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Carlyle—His Wife and Critics

  • Sir James Crichton-Browne

Gentlemen,—I am not going to weary you with a catalogue—it would be a long one—of the distinguished sons that Dumfriesshire and Galloway have sent forth; I ask you to bear with me for a little while I appeal for your generous admiration of the most illustrious of all of them —I mean Thomas Carlyle. and such an appeal is not unnecessary, for this illustrious man—glorified by genius— has more than any great man of modern times been subjected since his death to detraction and disparagement. Late in securing the recognition of his claims as a writer, for it was not until he was in his forty-second year that the British public really took note of him, he rose rapidly thereafter in fame and popularity, and after his rectorial address in this University, in 1866, was the object of enthusiastic national regard. He died in universal honour, the ablest and highest of his literary contemporaries vying with each other in sounding his praises, extolling his heroic and unsullied life, and describing him as sovereign by divine right amongst the British men of letters of his generation. But a change speedily came over the spirit of the scene. Carlyle had not been a week in his grave when the Reminiscences, edited by Froude, appeared; these were followed within a year by the Letters and Reminiscences of Jane Welch Carlyle; and after these came rapidly The Early Life and The Life in London, for which also Froude was responsible. “It was these nine volumes,” says Masson, “that did all the mischief.” Full, at least as regards the earlier volumes, of slovenly press errors, and obviously very hurriedly prepared, they depicted Carlyle in his darkest and gloomiest moods, almost ignoring the bright and genial side of his nature, and gave prominence not merely to the biting judgments he had passed on public men, but also to his pungent comments on private individuals then still living. Froude was Carlyle's most intimate friend in his hitter days; he was his chosen literary executor; he was his faithful disciple in doctrine; he has, with lofty eloquence, described his extraordinary personality and gifts, and put on record his conviction that, with all his faults of manner and temper, he was the greatest and best man he had ever known. and yet, for all that, it has been his part to open the flood-gates of adverse criticism, and to supply all the quacks, and idiots, and sects, and coteries whom Carlyle had scourged, in his day, with nasty missiles with which to pelt his memory. Even Froude's warmest defenders are constrained to admit that he showed defective reticence and bad taste, and every impartial reader of the Reminiscences must, I think, perceive that in his vivid sympathy with that brilliant woman, Mrs. Carlyle, Froude has many times been betrayed into references to her husband that are unjust and almost vindictive. When Carlyle was working at the French Revolution “his nervous system,” says Mr. Froude, “was aflame. At such times,” these are Mr. Froude's words, “he could think of nothing but the matter which he had in hand, and a sick wife was a bad companion for him. She escaped to Scotland to her mother.” The plain inference from this is that Mrs. Carlyle, when an invalid, was driven away from home by Carlyle's neglect and irritability. The fact is, that it was solely the state of her own health that sent her to the north, and that she had no peace or comfort till she got home again. She writes, on returning on this occasion: “The feeling of calm and safety and liberty which came over me on re-entering my own house was really the most blessed I had felt for a great while.” Does this sound like coming back to a self-absorbed bear of a husband? “The house in Cheyne Row,” says Mr. Froude, “requiring paint and other readjustments, Carlyle had gone to Wales, leaving his wife to endure the confusion and superintend the workmen alone with her maid.” Thus Froude insinuates that Carlyle selfishly went off to enjoy himself, leaving his wife to drudgery and discomfort. But the facts are that Mrs. Carlyle was a house-proud woman, and took delight in her domestic lustrations, and that while Carlyle was in Wales at this time, on one of those excursions which were essential to the maintenance of his health and of his bread-winning labours, Mrs. Carlyle went off on a holiday on her own account to the Isle of Wight, from which she was very glad to return to her dismantled home. I could quote a dozen paragraphs like these in which Froude seems to seek, by innuendo or elision, to convey the impression that Carlyle was systematically hard and heartless in his relations with his wife, whereas the truth is that, with failings of temper and thoughtlessness—from which few are exempted—he was a tender and affectionate spouse.

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Part of the Inaugural Address, delivered to the Edinburgh University, Dumfriesshire, and Galloway Literary Society, 6th November, 1897.

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Carlyle—His Wife and Critics

  • Sir James Crichton-Browne
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