August 1857-June 1858

The Collected Letters, Volume 33


INTRODUCTION; 2005; DOI: 10.1215/ed-33-introduction; CL 33: firstpage-33-xv-lastpage-33-xxiii


This volume includes letters from August 1857 to the end of June 1858.1 It begins with Jane Welsh Carlyle in Scotland, where she has been since 7 July 1857. Her bouts of ill health had been increasingly prolonged and debilitating over the previous two years. The holiday in Scotland was intended to restore her health and to enable her to withstand the coming London winter. Her first letters are from Auchtertool, Fife, where she is visiting her cousins, while Thomas Carlyle is in Chelsea working on the proofs of Frederick and the cheap edition of his works. TC's interest in writing on Frederick the Great was evident as early as 1830 (TC to GRG, 21 May 1830). By 1845 he was reading intensively about Frederick (TC to KAVE, 19 Aug. 1845); by 1852 he was thinking seriously about writing his history (TC to RWE, 25 June 1852, and TC to JN, 6 July 1852); by 1857–58, the period covered by the current volume, TC doubts that he will get through the work alive. His complaints are loud, boisterous, and frequent, scarcely using the same phrase twice to describe his pain. He informs Lord Ashburton, 15 November 1857: “No such job, I often think, was ever laid upon a reasonable creature. … In truth, it has quite broken my heart.” He writes to his brother John, 7 December 1857, that it is a “mass of paper clippings” and “paltry marine-stores”; to G. H. Lewes, 7 December, that he will be driven mad by it; to Leigh Hunt, 3 January 1858, that he is “crushed down with contemptible overwhelming labour this long time”; and to Emerson, 2 June 1858, “[N]obody ought to write,—unless sheer Fate force him to do it;—and then he ought (if not of the mountebank genus) to beg to be shot rather.” In fact, Frederick (a burden that had afflicted the lives of both TC and JWC) was not to be finished until just over a year before JWC's death in April 1866. Geraldine Jewsbury wrote at its completion, 24 March 1865: “Carlyle has finished Frederick! & his wife who ought to know declaring that he has been kicking up his heels in a wonderful way ever since!” (Mantell Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library).

JWC's letters are written for the most part to entertain and beguile; they are long, witty, and perceptive, even when she is writing to TC of her depression and illness. Auchtertool is too chaotic for her, but vitality, not misery, is the main characteristic of her letter to TC in which she describes her discomfort:

Oh Heavens! or rather, oh the other Place! “I am degenerating from a woman into a dog, and feel an inclination to bark; bow! wow! wow!” Ever since I came here I have been passing out of one silent rage into another, at the Things in general of this House! viewed from the Invalid-point of view, they are enough really to make one not only bark but bite. (JWC to TC, [3 Aug. 1857])

Later, when Jeannie Chrystal, the beloved Babbie of JWC's earlier letters, arrives, JWC is enraged by her entourage:

Jeanie and her suite did not arrive till yesterday—The Baby is about three finger lengths long—the two nurses nearly six feet each! five packing cases came before them … ! and as many portmanteaus and carpet-bags in the carriage with them!—“Did you ever?” “No—I never!” … [I]t is only the speedy prospect of getting far away from it that has enabled me to keep from bursting out into swearing (JWC to TC, [13 Aug. 1857]).

Her letters to friends are enriched by stories; for example, the theatrical and farcical story she relates to Agnes Howden of the bug in her servant Anne's ear; it ends with the image of Anne rushing off to the apothecary with blood pouring from her ear, JWC rushing out after Anne, and TC rushing out to pull JWC back (JWC to AHO, [23 Nov. 1857]). In a letter to David Davidson, she uses her apology for the lateness of her reply as a vehicle for telling him the story of Georgiana Craik's smallpox and the way in which it “made a very pretty girl into a plain one” (JWC to DD, 5 Nov. 1857). Other stories are embedded in the text of her letters and are told in a few words; the horrifying story of the Gilchrists' servant who strangled her baby and locked it away in her trunk is told in a sentence to Isabella Carlyle, February 1858. In another letter to Agnes Howden, she delights in the macabre, asking her if her father, Dr. Howden, prescribes pepsin, the latest fad in medicine, apparently procured from the scrapings of the stomachs of dead people: “Pleasant isn't it, the idea of swallowing the scrapings of—say a malefactors stomach—in drops! What next?” [24 Oct. 1857]. She makes the story more macabre by her references to the scrapings of the stomachs of two famous poisoners, William Palmer and Madeleine Smith, whose trials had fascinated her (see JWC's Journal, 16–17 May 1856, and JWC to MR, [5 July 1857]).

JWC's comments on Lord Ashburton give us a new perspective, a close-up of the man, easier to see now that he is no longer overshadowed by his first wife, Lady Harriet Ashburton, who had died in May 1857 (see TC to JN, 7 May 1857). She comments to TC that in general he is “so sweet-natured; and yet the only sentiment I ever see him express in a real human way is anger! … but all the rest of his sentiments (his grief included) seem no more really HIS than the sentiments of Macbeth are William Macready's indeed not so much! He plays the part of his own Life like a third rate actor” (JWC to TC, [30 Aug. 1857]). She tells Mary Russell: “It is not so much sorrow that troubles him one would say, as bewilderment—He looks like a child who has lost his nurse in a wood—I expect some scheming woman will marry him up … because he does [not] know what to do with himself, and would be glad that some one took the trouble of him off his hands” (JWC to MR, [2 Oct. 1857]). In November 1858 (vol. 34), Ashburton was to marry Louisa Mackenzie, who was described by TC to LOA, 15 September 1857, as “a bright vivacious damsel, straggling fitfully about, like a sweet-briar,—and with hooks under her flowers, too, I understand.” This is almost certainly TC indulging his capacity for sharing gossip rather than meant as a warning to his old friend. Lady Louisa Ashburton was to become a close friend of both Carlyles.

Many of TC's letters are about the process of publishing; they are short, giving instructions to printers and helpers, and negotiating terms, where he often drives a hard bargain. Occasionally his letters contain what Ruskin called his “lovingly involuntary eloquence of description” that Ruskin sees in Frederick and that makes it impossible for him to understand TC's anguish over its writing (Praeterita [Orpington, 1887] 2:240; see TC to JAC, [16] April 1858). A description of an evening ride from Richmond to Chelsea provides an example of these powers of description, present in all his published works but less often in his letters: “The ride home was rapid, somewhat chaotic; darkness having fallen in the interim. London and all places were clangouring and jangling with their Sunday bells; a heaped-up universe of frosty fog, with flares of gaslight visible in it, hung on my right: a ride as thro' a nightmare, tho' an ugly fact withal” (TC to LOA, 4 Jan. 1858).

Central to this volume, as to others, is the ebb and flow of the Carlyles' mutually dependant but difficult relationship. Letters to each other in the first part of the volume continue the mood of those in volume 32 (October 1856 to July 1857). JWC is weak and ill, and TC is paternal and caring. However, after the disappointment of receiving from TC only a copy of Punch and some photographs, she can still write: “I could have thrown it at your head—Neither was I inordinately grateful for the Photographs” (JWC to TC, 3 Aug. 1857). TC writes to her, 5 August 1857: “I am glad at any rate that you make your bits of complaints freely to me. … I know you for an honest soul (far too sharp-tempered, but true to the bone); … tell me everything; and never mind how ‘weak’ you are before me: I know yr strength and yr weakness very well by this time!” JWC is not always at ease with the balance of their relationship (as could be seen at the start of her summer in Scotland; see JWC to TC, 26 July 1857), but in her weak state she cannot redress it, and alongside the energy of some of her writing there is deep fear and despair. She writes, 10 August 1857, that her physical pain although gone was “followed by such horrible depression of spirits that it felt as if one degree more of it would make me hang or drown myself.” Yet two weeks later, she writes a joyful and enthusiastic letter about the first two volumes of Frederick, of which she has just read the proofs. She swears it will be “the best of all your Books! I say so who never flatter, as you are too well aware; and who am ‘the only person I know that is always in the right!’” But, she concludes, “small thanks to it! It has taken a doing!” (JWC to TC, [24 Aug. 1857]). TC writes in answer, full of gratitude, 25 August 1857, that she had always “predicted good” of him whether or not he was valued by the rest of the world.

The mutual support, affection, and respect they frequently afforded each other is at its height here, but it does not last. Frederick continues to take its toll on their lives and their marriage. JWC no longer has Lady Ashburton and her own jealousy as a catalyst; the tensions between her and TC are different from those in previous volumes. As soon as JWC is back in Chelsea, she complains to Mary Russell, 2 October 1857, that TC is responsible for giving her another cold; to Mary Austin, TC's sister, she writes that when she asked TC if he had written to thank Mary for a food parcel she had sent, “he exclaimed wildly that he had ‘fifteen hours of the most awful work, of correcting proofs a-head of him—that I who had nothing to do should have written to Mary’” (25 Dec. 1857). In the same letter she writes that they no longer eat together; JWC dines “on anything at two o'clock; not being up to waiting for Mr C's six or seven o clock dinners.” She later describes the disruption at Cheyne Row of her two young cousins' visit: “Mr C alone escaped ‘consequences’; … his work, his meals all that was his was strictly guarded from disturbance! But the strain of constituting oneself a human partition-wall—betwixt work and trifling, takes more out of one than anyone could believe till he tried!” (JWC to MR, [31 Dec. 1857]). By the end of the volume (June 1858), JWC's depression and her anger at TC has reached another climax. Again they are separated, this time with TC in Scotland and JWC in Chelsea. To Mary Russell, she complains that living with TC has been like “living the life of a weathercock in a high wind, blowing from all points at once” ([27 June 1858]). A letter to TC in late June is, on the surface, a beautifully light letter, full of coterie speech and references to fairy stories. She tells him about Charlotte Southam, the new servant, and Mrs. Newnham's “little sick daughter, lying out on the green today, reading Fairy Tales. … Our green to her is grander than the Grange grounds to us!” Yet buried in the middle of it she writes: “[T]o see you constantly discontented and as much so with me as with all other thingsthat has done me more harm than you have the least notion of—You have not the least notion what a killing thought it is, to have put into one's heart, gnawing there day and night, that one ought to be dead” (JWC to TC, [25 June 1858]). TC responds, 28 June 1858, with “[Y]our anger at me (grounded on that false basis) was itself sometimes a kind of comfort to me: I thot, ‘Well, she has the strength to be cross and illnatured at me; she is not all softness and affection and weakness!’” This could have been a genuine attempt to understand JWC or merely his way of shelving JWC's distress while he buried himself in Frederick. Certainly in his letters to other people, he is concerned about her. He writes to his brother John: “She is very feckless; tho' full of spirit, when she can get the least chance; sleep is still a scarcity; and cold temperature seems to tell on her at once” (TC to JAC, 28 Dec. 1857).

The most detailed record of the Carlyles' relationship by an outsider during this period is by Henry Larkin, and it has been used extensively in the notes to this volume. Larkin was helping TC with his cheap edition and with Frederick, and he was a frequent visitor to Cheyne Row; he developed close relationships with both Carlyles. He remembers realizing “the intense dreariness of [JWC's] own life” and the misery of being shut up with TC “when he himself was struggling under his burdens in utter wretchedness and gloominess of heart. … [W]hat she felt most keenly of all was, that he never seemed to realize that misery is the most contagious of all diseases. … And yet, I ought to say, I never once heard an angry word pass between themselves” (Larkin, BQR 49–51). However, Larkin's account is not contemporary but written shortly after the publication in 1881 of Reminiscences, which so shocked and surprised those who had known the Carlyles. Larkin presents another view, looking in hindsight at a very complex marriage.

The letters in this volume help us to see beyond the Carlyles' iconic status as a couple; they give us fresh knowledge of other aspects of the Carlyles' lives. JWC's increasing fondness for Scotland and nostalgic memories of her youth are present in most of her letters. While in Scotland, she wants to spend her time with people who were fond of her as a child, her aunts and the Donaldson sisters, who will pamper her and restore order to her ravaged brain after the turmoil of Auchtertool, travel, and illness. She does not visit Mary Russell because Thornhill is “too emotional by far for worn-out spirits” (JWC to JCA, 22 Aug. 1857). One-third of her letters are to old friends in Scotland; as in volume 32, the majority are to Mary Russell. Increasingly, it is in the past that she finds comfort from the trials of the present. To William Dods, a school friend who had “smoothed her journey to London, as by magic,” she recalls a childhood event when the morning was “all glancing like diamonds, and smelling of hawthorn and sweet briar, with the dew on them! … It was in 1814 that Arcadian transaction. … I cannot get the date forgotten; for it stands written … in your hand-writing, on the rim of my mathematical-instrument-case” (JWC to WDO, [19? Sept. 1857]). She writes to David Davidson, 5 November 1857, that the letter he sends from Haddington “was like hearing music from one's far home in a strange Land! I paid it the compliment of crying over it.” She describes her “picture gallery” with the sketch of Sunny Bank, her godmother's home, opposite her bed which she needs, as Ruskin needs his Turners, to have “something spirit-stirring” to wake up to. When he sends her a photograph of himself, she tries hard to recall through it the “image of the tall pale Boy that my mother was so fond of” (JWC to DD, 29 Dec. 1857). To Agnes Howden she writes: “I like to hear of your Halloween—my ideas of Halloween are all connected with Maitlandfield. I always spent it there as far back as I recollect. Have ducked for apples and burnt nuts in that very kitchen of yours” (23 Nov. 1857). The links with Scotland, which had become tenuous during her long absence prior to her 1849 visit (see JWC's MAAN, 2 Aug. 1849), were strengthened. The increased convenience of the trains between London and Scotland made it practically easier for JWC to return to her roots, but the renewed ties are also to do with an emotional return, a recollection of valued friendships and attachments; in the end, as TC later chose Ecclefechan, she chose to be buried in her birthplace of Haddington.

Two major crises in JWC's personal life would have increased her reliance on her friends in Scotland. First of all, her old friend and confidante Geraldine Jewsbury has “all but as good as gone out of my life!!!” (JWC to MR, [16 Jan. 1858]). Jewsbury had fallen in love with Walter Mantell, who had been living in New Zealand and who had come to London to plead for Maori rights. Jewsbury supported his cause and became increasingly devoted to him. In the same letter JWC is excessively critical of Jewsbury: “[A]ll that makes me so angry, and what is worse disgusts me! It is making herself so small.” It is more likely that JWC is angered by the diversion of Jewsbury's attention away from herself at a time when she is feeling vulnerable.2 She was looking forward to seeing Jewsbury on her return from Scotland: “I shall have no end of little histories to tell you when you are there, and at leisure to hear them” (JWC to GEJ, [11? Sept. 1857]). But Jewsbury was away too long, and JWC felt abandoned. When Jewsbury does appear, however, JWC is still happy to use her to run errands. She announces to TC that there is no need for him to rush back from The Grange for her: “With Geraldine at hand I dont suffer the same practical inconvenience from being confined to the house—I can send her on any message and ask her to do anything” (JWC to TC, [18 Jan. 1858]). The second misfortune was her worsening relationship with Anne, her servant of almost five years, who left at the end of March 1858. Her resentments against both Geraldine and Anne are poured out to Mary Russell (see JWC to MR, [16 Jan. 1858]).

In spite of his desperation over Frederick, TC is not the recluse he claims to be. He tells Joseph Neuberg, 22 August 1857, that he sees no one, yet on 17 August he writes to JWC that he has seen Woolner, Lady Downshire, and Jewsbury; on 19 August that he has been visited by Thomas Wilson; and on 25 August that he has visited Anthony Sterling, dined with Darwin, and met the Wedgwoods and John Allen. Émile Montégut dedicates an essay to him (see TC to EM, 16 April 1858); Leopold von Orlich, the Prussian military historian, offers to help him with Frederick (see TC to LST, 9 March 1858) and he has regular contact with Henry Larkin, Vernon Lushington, and Neuberg, his ever willing helpers. There is also a light-hearted, fond exchange of letters between him and Ellen Twisleton, 10 and 12 December 1857. By the end of April 1858, although gloomily aware of the work still to be done on Frederick and pessimistic about its outcome, he is relieved that at least the first part is now almost finished. He attends a dinner at Lord Ashburton's, 20 April, where, John Tyndall reports to a friend, he and TC were “the most joyful pair at the table” and that TC was “in choice condition, strong and fervent.” Throughout this period, Robert Tait is almost constantly present, taking photographs or working on his painting A Chelsea Interior. The Carlyles complain about him, A Chelsea Interior, and the smell of his photography, although photography is a new technology that delights and fascinates them, not only because they can send pictures of themselves and their house to friends and relatives but also because it represents another record of their lives and their world (see JWC to MCA, [April/May 1858]). Nor did Frederick drive away all of TC's other interests. He takes time to write to Richard Owen, the natural historian, 17 May 1858, about the prehistoric bones he has seen near Victoria station when men were digging up the road. Owen has another indirect link to the countless stories embedded in the Carlyles' letters. Walter Mantell, JWC's rival for Jewsbury's affection, supplied the bird bones for part of Owen's research in 1847. Mantell had sent them from New Zealand to his father, Gideon Mantell, also a natural historian, who allowed Owen access to them and who later became deeply critical of Owen.

Two international events affect the Carlyles in this volume: the uprising in India and the financial crisis. In the previous volume, before the seriousness and horror of the Indian rebellion became apparent, TC largely ignored it. In this volume he engages far more with it. Shocked and angered by it, he blames not the rebels but the British for political and military mismanagement. He tells Lord Ashburton, 31 August 1857: “The Indian Affairs hang like a millstone on me. … It seems to me neither greased Cartridges, nor Coll Wheeler, nor our procedures in Oude, nor any other mysterious Secondary cause is worth talking of in the presence of a most clear and patent primary cause, an Army with Officers of the Imaginary sort!” To his brother John, he writes, 11 September 1857: “Sensible men (a smallish company here) are shocked and alarmed at these Indian phenomena. Very disgraceful to England (to English Officership in particular), and the English style of ‘Army.’” There is no satisfaction for him when the rebellion is put down and he is appalled at the brutality with which it is done. He writes to John Strachey, 13 September 1857: “I cannot bear to read those inhuman details in the Newspapers. … To punish the Sepoys, and mince them all to pieces &c &c.” JWC too is shocked. She writes to TC of the massacre of women and children and its confirmation of her own religious scepticism: “It is difficult to reconcile such things with the belief that God takes care of every individual he has made! ‘God is Love’—Love? It isn't much like a world ruled by Love this” (10 Aug. 1857). The only comfort she has is from the women's letters from India: “The men's letters are detestable generally. … But some of the women, afterwards murdered, write, in presence of their horrible fate, with a calm fortitude, and pious resignation that are sublime” (JWC to MR, 8 Oct. 1857).

As early as 13 August 1857, TC writes to his brother Alexander in Canada of the overblown economy in Scotland and the rest of Britain: “[A]ll things rising in price; all manner of gamblers getting ‘fortunes’ &c &c: and by and by there will be a very burbly account to settle indeed.” By the autumn, TC's prediction was coming true, and the financial crisis, which began in the United States in the late summer of 1857, very soon began to affect British financial institutions. Several of the Carlyles' friends were affected by the crisis. Some of Ellen Twisleton's family lost “nine-tenths of all they had,” and the elderly Jessie Donaldson wrote, 30 December 1857: “The Bank failures are my all absorbing subject” (see TC to LOA, 15 Nov. 1857). TC's attitude to his own losses is interesting. JWC describes it: “Mr C. has or had some money in America—He doesn't recollect how much! and doesn't feel even a natural curiosity what is become of it!!” According to JWC, he takes the loss lightly and generously expresses pity for Charles Butler, who had looked after his investments for him (JWC to AHO, [23 Nov. 1857]). This is confirmed by TC's letter to Butler of 9 June 1858. This is a different TC from the one we see bargaining with publishers, but the same TC who, in a letter to JWC, 30 June 1858, offers help to pay for her cousin John Welsh (dying of tuberculosis) to go to Madeira.

The Carlyles' letters are as multilayered and complex as their characters. TC's Frederick and JWC's illness and depression certainly circumscribed their lives and affected their relationship, but there were other dimensions. TC's retrospective remarks about this period are misleading when he says that JWC's enthusiasm over Frederick is “the last … bit of pure sunshine that visited my dark and lonesome … enterprise of Frederick” (pbd. in Froude, LM 2:332; see JWC to TC, [24 Aug. 1857]). Both the Carlyles' reactions and responses to each other, to other people, and to events were immediate and intense. Constructing a narrative from their letters is not straightforward; their tone and energy is often inconsistent with the misery they say they are enduring and with their own overt narrative. The Carlyles' brilliance is undiminished by their suffering, and the brightness of the letters never fails to cast a new light on their marriage and the world they inhabit.

Sheila McIntosh