Richard Altick

  • Thomas Carlyle: A Biography by Fred Kaplan
    Cambridge, 614 pp, £25.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 521 25854 5
  • Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose
    Chatto, 318 pp, £11.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2825 9
  • A Carlyle Reader edited by G.B. Tennyson
    Cambridge, 544 pp, £25.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 521 26238 0

Most conscientious biographers are aware of their subjects’ shades vigilantly or solicitously hovering over their shoulders as they write. The biographer of Thomas Carlyle is supervised more severely than most: the irritable, brooding Scotsman, the would-be redeemer, and, failing that, the scourge of Victorian England, seems to breathe flame down his neck. To write about Carlyle with both authority and imagination is a daunting enterprise. For one thing, Dr Johnson apart, no English man of letters has ever held a higher opinion of the dignity of biography as a literary form, or inferentially expected more from its practitioners. Carlyle’s most famous dictum, ‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies,’ may have been meant only metaphorically, but another is specific enough: ‘Biography is by nature the most universally profitable, universally pleasant of all things: especially biography of distinguished individuals.’

Carlyle’s principles were more influential than his practice. Although his short memoir of his friend John Sterling is counted as a minor classic of biography, his much more elaborate life of Cromwell, not to say his interminable History of Frederick the Great, has never been shortlisted among the world’s greatest examples of the art. But Carlyle possessed one of the rarest gifts a biographer could desire – a genius for the quick sketch that captured the essence of a man in a few physical details. Logan Pearsall Smith called him ‘the Rembrandt of English prose’. In his French Revolution, his private letters, and elsewhere, he dashes off one vignette after another. Fred Kaplan quotes one of the less well-known of these cameo portraits, depicting the French historian Thiers: ‘a noticeable subject ... with the light eupeptic practical Gascon spirit very strong in him, has a most musical, plaintively-singing, and yet essentially gay and jaunty treble voice; talks unweariedly, and in a very neat and clear and carelessly frank and ingenious way ... close-cropped, bullet-head, of fair weight, almost quite white; laughing little hazel eyes, jolly hooked nose and most definite mouth; short, short (five feet three or two at the most), swells slightly in the middle – soft, sausage-like on the whole – and ends neatly in fat little feet and hands.’ If the personalities Carlyle observed or read about were not so vivid in real life, his zest for portraiture made them so.

His present-day biographer inherits a tradition of controversy dating back a full hundred years. James Anthony Froude, the first of the succession, had been Carlyle’s friend and disciple for thirty years, and it was to him that Carlyle entrusted the keeping of his posthumous fame. As he worked over his master’s papers, Froude never forgot his denunciation of biographical obscurantism: ‘How delicate, decent is English biography, bless its mealy mouth! A Damocles’ sword of Respectability hangs for ever over the poor English life-writer (as it does over poor English Life in general), and reduces him to the verge of paralysis ... The English biographer has long felt that if in writing his Man’s Biography, he wrote down anything that could by possibility offend any man, he had written wrong.’ The Damocles sword fell when Froude published his four-volume life of Carlyle and the Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. He thought he had written a sympathetic, indeed affectionate memoir. But he had failed to write the hagiography that was then the desired mode of life-writing. His candour, innocuous enough by any modern standard, in Late Victorian terms was unspeakably traitorous to the memory of a man whose 80th birthday had been celebrated as that of a national treasure. Pro-Froudeians (a minority, but they included Carlyle’s surviving brother and sister) were ranged against the anti-Froudeians (including his niece and nephew and most of his friends) in the most unedifying and protracted literary feud of the time.

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[*] Dickens: Interviews and Recollections, 2 vols, £20 each, 1982, 0 333 26254 9 and 0 333 26255 7.