Thomas Carlyle’s 222nd birthday was yesterday, 4 December. In his honor, we are sharing several lectures on Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle given by Carlyle scholars Brent Kinser and David Sorensen this June at the Carlyle House in Chelsea. The event focused on Carlyle’s involvement with the London Library, the world’s greatest circulating library. Kinser and Sorensen were joined by Helen O’Neill, Librarian of the London Library.
Read the full versions of the talks from David Sorensen and Brent Kinser by selecting the titles of the lectures. We have included excerpts from the talks below.
This evening we acknowledge one of Thomas Carlyle’s most noble, generous, and enduring acts of civic philanthropy: his founding of the London Library in St. James’s Square, a scheme which he first proposed in a speech that he delivered at the Freemason’s Tavern on June 24, 1840, which was reported four days later in the Examiner newspaper. It is worth rehearsing the circumstances behind this address, because they reveal the unusual combination of both personal and professional factors that prompted Carlyle to launch a campaign for the establishment of a new lending library in the center of London. Carlyle was forty-five years old when he began to formulate this plan: by this stage of his career he was the author of the Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution, a renowned public lecturer, and a committed social activist seeking to awaken the Victorian conscience to what he called “The Condition of England Question.”
In 1839 he was preparing to embark on another great historical quest, this time an edition of the letters and speeches of Oliver Cromwell. His experience with the French Revolution had taught him the urgent need of a high-class lending library which would provide him with the works that he required at hand in his quiet study upstairs in this house. He was embarrassed by the want of standard reference sources, and of the difficulty of working quietly in the British Museum. At Cambridge friends procured him copies of Clarendon and Rushworth, but as journeys from Chelsea to Bloomsbury became more laborious, he was determined to try what could be done to found in London a permanent lending library of standard literature. In a letter to his mother of 13 January 1839 he wrote, “Another object that engages me a little in these last weeks is the attempt to see whether a Public Library cannot be got here in London; a thing scandalously wanted, which I have suffered from like others. There is to be some stir made in that business now, and it really looks as if it would take effect.”
On 4 May 1852, the first librarian of the London Library, J. G. Cochrane (b. 1780), breathed his last. The next Day Thomas Carlyle wrote to his brother Jack with a mixture of real sadness and practical exigency: “Poor old lumbering good-natured soul, I am sad to think of him, and that we shall never see him more.— [John Edward] Jones will summon a Comee Meeting so soon as the funeral is over: I know not in the least what they mean to do; but suppose they will find it good to be in no haste, but to pause well and to examine” (CLO: TC to JAC, 5 May 1852). There would be little pause in the effort to replace Cochrane, and the drama surrounding the appointment of his successor offers fascinating insights into the relationship between two of the London Library committee’s most important and influential members: Carlyle and William Ewart Gladstone.
In May 1852 Carlyle found himself incapacitated with the flu, which greatly reduced his ability to be directly involved with the discussions surrounding the choice of the next librarian, but greatly, and for us fortunately, increased his need to negotiate the choice in letters. Because of his illness, he sent Jane to see John Forster to relay his wishes: Carlyle wanted a complete accounting of the condition of the library before any move was made to choose Cochrane’s successor. As he had told his brother, Carlyle wanted a patient, careful process to unfold. Jane returned to report a “revolution,” which Carlyle relayed to his brother on 10 May:
Forster as I knew he wd, patronised all these salutary notions, ready to swear for them on the Koran if needful; but at the same time said, there was not the least hope of getting them carried; or anything but one carried, viz. the Election of Gladstone’s Neapolitan,—whh G. and his Helpers “were stirring Heaven and Earth to bring about; and which from the prest composition of the Committee (Milman, Lyttelton, Milnes, Hallam &c, a clear majority of malleable material, some of it as soft as butter, under the hammer of a Minister in posse [with that capacity]) they were “perfectly certain” to do it. . . . Gladstone, I think with Forster, will probably succeed: but he shall not do it without one man at least insisting on having Reason and common Honesty as well as Gladstone and Charity at other men’s expense, satisfied in the matter; and protesting to a plainly audible extent against the latter amiable couple walking over the belly of the former.— Such protest I am clearly bound to; and that, I believe, will prove to be all that I can do. Of Gladstone’s Neapolitan no man, Italian or other, has ever heard the name before: from G.’s own acct to me, I figured him as some ingenuous bookish young advocate, who probably had helped G. in his Pamphlets underhand,—a useful service, but not done to the Ln Library particularly. (CLO: TC to JAC, 10 May 1852)
The underlying reason for Carlyle’s dismay seems apparent enough. As if it were not bad enough dealing with one Neapolitan librarian, Anthony Panizzi of the British Museum, Gladstone had put forward a second one to take charge of Carlyle’s beloved London Library.
Stay connected! Learn more about Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle and to read their many letters, visit the Carlyle Letters Online. Follow @carlyleletters for daily tweets from these prolific writers.