In one of the classic confrontations of the Victorian age, Jane Eyre rouses herself to speak her mind to Rochester, convinced he is toying with her affections as he prepares to find a wife richer and more beautiful than she.
‘I tell you I must go!’ I retorted, roused to something like passion. ‘Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you’.
The scene’s central question, “Do you think I am an automaton?” resonates through much Victorian writing that looks at the human condition. Think of Ruskin on the dehumanizing working conditions of the laboring classes; Gaskell on the cotton spinners of Lancashire in their poverty and unrest; Dickens on the appalling conditions of the poor in London and in the industrial quarters of Lancashire. With characteristic verve Dickens echoes the question in the opening chapters of Hard Times when Sissy Jupe, reduced in a Lancashire schoolroom to “Girl number twenty”, cannot reply to the master’s demand to define a horse, though the robotic Bitzer has no difficulty.
‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
And Gradgrind approves: “‘Very well’, said this gentleman, briskly smiling, and folding his arms. ‘That’s a horse’.”
And that, of course, is Dickens’s point: That’s not a horse, not in the living sense that Sissy Jupe who, up to this point in the novel has lived in a circus with horses all around her, could know. The gulf between the arid definition and the living, breathing reality lies at the heart of much Victorian writing. That writing aimed to draw attention to how the factory dehumanized the urban working class, which was governed by machine and clock, by money and trade rather than by the more humane values familiar to earlier generations. When we seek to define and give shape to a similar anxiety in our own times, when some would reduce human life to a chemistry set and clots of neurons, we find ourselves drawn to a very early writer of that century who laid the groundwork for Sissy Jupe’s dilemma long before Victoria ascended her throne in 1837. That writer is Thomas Carlyle.
homas Carlyle (1795–1881) was a Scottish historian, critic and man of letters who in 1829 published an electrifying analysis of the problem that Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope and their contemporaries would later expand on. In “Signs of the Times”, courageously accepted and given prominence by Francis Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, Carlyle boldly defined the condition of the age in terms that startlingly prefigured these later writers.
Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word. . . . Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. . . . These things, which we state lightly enough here, are yet of deep import, and indicate a mighty change in our whole manner of existence. For the same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection, but for external combinations and arrangements, for institutions, constitutions—for Mechanism of one sort or other, do they hope and struggle.
Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart. Victorian fiction abounds with such figures: Jane Eyre’s flash of insight into what she thought Rochester was doing, playing with her affections, as if she were a machine without feelings. Gradgrind and Bounderby, the mechanical men incarnate of Dickens’ Hard Times. Trollope’s monstrous Augustus Melmotte, seemingly above considerations of morality, a money-making machine of towering stature. The monstrous Casaubon, who tries to engulf the young life of Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch; even the comic Mr Boffin pretends in Our Mutual Friend to be a money-grubber to test the bona fides of Bella Wilfer before she can marry happily into her fortune. Even he pales beside Veneering, who barely exists in that world except to trade on appearances, or Podsnap, who cares so little about the sufferings of others and rigidly parrots his own comfortable view of society to the exclusion of any other. Mechanical in heart and in head, they exist in Dickens’s world to show how a densely interlinked society crumbles when willful blindness to others leads to anomie, moral bankruptcy and worse. All these followed Carlyle, whether deliberately or simply because he had prepared the canvas upon which they painted their words.
George Levine, one of the period’s best critics, puts Carlyle into the proper frame as an indispensable early analyst of the dehumanizing effects of the Victorian revolution.1 The later Carlyle, probably more familiar to those who know him by reputation rather than by actual acquaintance with his work, is the writer of “rant” in the anti-democratic Latter-Day Pamphlets, the offensive Nigger Question, and the much misunderstood doctrine of hero-worship that for many has linked him, quite falsely, with the totalitarian governments of the mid-20th century and their appalling consequences.
In a similar vein, John Morrow, a social scientist writing in 2006, called for a balanced re-reading of Carlyle by those who “could admire him in spite of what they saw as his totally unacceptable claims on issues such as parliamentary government, democracy, race or the treatment of criminals. These responses”, Morrow argued, “relied upon selective readings of Carlyle’s works, seizing on what was inspiring and ignoring what was repugnant. They also reflected a common tendency to judge his writings by reference to their general impact, rather than seeing him as a purveyor of particular doctrines.”2
There were, indeed, particular doctrines. But more important were the irreconcilable passions, between his Calvinist upbringing soon shorn of Christian belief and his Romanticism, that fueled his powerful intellect to search for meaning for fear there was none. The more widely one reads in the Victorian age, the more Carlyle’s importance becomes obvious. Partly, of course, he spanned so much of the century that he crops up in many writers’ lifetimes. But it is the energy with which he wrote—the famous “Carlylese”—that animated many readers, who drew from it a consciousness that the mechanical age in which they were living was a real threat. “Carlyle saw the age as one of crisis and revolution”, writes Levine,
the long world-historical process engaged in shucking off the husks of the old way. He felt passionately the injustice which allowed for the starving of thousands of workers in a world richer than ever before. . . . Nothing was stable: nothing could be counted on.
That instability underpins Ruskin’s criticisms of the laboring conditions of the machine-bound artisan, and Gaskell’s consciousness of the inner price that cotton-workers paid for the hours spent in factories. Carlyle was the ur-Victorian.
One of Carlyle’s gifts was the memorable encapsulation of a contemporary dilemma in a phrase. At the outset of Chartism, he wrote:
A feeling very generally exists that the condition and disposition of the Working Classes is a rather ominous matter at present; that something ought to be said, something ought to be done, in regard to it. And surely, at an epoch of history when the ‘National Petition’ carts itself in wagons along the streets, and is presented ‘bound with iron hoops, four men bearing it’, to a Reformed House of Commons; and Chartism numbered by the million and half, taking nothing by its iron-hooped Petition, breaks out into brickbats, cheap pikes, and even into sputterings of conflagration, such very general feeling cannot be considered unnatural!
Here, in essence, is one part of the success of Carlyle’s appeal to the Victorian age. The writing is direct, its energy conveying his personal conviction to the reader, the calculated repetition and controlled exaggeration like “sputters of conflagration” owing directly to the disposition of the working class—the condition of the greater part of the population of the British Isles.
It is worth remembering, too, that Carlyle saw all this from what was very much an outsider’s stance, even though by this time he was firmly part of literary London. Born to a working Scottish family, his father successively a stonemason and a farmer, he had worked his way up through an egalitarian educational system to high school and university, taught school, and lived precariously on translation fees and freelance writing. It wasn’t until the success of The French Revolution in 1837 and the lecture series that followed in London that the Carlyles became relatively comfortable in Chelsea. Not for Carlyle the great English public schools or universities: not even Dickens’s familiarity with the lower orders of London on his own way to success matched Carlyle’s. Suspended between modest origins and exalted professional station, Carlyle retained a distance from a society he viewed with some trepidation as being on the edge of major change.
Yet even at this distance he kept good company; as he became a famous public figure he came to know many writers and intellectuals, to have (with his wife Jane, a formidable hostess and correspondent in her own right) contacts throughout London, the British Isles, continental Europe, America and Canada. The Carlyles knew a wide cross-section of society. Their reach into their age encompassed the working classes with whom they kept loyally in touch in Scotland, and reached to the aristocratic circles of the Ashburtons and the Athenaeum Club. They befriended Italian revolutionaries, American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and German intellectuals. They lived through several tumultuous decades of change in London until Jane’s death in 1866, after which Carlyle was much a spent force, though he was to live on until 1881. But how did a man who made his mark as a social critic come to be thought of in terms of “rant?”
First is the energy that underpins his style. It was energy that helped make Carlyle widely read among the poor and the recently literate in the 1830s and 1840s, with Sartor Resartus and the lectures that became Heroes and Hero-Worship the most popular. Edition after edition appeared, often pirated, and cheaper copies were found in working-class circles all over Britain. Sartor is still being evaluated as an avant-garde work of genius. It is a self-reflexive proto-postmodern novel about the difficulty of writing fiction, an imagined autobiography of a young intellectual (set in Germany, a country Carlyle had not visited, though he much admired and was influenced by Goethe, Fichte and Schiller). It records a lifelong struggle through doubt, catastrophic loss of faith and a re-integration to a kind of new faith—all described with the pulsing energy of a young intelligence trying hard to come to terms with a threatening universe. That work captured many people’s imagination; it gave believer and skeptic alike the confidence that one could find a workable, meaningful faith.
At the same time, Sartor bespeaks its late-18th century origin, given its points of reference in the Enlightenment (identified as the source of much corrosive doubt) and the Romantics, whose ideas of nature, life, creativity and power drive the central character’s struggle to find a fusion of inherited belief and new belief for a new age. The language borrows from a Bible Carlyle knew intimately in his Calvinist childhood. His own faith by this time had changed beyond recognition, owing much to Goethe and the Germans, but the literary art of Sartor allowed him to present to many of the readers who shared his own bewilderments the idea that some “Everlasting Yea” was indeed discoverable in a world that threatened negativity.
Heroes is another book brimming with the energy of a restless intelligence looking back to see the roots of his era’s problems, seeking some sort of life-force to replace the twin shadows of mechanization and commercialization. That energy was tempered, however, by the terms of his Christian upbringing, and by his reverence for the ordered society he came from. That reverence shines through Reminiscences (1832), a memorial to his stern, hard-working father James Carlyle. For James Carlyle life was a solemn affair of obedience, work and faith, and his son inherited elements of that Calvinism. In old age Carlyle was to write of the Church of his youth and the upbringing he shared with the charismatic preacher Edward Irving:
Most of the chief figures among them, in Irving’s time and mine, were hoary old men. Men so like what one might call antique ‘Evangelists in modern vesture, and Poor Scholars and Gentlemen of Christ’, I have nowhere met with in Monasteries or Churches, among Protestant or Papal Clergy, in any country of the world. All this is altered utterly at present, I grieve to say; and gone to as good as nothing or worse. It began to alter just about that period, on the death of those old hoary Heads; and has gone on with increasing velocity ever since. Irving and I were probably among the last products it delivered, before gliding off, and then rushing off, into self-consciousness, arrogancy, insincerity, jangle and vulgarity, which I fear are now very much the definition of it.
At the same time a tribute and an entirely typical piece of rhetorical exaggeration, this passage points to the difficulty behind Heroes and much of Carlyle’s later work. He looked back to an ordered world of heroes like Luther and Knox—and realized his own world had none of them. His historical work had been to show (in The French Revolution, Cromwell and Frederick the Great) great leaders at odds with the tumultuous pressures of their time. In Paris, such leaders were not great enough to withstand the terrors of the revolution; in Cromwell’s England, they managed to re-establish order against the threat of chaos; and in Frederick’s Prussia they found an arbitrary, sometimes violent but necessary alternative to the chaos. Not incidentally, Carlyle’s hatred of reified ideologies stands forth, particularly in his work on the French revolution. Not “isms” but living human beings made the difference in the world—this was Carlyle’s context for understanding the hero.
The heroes of history to Carlyle were people who stood against the encroaching forces of an uncontrolled universe, bringing order to chaos. A further justification inhered in their understanding of the problems of their time, and their devotion to the concepts of duty and work that underpinned Carlyle’s mature thinking. Heroes and Hero-Worship elevates to the status of “hero” those who achieve a balance between life and duty. Cromwell and Frederick certainly worked their way to heroic status in his interpretation, but so did Mohammed. Bloody and violent they were, but they were justified in it by their belief in what they were doing, and by the history that proved them successful.
One problem with the cult of the hero (as a reaction against the encroaching machine universe, the threat of rapid change, the decay of organized religious belief and traditional political and social values) is that in Carlyle’s hands it is very much backward-looking—as Trollope acutely satirized it in The Warden, Carlyle’s sages have really no effective solutions for their own time. In his later writings Carlyle strongly advocated specifics, like improved education, better working conditions for the poor, and assisted emigration. But his impact was blunted by the vitriol he flung at the political leaders of his day, a style of criticism that could easily turn to “rant.”
And rant he certainly did, in the later 1840s and after, in ways which partly explain the eclipse of his reputation. In Shooting Niagara and The Nigger Question he turned to the problems of the slave plantations and the result of emancipation, deploying the same simplified, clear-cut analysis he had used to justify Cromwell and Frederick when they trampled on civil liberties or the rights of their opponents. Because he valued above all order, work and a well-functioning and productive society, Carlyle saw nothing wrong with slowing down or even reversing emancipation, if that is what it took. Although he had in 1849 been more open-minded when he visited Ireland and saw the appalling consequences of the Irish famines, he had no personal experience of slave conditions, and he was less likely to make any imaginative link with conditions in American south.
The energy that made Sartor so sympathetic to a generation became both shrill and offensive; the repetition and exaggeration that made Signs of the Times a striking indictment of the too-rapid mechanization of its age became repellent in these two works. This is the Carlyle who sticks in many people’s memories, rather than the earlier historian and critic of social injustice, or the calmer writer who had a rationale for at least some of his political attitudes.
In the Latter-Day Pamphlets, which cumulatively can seem a torrent of abuse on the times, there are moments that focus very effectively the older writer’s anger, such as his celebrated response to the model prison where he was shown how humane treatment could replace the kind of horrors Dickens would have described. Carlyle writes not in praise of the model prisons, but in anger at the blindness of the ruling class to the larger problems of society, while focusing on what he saw as the smaller problems of an underclass who had forfeited his sympathy:
For all round this beautiful Establishment, or Oasis of Purity, intended for the Devil’s regiments of the line, lay continents of dingy poor and dirty dwellings, where the unfortunate not yet enlisted into that Force were struggling manifoldly—in their workshops, in their marble-yards and timber-yards and tan-yards, in their close cellars, cobbler-stalls, hungry garrets, and poor dark trade-shops with red-herrings and tobacco-pipes crossed in the window—to keep the Devil out-of-doors, and not enlist with him. And it was by a tax on these that the Barracks for the regiments of the line were kept up.
Here we see that same energy, the same calculated exaggeration, the same vividness of word-picture. For many, it was a convincing argument, while for very many others it was a terrible indictment on a writer whose social conscience they had once admired. John Stuart Mill, for one, who had been a close confidant, utterly rejected Carlyle on slavery, and published his On the Negro Question as a direct rebuff.
here is yet another Carlyle. Visitors to Chelsea found him surprisingly gentle and considerate, capable of great outbursts of scorn and vituperation, then breaking into hearty laughter. He had an enormous circle of friends, and he had an extraordinary gift with words. It took a sad blow to give us the best proof of this in the Reminiscences, which he wrote largely in 1866–67 to fill the unbearable silence and loneliness after his wife’s death. He and Jane had been married since 1826 and, though they were both high-tempered and thin-skinned, argumentative and aloof, their marriage nevertheless sustained them both through early poverty to later comfort, and it was that marriage, too, that enabled Carlyle (who was a difficult and impatient writer) to produce a mountain of work. Without Jane as a foil, his creative output withered.
The Reminiscences is his most accessible work, recalling in extraordinary detail their lives together, his own early years, the condition of the country around them from the Napoleonic War years through 1867 when, realizing he had no more to say, he laid down his pen. Intimate, painful, often quite beautiful, and dazzling in its near photographic detail, Reminiscences was to kill Carlyle’s reputation in the short term. Many were taken aback by the thin-skinned tone of a recently bereaved author. Today, they join the life-writing of the great correspondence between Thomas and Jane (some 14,000 surviving letters) as a towering achievement.3
Thomas Carlyle did far more than articulate in Signs of the Times the nature of a problem that others were to pursue, perhaps in ways that (like the output of the great novelists) have been easier to see as permanent and enduring criticisms of their age. His own published work encompasses urgent social and ethical criticism as well as great set-piece histories, and his unpublished correspondence and Reminiscences give today’s reader an unparalleled insight into an age that was, as he saw, both excessively mechanical and changing too fast for the comfort of those who lived in it. His challenge (again in the Latter-Day Pamphlets) was to the governance of that changing Britain, “some twelve or ten or six men to manage the affairs of this nation in Downing Street and the chief posts elsewhere, who are abler for the work than those we have been used to, this long while? For it is really a heroic work.” Carlyle saw an urgent and universal need for the kind of heroism that could preserve some kind of order amid the chaos of rapid change. It is a need no less urgent, perhaps, in our own times.
1Levine, The Boundaries of Fiction: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman (Princeton University Press, 1968), p. vii.
2Morrow, Thomas Carlyle (Continuum, 2006), p. 201.
3The magisterial Duke-Edinburgh edition of their correspondence (approaching forty volumes as this is written) is a record of their times of unparalleled scope and vividness.