Monday, August 14, 2006

A Note on Thomas Carlyle

Perhaps we’ve always given biography its own special niche – neither journalism, nor science, nor fiction, nor poetry, yet it borrows from all of these. And a good biography remains one of the best introductions to a writer heretofore unknown.

Once the “Sage of Chelsea” and considered by many of his contemporaries (including Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot, and Leslie Stephens, father of Virginia Woolf) a kind of exemplar of Victorian England, Thomas Carlyle certainly seems little read and less discussed now. The reasons aren’t difficult to figure. As presented in what reads as a thoroughly researched, eminently fair 1983 biography by Fred Kaplan, Carlyle’s wrestling with science and religion seems now almost commonplace, while his absolutist and patriarchal views of the roles of women and men seem archaic.

With regard to science and religion, Carlyle came to disbelieve any view of a personal God. He took from the profoundly religious convictions of his parents only an abidingly strong belief in work and the need to act virtuously, especially in matters of commitment. This partly explains his thirteen-year effort to complete a six-volume study of Frederick the Great despite the fact that he dreaded the writing itself and found his subject less than compelling. He was a writer: it was his duty to work as one. Somewhere there is a line between compulsion and commitment, virtue and simple obstinacy, but one wonders if Carlyle knew it.

Carlyle’s determination also allowed him to weather an episode that must rank as every writer’s horror story. Hard at work on what was quickly stretching to a three volume discussion and history of the French Revolution, Carlyle gave the manuscript of the first volume to his friend, John Stuart Mill, who was eager to read it and offer comment. Somehow, while it was in Mill’s custody, the manuscript was burned and destroyed (one story blames a zealous servant who mistook scattered pages on the floor for trash and used them to light the day’s fires). As might be imagined, Carlyle was blindsided by this loss. He had to rewrite the entire volume from memory, and he did.

As a husband, Carlyle demanded such devotion and such accommodation to his ambitions that he tended to ignore his wife, Jane, to the extent that she was frequently happier (as was he) when they were apart. He also viewed a woman’s role as one in support of her husband, and though he realized in some way that he was himself the cause of much of her distress (she was clearly a smart, capable woman who had, essentially, too little to do), he seemed ever unable to turn that recognition into any sort of effective action. As a result, Jane Carlyle’s real illnesses (migraines were likely one) were made worse by her own sense of frustration and lack of good work. Furthermore, they were both examples of such sexual repression that they could offer each other little in the way of physical intimacy or the common comforts of touch. Yet, as Caplan presents them, they were also clearly devoted to each other, in their own ways. When apart, they wrote each other almost daily.

As a writer, Carlyle's voice was emphatic and personal. Always convinced of the nobility and necessity of labor, Carlyle was also a strong advocate for the working poor, a class made ever larger with the spread of factories and mechanization. One of the bitternesses of his life was his failure to change British society for the better.

Oddly, despite being known as the “Sage of Chelsea,” Carlyle was a Scotsman who returned to his home landscape regularly. He loved London for the availability of books, books and literary company; he loved Scotland for its quiet and for his notion that such quiet calmed his nerves (though in effect, the isolation and lack of company for good talk tended to get on his nerves).

Is Fred Caplan’s biography a good introduction to Carlyle, a writer Emerson revered and visited at least twice? It is, if you come to it with some knowledge of Carlyle’s writings. Caplan summarizes them and their themes, but clearly they are not his main concern. This is not, really, a fully vivid intellectual biography. But it is a scholarly and humane account. It is, in fact, a good biography in that Caplan acts as a friend to his subject. The Thomas Carlyle that Caplan presents is a man of complexities, many of them unattractive. Caplan likes Carlyle well enough to justify his interest (and ours), yet Caplan’s also well aware of Carlyle’s limitations and blind spots, from which he does not shy. The biography thus manages a middle way, one that is often content to describe carefully and lets readers judge. What emerges is a complicated human being, one who told a friend that when he looked into the mirror on his eightieth birthday, he said to himself “What the devil then am I, at all, at all? After all these eighty years I know nothing about it” (524).

Thomas Carlyle: A Biography,
by Fred Kaplan,
Cornell University Press, 1983

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