n 1866, the year after Carlyle completed "Frederick the Great," he triumphantly assumed the office of rector of the University of Edinburgh. But three weeks later, when Jane Carlyle died, he plunged into depression. In the following months, he divided his activities between the private project of endeavoring to recover the domestic idyll, in The Reminiscences, and the public attempt to restore the theocratic idyll through his defense of Governor Eyre and his opposition to the Second Reform Bill, in "Shooting Niagara." During the last decade of Carlyle's life, the debilities of old age, especially the palsy in his right hand, made writing more and more difficult, and his literary output slowed to a trickle. But the silence of his last years was not the repose he had always sought, the safe enclosure in the domestic idyll of tranquillity; it brought him no nearer the end of writing. On the contrary, his continued yearning for the transcendental idyll left intact, even made possible, the public world of economy he sought to escape.
Closing Failures in "The Reminiscences" and "Shooting Niagara"
Just a month after Jane Carlyle's death, Thomas began to write a series of reminiscences, first of Jane herself; then of men they both knew well, Edward Irving and Francis Jeffrey; and finally of two poets Carlyle had known only slightly, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Written privately — whether or not he intended them to remain private was a point of controversy after his death — they sought, more directly than any of his writings since the reminiscence of James Carlyle, to recapture the domestic idyll. They contrast a pastoral vision of Scotland with the metropolis of London, and they make the process of narrating a means of escape from present pain — his wife's death, the chaos of contemporary society — into the past of memory. [162/163]
Carlyle dwells insistently on the Scottish scenes in The Reminiscences, clearly preferring them to the "London bits of memorabilia," which do "not disengage themselves from the general mass, as the earlier Craigenputtock ones" do (114). Using the contrast with London throughout The Reminiscences, always to the advantage of Scotland and Craigenputtoch, he revives the dream that the latter had been more congenial to literary production, that he could "do fully twice as much work in a given time there" (58). The Irving and Jeffrey of The Reminiscences both achieve their greatest successes in their native land and are ruined by London. Irving is "genially happy" in the "sunny islets" of Annandale, and Jeffrey achieves acclaim as the editor of the Edinburgh Review (229, 244). Each goes to London in search of greater success but only finds failure. Irving falls into heresy, loses his congregation, and dies; Jeffrey, forced to spend many "unwholesome hours" in the "noisy hubbub of St. Stephen's," fails in Parliament, becomes "completely miserable," and is forced to return to Scotland to recover his health (331). By contrast, Carlyle, recognizing, during his 1824 sojourn, that London is "worse than Tartarus, with all its Phlegethons and Stygian quagmires," rejects the city in favor of the "russet-coated Idyll" at Hoddam Hill (281-82). Yet, by implying that in spirit he had never really left Scotland, that by remaining within the idyll of literature he had sustained the idyll even in London, he suppresses the reverse possibility: that he can never escape the alienation of urban economy. In fact, although Carlyle frequently visited Scotland, he never found permanent rest there, and he lived out the last years of his life in London. Like the heroes he had so often described, he could only achieve rest in death, and it was only in death that, according to his wishes, he returned permanently to Scotland andjoined his parents in the Ecclefechan churchyard (Froude, My Relations with Carlyle, 70 -
Carlyle's contradictory desires and aims in writing The Reminiscences are manifest in the contrast between his representation of Jane Carlyle as the center of the Scottish idyll and the pain he knew she suffered there. She is both the idyll itself — an "Eldorado" that "screen[s] [him] from pain" — and its creator-transforming darkness into light and creating "a little Eden round her" (163, 125, 70; see 305). LaValley appropriately describes the Jane Carlyle of The Reminiscences as a sun goddess (330). Carlyle describes her as sunny (51, 58), bright (155, 317), shining (69, 128), and luminous (128); he also praises her lambency (99), brilliancy (99), and irradiation (123; see also 126, 133-34, 302). The epitaph he wrote for her refers to her "bright existence" and "clearness of discernment" and describes her as "the light of his life" (LM, 2:392; see also LL, 2:369). Carlyle had looked forward to Craigenputtoch in 1828 as a "green oasis," but had left it when the oasis withered and became a "Dunscore Desert" [164/165] (CL, 4:407, 7: 280). In the reminiscence of Jane Carlyle, it takes Jane to make "the Desert blossom," to transform their "wild moorland home" into a "fairy palace" where they spent their "happiest days" (57). Through Jane, he suggests, the Scottish idyll could be made to bloom even in the deserts of London.
In writing The Reminiscences, Carlyle was not simply struggling to escape the alienations of literary commerce, however; he also sought, through the process of writing, relief from the guilt and remorse that followed Jane Carlyle's death. Although The Reminiscences are putatively about her and those who knew her, they frequently stray from her in order to dwell on genealogies, anecdotes, and chronologies related to her only tangentially, if at all. But he finds so much "solace" in the "refuge" of writing them that he cannot persuade himself to stop, even though he frequently chides himself for "defrauding" Jane (114; see 49, 55, 79, 167-69). Reluctant to reach the end of the narrative, he is driven to write the subsequent reminiscences, especially "Wordsworth" and "Southey," for which he had little enthusiasm — as much by the desire to sustain the solacing process of writing as to commemorate the lives of his mere acquaintances (307, 343). Yet this desire to expand the narrative is at odds with the desire for closure represented by the Scottish idyll. Indeed, Carlyle expands the idyllic narrative, in which he represents Jane Carlyle as fundamentally happy, as a way of suppressing his guilty knowledge of the pain and sorrow he had in fact caused her (e.g., 125, 156). This assertion perhaps needs to be qualified by the fact that the reminiscence has never been published in the form that Carlyle apparently envisioned, namely, alongside Jane Carlyle's diary of April 15-July 5, 1856, in which he discovered just how great her pain had been, that she had even feared she was dying (see NLM, 87-109). Nonetheless, Carlyle does insist that she was happy in spite of this and other evidence of her unhappiness. LaValley argues that he may have been prompted by "guilt" and a "need to delude himself about the central meaning of his life" to create a "loving and overpoweringly important Jane" (329).
But if Carlyle narrated in order to forget the misery he had caused, he also wrote the reminiscence as a "religious course of worship" and a "little 'Shrine of pious Memory,"' in order to "expiate" it (89, 139; see 111, 155, 159, 275). Transferring his guilt about the pain he had caused Jane into guilt at indulging in "idle work" that has no public purpose, he makes his need to expiate a motive for more writing and for public action (79; see go). The idealized image of Jane Carlyle he has created will inspire him to take part once again in public affairs. "I am gone, loved one," he imagines her saying to him, "work a little longer, if thou still canst; if not, follow!" (128; see 89, 157, 167). To imagine that Jane would command him to work — work that would inevitably take the form of writing, since "writing is [the] one thing [he] can do" — was to imagine that she forgave him for having been so obsessed with his own problems that he did not recognize her suffering [165/166] (LL, 2:369). He learned from her diary at this time that while he was boring her with his struggles to write the account of the battle of Mollwitz she "felt convinced she was dying" (134). His schedule while writing Frederick the Great allowed her only one half-hour a day of his time. He also realized that he was so obsessed with working that he refused to take the time to buy a carriage for her, a purchase that might have prevented the accident that lie clearly felt hastened her death (145). It was as much for himself as in obedience to her that he became advisor to the Eyre Defense Committee and wrote "Shooting Niagara."
* * * * * *
The Eyre controversy and the question of reform were closely related in the public mind, and both were major topics of parliamentary debate in the spring of 1866, when England was disturbed by social unrest of a kind not seen since 1848. The Jamaica rebellion, brutally suppressed by Eyre, had taken place in the autumn of 1865; throughout 1866 there were Fenian disturbances both in Ireland and in England; and in July a riot broke out when public officials tried to prevent a public meeting in Hyde Park. In these circumstances, Disraeli, perceiving that reform was inevitable, introduced the bill that, after considerable modification, became law in August 1867.
"Shooting Niagara" responds directly to the Second Reform Billit was published in August 1867, the month in which it received its third and final reading-but also deals with the social unrest represented by the Hyde Park riots and the Jamaica rebellion. Like Latter-Day Pamphlets, "Shooting Niagara" is a bitter and despairing polemic in reaction to events both personal and public; its tone is altogether different from the mood of the inaugural address, delivered just two years earlier, that had concluded, like Past and Present, with the optimistic words from Goethe's "Symbolum": "We bid you be of hope!" (CME, 4:482). Although the criticisms in "Shooting Niagara" are directed against the reform bill, which it regards as symptomatic of England's social problems, it did not seek to reverse the bill (it appeared too late to affect the outcome of the parliamentary debate) but to urge a yet more radical reform that would bypass Parliament altogether. Even this was not entirely new, and Carlyle's analysis of England's social problems here remains fundamentally what it had been in Chartism, Past and Present, and Latter-Day Pamphlets. But he significantly altered his proposals by recasting them in terms of the shift from ideal to real he had made in Frederick the Great and in response to the Eyre controversy.
In the first part of the essay, Carlyle appears to return to an earlier phase of his social criticism when he calls on a speculative (i.e., literary-religious) aristocracy to "restor[e] God and whatever was Godlike in the traditions and recorded doings of Mankind" (CME, 5:30; the section in which this passage appears was not included in Macmillan's Magazine where the essay first appeared, but it did appear when the essay was reprinted as a pamphlet later that year.). an industrial aristocracy to restorejustice and honesty by "build[ing]" an [166/167] economy based, not on temporary contracts, but on relationships that will "stand till the Day of judgment" (CME, 5:34); and a titled aristocracy to restore hierarchy and reign as kings on their estates. He imagines these religious, economic, and political aristocracies working quietly together, outside of the formal institutions of government, until they rise in the public esteem and their authority is acknowledged. The aim would be to change social institutions by changing the beliefs of the people; the public would obey these aristocracies, not because it was coerced, but because it had come to believe in them. But, as the essay proceeds, it becomes clear that the Carlyle of Latter-Day Pamphlets and Frederick the Great, who believes that no "argument of human intellect" can change his contemporaries, has not disappeared (CME, 5:4). Speculative aristocrats, he concludes, will continue to "waste themselves" in "Literature" (which in fifty years will sink "to the rank of street-fiddling"); the industrial aristocracy will continue producing "cheap and nasty" goods, despoiling the cities, and exploiting labor; and the political aristocracy, even the conservatives (he is thinking of the followers of Disraeli who supported the reform bill), will continue to confine themselves to self-serving parliamentary politics (CME, 5:24, 26; This appeared in the passage that was not included in Macmillan's; see above.).
As in Frederick the Great, the ideal gives way to the real, and Carlyle turns to war, rather than art, as the means to transform the nation, imagining a scenario in which social disturbances like the Jamaican rebellion and the Hyde Park riots will multiply until England plunges into open civil war. In these circumstances, the literary aristocracy, which has no power, and the economic aristocracy, which has no ethos, will both be powerless, so it will be left to the political aristocracy to restore social order through military force. In contrast to the peaceful aristocrat, whom he initially depicts as "mould[ing] and manag[ing] everything, till both his people and his dominion correspond gradually to the ideal he has formed.... Till the whole surroundings of a nobleman [are] made noble like himself," he envisions a saving remnant of titled warriors turning their estates into training grounds where they establish order through military discipline (CME, 5:37; emphasis added).
Drawing on his portrait of Frederick and his defense of Governor Eyre, Carlyle thus envisions a radical transformation of society. When he argues that England cannot survive under common law, that it must embrace martial law, which, he claims, is "anterior to all written laws" [167/168] and "coeval with Human Society," he is referring directly to the Eyre case and responding to Chief justice Alexander Cockburn's six-hour peroration arguing that "the law of England knew no such thing as 'Martial law"' (CME, 5:12; Semmel, 153). Semmel explains that "Martial law could only be legally employed when used to suppress a revolt; when used to punish a crime, it was illegal" (146; see 128ff). Several hundred people had been executed and many more flogged when Edward Eyre, the governor of Jamaica, declared martial law in response to a local uprising. Among those executed was George Gordon, an outspoken critic of the colonial government, who was illegally transported into the area where martial law was in effect and executed with Eyre's approval.
The issue that concerned many was that if Eyre could use martial law to punish Gordon, then martial law could also be declared in England to deprive citizens of their legitimate rights. Carlyle, too, considered the case relevant to England — the reference to the Eyre case is preceded by a discussion of the Hyde Park riot — but he reverses the terms; whereas others argued that, since what Eyre did would have been intolerable and illegal in England it was wrong to do it in Jamaica, Carlyle argues that the English aristocracy will need to act as Eyre had in Jamaica, that only military discipline can produce social order. As in Frederick the Great, he no longer imagines that the poetic hero can create a belief that will produce a social order, but insists that social order must be produced by coercive political power. Indeed, interweaving the various strands of his argument, he imagines Frederick the Great and Friedrich Wilhelm turning the Caribbean island of Dominica — a stand-in for Jamaica or even the British Isles — into a fertile kingdom that would embody his ideal of a martial and hierarchical society, the lower ground worked by a million black slaves and the upper portion of the island — "salubrious and delightful for the European" — occupied by a hundred thousand white slave masters (CME, 5:17). There was nothing in the politics of the day to drive Carlyle to this abhorrent vision; it was simply his inability to imagine any alternative — in particular, his inability to find a source of authority in literature and the processes of cultural formation.
Contents last modified 2002; reformatted 2006 & 2015