Black Electricities

John Sutherland

‘I told the Führer that I had recently been reading Carlyle’s book on Frederick the Great,’ Goebbels records in his diary of 27 February 1945:

He knows the book very well himself. I repeated certain passages from the book to him and they affected him very deeply. That is how we must be and that is how we will be. If someone like Göring dances totally out of line, then he must be called to order. Bemedalled idiots and vain perfumed coxcombs have no place in our war leadership ... For instance it is simply grossly bad style for the senior officer of the Reich, in the present wartime situation, to strut around in a silver-grey uniform.

It would seem, from the apposite allusion to ‘the dandiacal body’ and the ‘philosophy of clothes’, that Goebbels was as familiar with Sartor Resartus as with the later biographies. On 23 March, one of the Reich’s lattermost days, we find Goebbels again settling down at bedtime with ‘Thomas Carlyle’s book’ drowning out the rumble of Soviet artillery and the RAF’s Mosquito raids.

This is not an endorsement which brings a prophet honour in his own country. But Carlyle’s reputation was sunk long before the Nazis took him along to their Götterdämmerung. Simon Heffer gives a useful account of the ‘long and damaging fall from the pedestal’ in the first chapter of his 1995 Life of Carlyle. The extent of that fall can also be gauged in the acres of cheap Victorian editions still to be found in secondhand bookshops and the dearth of Carlyle titles on offer from classics-reprinters.

A row of entries in the current Books in Print is not the sole criterion of influence, however. A book need only be read by one generation to take lasting root. George Eliot’s encomium is often quoted: ‘It is an idle question to ask whether Carlyle’s books will be read a century hence; if they were all burnt as the grandest of Suttees on his funeral pile,’ she wrote in 1855, ‘it would only be like cutting down an oak after its acorns have sown a forest.’ Carlyle’s acorns seem to survive in the late 20th century less as texts than as a lexicon of talismanic keywords and resonant catchphrases: ‘the Gospel of Work’, ‘the Gospel of Mammon’, ‘the Working Aristocracy’, ‘the Unworking Aristocracy’, ‘Captains of Industry’, ‘Cash-Nexus’, ‘Cant’, ‘Machinery’, ‘the Condition of England Question’, ‘the Everlasting No’, ‘Hero-Worship’, ‘the Dismal Science’.

Although it gravitates naturally towards radical conservatism, Carlylism can also be discerned at work beneath the surface of Tony Blair’s Christian Socialism, a line which descends via F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley. Blair contrives to put an upbeat spin on his ‘muscular Christianity’ (‘tough’ is his favoured term) but the essence of Carlylism is gloom, its energy, as Heffer stresses, the perverse recklessness of despair. ‘Pessimist Anticant’, Trollope called him. Recently a number of would-be Tory sages have attempted to rehabilitate Carlylism and the pugnacious Carlylean rhetoric for Party ends: among them, Heffer, of course, whose well-regarded Life ‘reinterprets Carlyle’s writings, with special attention paid to their political thought’, and Paul Johnson, whose high-pastiche polemic, Wake Up Britain! A Latter-Day Pamphlet (1994), was resolutely slept through. The Carlylean inflection can also be heard in the newspapers and magazines with which these writers are associated: the two Mails, the two Telegraphs and the Spectator. A kind of ‘vulgar Carlylism’ has resurfaced with the grossly unreconstructed interventions at the recent Conservative Party Conference by Norman Tebbit.

Although most of his major works are out of print, Carlyle’s letters, and those of his wife Jane, are in the process of being edited and published. It is a massive task, but they are among the finest literary letters of the century and the Carlyle archive (largely preserved in the National Library of Scotland) is one of the most coherent major collections to have survived the Victorian bonfire. The series has just reached the halfway mark and will probably be completed around 2020. The Carlyle edition, like the concurrent (but bonfire-reduced) Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters, was launched in the optimistic Sixties (the late John Butt was associated with both initiatives).

As in previous volumes, about half the letters (here they number 247) are hitherto unpublished, and of the rest many are now published for the first time in their full form. There are the inevitable routine and business missives (Thomas’s sharp exchanges with Chapman and Hall will be of keen interest to publishing historians). The main revelations are of the domestic life of the couple, now in their 25th year of marriage. They confer on the everlasting ‘servant problem’ and invent a little language of tenderness via their pets. ‘Nero: dog’ has a larger entry in the Index than ‘Dickens: novelist’. A gem is Jane’s account to her cousin, Helen, of the great ball they went to at Bath House in July 1850, at the height of the London season. ‘Mr C.,’ Jane reports, ‘was “quite determined for once in his life to see an aristocratic ball”.’ Seeing was one thing, being seen another. What should Jane wear: could she ‘strip myself’ – that is, bare her arms and upper bosom in public, like all those duchesses and young beauties, ‘at my age after being muffled up so many years!’ Mr C. was peremptory: ‘Eve he supposed had as much sense as I had and she wore no clothes at all!!!’ A white silk dress was duly ordered (Mr C. graciously agreed to pay) and arrived properly ‘high and longsleeved’ and then, ‘on the very day of the ball, was sent back to be cut down to the due pitch of indecency’. Jane’s country-mouse observations on the ball itself – particularly of the dangerous Lady Ashburton, whom she suspected of having designs on that grim organ, Thomas Carlyle’s heart, are hilarious.

The halfway-mark volume pivots neatly on the mid-century year, 1850 – the cusp between the horrors of the ‘hungry Forties’ and the Imperial ostentation of the Great Exhibition. It was also the year in which Carlyle fell off his trolley, as many of his contemporaries thought: ‘I have read – nay, I have bought! – Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets,’ Trollope told his mother in summer 1850, ‘and look on my eight shillings as very much thrown away ... He has one idea – a hatred of spoken and acted falsehood; and on that he harps through the whole eight pamphlets. I look on him as a man who was always in danger of going mad in literature and who has now done so.’

The starting-point for the mad pamphlets of 1850 was an aggressive spoof in Fraser’s Magazine called ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ (it was provocatively retitled ‘The Nigger Question’ in its later printings). The occasion was an evangelically motivated tariff to protect West Indian sugar from competition by countries still using slaves. Carlyle also resented the £20 million of British taxpayers’ money it had cost to compensate plantation-owners. Since abolition in 1833 and the end of forced labour, the sugar industry in the islands had collapsed. Carlyle saw this decline as the result of culpable ‘idleness’. In his analysis, the West Indian negroes had discovered they could grow ‘pumpkins’ sufficient for subsistence with half an hour’s work a day and had resolved to labour no more.

Carlyle’s ‘Discourse’ was a scornful parody of an Exeter Hall evangelical address, delivered in the person of a pseudonymous ‘Dr Phelim McQuirk’ (Fraser’s readers were not deluded). The abolitionists, McQuirk declared, had made of the West Indies ‘a black Ireland’ – with a population which was ‘free’ in name but degraded and destitute in condition. Not that the negroes, any more than the Irish, resented their degradation, so long as they had vegetables (potatoes or pumpkins) to keep the walls of their stomachs apart: ‘Our beautiful Black darlings are at last happy; with little labour except to the teeth, which surely, in those excellent horse jaws of theirs, will not fail!’

Carlyle, as usual, works up to a grand injunction:

No Black man who will not work according to what ability the gods have given him for working, has the smallest right to eat pumpkin, or to any fraction of land that will grow pumpkin, however plentiful such land may be; but has an indisputable and perpetual right to be compelled by the real proprietors of said land to do competent work for his living.

And who are these ‘real proprietors’? ‘The Saxon British.’ It was ‘heroic White men’ who turned the ‘oozy jungle’ into fertile plantations for ‘idle Black men’ to neglect. ‘Banish all White men from the West Indies,’ Carlyle predicts, and you will make another Haiti, ‘a tropical dog kennel’. And how should the Blacks be ‘compelled’ to take advantage of their ‘right’ to work? With ‘the beneficent whip’. (Carlyle’s relevance to current thinking on ‘workfare’ is clear.)

A direct address to the idle West Indian blacks concludes Carlyle-McQuirk’s tract:

You are not ‘slaves’ now; nor do I wish, if it can be avoided, to see you slaves again: but decidedly you will have to be servants to those that are born wiser than you, that are born lords of you, – servants to the whites, if they are (as what mortal can doubt they are?) born wiser than you. That, you may depend on it, my obscure Black friends, is and was always the Law of the World, for you and for all men; to be servants, the more foolish of us to the more wise.

The difficulty with Carlyle’s racism is that it cannot be smoothed away as being merely to do with the Zeitgeist. ‘Servantship’ and ‘Hierarchy’ – the eternal subordination of the brawny masses to the brainy minority – are fundamental to his philosophy.

The ‘Occasional Discourse’ outraged many Victorian liberals, or ‘Christian Sentimentalists’, as Carlyle called them. Not the least offended was John Stuart Mill – an uneasy friend. Mill wrote a letter of refutation in the next issue of Fraser’s, pointing out, with a better grasp of colonial history and a more humane analysis than McQuirk’s, that

for nearly two centuries had Negroes, many thousands annually, been seized by force or treachery and carried off to the West Indies to be worked to death, literally to death ... And the motive on the part of the slave-owners was the love of gold ... I have yet to learn that anything more detestable than this has been done by human beings towards human beings in any part of the earth. It is a mockery to talk of comparing it with Ireland.

Mockery was, however, Carlyle’s stock in trade, and he exulted in the offence he had given: ‘A Paper I published in Fraser’s about Niggers,’ he told his sister Jane, ‘has raised no-end of clamour; poor scraggy critics, of the “benevolent” school, giving vent to their amazement, and uttering their “Whaf-thaf? Bow-Wow!” in a great variety of dialects up and down all the country, as I am informed.’ Their yelps inspired him to a series of like-minded pamphlets, published, like Dickens’s novels, in monthly instalments at a shilling a number.

The Latter-Day Pamphlets spattered a whole herd of Carlylean black beasts with bilious diatribe: ‘Model Prisons’ (in anticipation of Michael Howard), ‘Downing Street’ (it was currently being rebuilt – as a temple to ‘Redtape’, according to Carlyle), ‘Jesuitism’ (this was the period of the ‘Catholic Aggression’, wormwood to the Calvinist Scot), ‘Hudson’s Statue’ (a proposed monument to a Mid-Victorian Robert Maxwell), ‘Stump Oratory’ (politicians’ lies). Carlyle’s intention was to wield what he called ‘the red hot poker’ – whether to cauterise or do an Edward II on the body politic is not clear. The whole is suffused with his mood of ‘bottomless dubiety’, energetic with ‘black electricities and consuming fires’.

Some elements, however, were more palatable to contemporaries and to posterity than the poker thrusts and the beneficent whip. Particularly persuasive is Carlyle’s distrust of what he had earlier called ‘Morrison’s pill’ remedies: the belief that there are easy political cures for social ills. ‘For many years,’ he wrote in a letter to the Manchester solicitor Edward Herford in January 1850,

especially for the last three or four, the question of Pauperism has haunted me as the most alarming of all Social Questions: indeed it is properly the summary and essence of everything that is alarming in Society; for Pauperism is the practical issue that all Error or Injustice among us comes to. I describe it to myself as the general drippings of the poison from all the curses that lie upon [sic]; nothing is rotten any where in our Public or Private Ways of Existence but it is sure to yield Pauperism in the long run, and to testify at last in that way, to the blindest of us, that there was rottenness. Or by an opposite figure, we may describe Pauperism as the general leakage which oozes in upon the Ship by every joint that is not tight.

Carlyle’s assertion that the most grievous social problems (including Ireland) lie too deep for ‘Downing Street’ remedy justifies his recall to current political debate, if only to induce a necessary modesty.

K.J. Fielding and Ian Campbell, the British side of the joint Anglo-American team producing the letters, have taken time off to edit Carlyle’s Reminiscences. They have stripped away the varnish laid on by previous editors and reinserted what earlier prudence deleted. The Reminiscences were put together in the aftermath of Jane’s death in 1866. Now 70 and looking into the dark himself, Carlyle perceived for the first time, on reading her private papers, how his ‘little woman’ had suffered during the 18 years of his infatuation with Lady Ashburton and his 13 years of selfish absorption in the composition of Frederick the Great. He recalls how, reclining on a sofa, she listened to him reading out his magnum opus in progress, ‘convinced she was dying’ – as he now knows – yet politely making comments, and offering the necessary supportive praise. ‘Never in my pretended-superior kind of life,’ he wrote, ‘have I done, for love of any creature, so supreme a thing.’

Much of the Reminiscences is written ‘to the moment’, with the author’s current emotions inserted in (often testy) parentheses. The text takes the form of a series of pen-portraits, beginning with his corpse-side meditations on the death of his artisan father James (‘the sunk pillar on which mine was to rise’) in 1832 and of Jane 34 years later, taking in her early admirers Edward Irving and Francis Jeffrey, and winding up with more controlled recollections of Wordsworth, Southey, ‘Christopher North’ (John Wilson) and Sir William Hamilton. Central to the work are the memories of Jane, offered in their original tumbled disorder – a disorder which the present editors, unlike their predecessors, have respected.

The Reminiscences were rushed hugger-mugger into print days after Carlyle’s death by Froude (a ‘disciple’ whom Fielding and Campbell align with Judas). Froude’s text was vilely cut and manipulated but none the less caused huge offence because of its brutal candour and savage thumbnail sketches of Carlyle’s contemporaries, some still living. A subsequent edition, by Charles Eliot Norton, was less botched than Froude’s, but still incomplete and intrusively ‘improved’. Fielding and Campbell restore Carlyle’s text in its most complete form, working from manuscripts in the NLS (the holograph version of the section on James Carlyle, ‘now in private hands’, has eluded them).

The most tantalising vacancy in the Reminiscences resists restoration, and probably always will. Contemplating the remnants left from the burning of Jane’s 1856 diaries, a stricken Carlyle apprehends that this period was ‘the nadir of my poor wife’s sufferings’. He is particularly wounded by her entry for 26 June of that year, and bravely resolves: ‘The place for inserting it is now arrived, and it shall stand here, very mournful to me while I live.’ But the entry for 26 June 1856 does not ‘stand here’ in any edition of the Reminiscences. According to Froude, what Jane wrote in her diary for that day was: ‘the chief interest of today expressed in blue marks on my wrists!’ Froude enquired further of Jane’s confidante, Geraldine Jewsbury, what this enigmatic remark meant. ‘Personal violence’, he was told: Carlyle had physically abused his wife (possibly when she said something injudicious about Lady Ashburton). Jane gave, in mitigation for her husband, the classic battered wife’s apology. She could be, she told Jewsbury (who told Froude), ‘extremely provoking’.

On another occasion, Jewsbury (allegedly) gave Froude even more sensational confidences about the couple’s sex life. Carlyle, she reported, ‘was one of those persons who ought never to have married’. What this meant was elaborated by the anecdote (passed on by Jane) of his ‘tearing up’ the flower garden at Comely Bank on the morning after his wedding day, ‘in a fit of ungovernable fury’. Something must be deflowered, it is implied.

Fielding and Campbell are suspicious of anything with Froude’s fingerprints on it, and offer a judicious weighing of this partial, quite likely tainted and dubiously third-hand evidence. ‘Very likely Carlyle was an unsatisfactory husband,’ they conclude. But, over the forty years, there was more happiness than misery. As to those bruised wrists, they offer the observation that ‘the marks on both wrists suggest restraint.’ And as for Carlyle’s sexuality, ‘who can say?’