Rosemary Ashton

Rosemary Ashton’s books include biographies of George Henry Lewes, Coleridge, George Eliot and the Carlyles. She is an emeritus professor at UCL.

Doing the bores

Rosemary Ashton, 21 March 1991

There will be many more years –and many more volumes – before the Carlyles’ Collected Letters are brought to completion. Twenty-two more years of Jane Carlyle’s long, witty, sharp, self-dramatising yet oddly attractive litanies about the obstinacy of servants, her husband’s indifference to her, and the annoyances of her lot as a ‘Lion’s wife’ obliged to ‘do the bores’ who come to view the lion himself. And 36 years still to come of Carlyle’s groaning but stoical descriptions of his work in progress, his rhetorical assassinations of politicians of all parties and clergymen of all persuasions, and his surprisingly tender and encouraging letters to members of his family, to aspiring young authors and to the few people – Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance – whom he loves or admires. It is a daunting thought, particularly as no one seems ever to have thrown away a letter from Thomas or Jane: the libraries of the world are stuffed with them.’

Englamouring the humdrum

Rosemary Ashton, 23 November 1989

Gillian Beer’s Arguing with the past, a collection of essays published in recent years (with one, on Richardson and Milton, dating from as long ago as 1968), is richly written, contains many sharp critical insights, and shows the author to have a good ear for nuances of language in the literary works she chooses to discuss. At the same time, she reveals some straining in her pursuit of the chief ‘argument’ – namely, that half-readings, ‘failed’ readings and forgettings of other authors can make up an important part of a writer’s experience and creativity.’

How clever of Nature to ‘choose’ Darwin to teach the world that she has, against the prevailing view of natural theology, no purpose, no teleology, no choice. No one could be more gentlemanly, cautious, desirous of conforming, unwilling to shock or upset – yet no one could be more deliberate, more stubborn in holding to an opinion once embraced – than Darwin. Volume four of the immaculately edited Correspondence, covering the years 1847-1850, shows him at work amongst his ‘beloved Barnacles’, doggedly yet excitedly making his discoveries in that relatively small field of zoological study. George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists is at least as interesting in its excellent study of the Origin of Species and Darwin’s tactful relation to natural theology, as represented here by William Whewell, as it is in its analysis of novels by Jane Austen, Dickens and Trollope in the light of the Darwinian theory and method.’

Leaving it

Rosemary Ashton, 16 February 1989

If there can be said to be such a thing as a Victorian ‘frame of mind’, it must be a broad category indeed to contain two such different representatives as John Henry Newman and James Fitzjames Stephen. They shared a distrust of reform and democracy, a love of England, and a penchant for getting into controversy in print. Otherwise, they strike one as chalk and cheese, or ‘dog and fish’, as Newman put it, à propos of their one encounter, in 1864, when Stephen attacked the ‘dangerous sophistry’ of Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. These two biographies of the two men are also strikingly at opposite extremes of the genre’s possibilities. Ker’s life of Newman is massive, expansive, reverential towards its subject, while Smith’s life of Stephen is terse, matter-of-fact, and unblinkingly critical of its subject’s failings.

Satanic School

Rosemary Ashton, 7 May 1987

‘I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past – in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object at the other end of our own table … We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar.’ Thus Henry James in the Preface to The Aspern Papers, the germ of which was the story of an American Shelley-worshipper seeking out the eighty-year old Claire Clairmont to trick or wheedle her into handing over precious documents illuminating her youthful relations with Shelley and Byron. There has been a flurry of activity with reference to these poets in our own time: Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron and their associates have been the subject of recent visitations by literary scholars and editors, by Freudians and students of taboo, by historians of medicine, by novelists (see Amanda Prantera’s recent Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 162 Years after his Lordship’s Death), and by Ken Russell, who has tried to make them palpable in his latest film, Gothic.’

Snakes and Leeches: The Great Stink

Rosemary Hill, 4 January 2018

The last day​ of June 1858 was a warm day, though not the hottest of that summer. Two weeks earlier the temperature in London had reached 90 degrees, the highest ever recorded. Even so the...

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‘The test of poetry which professes to be modern’, Arthur Symons wrote in 1892, is ‘its capacity for dealing with London, with what one sees or might see there.’ And what...

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Adulation or Eggs: At home with the Carlyles

Susan Eilenberg, 7 October 2004

It’s a century and a quarter since J.A. Froude’s Life of Carlyle and his edition of Carlyle’s Reminiscences, a hundred years since Alexander Carlyle’s New Letters and...

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He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to...

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Gnawed by rats, burnt at Oxford

Claire Tomalin, 10 October 1991

George Henry Lewes was a close contemporary of Dickens, born five years after him, in 1817, and dying eight years after him, in 1878. Both men worked themselves to the limits of their strength...

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Peter Pulzer, 4 September 1986

The Reading Room of the British Museum is now completed, and if London had nothing but this hall of the blessed, scholars would make it well worth their while to make a pilgrimage here. All the...

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Out of Germany

E.S. Shaffer, 2 October 1980

Rosemary Ashton traces the impact of some German writers, especially Goethe, on the British periodicals and on four writers, Coleridge, Carlyle, Eliot and Lewes; Geoffrey Hartman ranges widely...

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