« Tusk | Main | Fighting back »

Another day, another cultural treasure


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,

T. Carlyle

(þ: Cliopatria. Also out there: the Darwin Correspondence Project.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments (7)


Thanks for this. To be truly touched by a simple act of kindness that is 150 years old (as I was when reading your piece) is a truly unexpected gift.

Garth Wood:

And not just a simple act of kindness!  In that day, the loss of such a manuscript probably had a significant impact on Carlyle's annual income.  It seems the word "magnanimous" was specially invented just for such a gesture.

I doubt I'd be nearly so gracious in a similar situation, much to my chagrin.


Garth: Quite right.

As an aside, in reading my orignal post in this thread I may have given the impression that I am 150 years old.

Although aged, I'm a little south of that. :-)


A fantastic web site.

Unfortunately though, I forwarded the link to a friend who read the introduction by one of the editors at http://carlyleletters.dukejournals.org/misc/thecarlyles.dtl which includes the following academic gobbledygook.

"But even as we admit to all of their faults and all of their conscious and unconscious participations in the hegemonic evils of nineteenth-century Britain, the Carlyles remain vitally important to any satisfactory understanding of the culture, the literature, and the history of their time."

Which rather set my teath on edge.


Smash the anti-hegemony by appreciating the collection unironically!

I'm ashamed to admit that I probably would not be as magnanimous as Carlyle was if someone were to, say, drop and break one of my cameras. Truthfully, you'd probably see the mushroom cloud from miles away.


Not to make light, but-
As Stan said to Ollie:
"Ah well. Easy come, easy go."


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 16, 2007 1:33 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Tusk.

The next post in this blog is Fighting back.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35