January-September 1856

The Collected Letters, Volume 31


INTRODUCTION; 2003; DOI: 10.1215/ed-31-introduction; CL 31: firstpage-31-xi-lastpage-31-xix


January to September 1856 were further months in the shadow of Frederick the Great for both Carlyles; months of unrelenting work for TC and often unrelenting ill health for JWC, ending in a prolonged summer in Scotland that led to a voluminous exchange of letters between them (as holidays always did when the Carlyles were separated) and a notable reappraisal of their national identity by two Scots who had not spent much time in their native parts for several years.1

TC greeted the new year without much enthusiasm. Their winter visit to the Grange (from 17 December 1855 to 14 January) had been full of good company. Nevertheless, he later characterized the house party—“Our last Grange Christmas, such as it proved, under the presidency of that great lady,”—as a gathering of aristocrats and scientists, “some of whom have left more than the shadow of an impression on me”2—a notably grudging comment, considering that one of the acquisitions of the time was the long-lasting friendship of John Tyndall, whose devotion to TC was unwavering. Clearly, both TC and JWC continued to charm socially through their good company and good humor, and his published writing, however controversial, continued to fascinate. As K. J. Fielding has observed, commenting on such evidence as Tyndall's correspondence, “[I]t gives a clear idea of what Carlyle's works meant to many of his readers in the forties and fifties. Through their language, beliefs, and social commitment they had a powerful effect.”3

JWC's effect certainly was as striking in the circle of friends who continue to elicit her epistolary skills in this volume, friends like Ellen Twisleton, who had commented shrewdly in April 1855: “Nobody has been kinder to me than Mrs Carlyle. … It seems to me sometime, as if all the love and charity and goodness and unworldliness, in England, were among the heathen, while ‘those who profess and call themselves Christians’ are hard, and cold, and selfish.”4 JWC shared Twisleton's impatience with energetic Christians (with her own aunts in Edinburgh, for instance), as we see from her letters and Notebook and Journal (see vol. 30). But her letters continue to demonstrate genuine affection, openly and attractively displayed (for example, her letters to Mary Russell)—and her conduct demonstrates the independence of mind that so many found attractive in the first place. That she should have added her signature in February to the Petition for Reform of the Married Woman's Property Law is perhaps astonishing in one who preferred to do good in private, if not by stealth. But JWC was fond of asserting her individuality, and she felt keenly in Scotland later in the year the difference between “being loved for the sake of ones dead Father and Mother—and being make-believe-loved for the sake of one's living ‘distinguished Husband!’” (JWC to EDO, [20 Aug.]).

The Carlyles were plainly both of them attractive friends, whatever bitterness may occasionally surface in their letters. While JWC's Journal, covering March to early July 1856, may also describe illness, depression, and anxiety, it is also a record of an extremely active social life, something that is not as apparent in her surviving letters (see Chronology and JWC's Journal). All her letters were to elicit strong feelings when TC read them in his bereaved state in 1866 after her death, finding them “mournful to me while I live.”5 Preparing the Reminiscences, he systematically read through JWC's letters: “[S]uch a day's reading as I perhaps never had in my life before. What a piercing radiancy of meaning to me in those dear records, hastily thrown off, full of misery, yet of bright eternal love; all as if on wings of lightning, tingling through one's very heart of hearts!”6

These months were overshadowed for both of them by TC's hard work on Frederick. On 19 January he wrote, “I have been the idlest, feeblest, and probably among the unhappiest of mankind; never felt so vanquished, overwhelmed and totally useless,—or hardly ever,—in my life before. Incapable of writing, of thinking, of acting. In fact a down-broken creature indeed. Which is shameful to think of” (TC to LA, 19 Jan.). There were frequent spells of self-disgust and near despair caused by a book “thoughtlessly gone into,” revulsion for subject and country both—“I have little real love for Frederick, and for his century, and its works and ways, contemptuous abhorrence rather than love” (TC to ES, 28 Jan.). Work—steady, methodical, and measurable work—seemed to be his only resource, for (as he confessed to LA on 3 April) “It is only when I fall altogether idle, that I get altogether miserable.”

As the year progressed, Frederick seemed a little less formidable; by 5 May TC thought it possible he would be sending the first half of the book to press in autumn, “then a little pause for the other two (or one), whh ends it!” (TC to JCA, 5 May). Alas, nine years were to pass before that end, though the first volume did take shape in 1856, at the same time as TC began preparations for publishing a “Cheap Edition” of his works with Chapman. With the sterling help at this point of Vernon Lushington and Joseph Neuberg—and what better proof could be asked of his magnetism than that people volunteered to help with the drudgery of Frederick—he did make progress, however grudgingly admitted. Even on holiday in August, “I have brought some Papers with me; and occasionally try to do a bit of work, getting Fk's ‘Introduction’ worked thro' the shoreless lake of Reichshistorie,—not with much effect hitherto” (TC to JN, 13 Aug.).

The present volume, then, like its predecessors, functions as a window on the creative process of TC's research and writing, the misery it caused him (and caused those about him), the near panic he felt at lack of progress, and the remorseless rise in the size and scope of the project. All he could do was grind steadily at it all, realizing that the self-disgust he would otherwise feel would be unbearable. And JWC? Her letters, while fewer in number than her husband's, remain sharp, observant, frequently confessional, and illustrated more and more by correspondence such as Ellen Twisleton's and her sister Elisabeth Dwight's (see, for example, Ellen Twisleton's Account of Life at Cragenputtoch, and JWC to LA, 14 Nov. 1855, and TC to JCA, 23 Dec. 1855), and the originals of such papers as the Ashburton collection now in the National Library of Scotland.

August and September 1856 were months when husband and wife were separated by their prolonged summer holiday, a separation that generated an almost daily correspondence, without which TC in particular was quite miserable and could work himself into a frenzy: “Well, thank Heaven I hear of you at last! The man, yesterday too, at first denied, ‘No Letters for you, Sir’; and I had three minutes of sceptical suspense, till he did produce the article. You have no idea how glad I am to hear of you on any terms” (TC to JWC, 23 Sept.). JWC replied tartly to criticism, not least since her husband was an unreasonably demanding correspondent, sometimes eliciting from JWC real fire. TC, for instance, had forgotten to take enough money with him to Scotland, and simply wrote to JWC to ask for more. JWC was not amused:

Oh dear! Oh dear! To be thrown into a quandry like this, just when I am getting ready to start for Thornhill! You are so wrong in your dates that I don't know what to make of it!—22d you have written at the top of your note and it arrives here on the 22d!—It may be all right, but also it may very probably be all wrong—and the five pound note I sent you from Ecclefechan on Thursday the 18th, and the long letter that accompanied it, gone to nobody knows where!—Pleasant! Why can't you take money enough with you! (JWC to TC, 22 Sept.)

In fact, both were suffering from nervous reaction to their long visit to Scotland. TC's return to Scotsbrig had been almost ecstatic: “I woke a couple or more of hours in the night; but in return fell sound asleep from 7 to past 10! After which, with bathing, with excellt coffee &c, I am really in a very fair way” (TC to JWC, 26 July). But then he went so far as to raise the specter of taking JWC back to live there, an idea she had roundly rejected before:

I will really put it to you once more, my little Dame, to consider if it were not better we returned to poor old Scotland, there to adjust ourselves a little, there to lay our bones. … It is certain we might live here in opulence, (keep brougham, cow, minister's man &c), and give our poor selves and Nero a much wholesomer life, were those Printing Enterprises once ended.—However, there is still plenty of time to reflect: the Printings are by no means done! (TC to JWC, 7 Aug.)

JWC, too—for a while—found Scotland enchanting. After staying with her cousins in Auchtertool, Fife, she arrived, 8 August, in Haddington to stay with the two surviving Donaldson sisters (one of whom was her godmother); she wrote to TC that it “is like being pretty well up towards Heaven, being here” (8 Aug.). She felt she was back in childhood, everything “in perfect condition still.” Puzzled by her own response to a return to familiar scenes, she wrote to Robert Tait in London a few days later:

Do you know I think dear old Scotland so much better in every respect than “the South” that I should like to come back to it for altogether—and have you and two or three more London people come to stay with me in the summer. … I was grown as cold and hard as a stone, with continued pressure of ill health and worry—Now I am so soft that I fall a-crying twenty times aday with sheer gratitude to every body for making so much of me. (JWC to RST, 12 Aug.)

Dead fathers and mothers confronted the Carlyles in Scotland as they faced up to their past. In September, TC revisited the graveyard where his father had been long immured and, since 1853, his adored mother (see TC to JWC, 30 Dec. 1853). After his return to London, he would write about this experience to his brother Alexander:

There, yes there they all lay; Father, Mother, and Margaret's grave between them: silent, now that were wont to be so speechful when one came among them after an absence. I stood silent, with bared head, as in the sacredest place of all the world, for a few moments; and I daresay tears again wetted these hard eyes which are now unused to weeping. … I did not return to that sacred spot; but if I come again to this country, I will visit it. No shrine can be so holy to a man. (TC to AC, 3 Oct.)

JWC was frankly surprised at the strength of her own emotional response to Scotland, and in letters to Mary Russell (which become much more intimate after she stayed with Mrs. Russell this summer and visited Crawford churchyard and Grace Welsh's grave with her), she was to lament her return to Chelsea and to normality: “I was so tired I could neither eat nor sleep—and after lying awake all night it seemed when I came down to breakfast as if I had taken on all the load of ailments again, I had kicked off on starting for Scotland—dear dear Scotland! I could have found in my heart to lie down and take the ground in my arms, and kiss it, that morning I came away—only it was raining torrents!” (JWC to MR, 6 Oct.).

Traveling with TC was no easy task. Quite apart from the forgotten money, there was his hatred of railways, which made him a really difficult companion. It had been difficult for JWC, coming north in the Ashburtons' private railway coach, “a grand ‘Queen's Saloon’ or Ne-plus-ultra of railway carriages (made for the Queen some time before) costing no end of money.”7 But waiting for him in Ecclefechan for the homeward journey was worse. She was to describe him as being

in what people here call “a state of mind”—all his nerves in a phrenzy from the long confused journey he had made—and the prospect of further journey still before him!— … I arrived here with a furious face ach; Mr C having insisted on my sitting in a violent draught all the journey. That kept me perfectly sleepless all night in spite of my extreme fatigue—and so I began to be ill at once and have gone on crescendo—in the same ratio that my worries have increased. (JWC to MR, 10 Oct.)

London company and Scotland company were very different in their effects on JWC, as she reflected on her return to London. There Geraldine Jewsbury, for instance, was JWC's constant companion, as can be seen particularly in the frequent references to her in the Journal (see vol. 30). Other friends such as Ellen Twisleton thought she was too frequent a companion: “unfailing Miss Jewsbury” (TC to AGI, 30 May 1855), and “the everlasting Jewsbury” (ET to Elisabeth Dwight, 5 Dec. 1858, Houghton MS). For JWC as well, Jewsbury's company could be too much, especially when compared to the more discreet attentions of Mary Russell, or the Edinburgh aunts who, with all their faults, looked after JWC kindly when she arrived seasick from crossing the Firth of Forth. Jewsbury, with what JWC called “her trade of Novelist” had “the desire of feeling and producing violent emotions. … When I am well I can laugh down this sort of thing in her; but when I am ill it fatigues me dreadfully, and irritates my moral sense as well as my nerves” (JWC to MR, [28 Nov.]; see vol. 32).

Even TC learned from his travels that life with his adored Lady Ashburton could be rather tiresome, when, instead of the servanted grandeur of Bath House or the Grange, they were cooped up together in a cold and damp Highland shooting lodge: “Her Ladyship, in worse humour than usual, is capable of being driven to extremities by your setting up a peat from its flat posture; so I have learned altogether to abstain! Nothing earthly is to be done, nothing good to be read, to be said or thought,—this is not a luxurious kind of life for a poor wayfaring individual” (TC to JWC, 22 [20] Sept.). He was not at home in Kinlochluichart or in the Highlands generally. He told his brother John that it was “a deplorable country.” The hunting lodge had been bought for sport, and TC had no interest in hunting. The weather was bad: “Every day it rains in flintmaking showers, one in five minutes, if one walk off the highway … one runs imminent risk not only of wet feet but of sprained ancles” (TC to JAC, 25 Sept.). It was so bad that it was not only an inconvenience for TC but was reported in the Times, 29 September, as almost destroying the harvest. The year 1856 saw the beginnings of a recovery from the hardship of the ten-year potato famine and a bad harvest would have inflicted great damage on the fragile Highland economy. Fortunately, the weather improved after TC left, and the harvest was saved.

TC had little sympathy for Highlanders. During the 1840s and 1850s, when many Highland estates were being sold off by the hereditary landlords, it became fashionable for some wealthy Scots Lowlanders and English families like the Ashburtons to buy or rent Highland estates for hunting. Other new owners, like some of the earlier owners, introduced large-scale sheep farming, resulting in depopulation. TC's perception was of “a country totally unimproved by the Natives; but considerably improvable,—thanks to South country farmers who are coming in here and there with their draining apparatus and their Cheviot sheep” (TC to JC, 25 Sept.). TC chose not to stay at the estate of one of the better kind of southern landowner, Edward Ellice, friend of the Ashburtons and the Carlyles, who had an estate fifty miles from Kinlochluichart (TC to EEL, 23 Sept.). The Ellices were English but had strong connections with the north of Scotland. Ellice's son, also Edward, who had greatly increased the family estates, was interested not just in ownership of land but also in the welfare of its inhabitants. He opposed the Highland clearances and assisted emigration, and fought for more humane administration of the Scottish Poor Law.

What the letters make abundantly plain is the continuing intellectual energy of both Carlyles, despite the obvious problems of health, temperament, and nervous irritability. Their lives in these months, as in other years, are punctuated by visits to the Ashburtons' homes, where they met many intellectually stimulating conversationalists and companions. They also describe the steady stream of visitors in the afternoons and evenings in the Chelsea drawing room, which JWC had enlarged and redecorated at such cost of nerves and energy in 1853. The streams of visitors are even more visible in the months of her Journal (March to early July 1856; see vol. 30), as it gives much more precise details of both those who visited the house, and the social occasions that both of them, or JWC on her own, took part in outside of the house. The fascinating counterpoint between the public face of the Carlyles—genial, enthusiastic, passionately friendly—and the more morbid and acid commentary that enlivens their letters is even more vividly present with the counterpoint that is possible only at this period between both their letters and the Journal. We know that TC at the Grange at the beginning of the year made his impatience at Tennyson's Maud all too clear even in the poet's company (see JWC to MW, [10 Jan.]), but JWC (who no doubt kept her own counsel in public) wrote in private of Tennyson, “going about asking everybody if they like his Maud—and reading Maud aloud—and talking of Maud, Maud, Maud till I wished myself far away among people who only read and wrote prose or who neither read nor wrote at all” (JWC to MW, [10 Jan.]). TC could thank Ruskin for volume 3 of Modern Painters and call it in his letter “the real Sermon of the season and Epoch” (TC to JRU, 18 Jan.). But JWC's letters to William Allingham are far more interesting in their recognition of Ruskin the man as well as Ruskin the writer: “As for Ruskin; I never saw a man so improved by the loss of his wife! He is amiable and gay, and full of hope and faith in—one doesn't exactly know what—but of course he does.” She concluded: “Mrs Ruskin must have been hard to please” (JWC to WA, 23 Feb.).

TC was very private in his research and his writing in these months, but far from invisible to a generation that had come to recognize, in his moral, ethical, and social writings, one of the foremost influences in the thought of Victorian Britain (or, as both he and others infuriatingly continued to call it, “England”). Writers like James Martineau (in the National Review of October 1856) bracketed TC with Newman and Coleridge as a wellspring of “the altered spirit, in regard to religion, pervading the young intellect of England.” He wrote there with enthusiasm of TC's hostility to rationalism:

The very things which this desiccating rationalism flung off, were to Mr. Carlyle just the essence and whole worth of the universe: and to show that beauty, truth, and goodness, could not thus be got rid of, while imposters were hired to bear their name; that religion is not hope and fear, or duty prudence, or art a skill to please; that behind the sensible there lies a spiritual, and beneath all relative phenomena an absolute reality,—was evidently, if not his early vow, at least his first inspiration. Surely it was an authentic appointment to a noble work: and on looking back over his quarter-century, no one can deny that it has been manfully achieved.8

Like him or not, TC was obviously a force in his time. Another eminent Scot of the times, George Gilfillan, made the point when lecturing in the Queen Street Hall, Edinburgh, in February 1856: “He alluded to Carlyle's last lamentable letter to John Sterling. He was afraid that John Sterling had left this world stripped of every hope by a friendly hand. Mr. Gilfillan then referred to Mr. Carlyle's calumnious view of the public teaching of Christianity, and drew a picture of the great loss which the world would sustain if the ministrations of the pulpit were withdrawn.”9 Superbly indifferent to most criticism, TC would barely have noticed such comment. Curiously insensitive to his effect on those who wrote, he could dismiss Browning's offering of Men and Women with the remarkable summing-up: “My friend, it is what they call ‘unintelligibility’! That is a fact: you are dreadfully difficult to understand; and that is really a sin. Admit the accusation: I testify to it; I found most of your Pieces too hard of interpretation, and more than one (chiefly of the short kind) I had to read as a very enigma” (TC to RB, 25 April). Continuing his diatribe against poetry, a week later, he was writing to an unidentified correspondent that “whatever the idle humour of mankind, thro' their Newspapers and Literary Gazettes, may be in our time, there is no idler trade now carried on than that of verse-writing, nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of the thousand, now is; not any in which success is more uncertain, nor more utterly worthless to a serious man, when it does come” (1 May).

The Carlyles remain supremely gifted enigmas in this volume, as in previous ones. Sociable, private, generous, sarcastic, wonderful letter writers, demanding letter receivers, they were at the heart of a network that makes them exceptional observers not only of their London environment but also of a larger canvas that could include farmsteads in the Lowlands and shooting lodges in the Highlands of Scotland. Characteristically, TC puts down his pen with the realization that even his gifts as a letter writer were inadequate to the task he set himself: “Oh Goody, Oh poor Goody, Goody! How hard and cold is my talk in contrast to the thought that lies in me,—obstructed by the East Wind alone! May God bless thee: that, any way, is one prayer that I can pronounce with entire completeness of utterance. But I think it now certain you will leave this world one day without ever knowing what my heart was towards you” (TC to JWC, 21 Aug.). JWC would not have committed such a thought to paper, nor anticipated the outpouring of TC's Reminiscences that her death in 1866 was to provoke. What these months of 1856 brought to them both was a physical return to their roots, not just for a fleeting stay but for long enough to consider the thirty years of their marriage and the twenty-two years they had spent together in Chelsea.

Ian Campbell