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 Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Froude’s posthumous My Relations with Carlyle, and Alexander Carlyle and Sir James Crichton-Browne’s The Nemesis of Froude. Everyone has long since taken sides, if not with the tactless first biographer or with the vindictive and family-proud nephew then with Thomas Carlyle or with Jane, or perhaps with Carlyle with reservations, or against him with no reservations at all. Froude gets the blame for striking the first blow, directed against the friend who had trusted him to do the right thing by his life and papers, but to put it all on Froude when Carlyle himself was such a master of antagonism has never seemed altogether reasonable. Their contemporaries were shocked by the unseemly discussion of Carlyle’s hypothetical impotence and the scandalous speculations about the origin of the blue marks that appeared one day on Jane’s wrists; later generations were dismayed that Hitler was able to turn to Carlyle’s words for encouragement. But no one who had followed Carlyle from On Heroes and Hero Worship through ‘Chartism’ and The French Revolution to Latter-Day Pamphlets, Frederick the Great and ‘Shooting Niagara’ can have been surprised that brawling and perturbation should have attended his name even after his death.
Is the better response to such a man to erect a statue or to hurl rotten eggs? It is discomfiting to find oneself responding on such a level to a sage whose writing, filled with a passionate concern for the (white, male) working poor (and contempt, it sometimes seems, for nearly everyone else), set the terms in which Victorian Britain debated its social and moral state. It is even more discomfiting (indifference seeming even now not an option) to find the question, adulation or eggs, hard to decide. But it has always been so. There were, to be sure, those among his contemporaries who rejected him, turning back on him his own favourite vocabulary of derision, abusing him as a quack, a sham, a flunkey, a phantasm, a canting charlatan, a crank ‘foaming and gasping, as it were, in one eternal epileptic fit of wonder’, all ‘barking and froth’. And there were others who heard as prophetic wisdom Carlyle’s harangues about the rightness of despotism, the ingratitude of slaves, the desirability of flogging idle paupers, the fraudulence of the thirty thousand notoriously distressed needlewomen of London (who had nothing but their own shoddy seamstressy to blame), and the folly of any particular reform that anybody might urge. But many more were ambivalent, unable to reconcile the stirring rhetoric with the often brutal politics or, as Emerson had it, ‘the magnificence of his genius & the poverty of his aims’. His ideological allies (there were ever fewer of them as he passed middle age) sometimes felt they were in the presence of a man ‘doing the right thing, but kicking you while he does it’. At the same time, many of those who rejected the substance of his rants (‘stuck thro’ with prejudices and bits of injustice, as thick as tipsy cake with almonds’, Harriet Martineau observed) were compelled by his quick and ferocious intellectual energy, his belligerence (‘honesty’) and his histrionics (‘sincerity’) to admire what they could not approve. Perhaps his savageness was really an ‘intolerable sympathy with the suffering’, Martineau thought, as did others. They could not otherwise explain either his manner or their good nature about it, nor did they expect those who did not know him to understand. ‘It will be difficult for the future – judging by his books, personal dis-sympathies, &c., – to account for the deep hold this author has taken on the present age,’ Walt Whitman remarked. ‘I am certainly at a loss to account for it all as affecting myself . . . There has been an impalpable something more effective than the palpable.’
The ‘impalpable something’ could not at first have been (and was never wholly) the appeal merely of force. The almost metaphysically poetic exhilarations of Carlyle’s prose (its offences and tediums too) derive often from incongruity. Intent on the sublime (‘Man . . . has transcendentalisms in him; standing, as he does, poor creature, every way "in the confluence of Infinitudes"; a mystery to himself and others: in the centre of two Eternities, of three Immensities, – in the intersection of primaeval Light with the everlasting Dark!’), he is incapable of resisting the grotesque: ‘I – good Heaven! – have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms . . . and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature.’ Unseemly both in likening and unlikening, his words rampage across scales and orders of being.
Though Carlyle delighted in bringing about conceptual unions too fissile to prosper, perhaps too fissile ever to have been intended to prosper, he allowed himself intervals of belief in ennobling relation. This was true particularly at the beginning of his literary career, while his ambivalence was still fluid, his grotesquerie still quasi-comic. The most ennobling relations involved something that went at times under the name of Fact, at other times under the name of Truth, or Reality, or God: a vague, transcendent something, the effect of whose invocation is to thrill us with the promise of wonders and verities, infinities and eternities which can be glimpsed within or beyond the transient, the mechanical and the mundane. Though undefinable, Fact matters because it tells us that we matter, even the least of us, and so does our smallest action: ‘It is a mathematical fact that the casting of this pebble from my hand alters the centre of gravity of the Universe.’ But the mere Fact that each man contains within him ‘the whole activity of the Infinite, with its meanings’, is not enough to guarantee any particular man’s wisdom. The hero alone sees ‘through the shows of things into things’ and so co-operates with the ‘real Tendency of the World’, deriving his rightness and his power (‘All Power is Moral’) from his alignment with what Carlyle seems to have thought of as necessity. If you could not quite manage to see and co-operate with the real Tendency of the World, you could still recognise and subject yourself to those who did. Heroism and hero-worship enact a similar orientation towards transcendent Fact, and so does self-forgetful labour, that ‘appeal from the Seen to the Unseen’ (‘laborare est orare’), which Carlyle describes as the only way for the unheroic to gain real as distinct from hypothetical knowledge. According to his notion of the feudal loyalty that forms his ideal of class relations, work is the only thing a man may rightfully demand from his rulers, and their provision of it is the only thing that binds him to submit to their power.
Man requires something or someone to be faithful to. If the place of Fact or Truth or the Ineffable should turn out to be empty, it is of no consequence; it is the posture of belief that matters, the intensity and (if the object of belief should prove unexpectedly troublesome) the irrationality of devotion. The object itself is almost irrelevant. As Nietzsche observes, such an attitude necessitates for this ‘atheist who makes it a point of honour not to be one’ a ‘constant and passionate dishonesty towards himself’.
Though vividly and surgically detailed, perfect in the tones of prophecy, and stiff with ecstasies, exaltations, execrations performed or pronounced on the heights, Carlyle’s writing has something essentially unserious about it, as of a man (so Andrew Lang remarked) ‘talking angrily and vehemently to himself’. When he was still young, Carlyle confessed in his notebooks that the world had lost its solidity for him. ‘I attend to few things as I was wont: few things have any interest for me; I live in a sort of waking dream.’ When his belief fails, which means when transcendentalism fails, Carlyle finds himself alone among what on some level he knows to be the creatures of dyspepsia: phantoms, chimeras, obscene and atrabilious spectra, simulacra, voids, abysses, inanities, rags and cobwebs, putrid unveracities, dung, the carcasses of dogs and drowned asses, together with their attendant stinks. These he obsessively denounces, a ‘spectre-fighting Man’ like his Teufelsdröckh, hoping one day to be a ‘Spectre-queller’, but feeling the earth liable to crack at any moment and drop him into the Inane. Seeing nothing but spectres, how can he be certain he is not spectral himself? ‘He who believes no thing, who believes only the shows of things, is not in relation with Nature and Fact at all.’ ‘What am I,’ he asks his notebooks, ‘but a sort of Ghost?’ His shouts, his warnings of coming violence, ostensibly meant to wake England, may have been necessary to prove to himself his own reality: ‘my Conscience like my sense of Pain or Pleasure has grown dull,’ he wrote, ‘and I secretly desire to compensate for laxity of feeling by intenseness of describing.’ Only things and people who either dominated or could be dominated remained fully real to him in a world whose circumference tended uncomfortably to shrink to the dimensions of the self.
By his own showing, relationship should be all, yet what relationship could there be among phantasms or dreams? He despised the ‘art of adapting means to ends’, preferring that the desired ends bring themselves about, by force if necessary, or, remaining ideal, condemn by their absence the world that failed of their attainment. He resisted his own best understanding of the complexity of forces at work in the world, preferring the iconography of solitary strength and genius. Not for him the Victorian scientist ‘in his Museum, his Scientific Institution’, who behind ‘whole batteries of retorts, digesters, and galvanic piles imperatively "interrogates Nature"’; not the ‘gerund-grinding’ pedants of ‘mere political arrangements’, who failed to understand that the real meaning of riots and rebellions and clamourings after suffrage was the unarticulated cry, ‘Guide me, govern me! I am mad and miserable, and cannot guide myself!’; not the economist working to find the intersection of supply and demand (‘For what noble work was there ever yet any audible "demand” in that poor sense?’); but instead ‘Newton, by silent meditation’, discovering the ‘system of the world from the falling of an apple’; or Cromwell or Frederick the Great or Napoleon, men whose force of will made a centre for chaos to revolve around; or the wielder of the ‘beneficent whip’, respectful of the wisdom of slavery (a permanent contract of fidelity not unlike marriage), working through magisterial violence to satisfy the real spiritual needs of his aggrieved and reluctant labourers.
Carlyle (he would always be ‘Carlyle’ to his wife) was born in Ecclefechan in 1795, the eldest and most favoured of his parents’ nine children. He remembered his father, a devout and notably frugal stonemason descended of a family known for its ‘hard sayings, and hard strikings’, as a Samuel Johnson of the Scottish peasantry, a man with ‘perhaps the largest natural endowment’ of any man he ever knew. Froude reports that the way he talked of ‘the poor masons, dining silently upon water and water-cresses’, turned his son into a lifetime champion (after his own fashion) of the working poor. Carlyle described his father’s conversational style as ‘bold glowing’ and metaphorical, though, having received very little schooling, ‘he knew not what a metaphor was’ and for poetry and fiction felt contempt as for things ‘not only idle but false and criminal’; in anger (he was often frighteningly angry) he was ‘inspired . . . with new vehemence of insight, and more piercing emphasis of wisdom’. His father’s distance frightened them all, even Carlyle’s mother: ‘We had all to complain that we durst not freely love him. His heart seemed as if walled in . . . it seemed as if an atmosphere of Fear repelled us from him.’ The centre of Carlyle’s emotional world was his mother. It was to her that he confided the disquiets of his honeymoon, about her illnesses (and not Jane’s) that he worried, with her that he spent most of his summers, sometimes with Jane, more often without. Though barely able to read, she nevertheless taught her young son his letters, and in recompense he later taught her to write.
His early years were a muddle: an uneven education at the hands of local schoolmasters and ministers, three brutal and unhappy years at school nearby in Annan, and then, at 13, the beginning of his studies at Edinburgh University, where his parents hoped he would prepare to become a minister of the Church of Scotland. He floundered about, hating the city and unable to like or be liked by his fellow students, sometimes studying (moral philosophy, classics, mineralogy, law, mathematics, astronomy), sometimes teaching or tutoring. In 1817 he told his grieved parents that he could not become a clergyman. He left the university without a degree, but confirmed in a nasty humour, a horror of noise, a conviction that, as Froude put it, ‘if his little finger ached . . . no mortal had ever suffered so before,’ and a habit of dosing himself for dyspeptic disorders with castor oil, mercury and sulphate of magnesia in injurious quantities.
His first almost accidental steps towards a literary career consisted of pseudonymous contributions on mathematical and scientific topics for the Dumfries and Galloway Courier, translations of works on similar subjects, and entries for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia on mathematicians and scientists whose surnames began with M or N. He might have continued in this sort of hackwork had he not come upon Goethe, ‘our Greatest contemporary Man’, master of ‘Insight, Spiritual Vision and Determination’, in whom Carlyle found a counter to soulless rationalism and empiricism and an anodyne for despair. As he turned his literary efforts towards the Germans – writing a life of Schiller, translating Goethe (with whom he began a correspondence that would last until the poet’s death), beginning what would prove to be a lifetime of promoting German literature and culture (Bismarck was a late favourite) – his sense of who he was and what he cared about came into focus.
He first met the spoilt, precociously witty and formidably flirtatious Jane Baillie Welsh, 19 years old, at her mother’s house in Haddington, near Edinburgh, in 1821, two years after the death of her father, a well-respected doctor, which had left her devastated. (Such grief for a parent Carlyle respected; he obsessively dreaded his own mother’s death.) The two were introduced by Carlyle’s first real friend, the bold and enthusiastic charlatan-in-training Edward Irving, who had been Jane’s Latin tutor when, as a much adored and adoration-craving nine-year-old, she had demanded that her father permit her to study as boys did. The tutoring had lasted only two years, but Irving met her again the year before he introduced Carlyle, and though Irving was by then engaged to another former pupil, he and Jane fell in love. Of this Carlyle knew nothing until a friend forced Jane to come clean in 1825.
Smitten at first sight, Carlyle began his pursuit. He veered awkwardly between shyness and arrogance, taking it upon himself to tell this young woman, who at 13 had composed a five-act tragedy, what she should read and what she should write. Initially hostile, Jane came at length to think of him as ‘wise and noble’, ‘the only living soul that understands me’. The romance, if one can call it that, was conducted by post between brief and infrequent meetings. It was and in certain ways remained a theoretical attachment, flourishing when the two were apart and on their reunion deteriorating towards bewilderment, irritation and resentment. Jane knew she was not in love with him and told him repeatedly that she felt for him the affection of a friend or a sister, nothing more; that the unhappiness he complained of was not her doing, and she could not cure it; that she was being courted by more eligible suitors. In return he admonished her that ‘love which will not make sacrifices is no proper love.’ It did not occur to him either then or later to apply such a judgment to himself. Impelled by some combination of pique at the realisation that Irving was not going to leave his fiancée and uneasiness that she might lose Carlyle to another woman, Jane allowed herself the fantasy that to be the wife of a ‘warmhearted . . . Genius’ might be a glorious thing, and consented to the marriage. The warmhearted genius, who thought of himself as a prisoner of a ‘rotten carcass’ that obscured his intellect and overmastered his soul, did not know what to feel. He told Jane his heart was dead and incapable even of the desire to love. He told his brother her consent made him feel ‘very queer’.
He was sure, at least, about a wife’s duty. When Jane suggested that they might live with her mother after their marriage, he replied:
I must not and I cannot live in a house of which I am not head . . . it is the nature of a man that if he be controlled by any thing but his own Reason, he feels himself degraded: and incited, be it justly or not, to rebellion and discord. It is the nature of a woman again (for she is essentially passive not active) to cling to the man for support and direction, to comply with his humours, and feel pleasure in doing so, simply because they are his; to reverence while she loves him, to conquer him not by her force but her weakness . . . Now, I think, Liebchen, whether your Mother will consent to forget her own riches, and my poverty, and uncertain, most probably very scanty income; and consent in the spirit of Christian meekness to make me her guardian and director, and be a second wife to her daughter’s husband! If she can, then I say, she is a noble woman; and in the name of Truth and Affection, let us all lie together, and be one household and one heart till Death.
The bride and groom hadn’t seen each other for a year when they married in 1826. Two days later, Carlyle wrote to his mother. He had been ‘very sullen’, he told her, ‘sick with sleeplessness, quite nervous, billus, splenetic and all the rest of it’. Still, ‘on the whole I have reason to say that I have been mercifully dealt with.’ Jane ‘is far better than any other wife, and loves me with a devotedness, which it is a mystery to me how I have ever deserved . . . all my despondency cannot make her despond, she seems happy enough if she can but see me, and minister to me.’ More unsettling reassurance followed a month later:
In every thing great and little she gives me entirely my own way; asking, as it seems, nothing more whatever of her destiny, but that in any way she could make me happy. Good little girl! Sometimes too we are very happy . . . From her I can anticipate no hindrance in any arrangement of my life I may see good to adopt . . . Courage, therefore, I say to myself: one way or other, it must and shall be ordered for good! Give me a little time to sift and settle it all, and then to fasten it with rigid perseverance, and the evils of my lot will at length be beneath my feet!
He put behind him with wonderful celerity his suspicion that Jane might be better than he deserved. She persisted in trying to make him happy, or at least to eliminate hindrances to any arrangements he might see good to adopt. But despite the rigid perseverance of which he had such hopes, he was less and less able to be pleased or even (except hypothetically) grateful to his ‘Goody’, his ‘Wifekin’, his ‘poor little Protectress’, his ‘little Screamikin’. Nine years into the marriage he told her he was incapable of expressing his feelings for her: ‘cheerful looks, when the heart feels slowly dying in floods of confusion and obstruction, are not the thing I have to give.’ She would have to believe that he cared for her in the absence of evidence that he did anything of the kind, merely because he asked her to. He believed this was true because he knew he wished it to be true and because, in this as in so many matters, he wanted to believe that wishing was enough.
Soon after the marriage Carlyle decided they must leave Edinburgh. Ignoring Jane’s reluctance (she ‘would murmur at no scene or fortune which she shared along with me’), he took her to live at Craigenputtock, near Dumfries, ‘a little estate of peat bog’, as Jane described it, ‘a tract of the worst land in this country’ with ‘a sort of house upon it’ that her mother used to threaten to send her to when she was naughty. They were miles from anything: one year, three months passed without so much as a knock at the door. Carlyle found the extreme solitude conducive to extremely hard work. As far as he was concerned, these were ‘perhaps . . . our happiest days’. Jane, lonely, increasingly unhappy and frequently ill with the headaches, neuralgia and respiratory ailments that would trouble her for the rest of her life, meditated on the fact that her ‘two immediate predecessors had gone mad, and the third had taken to drink’.
The solitude, and the distance from the London editors who might be persuaded to publish Sartor Resartus, proved at last too much even for Carlyle. In 1834, after much frustration, confusion and moving back and forth to London and Edinburgh, intrigued by what looked to be but was not a reliable offer from John Stuart Mill of a position at the new London Review, Carlyle and Jane moved into the house in Cheyne Row where they would live for the rest of their lives. They began to find their way into literary society almost at once. Emerson had already sought out Carlyle in Scotland to express his admiration. Now Carlyle met and disapproved of Lamb, Godwin, Coleridge and Wordsworth. Francis Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review and Charles Buller were old friends, and Irving too, though Irving – now a popular preacher absorbed in miracle cures and speaking in tongues (‘hoo-ing and ha-ing’) – was making Carlyle increasingly uneasy. Mill he had met three years earlier, and the two had formed an immediate but gradually cooling friendship. Leigh Hunt and his family were conveniently near (too conveniently, the Carlyles soon decided). They became friendly with John Sterling and with Harriet Martineau. They would come to know Giuseppe Mazzini, Geraldine Jewsbury, John Forster, F.D. Maurice, Thackeray, Dickens, Tennyson, the Brownings, George Lewes (though Jane refused to have Mary Ann Evans in the house), Lady Harriet Baring and William Bingham Baring, Charles and Erasmus Darwin, Margaret Fuller, Ruskin, Ellen Twisleton, Margaret Oliphant, Froude: practically everybody, or at least practically everybody who either liked to talk or could bear, as Carlyle grew into stentorian middle age, silently to listen. Froude’s first impression was that Carlyle’s ‘talk was rich, full and scornful’, Jane’s ‘delicately mocking’; but often the richness was ‘a torrent of sulphurous denunciation’ and sometimes the delicate mockery was plain aggression. Those who came to admire did not always become friends, and many of those who began as friends would find themselves slowly alienated, for both Carlyles were in their distinct ways bullies and snobs, their wit, eloquence and vivacity barely disguising their demands for admiration and a submissive audience; their ingratitude to and even contempt for those who were generous to them is embarrassing to read, and their intolerance wearing. For all their social success, for all their celebrity – and, as Rosemary Ashton points out, they attracted more attention than any other couple in England – they had to restock their social circles again and again.
To Carlyle success seemed a long time coming and his achievement peculiarly liable to be undone. In 1835, the first volume of his French Revolution, lent in manuscript to Mill, was accidentally burned and had laboriously to be rewritten, without the aid of notes. The night he learned of the manuscript’s loss he dreamed he saw his ‘father and sister Margaret alive; yet all defaced with the sleepy stagnancy, swollen hebetude of the grave, and again dying in some strange rude country; a horrid dream’ – a dream almost as painful to wake from, since the rewriting of what he ought not to have had to look on again was ghastly to him.
From the time of his first lecture series in 1837, however, things began to turn around. The publication of The French Revolution and the admiring review Mill published of it in order to make up for the earlier accident amplified the excitement the lectures had produced. Across the ocean, Sartor Resartus had been published as a book, thanks to Emerson, and thanks to Emerson, too, the American publication of The French Revolution was at last producing royalties. He did a second lecture series, then a third and a fourth; he began work on a study of Cromwell, published ‘Chartism’, Heroes and Hero Worship and Past and Present (its condemnation of the modern cash nexus eagerly read by Engels and taken up by Marx), and produced an annotated edition of Cromwell’s letters and speeches that redeemed Cromwell’s reputation.
By middle age the vigour of his early style and the optimism of his early tone had largely given way to vitriol and incoherence. He filled the 1850 Latter-Day Pamphlets with rants about the folly of coddling convicts, the advisability of turning whips and guns on the idle poor to compel them to labour as serfs of the state, as well as, most notoriously, his fantasies on ‘The Nigger Question’ (originally called ‘The Negro Question’ but retitled to give additional offence). A number of old allies, Mill and Emerson among them, backed off, and, as so often, Carlyle felt badly used: ‘Though no one hates me, I think nearly Everybody of late takes me on the wrong side, and proves unconsciously unjust to me, more or less destructive to me.’ Still, his popular celebrity continued to increase, and readers continued to buy what he continued to write: the biography of his friend Sterling and, after hideously prolonged labour, the History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great, in six volumes that not even Jane could get through.
He took no more joy in other people’s writing than he did in his own. Goethe he revered, and because in their different ways they reminded him of his father he respected Burns and Johnson. But he didn’t quite see the point of anyone else. He resented Scott, disliked Lamb (‘Wearisome, inexpressibly wearisome’), felt ill at the thought of Keats, complained of Hazlitt (an ‘incessant chew-chewing’), found Wordsworth egotistical (‘It seems . . . rather to grieve him that you have any admiration for anybody but him’), was appalled by Coleridge (‘a mass of richest spices, putrified into a dunghill’), and advised Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett and Alfred Tennyson to give up poetry and write prose instead. Not only his contemporaries fell short. Milton was guilty of unsystematic reasoning (‘It is quite clear that he never studied mathematics very deeply, or political economy – or any subject merely logical’), and as for Petrarch, Carlyle had ‘no sympathy with his weak, washy twaddle about another man’s wife’. Prose writers fared no better. Dickens (who learned the elements of his style from Carlyle and dedicated Hard Times to him) was rarely worth reading through; Emerson was weak-minded, incoherent and vague, ‘like a man soliloquising in unpeopled vacancy’; Harriet Martineau ‘would have made . . . a quite shining Matron of some big Female Establishment, mistress of some immense Dress-Shop, for instance’; and ‘one esteems’ Mill ‘exceedingly: but to love him? It were like loving the 47th of Euclid.’
He drove himself very hard. He sat with his iron pens feeling, Ashton notes, like ‘someone straining to expel a natural yet somehow disgraceful burden of waste matter’. His notebooks record his frustration: ‘Certainly no one ever wrote with such tremendous difficulty as I do,’ he wrote. ‘The stupidity I labour under is extreme. All dislocated, prostrated, obfuscated; cannot even speak, much less write.’ Although he believed in difficulty as the mark of a task worth doing (‘Literature, when noble, is not easy; but only when ignoble’), he could not help wondering why his task was so especially hard. But there was no alternative; he saw in life ‘really no meaning at all that one can lay hold on, no results at all to sum up, except the work we have done’.
‘We go on in much the old fashion,’ Jane wrote in 1845, ‘– my Husband always writing – I always ailing, which is perhaps the most laborious business of the two, tho’ yielding less result.’ Through a lifetime of sleeplessness, sick headaches, gynaecological problems, influenza, sore throats, neuralgia, dyspepsia (learned from her husband), paralysis and probable drug addiction and withdrawal, she waged battles against dirt, bugs, domestic disorder, exterminable nuisances of any kind that might vex her chronically insomniac and splenetic husband and so provoke shrieking, snarling and frantic stamping – and then she wrote comic ‘little notes’ about it all. The category of intolerable disturbances at first consisted of the neighbours’ pianos and crowing roosters but grew to embrace barking dogs, mooing cows, parrots, wind, inflation, tax collectors, barrel organs, railway whistles, the foreignness of foreign countries, and some of the more alarming evidence of Jane’s own illnesses and injuries, although (since he was capable of ignoring them) these last disturbed her husband comparatively little. At its glorious peak, her heroic housekeeping extended to planning and supervising the construction and reconstruction (when, predictably enough, Carlyle was unhappy with the result) of a soundproof room for her husband to write in, a project that strengthened her sense of her own competence and gave her obvious pleasure. But neither of them felt that what she did counted as real work, and both were inclined to blame her depression and illnesses on a lack of activity worthy of her attention. If Jane made an attempt to write, nothing came of it but an enormous mass of letters (full of mock-epic hilarity and exclamation marks), although she did complete a semi-autobiographical tale of thwarted girlhood infatuation, ‘The simple Story of my own first Love’. The sporadic literary encouragement Carlyle had once offered ended (‘It is a pity, and perhaps not a pity, that so lively a pen did not turn itself to writing of books. My coagitor, too, might become a distinguished female. Nay, after all, who knows? But perhaps we are better as we are, "probably just as well"’), and Jane learned at last that she must not write even letters when he was near, for ‘the scratching of my pen’, she said, made him uncomfortable.
Jane’s distresses became acute when her husband became infatuated with Lady Harriet Baring (later Lady Ashburton), a formidably intelligent and charming society woman (‘the very cleverest woman – out of sight – that I ever saw in my life’, Jane observed, half-infatuated herself at first), happily married, accustomed to adoration, with a crowd of eminent men – even, for a moment, the cool Mill himself – in postures of worship before her. Carlyle was smitten more violently even than the rest, and though there was no affair, his letters to her (‘Lady mine, – mine yes, and yet forever no!’) are squirmworthy. He hung Lady Harriet’s portrait opposite his own over the mantelpiece, professed himself injured by his wife’s unhappiness with the situation, bullied her to obey Lady Harriet’s summonses to parties, and even tried to solicit her pity with complaints of the hardships he endured as Lady Harriet’s houseguest. By the mid-1840s, Jane (who, as Jewsbury noted, could be ‘extremely provoking’ and had a genius for ‘pushing everything to the extreme’) was as bitterly unhappy as the wives of the men she herself had once flirted with. She seems to have thought seriously about running away, perhaps with Mazzini, but he wasn’t interested in taking her. As the years of Carlyle’s infatuation wore on, Jane began to believe she had cancer, dosed herself with morphine and opium, and feared (perhaps rightly) that she was going mad. ‘Sunk in the mud oceans that rage without and within’, devoured with ‘silent weak rage’, Carlyle was determinedly oblivious to his wife’s pain. When Jane forced her illness on his notice, he exploded in ‘such a tempest of scornful and wrathful words, such charges of "impatience", "cowardliness", "impiety", "contemptibility", that I shut myself up altogether,’ Jane wrote, and noted that he ‘could not avoid letting me see how little patience his own ailments’ – often imaginary, as Froude observed – ‘have left him for any body else’s’. Only with Lady Ashburton’s death in 1857 did relations between the Carlyles begin slowly to improve.
Carlyle was capable of kindness, even at significant cost to himself. But he reserved the major part of his sympathy for those who made or could make no claim on it. His heart was open to the powerful and the dead. The helplessness of doomed scoundrels moved him to tenderness: ‘Men bully him, insult him: his eyes still indicate intelligence; he speaks no word. "He had on the sky-blue coat he had got made for the Feast of the Être Suprême.” – O Reader, can thy hard heart hold out against that? His trousers were nankeen; the stockings had fallen down over the ankles.’ Thus he wept for Robespierre. At paper pathos Carlyle was a master, but he was ruthless in repelling what would interfere with his concentration on his own desires and distresses. Froude suggests his apparent cruelty betrayed ‘a want of perception, not a want of feeling’. Perhaps. But surely at some point his want of perception must be recognised as a positive refusal to feel.
In 1863 Jane was severely injured in an accident involving an omnibus. It plunged her into an agony so unbearable and so unbearably protracted she thought the only alternative to madness was suicide. Carlyle managed for some weeks not to understand that anything much was wrong, remarking merely that she looked stupid with her mouth hanging open. (Nerve damage prevented her from shutting it.) When she had been taken away to attempt to recover, he felt as sorry for himself as for her (‘my poor little friend of friends, she has fallen wounded to the ground and I am alone – alone!’) and continued to work on the interminable Frederick, just as, to judge by her letters (‘Oh, my Husband! I am suffering torments! . . . But I don’t want to interrupt your work’), she wanted him to. On her return home, a year after the accident, Carlyle made a genuine effort to be kind. Despite her continuing pain and the uselessness of her right hand, she was happier in these last months than she had been since very early in the marriage. She died suddenly, in 1866, riding in the carriage that the newly considerate Carlyle had hired for her use. He was away enjoying the fuss over his election to succeed Gladstone to the Rectorship of Edinburgh University. In his shattering sorrow at her death he found it a comfort to reflect that ‘her last brief thought, if she had any, must have been a pang of sorrow about me.’
Carlyle survived until 1881, full of remorse for the terrible unhappiness he had discovered in his wife’s journals. He was eager to tell the world about her excellence, his love for her, his remorse towards her, and his regret at the loss of his ‘poor martyred darling’. Her letters he declared to be more full of genius than the productions of ‘all the Sands and Eliots and babbling cohue of "celebrated scribbling Women” that have strutted over the world’. Now that she was gone, she who had ‘flickered around me, like perpetual radiance’, he could be tender towards her memory. Hence the project of the Reminiscences; hence the Letters and Memorials, left to Froude’s disposition. Hence the scandals.
One’s sorrow, fury, exasperation and amusement at all this fall short of the tragic woe Carlyle (and Jane too) would have demanded. No one except Carlyle’s mother could possibly feel enough for her son. To those beyond the reach of his charisma he seems a man who has mistaken the source of his indignations and their proper proportions as well. It was apparent even to many of Carlyle’s contemporaries that his spiritual agonies (which he declaimed and Jane suffered) were a matter largely of pathology, his inspiration a matter of wind, brought on by an abstention from fruit or perhaps (so his doctor suggested) by a habitual overindulgence in bad gingerbread.
It is hard to know what to make of him. He can still at moments pass for a genius. He was intermittently (but only intermittently) great, intermittently (or perhaps more than intermittently) monstrous. Perpetually jealous of his autonomy, he nevertheless matters to us more for the electrifying effect he had on those around him than for what he was in himself. His writings, remarkable less for insight than for the insistence of his personality, resemble the production of a lesser but louder Emerson, a more pompous but less amusing Dickens, most striking (alas for the multivolume sets!) in excerpts.
We know – we knew already – that Carlyle was selfish and Jane was unhappy. But how selfish, how unhappy, and how far the selfishness was to blame for the unhappiness we do not know. Both had a lifetime’s practice in making the most of their discontents, and we cannot trust what they say. Taking scrupulous care to go no further than the evidence allows, Rosemary Ashton refuses to take sides or to speculate about what the gaps in the record prevent us from knowing. She chides Carlyle for his selfishness, Jane for complaining about it, turning away from inflammatory details (readily available elsewhere) and presenting instead discussions – judicious, enlightening, thoroughly absorbing – of London sanitation, or beards, or the varieties of marital dysfunction the Carlyles saw all around them. She restores to Carlyle the decorum he flung away with each dyspeptic word he wrote. She reminds us that the mysteries remain mysterious, that all we know is that the Carlyles’ marriage was unhappy, and that it is no good dwelling on it.
All this is just and proper and sets a fine example of how to present the life of a man (the principal object of her attention, despite her subtitle) who was frequently unjust and improper. In many ways her biography is better than Carlyle deserves. But (and it is surely not only because we know how Carlyle himself would have objected) the scales of measured esteem and moderate dismay don’t always seem quite adequate here. We read Carlyle – if we read him at all – for the extravagance of his idea of himself, spilling over into the extravagance of his ideas of the wickedness, the greatness, the pathos of others. How he must have wished, and how painfully and prophetically have doubted, that what he wrote of Cromwell future generations would write of him:
The depth and tenderness of his wild affections: the quantity of sympathy he had with things, – the quantity of insight he would yet get into the heart of things, the mastery he would yet get over things: this was his hypochondria. The man’s misery, as man’s misery always does, came of his greatness.
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