Posted by: zhiv | September 23, 2008

LS DNB #1: Thomas Carlyle

The life of Thomas Carlyle seems a fortuitous choice for an initial consideration of Leslie Stephen’s DNB biographies.  It has a number of attractions and intriguing qualities.  The biographical treatment of Carlyle was highly controversial in its day, as his official biographer and colleague James Froude revealed personal details about Carlyle’s marriage to Jane Welsh that caused an uproar in the polite world of Victorian letters.  His work and thought were a central component of Victorian intellectual history and literature, although his books have not managed to fit very neatly into the mainstream of the transmission of English literature.  He was highly influential and became the dean of Victorian literature, with numerous acolytes and followers, Stephen amongst them.  He was an important biographer himself, and cuts a key figure in the development of biography in the 19th century after Johnson and Boswell.  His early work is philosophical and engages with German Romanticism, and the wide sweep and evolution of his literary output provided an important model and precedent for Stephen.  Carlyle obviously lived after Johnson and thus he is not included in the Lives of the Poets, so I don’t have to start out with a comparison, and this should give me a chance to warm up and find my way.  Leslie Stephen knew the guy fairly well, and presumably wrote about him elsewhere.  And I have barely read any of his work, and that long ago, when I didn’t really understand it, so I know just enough about him and his work to say some very stupid things.  It’s all very exciting.

I found Stephen’s dictionary life of Carlyle completely readable and even a little peppy, perhaps because of some of the reasons just stated.  The reticence and probity incumbent upon a dictionary entry, meant to stand the test of silent ages and still convey the truth and essence and the real contemporary shape and measure of the man, shows the sensitive nature of Stephen’s task as the end of the 19th century was fast approaching.  As one of an elite handful of leading Victorian biographers, philosophers, and critics, Stephen was a key player right in the middle of the controversy surrounding the publication of Froude’s biography of Carlyle in 187_.  It was a watershed moment in the late Victorian era, and something of a milestone in not just biography, but also woman’s history/studies and feminism.  Jane Welsh was highly educated and cultured, her social standing was much higher than that of the rude Scottish sage Carlyle.  She was the intellectual equal of the 18th century bluestockings and Victorian-era women thinkers and feminists, of people like Margaret Fuller and Annie Fields and so many others, if not George Eliot who could go toe-to-toe with her husband.  And Jane Welsh Carlyle sacrificed everything for a hard, cruel, and endlessly patient life in support of Carlyle’s genius, and she was absolutely miserable, ignored, and unappreciated.  In recently studying Annie Fields and the genteel world of 19th century literary biography, memoir, and community, it has been striking to see such an absolute contrast in marital happiness and also to remember the restrictions and decorum about writing biography about contemporaries.  If there was something that wasn’t good to say, it wasn’t said, writing about the personal lives of friends and colleagues was taboo, and the recent dead were treated with absolute respect and discretion.  And Froude’s biography of Carlyle went against all that, and began the process of changing the genre and even society and literature in the process.   The great man of letters had been a horrible husband, cruel even in his neglect and self-absorption.  He finally realized it as his wife’s trials worsened, and then it hit him hard, like a ton of bricks, after her death.  But it was only after his death, and the publication of the biography, that the world learned the truth.

Leslie Stephen manages to tell this story in an almost completely modern fashion.  He conveys the dark isolation and distress of this part of the life, which contained Carlyle’s own intellectual struggles, and doesn’t flinch from pointing out the way for those who might want more details.  Those details, he must have thought with some relief, are not his concern in this short format, but the fact of them is duly entered into the record of a man and writer who at stood at the pinnacle of literary esteem throughout Stephen’s adulthood and career.  Stephen’s accomplishment here is quite impressive, a strong example of his subtle mastery.  Biographical dictionary writing is supposed to be mechanical and soulless.  As he began the DNB project, Stephen wrote out the life of Addison as a template, and the familiar DNB motto was “no flowers by request.”  But a scientific approach only covers a quick glimpse of one side of the coin.  On the other side are all of the stories and accomplishments that make people worth remembering, the raison d’etre of the dictionary.  “Just the facts, ma’am”–the Joe Friday school of biography–isn’t really sufficient.  Stephen’s task, and the genre of “short biography,” consists of countless critical choices, and it’s almost pure style–or a style of purity.  Samuel Johnson’s orotund sentences provide a telling contrast, as do those of his 19th century followers like Macaulay–not to mention Carlyle.  Stephen makes it seem so easy.  There is life in his biography, his voice is mature, knowing without being pedantic, and it’s even gentle.  It’s as if he and young Virginia and Thoby were setting out from 22 Hyde Park Gate on a typically grey day for an hour’s walk around the Serpentine, and one of the children said “tell us about Carlyle.”  Actually, that overstates things quite a bit, because that rambling talk would have contained all of the personal anecdotes and enthusasms that are missing here.  It’s more a case of, “look here, if you want an overview and to get started on Carlyle.”  The life is permeated with intimate authority, proclaiming that “I knew this man–he led the way–he became an old rock and suffered his humanity more than all of us put together,” while of course never saying any such thing.  It’s the seeming lack of style, betrayed by the easy flow of narrative and transition, that is so modern.  The attempt to be brief and virtually scientific is liberating, especially when he knows his massive subject so thoroughly.  It’s also an extremely difficult thing to do, the job of boiling the story of your own century’s sage down to its essence.  Try it sometime.

And what about Carlyle and his work and the story of his life?  I want to use the project of reading Stephen’s lives to spur my own ignorant reflections on writers and English literature.  If I had to speculate, I would guess that I’ve never had an actual discussion about Carlyle or heard his name mentioned out loud, and certainly not since I left the academy 20+ years ago.  He’s somehow far off the beaten path, in some sort of canonical outpost that mirrors the way he composed his early works in the wild isolation of Scotland.  At the time he didn’t talk to his wife for days on end, and now perhaps it’s cosmic payback that nobody reads him.  As we read and learn about English literature or British history and philosophy, it’s all too easy for him to fall through the cracks.  His limited pages in the Norton Anthology are slowly dwindling, and my guess is that they’re generally skipped over.  We move quite easily from the romantics right into Dickens or Tennyson.  Philosophy and history students and political science majors read John Stuart Mill.  By contrast, Emerson is an essential part of the introduction to literature for American students, and his essays are read by every one doing American Studies.  Perhaps the same is true for Carlyle with British Studies, but there’s just no way that Carlyle is getting even 10% as many hits on his imaginary website as Emerson.  Carlyle was Britain’s Emerson, and they were colleagues–I’ve had a book of their correspondence in my library for years, and I’ve never opened it–but Carlyle’s seminal essays, which ushered in the Victorian era, if he ever wrote any that are easily digestible (not that Emerson’s are), have been put away on a dusty canon shelf, out of easy reach.  Maybe I have to take some of this back.  Obviously, Carlyle would appear, however briefly, in the early weeks of any course or seminar on Victorian literature, but it would need to be one that covers both poetry and fiction, with Carlyle thrown in with the “prose.”  It’s a bit of a no man’s land, and it happens that I never took such a course, or got as far as teaching it, and I worked my way to Carlyle very slowly, I suppose through my interest in biography.  And the British Victorians don’t seem to be an especially popular undergraduate topic these days, with little impetus to dig beneath the surface layer.  The novelists, Dickens and George Eliot and Vanity Fair and Trollope, and even Wilkie Collins, take up most of the action, although Tennyson and Browning and some others must get their due–what is GM Hopkins’ stock trading at these days?  And it seems that if you like Dickens or GE or Trollope, they will readily turn into leisurely lifetime reading projects, rather than gulping them down the way that I did in graduate school.  Baggy monsters can lead to burnout, and they’re much better suited to a steady pace of two or three a year.

And another funny thing.  It’s only recently that I finally got an easy handle on the whole Romanticism- German thing, expressed in a simple way that makes sense to me.  And this is after reading a hearty share of Romantic poetry, spending lots of time on Wordsworth, and trying to understand not just the fact that Goethe started it all, but exactly what it was that he did to get things going.  I think I have to blame the approach of close reading and formalism, the strong determination to never set foot outside of the poem or book to find its meaning, that was the oppressive thrust of literary training in my day.  At any rate, within the past couple of years, it became clear to me how thinkers and poets lost God in the Enlightenment, and Goethe was the one who said that this wasn’t something to worry about, that the spiritual and transcendent is all around us in nature, and that’s good enough.  As simple as that, or something along those lines, with Spinoza and others chiming in along the way.  And the Romantics followed along this path, along with the philosophers, and the essayist-sages like Carlyle and Emerson were working the same mine, setting up for Transcendentalists, Hawthorne and Melville and George Eliot and everything else.  I knew all of this, of course, but somehow I didn’t, and I never held the basic thesis very firmly in my head.  But maybe I’ve just forgotten all of it; it doesn’t really matter.  I knew what Romanticism was and where it came from, but it was always slightly murky and confused, as if i was in the room of the poetry, philosophy, and fiction of the era, but I didn’t know the specifc shape and feel of the key that got me there.  Again, I blame all of the close reading, of reading poems like Tintern Abbey and struggling to figure out what the hell was going on.  And so–getting back on topic–reading something like Sartor Reartus was worse, and Carlyle’s French Revolution seemed completely impossible.  I never read Sartor in a class, and I couldn’t make much sense out of any of it.  I should note, I suppose, that I got a late start and I was always in over my head when I was studying literature, and I can only hope that literary training is better these days.  I know that my daughter’s is, as she starts college.  She knows enough to have said to me that “you’re such an anti-formalist” the other day.  That’s a real college girl.

The difficulty of Carlyle’s work seems to make a very good argument for my own half-formed biographical approach to literary studies.   Does anybody teach pure literary history?  Yes, we all should read as many poems and novels and primary texts as we can, but a little literary biography goes a long way, no?  One man’s opinion.  At any rate, now that I’m middle-aged and finally figuring some things out, I think I would like to read Carlyle and get to know him and his work in some depth, although I doubt that I ever will.  But I will take a moment to wander around my little library here and see what I bump into in the way of Carlyle, and try to become just slightly better informed.  I feel a secondary “Thomas Carlyle and what I don’t really know about him” post coming on; we’ll see if I get to it.  But the LS DNB project does seem to be working, I must say, and my quick trip around the neglected shelves has turned up at least one gem:  a copy of James T. fields “Yesterday with Authors,” which I thought I had somewhere, and I’m very keen to look at it as part of my Annie Fields–SOJewett studies.  And the Emerson-Carlyle book is still there, along with a couple of others that I’ll mention in the mythical next post.

I could also be making a closer read of Stephen’s text, of course, pulling out some of his direct statements.  But I’ll take this for a start, and use the life as a prompt for a bit of further study of Carlyle and where he stands.  As a final note about Stephen’s work, I want to mention the thorough and impressive bibliography at the end of the entry.  This is where a big part of the mind-breaking work of the Dictionary came in, and what made it an invaluable tool for the book trade for the past century.  The DNB was designed to be the ultimate tool for English literary and historical studies, and it certainly served its general purposes.  But as I have said, the big 20th century push towards formalism did take its toll, and biographies like this fine one of Carlyle were less read than they might have been if things had taken a different turn.  It’s all good enough for me, however, so no worries.  The last note here would be to compare Stephen’s life against the life of Carlyle in the new edition of the DNB, and who wrote that, etc.  All in good time.



  1. “The French Revolution” is very readable, although long as the devil. Familiarity with Sterne and some smattering of Germans – Goethe and Hoffmann, say – makes “Sartor Resartus” much lighter. So I think your experience with Carlyle would be quite different now.

    I’ve asked myself the identical question about literary history. How to people organize their thinking without it?

  2. Thanks for the comment, AR–I had read your posts on Carlyle, last week I think. Looking at the post again, I think I overstated some of the difficulty of reading Carlyle, although I do remember clearly that it was a very strong taste at first. And “French Rev” did seem pretty readable, you’re right, though I’m not sure how far I got. And it would take some real training to get in shape to go after it again, but going back to get refreshed on Sterne could be fun. Not sure why Hoffman would help, but why not? But yes, generally speaking, I believe you’re right, and it would be different. I think I’d really like to read the Froude biography first perhaps.

    Thanks as well for the note on literary history. Glad to see someone agrees and sees the basic efficacy of knowing the backgrounds, if only to keep things straight. I’m very interested in the topic and expect I’ll keep going with it.

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