The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle: Vol. 50, December 1875-February 1881 
edited by Ian Campbell.
Duke, 211 pp., $30, October 2022, 978 1 4780 2054 7
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By​ 1875 the eighty-year-old Thomas Carlyle was ready to die. In fact, he was rather looking forward to death, at least officially, more than once referring to it as ‘release’. To judge by the sixty letters to his brother that Carlyle wrote (or, rather, dictated, his own hand having become too unsteady) between December 1875 and March 1879, there was much to be released from. ‘I am not worse in health than usual’ counts as a rare upbeat note. He kept levity at bay by ‘musing in my own mind on the chaos of immensities & eternities with which one is surrounded in his closing years in this world’. Loss was a dominant theme: ‘I many a time wonder that I have any friends left, who can be taken away from me and added to the great multitude already gone.’ In reality, there was a constant stream of callers at his house in Cheyne Row, but ‘I get extremely little good of any kind of company now left me in the world.’ To be of that fellowship, one had to be pretty determined: William Allingham, the editor of Fraser’s Magazine, was a regular companion on Carlyle’s afternoon walks, though he is ‘perpetually busy with Fraser & as I told himself long ago has a tendency to be a bore’. Carlyle’s collective term for visitors was ‘intrusives’.

At least he could still read, though it didn’t always improve his temper. Mallock’s satirical New Republic is judged ‘a wildly miserable burlesque of present opinions and speculations’. After reading a new ‘life and letters’ of De Quincey he reports: ‘It is wretchedly ill done by the flaccid and ever-reitterating [sic] editor.’ A German medical pamphlet, in contrast, just squeaks by: ‘The man is not entirely a fool.’ The periodicals afforded little relief: ‘For the last week I have been mainly puddling in that dreary cesspool of Magazines which contains nothing but distress to me.’ Only when he returns to the indisputable giants of the past is there an appreciative nod: ‘I have in the late months read with enjoyment the whole of Shakespeare.’ There’s an inevitability about finding him, as reported in one of his last letters, reading the book of Job, his natural soulmate, though even here he records that it was ‘with wonder more than satisfaction’. Presumably he wondered at Job’s sunny optimism. It is tempting to think that the main value of this final sequence of letters may lie in their detailed record of the weather in London in the late 1870s; largely, one gathers, it was disagreeable. ‘Mostly wet, thick and dark and of a low temperature, shrouded in dark fog, though once a week or so we may have an exception & momentarily see the sun’ – a description that might also be applied to this last phase of the great man’s correspondence. Carlyle’s final letter was dictated in March 1879 and he at last obtained his release in February 1881.

This concluding volume is not only a sad coda to an extraordinarily vigorous and creative life, but also to a magnificent scholarly edition. It’s easy to mock academic scholarship carried out on this grand scale – fifty volumes published across 52 years, some of the pages filled with more annotation than text – but over and above the intrinsic interest of the letters of two exceptionally gifted correspondents, the edition has provided a treasure-trove of historical detail that will continue to be mined for many years to come, the more so for now having been fully digitised and maintained as the Carlyle Letters Online. Carlyle’s own defence of publishing so many of Cromwell’s letters in his Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845) is pertinent:

If each Letter look dim, and have little light, after all study; – yet let the Historical reader reflect, such light as it has cannot be disputed at all. These words, expository of that day and hour, Oliver Cromwell did see fittest to be written down. The Letter hangs there in the dark abysses of the Past: if like a star almost extinct, yet like a real star; fixed; about which there is no cavilling possible. That autograph Letter, it was once all luminous as a burning beacon, every word of it a live coal, in its time; it was once a piece of the general fire and light of Human Life, that Letter! Neither is it yet entirely extinct: well read, there is still in it light enough to exhibit its own self; nay to diffuse a faint authentic twilight some distance round it.

Not every item in the Duke-Edinburgh edition seems quite to count as a ‘burning beacon’, but, as this sample of Carlyle’s prose may suggest, the level of sheer verbal force and arresting cadence is abnormally high. His friend John Sterling registered these characteristics when he thanked him for two recent letters ‘which, unlike other people’s, have the writer’s signature in every word as well as at the end’.

The project to collect, edit and publish all known letters by Thomas and Jane Carlyle began as long ago as 1952. Since 1970 the editorial teams at the University of Edinburgh and Duke University Press in North Carolina have combined to issue roughly a volume every year, a Stakhanovite undertaking that even Carlyle might have thought displayed commendable industry and endurance (Ian Campbell, who provides this final volume with a graceful introduction, first joined the team in 1964). The unusual decision, taken at the outset, to combine Carlyle’s correspondence with that of his wife has paid off handsomely. As Rosemary Ashton observed in her Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage, ‘We can read more letters of Carlyle and Jane, and above all more letters between Carlyle and Jane, than perhaps of any other couple in history.’

Jane Welsh Carlyle was a talented, witty, mercurial figure who endured, and contributed to, a more than usually difficult marriage: ‘easy-going’ was not a term anyone would apply to ‘Mr C’, ‘tolerant’ not the obvious description of his wife. But she was a much more amusing correspondent than Carlyle (not hard, one might be inclined to think, though in his prime he was a virtuoso of inventive sarcasm), with a lively interest in ideas and individuals that found expression in her often outspoken letters. However, she had died in 1866, leaving Carlyle morosely bereft and depriving the edition of its welcome leaven. The law of diminishing returns tends to operate in editions of correspondence that aspire to be complete: the achievements that justify collecting every scrap mostly occur in midlife, but the fame attained by the letter-writer means that more letters tend to survive from their later years, letters not always over-brimming with interest. ‘There has nothing new happened here. Our weather, too, is bad like yours …’

This inevitable diminuendo is particularly a pity in the case of such a volcanic figure as Carlyle, who may have stirred and disturbed more Victorian readers than any of his peers. We can still register the disconcerting power of Carlyle as an almost Nietzschean anti-moralist; it’s much harder to appreciate why so many found him an inspiringly positive moral guide. Yet for numbers of the earnest young in the 1830s and 1840s, in particular, Carlyle’s writing was a summons to authenticity, a way of continuing to believe without submitting to the millstone of orthodox creeds. The content of their subsequent beliefs was secondary: enabling an earnest commitment to life was the primary service he rendered to his many followers, a hostility to convention and sham together with an affirmation of such mighty abstractions as Work, Love and Duty. The historian J.A. Froude, who became his most devoted disciple, spoke for many when he said: ‘Carlyle taught me a creed which I could then accept as really true; which I have held ever since with increasing confidence, as the interpretation of my existence and the guide of my conduct, so far as I have been able to act up to it.’

All of Carlyle’s writing was in some sense an admonition. In the work that made his name, The French Revolution, published in 1837, the bloody events following 1789 are represented as Providence’s retribution for the indulgent corruptions of the Ancien Régime, and thereby a warning to complacent aristocracies everywhere. In the book’s peroration, Carlyle reaches for apocalyptic notes, as of a prophecy fulfilled:

IMPOSTURE is in flames. Imposture is burnt up: one red sea of Fire, wild-bellowing, enwraps the World; with its fire-tongue licks at the very Stars. Thrones are hurled into it … Never since Pharaoh’s Chariots, in the Red Sea of water, was there wreck of Wheel-vehicles like this in the Sea of Fire. Desolate, as ashes, as gases, shall they wander in the wind. Higher, higher yet flames the Fire-sea; … The metal Images are molten; the marble Images become mortar-lime; the stone Mountains sulkily explode … Imposture, how it burns, through generations: how it is burnt up; for a time. The World is black ashes; – which, ah, when will they grow green?

Readers brought up on the cadences of the Old Testament, even on Milton, may have found this easier to respond to than we do. Carlyle’s own prose is rather like the uncontrollable fires it describes, laying waste to all around it in a magnificent diorama of destruction and renewal. ‘Volcanic’ is a term that recurs in descriptions of Carlyle, including my own above, though there is a risk that encountering some of his later works can seem a bit like inspecting an extinct volcano, an acrid smell the only reminder of its eruptive glories. In the decades immediately after its publication, however, The French Revolution, a work of sustained imaginative re-creation, was rivalled only by Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in shaping English readers’ understanding of the great drama that had played out across the Channel.

Carlyle’s memorable mot that ‘France was long a despotism tempered by epigrams’ should remind us of the number of now familiar phrases he coined or put into circulation. To him we owe ‘captains of industry’, ‘the dismal science’, ‘the cash nexus’, ‘a whiff of grapeshot’, ‘the seagreen incorruptible’, ‘the condition of England question’, and the description of laissez-faire as ‘anarchy plus the constable’, as well as his less well-known but immortal retort on hearing from a third party that the American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller had declared that she ‘accepted the universe’: ‘Gad! She’d better!’

While we may now struggle to reimagine Carlyle as a moral teacher, it’s easier to identify him in the more familiar role of social critic, albeit a social critic who diagnosed a spiritual sickness. It’s a teasing but always pertinent question to ask how far Carlyle wrote to persuade his readers. On the face of things, all social critics must attempt to do this in some fashion, in which case Carlyle’s manner can often seem hopelessly ill-judged. Clearly he often wrote to shock, and to jolt readers out of their too comfortable assumptions, especially enlightened liberal assumptions. But at other times he seems driven simply to bear witness, to howl at the inanities of existence in the name of something more profound. And at still other times his writing demands to be seen as cathartic, relieving the intolerable internal pressure of passionate feelings and revulsions. Rather than aiming at rational persuasion, his prose solicits an answering assent, an acknowledgment that something deep within us has heard and responded to his call.

As this suggests, Carlyle’s forte as a social critic was not likely to lie in making practical suggestions. The denunciatory sublime was his preferred register, a righteous indignation that society in the throes of the industrial revolution should allow such demeaning and ignoble processes to deform individual lives, lives held together by little more than ‘the cash nexus’. He first expounded this theme in his long essay ‘Chartism’ (1839) and elaborated it in Past and Present (1843), which used the device, pioneered by Southey, Pugin and others, of contrasting the barren squalor of industrial workers’ urban existence with an idealised picture of the settled, organic, hierarchical relations of the Middle Ages. His indictment of the present exhibited not just an intense sympathy with the exploited poor of industrialising Britain, but also a raging condemnation of the failures of the governing class, which had abandoned its ordained duty of care for the lower orders. Topically, he extended this critique to the current crisis in Ireland: ‘England is guilty towards Ireland; and reaps at last, in full measure, the fruit of fifteen generations of wrongdoing.’ Just as he had indicted the French aristocracy for producing the raw need and resentment that powered ‘Sansculottism’, so he identified the part British misgovernment played in creating that bogey figure of the 1840s, the starving Irish cottier – poor ‘Sanspotato’, in his inspired coinage. Not that this led him to sentimentalise the latter any more than the former: in a characteristic cascade he inveighed against the typical Irish peasant as ‘immethodic, headlong, violent, mendacious’. Carlyle could never be accused of courting easy popularity.

There​ was a good deal of cash in the nexus between Carlyle and his main publisher in his years of fame. Chapman and Hall brought out a Uniform Edition of his works in sixteen volumes as early as 1858; they then followed up with 23 volumes of the Cheap Edition in the 1860s, the 34 volumes of the Library Edition in 1869-71, the 21 volumes of the Cabinet Edition in 1874, and the 39 volumes of the People’s Edition by 1878, not to mention several other lucrative repackagings after his death. Carlyle reached places, socially and emotionally, that other Victorian critics didn’t. He makes frequent appearances in Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, with Keir Hardie’s testimony striking a representative note. Hardie recalled reading Sartor Resartus as a ‘real turning point’ in his life: he read it three times in an effort to understand it. ‘I felt I was in the presence of some great power, the meaning of which I could only dimly guess at.’

Carlyle has always been the most discomfiting of the great Victorian sages. Mill’s high-toned liberalism has been celebrated in every subsequent generation; Arnold has never lacked for admirers, as much for his range of registers as for his commitment to culture; even Ruskin, for all his tendency to rambling growliness, has commanded respect both for his writings on art and for his social criticism. But Carlyle? That difficult, screamingly capitalised prose style; that belief in Providence if not quite in religion; that enthusiasm for authoritarian leaders – and, if all that were not enough to estrange him from us, there are his deliberately outrageous views on race. Someone who chose provocatively to retitle his pamphlet Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question, about the supposedly lamentable consequences of the end of slavery in the British West Indies, as Occasional Discourse on the N----- Question is going to find it difficult to get much of a hearing today. Carlyle is a walking trigger-warning.

Even so, the case against his work doesn’t in the end rest on views that many modern readers find distasteful. Of course he offends us, though that may simply point to the fact that we sometimes overrate the negative impact of being offended and underrate its positive value. Carlyle’s writing often functions as a kind of medicine, its nasty taste an indication of its potency. Its weakness lies elsewhere: not in its provocativeness – we can allow for that, at times even savour its unabashed bloodiness – but in a mode of rhetorical excess that can be self-defeating because the register of non-stop thunderousness begins to numb our responses. Reading too much Carlyle, we start to long for a quiet lie-down.

These characteristics may also suggest why it seems so difficult to imagine a modern equivalent of Carlyle. We could assemble some ingredients (confining ourselves to the recently dead) – a dash of Christopher Hitchens for pungent contrarianism, a sprinkling of George Steiner for intransigent cultural pessimism, a garnish of Tom Nairn for caustic Scottish sarcasm – but the result might still fall well short of the original. The critic as preacher needs a more earnest and more settled moral sensibility to appeal to than is now available – or even desirable. Carlyle’s not-quite-secular Calvinism had no time for hedonism or relativism, and a sufficiently jaundiced appraisal of contemporary society might suggest that we have no time for anything else.

Perhaps, also, there now seems to be something misguided or at least over-ambitious about the attempt to diagnose the sickness at the heart of a whole civilisation. Is that a totality too far, even for the most systematic social analysts: more a cry of revulsion than a probing identification of what’s really happening? Yet there was a moral grandeur to Carlyle’s attempt that we cannot altogether deny. Carlyle was, by any measure, an awkward sod, and this final volume of his letters will do little to win hearts and minds. But, even so, the distinctive voice of his best writing continues to nag at us, prompting uneasy self-questioning. We may try to comfort ourselves by dismissing him as an overheated impossibilist from a distant age. Yet is it so clear that we don’t have our own versions of what he satirised as ‘the Universal Abolition-of-Pain Association’; is it so clear that much of our present public policy is not ‘a truly villainous incarnation and petrifaction of benevolent Tartuffery’; is it so clear that we cannot say in 2023 what Carlyle said in 1843, that ‘in the midst of plethoric plenty, the people perish’? For all his excesses, we are in no position to condescend to Carlyle.

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