Thomas Carlyle
Jane Welsh Carlyle

1795-1881, 1801-1866

The Carlyles are recognized as among the greatest letter-writers of all time. Their letters, ranging from 1812-1879, provide not only an unusually interesting and at times dramatic narrative of their own lives but also spirited and provocative discussions of the ideas vital in their day. In their letters an entire age vividly unfolds before our eyes. Gifted with uncommon powers of description and an alert sense of humour, the sharply observant Carlyles throw light on scores of significant events, such as the Manchester Massacre of 1819, the coronation of Queen Victoria, the Repeal of the Corn Laws, the deaths of Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, the Crimean War, and the rise of modern Germany. Embodied in the letters also are an even larger number of memorable pen portraits of Browning, Mill, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Macaulay, Ruskin, Disraeli, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Daniel Webster, Turgenev, and many other noteworthy contemporaries. Carlyle's pen portraits are so brilliant that they have earned for him the title of "the Victorian Rembrandt." Equally vivid are many of the portraits by Jane. (From The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, Duke University Press.)

On December 26, 1843, Jane Welsh Carlyle attended, with other eminent Victorians, a birthday party for Nina Macready. In a letter to Jeannie Welsh composed shortly afterwards, she wrote that "it was the very most agreeable party that ever I was at in London -- everybody there seemed animated with one purpose to make up to Mrs. Macready and her children for the absence of 'the Tragic Actor' and so amiable a purpose produced the most joyous results. Dickens and Forster above all exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts! Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour -- the best conjuror I ever saw -- (and I have paid money to see several) -- and Forster acting as his servant. This part of the entertainment concluded with a plum pudding made out of raw flour, raw eggs -- all the raw usual ingredients -- boiled in a gentleman's hat -- and tumbled out reeking -- all in one minute before the eyes of the astonished children and astonished grown people! That trick -- and his other of changing ladies' pocket handkerchiefs into comfits -- and a box full of bran into a box full of -- a live guinea-pig! -- would enable him to make a handsome subsistence let the bookseller trade go as it please!"

On a more somber note, Thomas Carlyle, meditating on Dickens's death in 1870, wrote to Forster: "It is an event world-wide...a unique of talents suddenly extinct, and has 'eclipsed' (we too may say) 'the harmless gaiety of nations.' No death since 1866"-- the year of Jane Welsh Carlyle's death -- "has fallen on me with such a stroke, no Literary Man's hitherto ever did. The good, the gentle, ever friendly noble Dickens -- every inch of him an Honest Man!" Beneath Dickens's "bright and joyful sympathy with everything around him,"Carlyle perceived that there were, "deeper than all, if one has the eye to see deep enough, dark, fateful silent elements, tragical to look upon, and hiding amid dazzling radiances as of the sun, the elements of death itself."