Carlyle’s Mail Fraud

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle: Vol. VIII 1835-1836, Vol. IX 1836-1837 edited by Charles Sanders and Kenneth Fielding
    Duke, 365 pp, £32.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 8223 0433 3

These volumes are issued as a pair, with a single index, and rightly, because they hold together for a coherent segment of Carlyle’s life. The dominant theme of the two is the writing of The French Revolution: in Volume VIII Carlyle is struggling with the first two volumes, in IX he produces the third, spends four months battling with the proofs and finally sees the whole book published and reviewed. It made him into a successful literary figure, justified his move to London, and gave him enough financial security to put ‘take it or leave it’ terms before his publisher. In 1835, the publisher had jibbed at the idea of an English edition of Sartor Resartus: ‘he shrieked at the very notion,’ wrote Carlyle. At the end of 1837, Carlyle was standing out for £50 a volume for his two books and a volume of reviews, five volumes in all. Reviewers might, and most of them did, complain feelingly about Carlyle’s style, but everywhere it was acknowledged that The French Revolution was a landmark in the concept of history. In 1837, Carlyle had the chance of lecturing to an expensive audience. It terrified him. Since he resolutely refused to prepare notes for it, the terror did not abate. At £135 for half a dozen lectures, he was free of financial pressure for a year.

The writing of the book was agony for Carlyle, and it is obvious that he made it pretty rough for his wife Jane, too. He wrote, he says, with his heart’s blood. The physiological contribution would be more realistically seen as his digestive juices. He distrusted the world of literary evaluation, did not see how a man could honestly live by writing, and yet had to write. In February 1835, he asserts that he has sold nothing for 23 months, yet in March when the tremendous blow strikes, the news that somehow or other, while in John Stuart Mill’s care, his just finished first volume, which pleased him ‘better than anything’ he had ever done, had been used as kindling, he and Jane respond without bitterness and with total courage to the emergency. As Carlyle sets out to write a new and better volume, he accepts from Mill only £100 to support the two of them for the necessary time, nearly killing himself, he says afterwards, ‘accomplishing zero’. As the stress of writing becomes more severe, so does the dyspepsia. For a moment Carlyle considers other work – on the proposed Commission for National Education. He retreats to Annandale almost in collapse. Family life and rural food, with the inevitable cup of castor oil, restores him, so that he can soon indulge in his alternative anxiety, the desire to escape from further maternal ministrations, love with senna this time. Soon he is back at his desk with spots before his eyes, ‘a green cloud of bile’, and Volume II. It will be ‘a wild savage ruleless very Bad Book ... reverent of nothing but what is reverable in all ages and places,’ he writes to Emerson – a ‘book written by a wild man’, ‘looking king and beggar in the face with an indifference of brotherhood,’ he tells his brother. There has not been in ‘a hundred years any book that came more direct and flamingly sincere from the heart of man’. After it is all over, and after another long stretch of rural life and purgatives, he calms down and realises that he has made his name.

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