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.

So many of Carlyle’s difficulties and agonies seem self-created. The condition of the manuscript must be whatever explanation there can be for its destruction. Travel to the north, certainly rigorous when done as cheaply as possible, produced long lists of complaints from both Carlyle and Jane. Was his health as poor as he asserts? Can constant poor health ever be ascribed to someone who lives to his eighties? A narrow diet, based on meat and oatmeal, with a fear of fresh vegetables, tied his insides in knots and led to what he calls ‘bilious croaking’. London in summer was too hot to be bearable, and the Carlyles wilted. In winter, fogs and the cold were intolerable and dangerous. Writing was agony; it had to be done by defying the Devil and the World. He could not look back on ‘the detestable state of enchantment’ without ‘a kind of sacred shudder’. Yet non-employment rapidly produced melancholy. The Carlyles used their talents to make the most, in the telling, of the lesser inconveniences of life. At the same time they grappled courageously and intelligently with their major handicap, life on a small income, and the need for ‘rigorous thrift’.

Family support was a major element in resource management. Carlyle’s brother, whom he had earlier aided, was now ready to repay the money, so that Jane and Thomas had some two and a half years in reserves when Volume VIII opens. Book-writing was a total activity, putting tremendous strain on Jane and requiring that whoever they had as servant had to be trained to subordinate everything to Carlyle’s stringent routine. London prices shocked them, but they could rely on aid from Annandale. Barrels would be sent off by sea, to be opened months later, full of oatmeal, potatoes, butter, hams and illegal whisky. Carlyle’s knobbly feet (it was a further grouse that London shoes lamed him) required the construction of lasts in Scotland. Dressing-gowns, shawls, socks and slippers, a case of pipes, also came from the north to prevent expenditure. Carlyle was critical of ‘Cockney’ life, of the food, the clothing, the water of London, as well as the mercantile values which ‘spoilt’ their country servants. The noise of the city, its size and whirligig were offensive, yet that was where he had to be to get a foothold in the literary world.

Jane discovered that she could hold tea parties on almost no expenditure except that of personality – ‘small damage to even a long-necked purse’ – and began to make her own circle. As yet the main bulk of their later friends had not come their way, but they had discovered John Sterling, the man everyone loved, Cavaignac, Leigh Hunt and the Mills, as well as a circle of literary radicals. Later Jane was to get carriage outings and even long stays with friends of greater wealth. At present low income compelled them to be permanently beset by the servant problem. Life as servant to the Carlyles can have been little fun. Their maid was lodged in the basement kitchen, obliged to rise at five so that breakfast could be ready and fires lit by eight. Absolute quiet had to be maintained. And all for £10 a year. English or Irish servants were unreliable, said the Carlyles, a miserable set of people. At intervals Carlyle declared his readiness to do without a servant altogether and live ‘Diogenically’, but it is clear that this did not mean he was prepared to learn how to cook or clean. There was Anne Cook, a Dumfriesshire girl with a typical Dumfriesshire ‘misfortune’, who was brought down from the north for her capacity for hard work, but whose handling of guests was distinctly brusque. When she took to stealing and showed herself untruthful, there followed a new search for a country girl who might remain uncorrupted by London for a further two years. Given the long working day, not ended till a late evening supper of porridge – a ritual reminiscent of Mr Wodehouse and Isabella – cut off from family and friends and even from the ‘misfortune’, yet without any place of privacy, remote from the bookish tastes of the master and mistress – the life of the Cheyne Row servant seems arduous and dreary beyond belief. The fact that women would take it on is a comment on the absence of alternatives. That the Carlyles were careful not to let word of Anne Cook’s misdemeanours get back to Annandale is a sign of their real personal delicacy, but she had to go.

Some of the frugality of the Carlyle way of life was a positive choice. They had strong prejudices in favour of a narrow diet. Carlyle found that dinner parties, if he let himself eat generously, had to be paid for in biliousness for several days. Walking a few miles in the area west of London, still countryside, was a genuine recreation. But the basic uncertainty of their future until the book made its mark gave tension to their lives, and was probably a cause of their continual ill-health and disquiet. Perhaps it was an ingredient in the aggressiveness of Carlyle’s style.

One of the most fascinating economies used by the network of their families is the manipulation of the postal service. The Carlyles had the built-in middle-class objection to paying for their post. Franks could be got by those who had links with the political world. When the supply dried up – for instance, during Parliamentary recess – correspondence was apt to dwindle. Basic communication, week by week, was sustained by manipulating the regulations of the Stamp Act over newspapers. Papers which had legally paid for their stamp went through the national post free. The links of the Carlyles with the press enabled them to pick up spare or old copies. So off these went to Annandale, to the sister in Manchester, to the brother abroad, with a couple of ink strokes on them to indicate that both Carlyles were well. This might cost the local postal fee of up to threepence, but no more. In return, there flowed in papers from abroad, the Allgemeine Zeitung or the Diario di Roma. Old Mrs Carlyle would send a Herald to Manchester, where Carlyle’s brother-in-law would add another mark, and back to Annandale would go a Courier or an Examiner duly marked. The cost of sending a newspaper at letter rates from Scotland to London, a cost occasionally demanded when the Post Office considered that the marking was too overt, would have been nearly a pound, a monstrous hole in their budget. Carlyle would then refuse to pay up.

The 1830s saw a battle for the reduction of the newspaper stamp tax, which in 1835 stood at fivepence a copy. The radicals of the working class ran an illegal unstamped press. Editors and distributors of this frequently went to gaol. The middle class made a great fuss in Parliament about freedom of information. In 1836, a compromise satisfactory to the middle class was achieved. The tax came down to a penny, but the unstamped press was still illegal and suppressed. These letters of the Carlyles show why middle-class people were ready to have some sort of tax maintained: the benefit of free postage. The handy and cheap system of minimal communication, which they used not only to indicate general health but for explicit messages (‘a newspaper with one stroke on it ... two days before you are to look for us’ is a sample), would, if the tax had gone completely, have had to be replaced by a real postal charge. The sell-out by the middle class over the tax is made comprehensible by these letters. Responsible people often have a blank area where they feel entitled to cheat the system, be it the railways or the government, and the Carlyles were no exception.

Constant communication, by newspaper as well as by letter, with old Mrs Carlyle and with Carlyle’s brothers, shows how closely Carlyle was still linked with his immediate kin. Jane was less close to her relatives. There were fewer of them and she was coming to realise that she could not live for any length of time with her mother. There was a ‘system’, she wrote, which was kept up on a long visit to within two hours of departure. Then, once Mrs Welsh was on her way north again, she could write a letter, says Jane, ‘just as if we had been spending the last three months as – we ought to have done’. Carlyle was more at ease on the maternal front, though not totally so. He could adopt a near enough religious phraseology to satisfy orthodoxy without committing himself to unacceptable religiosity. He could refer to ‘a good Counsellor’, or an impersonal God with a strong dose of Calvinist necessity about him. There were problems within the family at least as pressing as his own future. Should his doctor brother, the nearest to himself in intellectual sympathy, leave his well-paid but frustrating post abroad and risk practising in London? Jane reckoned he could survive on £50 a year. Should Alick, his next in age, give up his unsuccessful attempts to make a living in Scotland at farming or trade, and set out for America? The Carlyle family did much for mutual support: this involved the obligation of conveying, in various directions, the substance and flavour of daily life, and even if Carlyle could never adequately describe the agonies of writing he could expand freely on other agonies, or on the problems, contacts and issues of his own world. When he came to do the same thing for people in the world of letters he became less direct. The phraseology of his letters to Emerson, for instance, is pompous and self-conscious, and compares badly with his directness to his brothers.

These volumes must raise one problem in the reader’s mind. Why did the Carlyles not seek another source of irrigation during the long drought afflicting their income? Jane’s writing was lively enough to be commercial, and altogether easier to read than Carlyle’s. There were literary ladies about at that time. One of these, Harriet Martineau, made a great impression on the Carlyles. It is difficult not to feel that Jane might have been happier, and even healthier, as well as of more use, writing for publication rather than wringing out blankets or supervising the smoothness of porridge. But though she wanted vehemently to be appreciated in her own right, she did not take this step. Perhaps there was no room in Cheyne Row for a second literary ego.

This is a handsome and careful edition. I think I have noticed only one oblique reference misunderstood by the editors. The friends, near or less near, and the acquaintances, are all carefully noted, and missing correspondence indicated. The themes of the letters reveal the deep political and social worries of this transition period in British history. Radicalism, too dogmatic anyway for Carlyle’s full adherence, was wearing itself out in personal squabbles, the older party system revealing itself as capable of another decade of control, the class system of modern Britain building itself up. The Carlyles were only partly aware of these longer issues, but full of dismayed response to short-run matters, and the richness of their dismay is the special interest of these volumes.