The Duke University Press has just introduced a free-to-the-public online version of the letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle. The Carlyle Letters Online claims to include over 10,000 pieces of correspondence written by and to the supreme intellectual figure of the Victorian world and his bluestockinged wife; recipients include Goethe, Dickens, Ruskin, Emerson, Tennyson, and most everyone else you’d expect.
Curious to test the interface, and really knowing little of Carlyle, I zeroed in on an incident in his life that holds a special fascination for every writer. Sometime in late February or early March of 1836, Carlyle lent the just-completed manuscript of the first volume of his history of The French Revolution to his friend, John Stuart Mill. On March 6, Mill appeared at the door of Carlyle’s home looking pale and stricken; summoning his voice with difficulty, Mill told Carlyle that through some terrible error, almost the entire book had been “irrevocably annihilated.” The precise details are elusive, but tradition and the weight of evidence suggest that the manuscript was somehow identified as trash by one of Mill’s housemaids (probably in her own home) and used to kindle a fire.
When the mortified Mill finally left the Carlyle house that day, Carlyle remarked: “Well, Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up; we must endeavour to hide from him how very serious this business is to us.” The letter he wrote to Mill on the 7th is surely one of history’s most poignant gestures of friendship.
My Dear Mill,
How are you? You left me last night with a look which I shall not soon forget. Is there anything that I could do or suffer or say to alleviate you? For I feel that your sorrow must be far sharper than mine; yours bound to be a passive one. How true is this of Richter: “All Evil is like a Nightmare; the instant you begin to stir under it, it is gone.”
I have ordered a Biographie Universelle this morning;—and a better sort of paper. Thus, far from giving up the game, you see, I am risking another £10 on it. Courage, my friend!
That I can never write that Volume again is indubitable: singular enough, the whole Earth could not get it back; but only a better or a worse one. There is the strangest dimness over it. A figure thrown into the melting-pot; but the metal (all that was golden or goldlike of that,—and copper can be gathered) is there; the model also is, in my head. O my friend, how easily might the bursting of some puny ligament or filament have abolished all light there too!
That I can write a Book on the French Revolution is (God be thanked for it) as clear to me as ever; also that, if life be given me so long, I will. To it again, therefore![...]
Ever your affectionate friend,