. The Journal has always figured in previous editions of her letters and is essentially interwoven with the long and unhappy drama of her marriage. The Journal and the letters cannot be fully understood without reference to each other, and they are now brought together in full for the first time.

It has been thought better to give all these papers together, even though the necessary shape and size of the volume mean that only with the next volume can we parallel all the letters with the Journal, which was continued till July 1856. It is notable, even so, that in this period (July–Dec. 1855), and especially from the moment she began the Journal, she wrote fewer and fewer letters. As she remarked in the Journal, “I write no notes, neither little nor long” (JWC's Journal, 17 Nov. 1855).

The purpose of this edition is mainly to be faithful rather than interpretative; yet the text often needs a reliable explanation, which includes asking why the various documents were written and what we make of them. Thomas jotted on the front cover of the Notebook, 1845–52: “Anecdotes (Autobiogr l for most part).” Thomas is right that the Notebook is purely anecdotal: it is a set of stories, mainly in the form of stray tales about others, which also tell us about herself. An explanation for the writing of Simple Story is given later (JWC's "A Simple Story of My Own First Love"). The main Journal, 1855–56, has always compelled us to consider their two lives in the light of her extreme despair. Then we have to consider how the Journal has been used, and probably misused. Ellen Twisleton's account of their early life at Craigenputtoch, which seems to have been practically dictated by Jane, raises the question of how far her memories were colored by her later life. All these accounts are given only from Jane's viewpoint, and some allowance has to be made for the extent to which they agree with Jane and Thomas's letters, and with his point of view about controversial incidents in their marriage, which he rarely mentions except in his Reminiscences.

Looking at the Notebook, 1845–52, it seems that it may have been an earlier response to advice to get outside the “mistification of oneself” and “writing of it in a paper-book” (JWC's Journal, 1855–56, 21 Oct. 1855). The first two tales, written with spirit, are among those that Froude rightly selected for use in the Letters and Memorials. He chose a third, about a lost child, taken home by Jane, to be confronted by “a young lady” who has been seduced, forgetful “that the world contained anything else but love.” Her choice of subjects ranges from the despairingly alcoholic Dr. Wood immured in the Seven Dials, who has “tried what beating his Wife could do for him,” to the “sick Thief” who needs the consolation of prayer, tenderly nursed by a prostitute and with fellow thieves caring for him. Others include the sick and solitary Polish exile Count Krasinski; Carlyle's assistant Dr. Christie, who wants the respectable consolation of two mutes on the day of his wife's funeral; the washerwoman eerily dependent on mesmerism; and the Irish Catholic who simply promises to return after her death. Froude's fourth choice was the sketch of a visit by Gavan Duffy and his Young Irishmen, all ripe for revolution, and with one of them ready to play the part of a Robespierre. This is not to enter far into interpretation but to raise questions about any autobiographic intention in the Notebook. We might notice the way that it was taken up when Jane was ill and depressed, about April 1845, soon after she told her cousin Jeannie Welsh, “I have been in a sad way for a long while, and was not saying anything about it to any one,” thinking that she was losing her mind, and, on telling Thomas, breaking down in “a dreadful fit of crying” (JWC to JW, 9 July 1845). It is as if she were like the lost two-year-old child whom she wanted to save from “the act of dissolving all away into tears.” It is autobiography only insofar as it is about her breakdown, in which she reveals herself by writing about others.

A slant always obvious in notebooks and letters is the characterization of Thomas, who again may have had his own point of view. The role he is given is one in which he may have sometimes cast himself: he is the practical, masculine cynic, who thinks it is somewhat crazy to go about collecting stray children from the King's Road, whose mothers may even want to get rid of them: might not she as well “put an Advertisement in the Window ‘House of Refuge for stray Dogs and Cats’” (JWC's Notebook, 13 April 1845), so everyone can bring her their woes? If thieves and prostitutes complain that they have no chance of honest work, the answer put in his mouth is, “What could they do? … They could do this at least—die—rather than go on in such a coil of infamy” (JWC's Notebook, 13 April 1845). In fact he was at least as helpful to his assistant William Christie as she, if less generous than Anthony Sterling.

Yet what the Notebook does show over seven years is a sharp decline in the quality of its entries, as if Jane had lost interest or even the ability to express herself. The handwriting of the last two entries is sharply worse, the expression jerky, the tale of the Irishwoman unfinished and pointless. Before this, the anecdotes of the “wild goose chase” to Ailsa Craig and the destitute Krasinski do not compare with the sketches she began with, nor does the odd tale of the minor adulteries of the deformed Mr. Bunbury. She may have ended the Notebook with the realization that her writing about other people and things brought no escape from herself.

There is no attempt to escape in Simple Story, which carries on in November 1852. It is suggested in the introduction to Simple Story (JWC's "Simple Story of My Own First Love") that Jane may have written it partly with younger friends such as Kate Sterling in mind, and partly as an attempt to understand herself. But it is a tale that again begins under the shadow of her husband, giving him remarks he may or may not have made. Thomas is said to be contemptuous of Love: it is something for boys, which makes up only a short part of one's existence. She says that the remark comes from his dislike of Thackeray's treatment of women in Esmond, for what it shows about them and their view of life. This is a part of the story, explained in the first six paragraphs of Simple Story that have only now been restored since Alexander Carlyle cut paragraphs two to six when publishing his version. In fact it may be a faithful enough account of Thomas's attitude. Nevertheless, if we are to use it in understanding Jane, we need to see its importance in her fictional and personal account of what she thought, and as one which she chose as a striking opening. She does not just make it in passing; and though Thomas never read the tale during her lifetime, we find that, when he does, he is compelled to recognize an allusion to the remarkable passion of his six-year-old sister. The story uses the “Coterie-sprache” they had created between them; it relies on experiences that they had shared; but Jane, constantly aware that her husband no longer thinks of her in terms of love, seems forced to define herself by criticizing him.

Yet if we think of Lady Harriet Ashburton and of Thomas's devoted attachment to her, we may find an indefiniteness in the story. The great philosopher, who seems to scorn love, was actually the cause of Jane's unhappy jealousy. His real affection (if we can call it that) for Lady Harriet, is fictionally offstage; the actual love, which Jane warns is a pleasant and painful illusion, is denied by her as much as, apparently, by him. The interest and charm of the story, no doubt, lies in its being full of unresolved ambiguities; but she, too, hardly knows whether to see the situation from a child's point of view, with a rueful backward glance, or with unsuppressed resentment at “Mr. C.” Though she could sometimes stand apart from herself, as she does in explaining how Mrs. Wood's red nose quenches her feelings of benevolence (JWC's Notebook, 13 April 1845), she is too involved with herself. Much of the story's interest now lies in our teasing out fact from fiction, but she seems unsure about which is which, or who she is.

The Journal takes us closer to what Jane really thought, which is a good reason why we have not been allowed to read it before except in a doctored version. Froude and Alexander Carlyle were fairly frank about how much they had cut. The possibly crucial omission of the entry for 26 June 1856 about the “blue marks” on Jane's wrists was soon detected (JWC's Journal, June 19 1856). The missing entries in the Journal and excised pages have often been passed over. But even before we restore the manuscript as best we can, it has always been clear that the main Journal, 1855–56, goes to the heart of what Jane felt day by day.

Jane herself clearly questions the point of a diary: “It aggravates whatever is factitious and morbid in you” (JWC's Journal, 21 Oct. 1855). Then, after a break and resumption, it is recognized as “Something to hold on to in the darkness and loneliness” (JWC's Journal, 23 Oct.). In her letters she can transform circumstances through her gift for self-dramatization and storytelling, but faced with herself she finds that life has come to look “like a sort of Kaleidiscope; a few things of different colours (black predominating) … but always the same things over again!” She tries to write about “the fact of things,” but cannot shake off her mood. Her usual topics of friends, reading, relatives, and domestic life give little pleasure, and the Journal becomes increasingly morbid, not helped by Jane taking morphine because she cannot sleep. The Journal is dominated by images and incidents of suffering and death: the navvy suffocated in a sewer (JWC's Journal, 22 Oct.); an encounter with men “all having lost an arm, and all singing a doleful ditty” (JWC's Journal, 27 Oct.); blood-red blankets for sale, “expressly to be murdered in” (JWC's Journal, 7 Nov.); the mother who has tried to drown her three children in the Thames (JWC's Journal, 16 Nov., 4 Dec.); a boy killed by a wagon “crashing over his head” (JWC's Journal, 27 Nov.); the “horribly interesting” trial of Palmer, the Rugely poisoner. She cannot understand her sickness, only that “the positive suffering is complicated with dark apprehensions. Alas, alas and there is nobody I care to tell about it! not one! poor ex-spoilt Child that I am!” (JWC's Journal, 15 April 1856). As well as noting her daily life, she is clearly recording a breakdown.

Neither Froude nor Alexander Carlyle does her justice by leaving out passages that unsettle their views of her character. Faced with misery, Jane repeatedly shows her capacity for humor, sarcasm, and biting commentary. She often rises above her gloom: she relishes the response of Henry James Sr.'s spirit, “Go to Hell you infernal idiot!” (JWC's Journal, 24 Oct.), enjoys the company of Thomas Ballantyne because he is “so very ugly, and … inveterately plebeian” (JWC's Journal, 26 Oct.), guesses that Ruskin's divorce accounts for his “peace and good will” (JWC's Journal, 30 Oct.), gives the lively account of her confrontation at the Tax Office (JWC's Journal, 21 Nov.), leaves Geraldine in a huff, exclaiming “Boppery Bopp!” (JWC's Journal, 26 Nov.), and receives a volume of devotional poetry, Waters of Comfort, doubting the comfort “tho' nobody can deny the ‘Water’” (JWC's Journal, 20 May 1856).

Underlying these bursts of wit lies an anguished realization that Thomas enjoys his relationship with Lady Harriet. It is galling to Jane that her rival should surpass her not just in wealth and ostentation but in conversation, attention to literature, being entertaining, and gathering eminent men around her. She bitterly recalls the days when Thomas praised her remarkable intuition, “when there was no Lady A to take the shine of me, in his eyes” (JWC's Journal, 29 Oct.). She tries to be friendly to Lady Harriet, yet with no wish to share Thomas. It is the “eternal Bath House” that separates them, “every stone's weight of it,” borne on her “heart” (JWC's Journal, 22 Oct.).

Her craving for reassurance and affection reaches an extreme in her emotional reunions with old “lovers,” George Rennie and John Stodart. Love, in fact, is a constant topic; and this later period, sadly enough, is one in which she can hardly go anywhere without meeting a former “lover.” It had been part of the pain and pleasure of going back to Haddington that she had been adored there, not just by her parents but by the servants and young men around her, down to the cooper who saw her as “the tastiest young Lady in the whole Place” (JWC's MAAN, 2 Aug. 1849; JWC to JRS, 10 Sept. 1852). Edward Irving has often been the chief figure that biographers have liked to dwell on, but the person who most dramatically starts up from the past in the Journal is George Rennie. To Thomas he is respected but “unmelodious,” yet he even shapes her account of her misery. As they are reunited she springs into his arms with kisses, “a different woman … strengthened body and soul” (JWC's Journal, 25 and 26 April 1856). In spite of some lapses, “last week I was all for dying, this week all for ball dresses!” (JWC's Journal, 1 May). Then, at the Rennies' dinner, “like everything looked forward to with pleasure,” it is “an entire failure! The Past stood aloof.” She never escapes herself.

The Journal shows the bitter disillusion that Geraldine Jewsbury writes of to Froude, 22 Nov. 1876 (GEJ to JAF, 22 Nov. 1876). There are the sour phrases about Neuberg's sycophancy (JWC's Journal, 20 April 1856), belied by Jane's letters to Neuberg and what we know of her husband's response. When dining is “made easy” on an invitation from Mrs. Rennie, Thomas's agreement, that “there was no refusing her,” is said to be given “with inward curses.” In fact, in spite of the excisions made, probably by Thomas and, certainly in the case of the “blue marks,” by his niece Mary, the remaining full text of the Journal is packed with her distress and resentment.

We have to note that Jane wrote her Journal when her depression was at its worst, greater even than she was to suffer after her street accident in October 1863, which left the constant “grinding wretchedness” of her “‘Neuralgic Rheumatism’” (Reminiscences, 164). Already, with Lady Harriet's own illness, the feeling of oppression was lessening, to be lifted with Lady Harriet's death in May 1857 and succeeded by the ecstatic friendship with Louisa Lady Ashburton. The Journal was written in Jane's darkest time.

How dark is confirmed in Geraldine's letter of 1876, which for all the questions it raises gives a definite impression of Jane soon after Geraldine came to London, especially in the passages that haven't been published before. Jane's mood is confirmed by Ellen Twisleton's account of the period at Craigenputtoch, written soon after November 1855, when the Journal is a blank from 14 December to 24 March 1856. There can be no reason to doubt that it represents what Jane told Ellen, but it is still a question why the two women should have collaborated on a report like this, only to put it aside like an unexploded grenade, to be set off more than 140 years later. For it is a curious document, and far from a straightforward account of what happened in 1828–34. A letter can be seen as a communication from writer to recipient, whereas this is to be understood as written by Ellen not just for her friend but with other readers in mind. Ellen is telling Jane, and Jane is telling Ellen, what she has just told her already. Both want to be overheard. One may imagine that the younger woman, once told, has suggested that Jane should write it down; but her answer, with understandable pride, is that her friend should do so. Ellen deals with it, therefore, shows a draft to Jane, and they produce a revised version. So, for all its apparent spontaneity, it is essentially a personal impression, disclaiming the status of direct autobiography, expressing with some passion, her memory of a past in which precise dates are largely irrelevant. Yet how far it is precisely true, or consistent with other records of the same time, is in question, there obviously being other records in letters and recollections. We can easily understand why Jane's later account does not agree with her letters written in 1828–34, nor with Thomas's Reminiscences; but we should be clear that there is a sharp discrepancy. When he read the Journal, Thomas could not escape the recognition that he had failed to see her deep distress in the eighteen-fifties, but he never gave up his conviction that “We were not unhappy at Craigenputtoch; perhaps these were our happiest days” (Reminiscences 78).

Again, the account is not exactly an indictment of her husband, whom we can imagine somewhere nearby as she addresses Ellen, perhaps with Edward Twisleton in the attic den contentedly discussing Dante, or current affairs: both Thomas and Edward were at times dreary spouses for spirited, lively younger women. If Jane and Ellen gave any thought to what would happen to their record, it may have been in the reasonable belief that the story would somehow come out years hence in posthumous justification of Jane's sense of martyrdom. Yet, as with most accounts of the Carlyles' marriage by Jane's friends, it still shows a respect for Thomas's good intentions though aware that he often had little concern for anyone's circumstances but his own. He and Jane resort to Craigenputtoch because he chooses to go there. We are reminded that it is Jane's mother's generosity that makes it possible, yet it is seen as his good nature more than anything else that delays payment of Mrs. Welsh's rent; and as the “Laird” he is actually too gentle to the servants, if sometimes inconsiderate.

Thomas often felt at this time that Frederick was not worth his labor and that the Prussian epic distracted him and weakened his influence. He works “in a whirlwind of dancing sand” (TC to JN, 5 Sept.), on “a History of Fritz that no man can write” (TC to LA, 23 Sept.) of “so essentially a desperate and undoable a character: why I should persist is strange to me; for I have oftenest no motive, or little, except the reluctance to be beaten” (TC to EMA, 29 Dec.). The biography gave him an escape from his unhappy marriage and ordinary socializing, and his constant complaint about the pressure of work disguises a deeper dissatisfaction.

Yet his interest was genuine. He admired Prussianism, responded imaginatively to the battles, and revisited the Enlightenment with the same skeptical spirit he had shown in The French Revolution. The biography was less a paean to despotism and “drill” than the description of an iconoclast who challenged the corrupt monarchies of Europe and prepared the way for the movement that would violently challenge the rule of monarchy, aristocracy, and “Respectability.” Like the embattled King of Prussia, he persists because he has faith in his own judgment. The greatness of the biography lies in his ability to sympathize with Frederick and his harsh yet loving father, Friedrich Wilhelm, and to see the world from their vantage point. Though candid about Fritz's failures, Thomas identified with a man who held tenaciously to his principles yet was surprisingly open to criticism. In his “Obliterated Rembrandt” (Works 18:482) portrait of Frederick, he sees a reflection of himself battling the false orthodoxies of his age; for the Prussian king “does wonderfully without sympathy from almost anybody; and the indifference with which he walks along, under such a cloud of sulky stupidities, of mendacities and misconceptions from the herd of mankind, is decidedly admirable to me” (Works 18:215).

Contrary to Thomas Carlyle's professed belief, he was still influential. Many felt that his condemnation of parliamentary government had been vindicated by events in the Crimea. Chapman & Hall had followed up its publication of Prophecy for 1855: Selected from Carlyle's “Latter-Day Pamphlets” in June with Passages Selected from the Writings of Thomas Carlyle in October. Both were edited by the journalist, Thomas Ballantyne (see TC to JAC, 23 Dec. 1854). Introducing the first selection he recalls the controversy Carlyle raised in 1850: “The newspapers, echoing the popular voice, hailed the new Rhadamanthus with … contemptuous laughter. Many of those even who had formerly admired Mr. Carlyle's writings, joined the common outcry. … How long it might have taken, under ordinary circumstances, to convert the English people to perfect accordance with Mr. Carlyle's views regarding ‘Downing Street,’ ‘Stump Oratory,’ and the failure of Parliament to govern this nation, it would be difficult to say. The war and the imperative business arising out of that unexpected event, have upset all ordinary calculations” (3–4).

Carlyle had recognized the defects of the political system more clearly, and incisively than most “experts”: “A sham government having allowed us, by its own confession, to ‘drift into war’ everybody now begins to see that a real Premier is necessary, to manage the work caused by the new state of things. Routine having broken down under the hard gallop into which it has been forced by the pressure of events and the Times newspaper, there is a general outcry for ‘Administrative Reform,’ and no small amount of ‘Stump Oratory’ is likely to be expended in proving that Mr. Carlyle was a true prophet in 1850, when he denounced the whole system of procedure by which Governments are appointed and broken up in this country” (4). He had not only questioned Anglo-French achievements in the Crimea but had also challenged the whole basis of moral and political correctness, raising awkward questions about nationalism, race, democracy, and the British constitution. Justifying the decision to publish a second volume of Carlyle's writings in October, Ballantyne declared: “The main object of the selector has been to give ‘the general reader’ some notion of what has been said by the most original thinker of the present age, on various questions” (26).

Reviewing the second collection in the Leader (27 Oct. 1855), George Eliot wrote that “there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle's writings; there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived. … The extent of his influence may be best seen in the fact that the ideas which were startling novelties when he first wrote them are now become common-places.” Those who objected to Carlyle's stylistic “exaggerations” and “dangerous paradoxes” in the Latter-Day Pamphlets overlook the value of his rhetorical method: “When he is saying the very opposite of what we think, he says it so finely, with so hearty a conviction—he makes the object about which we differ stand out in such grand relief under the clear light of his strong and honest intellect … that we are obliged to say ‘Hear! Hear!’ to the writer before we can give the decorous ‘Oh! Oh!’ to his opinion.” Notwithstanding frequent complaints, there was still life in Carlyle. As Eliot points out, “He does not, perhaps, convince you, but he strikes you, undeceives you, animates you.”

In this volume we have also been able to use some of the letters of Ellen Twisleton's sister, Elisabeth Dwight, to their sister Mary Parkman (Houghton Library, Harvard, MS 45m-98). Elisabeth had returned with the Twisletons from Boston, was being introduced to Ellen's friends in society, and gives us an independent report on the Carlyles and the Ashburton circle (14 Dec. 1855). After meeting Lady Harriet during her stay at the Grange, she declares that she “deserves admiration & respect for more than her wit, & that she is free from petty ways of thinking. … You will see that I am considerably in love with her, though I feel the wonderful difficulty of understanding these English people, without the observation of years, for the code of universal good breeding which is so religiously observed, has somewhat the effect of a universal mask, through which the different individualities are very dimly seen on first consideration.”

Her description of arriving at the Grange gives a scene highly familiar to the Carlyles and an idea of Elisabeth as an observer: “A heavenly servant met us at the door, who carried us through the Door to the Drawing-room, which is about the size of the Common.” They are taken to their rooms: a large one for the Twisletons, with a dressing room for Edward, and a smaller one for herself, and “everything that a human mind could desire; fires in each, of course, but also tea-kettles in each, which is refinement of malice, calculated to make one feel more at home than in their own house, and enabling you to scald yourself or friend, at the shortest notice.—We have only a Vandyke in one room, & a Paul Veronese in the other, in the way of pictures, which isn't what we are accustomed to, but we managed to get on, & overlook the omissions of the other great masters.” They meet Lady Harriet before dinner, finding her “stately but kindly, but there was no fuss made.”

After breakfast, when Lady Harriet appears, “arrayed in black velvet spencer, & brown flounced silk shirt, & cap with blue ribbons,” she gives a more-or-less impromptu reading from one of the essays of James Russell Lowell, when “Lowell himself could not have done more justice to his own jokes than did Lady A—with all the elegance of her stately manner modified to suit the occasion. I must say, at this [word illegible], she was perfectly enchanting.” Later, Elisabeth thinks her unable to “open her mouth without being agreeable, everyone who is within ear-shot of her enjoys themselves by necessity. I can think of nothing but the princesses in the fairy-tales who spoke pearls & diamonds, when I listen to her, & the indescribable charm of her voice, language & manner increases every day.” At other times it is clear that Lady Harriet often preferred the serious conversation of guests such as Professor Benjamin Jowett.

Ellen was delighted at the arrival of the Carlyles, with whom she soon “coalesced.” At dinner, Elisabeth enjoyed Jowett's company, and they agreed that they would set more store by Lord Lansdowne's “prophecies, for the next twenty years, than for Carlyles.” Lord Lansdowne's “gentle, cheerful words seem to have so much more of the spirit of truth, in them, than those protracted howls & lamentations.” But, as the stay continued, she reports that Thomas “is never seen to such advantage as here.”

Other fellow guests are noticed shrewedly, such as Jane Brookfield, “Thackeray's model woman, & supposed to be the original of his Amelia” in Vanity Fair, “an exceedingly pretty person, who does not speak above her breath, comes ‘the startled fawn’ perpetually, & dresses in true English style, with a net on her head, & a mantle on her shoulders. The gentlemen admire her & the ladies want to ‘set a dog on her.’” The Dwight sisters, Ellen and Elisabeth, are acute observers, and leave us in little doubt of their reliability.

These descriptions suggest that the Carlyles' letters are not always a final source for understanding them. It is welcome to find a fresh perspective of the Carlyles' circle, their correspondents, and their times, and to recognize that every text has a broader context.

Kenneth J. Fielding and David R. Sorensen

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Mrs. Brookfield, from a Drawing by W. M. Thackeray

Reproduced from Charles Brookfield and Frances Brookfield, Mrs. Brookfield and her Circle 4:05 (1905)