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.
The vituperation was sustained by, among others, a retired member of the Burmese Civil Service named David Alec Wilson, who sent forth a six-volume corrective to Froude which Kaplan rightly calls ‘a historical grotesquerie, a mass of undigested and unevaluated documentation whose main purpose was to prove that Carlyle was a saint and Froude a liar’. It took a two-volume biography of Froude as late as 1961 to rehabilitate him, a process crowned by John Clubbe’s recent demonstration, in his skilful abridgment of Froude’s Life, that whatever his venial errors of fact, he was a devoted and sophisticated biographical artist.
Two peripheral issues claimed much more attention from post-Froudeian students of Carlyle than they merited. One was his lifelong stomach trouble, never clinically diagnosed, which was as recurrent a part of his personal record as was Darwin’s equally ill-defined chronic malady. Inescapably, his ‘dyspepsia’ came to be identified as a psychosomatic illness, and in 1949 a doctor put him on the couch in a book called Mr Carlyle, My Patient, in which, replacing Froude with Freud, he ‘proved’ that Carlyle was the prey of a whole syndrome of psychic disorders. Among these was impotence, a sensational hypothesis to which Froude had, fortunately for him, contributed nothing. There is a certain amount of evidence that Carlyle was, in fact, sexually incapacitated and that his wife died virgo intacta. One of the several considerable merits of Kaplan’s book is that it takes such touchy matters in its stride. There is nothing mealy-mouthed about it, and there is no scandalmongering.
But the most formidable challenge Carlyle presents to his biographer does not involve tact. It is, rather, his own fuming, fulminating self, venting his increasingly despairing view of fallen man and contemporary society in a volcanic flow of written and spoken prose, an unmatchable style that expresses the man as graphically as none but the most gifted biographer can hope to do. He never wrote an autobiography – ‘I would as soon think of cutting my throat with a pen knife,’ he once remarked, though he did allow Froude to publish his informal Reminiscences – but in his published writings he was his own best portraitist, and his letters, now appearing in a meticulously edited series that will eventually run to 40 volumes, fill out the picture. Taken all together, the records of the writing and speaking man form a great package from which an energetic biographer can construct both a detailed life-narrative and a full-length portrait of the protagonist.
Kaplan’s biography succeeds admirably on the first count, at least. Its publishers’ expectation that it will remain the standard work on Carlyle for many years to come may well be correct. Insofar as documentation is the measure of such things, the research it embodies is impressive: Chapter 15 is anchored to earth by no fewer than 240 reference notes. Almost all of the book’s material comes from the Carlyles’ correspondence and other private sources: the Duke-Edinburgh edition down to 1837 and, thereafter, both manuscripts and the dozen or so separate collections of their letters published between 1883 and 1982.
Unlike Sartor Resartus – Carlyle’s early fictitious retelling of his spiritual odyssey, which was putatively derived from the hopeless mess of papers left by his persona, Herr Professor Diogenes Teufelsdreck – in this book every fact is in its place: there are no flashbacks, scramblings of chronology or other tricks of the modern biographical craft. Like Sartor, though, it presents problems to the reader – nothing as intimidating (to some) as the famous ‘Carlylese’, which can be mastered with a little application, but exasperating enough. Kaplan’s prose is peppered with many hundreds of what Dickens might have called hiccuping sentences, an ill-advised and unworkable compromise between straight quotation and free but faithful paraphrase, in which every word drawn from a Carlylean letter, no matter how short or ordinary, is dutifully enclosed in inverted commas: ‘They left London in a “blaze of July heat”, sauntering comfortably through Norfolk for two weeks, visiting “the birthplace of Ann Boleyn”, with its “spacious silences, fine old libraries, old trees, and breezy expanses”, and “ancient Norwich itself”, with its “grand Cathedral”.’ And: ‘ “The subject” had not “the least” grown “lovelier” to him; “nor will, I think,” though it had the advantage of keeping him “silent, and busy in thought”.’ Scrupulosity parodies itself, and defeats, by fragmentation, the very object for which Kaplan has evidently striven: to convey the flavour of the man as captured in his letters.
Carlyle would have derided with his sardonic laugh such Dryasdust fussiness as this. Nor, I think, would he have admired Kaplan’s general disengagement, a natural enough posture, given the blatant partisanship that has characterised so much of the Carlylean biographical tradition. To Carlyle, a biographer setting out ‘to delineate a likeness of the earthly pilgrimage of a man’ could find no virtue in absolute objectivity. Kaplan does not respond to the spirit of his subject, as did the late James Clifford, for example, in his two volumes on Dr Johnson. He applies his command of the materials of Carlyle biography only to description and narration; he pulls up short of interpretation. He takes all of Carlyle’s (and Jane’s) statements, so liberally half-quoted, half-paraphrased, at their face value. He seldom ventures to lift up their words to see what further, or different, truth may lurk beneath, as a speculative and analytical biographer such as Henry James’s apostle, Leon Edel, has never hesitated to do.
Although Kaplan speaks of the ‘risks’ that Carlyle believed a biographer should accept, he himself is cautious enough. He devotes his pages almost entirely to the outward events, chiefly domestic, of what he rightly describes as ‘a long, rich and complicated life’. The particulars of this life, as he presents it, mainly relate to his strong ties with his mother and brothers and the rural Scotland where he was born and reared, and the many subsequent troubled years of life in Cheyne Row. He stresses the constant tensions between Carlyle and his wife, who, as Froude imprudently revealed too soon after her husband’s death, suffered constant mental and physical misery. (Kaplan underestimates the other aspect of Jane, her social vivacity and wit: there is much to be said for the notion that she was a gifted writer manqué.) The odd woman out during Carlyle’s frequent absences in the flattering society of Lady Ashburton and her aristocratic circle, Jane actually contemplated leaving him in the mid-Forties, a drastic step – for the time – from which she was dissuaded only by the advice of their friend Mazzini.
Where Kaplan is content to describe, Phyllis Rose explains. In her Parallel Lives, she uses the Carlyles’ marriage as a framing device to enclose case-histories of four other Victorian marriages (or, strictly speaking, three: for better or worse, the Dickenses, Ruskins and John Stuart Mills were united in holy wedlock, but George Eliot and George Henry Lewes were married only in the eyes of their rationalistic deity). Motivated by ‘a feminist scepticism about marriage, a taste for the higher gossip, a distaste for the rhetoric of romantic love, and a desire to look at marriages as imaginative projections and arrangements of power’, Rose casts a cool eye on all five histories, concluding, in the Carlyles’ case, with a defensible paradox. Their marriage entailed, she says, ‘a particularly deep conflict’, yet in the long view, they seem ‘uniquely compatible. She gave him the stability and affection he needed to work; he gave her the frustration and annoyance she required to thrive.’ After her sudden death while taking the air in Hyde Park, her husband expiated his failure to appreciate her by publishing to the world, through Froude, not only his guilt-ridden recollections of her but the very letters in which she had confided the ups and downs of their life together. Clever as she was, Jane could hardly have foreseen that her trials as a signally impatient Griselda would provide material for a dissection of ‘the politics of marriage’ in 1984.
The story of the ill-matched marriage is lively enough, and entertaining and pathetic in approximately equal parts, but as drama it is not gripping enough to dominate so many of Kaplan’s 550 pages. The true drama in Carlyle’s life was internal – his early wrestling with the verities, his later hatred of the implacably mammonistic society he saw all about him – but this is a subject Kaplan declines to say much about on his own. His is not, in any sense, an intellectual biography. Nor is it a psychological study. Carlyle lies flat upon the page. His biographer plays down, if he does not actually overlook, the manifold peculiarities that made Carlyle so arresting a figure to his contemporaries and, through his idiosyncratic style, to modern readers. All the components of a three-dimensional, eloquently discursive portrait are present: ‘the recluse, the friend, the monologuist, the complainer, the mourner, the neurotic, the charitable, the compassionate, the loyal, the loving, the self-obsessed artist, the bitter satirist, the brilliant talker ...’: the open-ended ellipsis is Kaplan’s. But the portrait does not emerge: it lacks the one extra twist of the focusing ring that assimilates the various characteristics of a personality into what one would value as the biographer’s final conception. Carlyle’s strenuous individuality is less evident than the conventional well-kempt Victorian seen in all but one of the photographs reproduced in the book. The exception is Julia Margaret Cameron’s masterpiece of 1867, whose deep chiaroscuro captures the tempestuous internality of the man as faithfully as it is preserved in his writings.
Kaplan makes surprisingly little use of the accounts left by the men and women who knew him, though these are as numerous and often as revealing as the first-hand descriptions of Dickens that Philip Collins has recently harvested from many sources for Macmillan’s ‘Interviews and Recollections’ series.And the public Carlyle, ‘the sage of Chelsea’, who was as familiar a figure on horseback in London as the Duke of Wellington and who could see his photographs for sale in Regent Street shop windows, appears only sporadically. His major appearance in that role was one that did him little credit: his involvement in the Governor Eyre controversy, one of the less attractive by-products of Victorian colonialism, which divided the intellectual community right down the middle, with Carlyle on what strikes us today as being the indefensibly wrong side.
Casting his book in the strictly narrative mode, Kaplan does not attempt, either, to place Carlyle firmly in the wide intellectual milieu of his time, to show how his ‘transcendental’ ideology contrasted with the prevailing philosophical and political orthodoxy. A reader learning about Carlyle for the first time from this book may well be at a loss to understand why Carlyle’s radical diagnosis of ‘the condition of England’, his prescription for England’s social salvation, and his rejection of institutionalised and dogmatic religion, had so profound an effect on some men who, in turn, transmitted his fervent opinions to a wider public – Dickens, Ruskin and Kingsley among others in England, and Emerson in America. Thanks to such disciples, he was not a prophet crying unheard in the wilderness, as the Biblically-inspired tone of his most famous writings often suggests.
To have adequately developed the ideological and literary aspects of Carlyle’s life and work, and to have placed him securely within his time, would have required much more space than Kaplan allots to his personal life. A biography the size of George Spater’s two-volume life of a far less seminal figure, William Cobbett, could hardly accommodate all that needs to be said about Carlyle in relation to his age, let alone the insistent question, a favourite one with the Victorians: what ‘message’ (if any) has he for us? Carlyle was buried, full of years and honours, at his native Ecclefechan: ‘As was the custom, the coffin was lowered into the grave without a eulogy or a prayer.’ We don’t regret being spared either eulogy or prayer, but we could do with an epitaph. How important is Carlyle in the history of his own time and the inherited literature of ours? Kaplan’s careful biography stops short of the answer.