In honor of Thomas Carlyle’s 220th birthday on 4 December, we invite you to read talks by David Sorensen, senior editor of the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and Brent Kinser, editor of the print edition and coordinating editor of the Carlyle Letters Online. Each year, Sorensen and Kinser participate in an evening at the Carlyle’s House in Chelsea, hosted by the National Trust and curator Lin Skipping. It is a highlight of the year for both Sorensen and Kinser. This years’ event was entitled “Victorian Metropolis: London in the Correspondence of Dickens and the Carlyles.” They were joined in Chelsea by their friend and distinguished colleague David Paroissien, longtime editor of the Dickens Quarterly. The lectures are delivered in the same front parlour featured in Robert Scott Tait’s painting A Chelsea Interior. As Kinser puts it, “the house is a magnificent place to be, and to be there with such an assembly and to talk about the Carlyles simply defies description.”
An excerpt from David Sorensen’s talk, “The Carlyles, Dickens, and London”
No sentence that Thomas Carlyle wrote has been so often quoted as his observation from his great essay “On History” (1830) that “Life is the aggregate of all the individual men’s Lives who constitute society; History is the essence of innumerable Biographies.” This is an appropriate place to begin our discussion of the Carlyles, Dickens, and London this evening, because in a variety of respects, London exercised a deep and enduring influence on their writing. Thanks to Peter Ackroyd’s remarkable London: A Biography (2000), it no longer strikes us as anomalous that the life of a city can be compared to that of a single human being. Ackroyd himself freely and rightly acknowledged his indebtedness to Carlyle for this notion. Like the bewildered young man from Annandale who arrived in the metropolis in 1824, Ackroyd felt driven to ask, how else can the history of London be written other than as a biography? He admitted in his preface that “Some will object that such a biography can form no part of a true history. London is a labyrinth, half of stone and half of flesh. It cannot be conceived in its entirety but can be experienced only as a wilderness of alleys and passages, courts and thoroughfares, in which even the most experienced citizen may lose the way.”
To personalize London is to humanize it, and to invest it with qualities that make it manageable and navigable. The Carlyles and Dickens understood this as a personal necessity, yet they never lost their sense of the strangeness of the place, even as they strove to assimilate themselves to its unpredictable and sometimes hostile patterns. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44), Dickens spoke of the “tumult” of 19th-century London that frequently swelled “into a roar.” Everywhere one turned, there was the challenge of trying to cope with opinions that “thicken and expand a hundredfold.” Critical destinations, like the address of Todgers itself, remained elusive. Visitors might grope their way for hours “through lanes and bye-ways, and court-yards, and passages” without discovering a specific location—their exhilaration was only matched by their frustration and disgust at finding no way out of the clogged maze. Perhaps what is most unique about the perspectives of the Carlyles and Dickens towards London is their perpetual exasperation—what John Forster memorably referred to in his biography of Dickens as their “profound attraction of repulsion.” Unlike Wordsworth, they could never quite escape the “din” of the city through the contemplation of the “beauteous forms” of nature: as frequently as they complained of London (and in the Carlyles’ case, as frequently as they idealized Scotland), it remained both their home and their burden.
An excerpt from Brent Kinser’s talk, “‘A kind of epic grandeur’: Thomas Carlyle and London”
In August 1842 Carlyle took a whirlwind trip to Belgium with his friend Stephen Spring Rice. When he got back to Chelsea he wrote a narrative of the adventure, and towards the end of it, he summarized both the trip and his return: “Thus had kind destiny projected us rocket-wise for a little space into the clear blue of Heaven and Freedom: thus again were we swiftly reabsorbed into the great smoky simmering crater, and London’s soot-volcano had again recovered us.” Carlyle’s description of London as a “smoky simmering crater” of a “soot-volcano” reflects a conflicted relationship with the capitol. To John Stuart Mill TC wrote that London air was like a “horrid flood of Spartan black-broth” (CLO: TC to JSM, 12 Jan. 1833). To James Hannay he wrote that it was a “hot place, too much like Tophet,” a “hateful place.” But Carlyle also professed to Hannay that he saw in London and its ability to allow him the freedom to work against cant and pietism “a kind of epic grandeur.” Curiously, Carlyle’s own reputation suffers from a similar contradiction. As he grew older and ever more encrusted with the iconic trappings established and affirmed both in the writings by him and in the multitude of paintings and photographs of him, Carlyle, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, had “become a name.” People who met the “Sage of Chelsea” expected a simmering, volcanic conveyor of Spartan black-broth whose heroic fight to wrest truth from the mud-demons of his world had left him sadder, wiser, and angrier. If London was a “soot-volcano,” well then so was Carlyle. People, however, were often surprised to find a different sort of Carlyle. The myth of a raging, guilt-ridden, mourning recluse who rarely went out does not ring entirely true for Carlyle the old man. London plays a central role in understanding why it does not.
If Dickens proclaimed that he “would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any other man alive,” then it was also true that it was not all that difficult to see Carlyle, as testified by the multitude of reminiscences that include stories about encounters with the old man. In 1876, for example, a young Newcastle writer named Stuart J. Reid came to London to see the sights, which included a trip to Hyde Park and the Prince Albert Memorial. Reid recounted that “Suddenly there slouched up the steps an old man in a loose round cloak and a tumbled-looking wideawake . . . leaning heavily on the arm of a friend” and making “energetic and not too complimentary remarks on the portraits of the world’s celebrities” (383). Soon after Reid managed to strike up a conversation in which the young man quoted and discussed Carlyle’s Life of Sterling (much to Carlyle’s pleasure). He left the old man with a handshake and received a blessing. When Reid was able to arrange another afternoon with Carlyle the following year, he declared, “As long as I live, I shall cherish the memory and remember the words and even the gesture and tone of that old man” (403).