Doing the bores

Rosemary Ashton

  • The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, Duke–Edinburgh Edition. Vols XVI-XVIII: 1843-4 edited by Clyde Ryals and Kenneth Fielding
    Duke, 331 pp, £35.65, July 1990, ISBN 0 8223 0919 X

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.

Yet I have no doubt at all that this mammoth editorial task is very well worth doing, and it is being done extremely well. The Carlyles were extraordinary human beings and, as it happens, extraordinarily good letter-writers. No wonder people kept their letters. No wonder everyone wanted to know – though not everyone was able to like – the Sage of Chelsea and his wife. And because they were so remarkable, their letters are a treasury of insights – peculiar and sometimes distorted, no doubt – into the age in which they lived. You want to know about train travel in its early days? Read the Carlyle’s minute account of its uses and its discomforts. You are interested in relations between master and mistress and servants in ordinary, non-aristocratic households? Read Jane Carlyle’s dramatic stories of how mutinies below stairs are valiantly averted by a quick wit, a sharp tongue and impeccable logic from above stairs. Perhaps you are interested in international republicanism as practised by Mazzini? Jane’s long-term flirtation with him, Carlyle’s magnificent letter to the Times in his support, and the habit both Carlyles had of preserving amusing examples of his broken English in their own vibrant prose – these bring the legend to life in a way no other accounts of him and his doings, including his own letters, can manage.

Whether your interest in the Victorian period is literary, social or political, the Carlyles minister richly to it. If you want unusual yet perceptive portraits of their famous contemporaries, the Carlyles oblige. Here is Tennyson as drawn by Carlyle in 1844:

One of the finest looking men in the world. A great shock of rough dusty-dark hair; bright-laughing hazel eyes; massive aquiline face, most massive yet most delicate, of sallow-brown complexion, almost Indian-looking; clothes cynically loose, free-and-easy; – smokes infinite tobacco. His voice is musical-metallic, – fit for loud laughter and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation free and plenteous: I do not meet, in these decades, such company over a pipe! – We shall see what he will grow to. He is often unwell; very chaotic, – his way is thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless.

And Jane catches a likeness of Dickens at a Christmas party in 1843:

Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour – the best conjuror I ever saw... and Forster acting as his servant! –This part of the entertainment concluded with a plum pudding made out of raw flour raw eggs – all the raw usual ingredients – boiled in a gentleman’s hat-and tumbled out reeking – all in one minute before the eyes of the astonished children, and astonished grown people! – that trick, and his other of changing ladies’ pocket hankerchiefs into comfits – and a box full of bran into a box full of – a live-guinea-pig! would enable him to make a handsome subsistence let the bookseller trade go as it please!

Though these two portraits are done in a generous spirit, both Carlyles were more often grudging in their assessments of others. They shared the habit of docketing people, verbally containing and condescending to them. Thus even Dickens is ‘poor little Dickens’ for Carlyle; Jane writes almost routinely of ‘little Milnes’, ‘little Helps’ and so on. They invent inspired and malicious nicknames: the political hostess Lady Holland is ‘the stern old Witch of the (Kensington) Alps’, in Carlyle’s memorable phrase – reduced to ‘the Witch’ in his accounts of her social gatherings. Jane uses a Scottish phrase for the dandified Henry Fleming: he is ‘Jenkin’s hen’, one that – as the invaluable editorial notes explain – never knew a cock. The ingenious insult is all the more interesting coming from a woman who may not have enjoyed full marital relations with her husband.

The editors perform wonders in identifying the multifarious allusions made by the Carlyles: the letters are peppered with phrases from the Old Testament, Lowland Scots, Cockney, aristocratic and bohemian cant usage, French, German and various individual peculiarities of speech they heard and kept for reproduction from acquaintances of all nationalities and all classes.

The Carlyles are never more democratic than in the even-handedness with which they verbally condescend to others across class barriers. Though Carlyle fell for Lady Harriet Baring’s flattery – no nasty nicknames for her, but rather some uncharacteristically grovelling letters from Carlyle and much bitterness from Jane – he was usually more scathing about the great and even the good than about the little people. His roots were in simple country life and, for all the lionising he enjoyed and endured in Chelsea, he remained vitally concerned with the lot of poor working people, urban and rural. During the writing and publication in 1843 of Past and Present – his ‘Tract for the Times’, though ‘not in the Pusey vein’, as he said – with its eloquent attacks on aristocratic partridge-shooting and Parliamentary do-nothingism and its sympathetic exposure of the wretchedness of the urban poor, Carlyle visited Liverpool. He described conditions in Formby in a (hitherto unpublished) letter to Jane. It was ‘the most savage-looking establishment of human habitations, – I cannot call it village’, with its ‘green stagnant ditches and midden-holes’ and ‘without “lodging” in it that we could notice for anything bulkier than a rabbit’.

As for the plight of poor country farmers at this time of crisis over the Corn Laws, Carlyle experienced that in his own family. Many letters in these volumes were written to console his mother for the loss through reluctant emigration of his fanner brother Alexander, a victim partly of poor judgment but more of the difficulties experienced by hundreds of small farmers. Carlyle calls up all his powers of persuasion to convince mother, brother and himself that Alick will do well in Canada, that ‘this very sore trial’ is – perhaps – ‘God’s merciful ordering’.

Arriving on a visit to his mother in Ecclefechan in August 1843, he wrote to Jane of his feelings at seeing ‘my poor native Annandale’ again. These feelings are a combination of nostalgia for his childhood home and sympathy for those who cannot any longer make a living there. ‘Black rain curtains hung all around; but there, when I saw it, was a kind of bewept brightness: all seemed so small, remote, eternally foreign.’ He describes an old couple he noticed on the steamer from Liverpool, paradoxically coming home from America in ‘these “worst of times” ’: ‘They had been in America, where all their children 11 in number were, “but the auld man, ye seiy, wadna bide,” tho’ they had sent for him; and so here he was with his old dame come daundering back again to beggary and the Hawick native soil!’

Carlyle himself, coming from such humble beginnings, was by nature proud and demanding. He quailed before no one. There are insistent, even importunate letters to civil servants, scholars and friends (among them Henry Cole, Edward Fitzgerald and John Forster) demanding access to documents or help with maps for his work on Cromwell. He expected help as his right, and he got it. But he never merged into metropolitan literary and social circles. As Anne Procter noted, in a letter helpfully quoted by the editors, he was ‘totally unlike any other two-legged animal. To speak with him is like opening some rare and rich book ... His society is a fine antidote against London life.’ The most unlikely people tolerated his often intolerable opinions, listening to him justify Cromwell’s butcheries in Ireland as ‘appointed work’ which he ‘could not but do’. Anna Jameson, also quoted in a footnote here, compared hearing this to coming under a ‘battery of great guns’. To be married to such a wayward genius must be ‘something next worse to being married to Satan himself’.

And so Jane thought too. If she had sharp phrases ready to employ for others, she was not lacking in bitter words to spill about her husband himself. Letter after letter to her Liverpool cousins, the Welsh girls, complains of his moods and his lack of concern for her, particularly after one of his visits to the Barings’ home, where, as she acidly puts it, he ‘strained his nerves quite preposterously to please the Lady Harriet –living on his capital in the article of agreeableness – So now I shall have but an indifferent time with him for weeks to come!’

She certainly had a lot to bear. Carlyle would complain of the noise of his neighbour’s daughters practising the piano, so the house had to be re-arranged to get his study out of earshot of the nuisance. Being unable to live in the house while alterations were being made, he set off for the country (from where he vilified his kind hosts in letters home) leaving Jane to cope with workmen and mess – and a fine time she then had, with plenty to shatter her own delicate nerves. ‘Did you ever hear of such a thin-skinned pair?’ she asks her cousin in one letter. No, indeed. And when Carlyle returned to the new arrangements, he soon gave Jane cause for more inspired grumbling. For three days he was pleasant with things in his new study, then ‘he started up disenchanted’ and ‘informed Heaven and Earth in a peremptory manner that “there, he could neither think nor live,” that the Carpenter must be brought back.’ Ten days later Jane could report with gloomy glee that Carlyle had acted the part of the sorcerer’s apprentice, ‘finding that he had not the counter-spell to allay the storm which himself had raised’ now that the workmen were back in the house and this time he could not escape.

Some of the most interesting letters in these volumes are those – many now published for the first time – between husband and wife. They write when he is away during the summer of 1843 and when she visits her Liverpool cousins the following summer. Though neither of them is ever a restrained letter-writer, both become gloriously unbuttoned when reporting life’s trials to one another. Carlyle grumbles quaintly to his ‘Goody’ (from the Goody Two-Shoes of the nursery-rhyme who always knew what to do). Jane writes entertainingly about the tiresome churchgoing of her uncle and the ingenious ways she finds of avoiding it. She tells of her cousins’ devotion to dressing three times a day and their sinking into ‘transcendental Indolence’, adding, in as tender an expression as ever comes from her pen: ‘How grateful I ought to be to you Dear for having rescued ME out of the young-Lady-sphere!’

It was Samuel Butler who said, truly enough, that it was a good thing the Carlyles had married one another, thus saving four people from being miserable instead of only two. Actually, though, their letters show them to have been a fond couple, if invariably negative in the expression of their tenderness. And we, too, may be glad that they married, for Carlyle was the strangest yet the most influential genius of his time, and Jane the most imaginatively gifted woman of the 19th century not to write fiction or poetry. Their letters give a uniquely valuable view not only of their life together, but also of the wider lives of all those, high and low, whom they attracted, repelled and – in the pages of their letters – impaled.