The Carlyles and Their “Victorian” World in Letters

Consider, or try to consider, for a moment, the array of British thought, the resultant ensemble of the last fifty years, as existing today, but with Carlyle left out. It would be like an army with no artillery.
—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (1881)

The Carlyles

As much as any other couple living in the nineteenth century, Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle defined what it was to be “Victorian.” He was the “Sage of Chelsea,” widely recognized as a voice crying out to an age of chaos. She was the vibrant, opinionated favorite of notables such as Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, and Giuseppe Mazzini. Through the years, however, their reputations have suffered as much as the Anglo-centric term that still best describes them, if not their world.

Samuel Butler’s rather Wildean dictum, that it was “very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable instead of four,” has become a foundation of misperception, both for scholars forced to draw conclusions from the conventionally accepted snippets of an overwhelmingly immense body of literature, and for general readers, the vast majority of whom have no idea who the Carlyles were at all.

But even as we admit to all of their faults and all of their conscious and unconscious participations in the cultural evils of nineteenth-century Britain, the Carlyles remain vitally important to any satisfactory understanding of the culture, the literature, and the history of their time. The legacy that Walt Whitman claimed for Carlyle in 1881 still rings true, and for both Carlyles.

Coming of Age

Thomas Carlyle was born in the small village of Ecclefechan, Scotland, in 1795 to strict yet loving Calvinist parents. Conversely, Jane Baillie Welsh was born to solidly middle class parents in the somewhat less provincial town of Haddington, Scotland, in 1801. Although their childhoods were marked by dramatic differences in class, there were also essential similarities. Both Thomas and Jane were intelligent, voracious readers who overcame great obstacles to be educated. It is not surprising that when Jane Baillie Welsh met the young scholar from Edinburgh and became his de facto pupil, they fell in love.

As the Carlyles came of age in the 1820s, eventually marrying in 1826, the imaginative revolution we recognize as the Romantic endeavor was being questioned and overlapped by the inexorable advent of a worldview dominated by industrialism (a word coined by Carlyle) and by a developing, earnestly “Victorian” sensibility.

To London and Fame

In 1834 the Carlyles moved from remote Craigenputtoch in rural Scotland (where Carlyle had penned Sartor Resartus and met Ralph Waldo Emerson) to modest quarters in “shabby” Chelsea, a block from the Thames in the western part of greater London. Once established at 5 Cheyne Row, they quickly established themselves at the center of a growing circle of influential artists, philosophers, writers, historians, politicians, and editors just as the British Empire was expanding toward the zenith of its world dominance.

Merit and fortune, therefore, combined to place the Carlyles squarely at the geographical, political, and intellectual center of their century. Fortunately, readers who seek to view the age of Victoria from this central vantage point may do so in the remarkable account left to them in the Carlyles’ letters.

Lives in Letters

The Carlyles’ fame, however, does not mean that they wrote exclusively to and of great people and events. Of the approximately ten thousand letters gathered so far for this ongoing edition, the majority are written to family members, with many more written to people who would otherwise not leave their literary mark in the annals of time. As it was for everyone writing in the nineteenth century, the letter was the main vehicle of communication over distance. And it is in the rather quotidian letters reporting news of family, weather, and dinner or travel plans that one detects the utterly human quality of the Carlyles’ daily lives.

Remarkably, the vibrancy that exudes from their everyday correspondence appears also in the letters to their more famous friends, an array of correspondents that includes all of the names one might expect to find in a list of important British, American, and European thinkers and writers of the 19th century:

Louis Blanc, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Lydia Maria Child, Charlotte Cushman, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Dickens, Charles Gavan Duffy, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward FitzGerald, John Forster, James Anthony Froude, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Gaskell, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander Herzen, Holman Hunt, Leigh Hunt, Geraldine Jewsbury, Charles Kingsley, Charles Macready, Harriet Martineau, Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ivan Turgenev, and Thomas Woolner.

As incredible as it may seem, this list contains only a fraction of the more than 600 correspondents whose letters from the Carlyles survive in libraries and private collections around the world, and scholars continue to discover previously unknown letters by both Carlyles.

Collecting the Letters

When Jane Welsh Carlyle died in April 1866, Carlyle was left a visible wreck, an old man searching through boxes in an effort to preserve his beloved “Goody” in letters. Regardless of how scholars wish to describe the motivation behind Carlyle’s collecting and organizing of his wife’s letters, he must be thanked for his fundamental role in saving a remarkable literary archive for future generations. When Carlyle himself died in 1881, having turned the cliché “His life spanned the century” into reality, the collection of his own letters continued in earnest.

More than 125 years later, the Carlyles’ letters continue to be collected and published, and they continue to be relevant to understanding their time, as well as our own. Some scholars, perhaps forgetting Whitman’s admonition, wonder why. Assuredly, Carlyle’s voice sounds horrible to a twenty-first-century ear, especially one with no knowledge of the sarcastic, bombastic nature of the singer.

Jane Welsh Carlyle’s life, similarly misunderstood, has been read as a maudlin tragedy of “Victorian” sexual politics, abused by an uncaring, narcissistic husband more interested in preserving his “Victorian” reputation than in exhibiting kindness to his “Victorian” wife.

Envisioning a More Human Legacy

Armed with such damning “evidence,” post-millennial academe has confined the Carlyles to the role of participants in the broader hegemonic evils of a British conception of self and nation utterly comfortable with the idea of lending their queen’s name to an age. But if one is to understand the Carlyles in more human terms, beyond the accepted vision of a “Victorian” couple victimized by the “Victorian” age, if one is to see the Carlyles not reductively as paradigmatic loci for new historical finger-pointing, then one must turn to their letters.

In his own long literary career, particularly through his historical works on the French Revolution, the era of Cromwell, and the life of Frederick the Great, Carlyle understood very well that letters are autobiography and that biography is history, that letters can and do possess an intrinsic honesty that opens windows, not just on the life of the letter-writer but, in a broader and more significant sense, on the letter-writer’s contemporary environment (another word coined by Carlyle). In his immortal In Memoriam, Tennyson makes physical and spiritual contact with his dead friend Hallam by reading his letters. Similarly, the Carlyles and their world live again in these letters. In reading them, you will find their lives to be decidedly more human than “Victorian.”

B.E.K.


[For a more comprehensive introduction to the Carlyles, their letters, and their world, please see the introductions and chronologies of the print edition, all of which are readily available in the CLO on the table of contents page for each volume.]


A Chelsea Interior (1857), by Robert Scott Tait,
Carlyle's House, Chelsea.

Used here and elsewhere in the CLO by permission of the National Trust.

© NTPL/Michael Boys