Chronicling 19th Century Europe’s Most Amazing Pen Pals

The Carlyles were literary rock stars; the effort to assemble their letters continues with $275,000 grant

Monday, November 19, 2018

by Kevin Donahue

With 46 volumes and more than 11,000 letters collected over nearly 50 years, the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle is regarded as one of the finest and most comprehensive literary archives of the 19th Century — and the project continues to churn through their massive correspondence.

Which raises questions: Who are these people? Why all this attention?

The Carlyles were Scottish outsiders living in the heart of London who attained the status of intellectual celebrities through the power of their wit, intelligence and genius.  Their correspondents included Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Otto von Bismarck, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

David R. Sorensen, D. Phil., professor of English and associate director of the Honors Program, has been an integral part of the project since 1998. Thanks to a $275,000 Scholarly Editions Grant earlier this year from The National Endowment of Humanities, he hopes to see it through to its conclusion. 

The grant covers the research and publication of volumes 46, 47, and 48 of the Duke-Edinburgh edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, as well as updating the online collection available through Carlyle Letters Online

Sorensen recently answered questions about the mammoth project.

Question: What initially led you to this project?  Oddly, I recall the moment when I became interested in Carlyle. It was in 1976, and I was reading his great history of the French Revolution in the old British Museum Library, under its glorious blue dome — a beloved room where I spent a good part of my young adult years — turning the pages of this epic book was a kind of epiphany. I knew I wanted to know more about Carlyle, but I didn’t realize then that I would be spending the rest of my life editing his works and correspondence. Later, while studying at Oxford, I was invited by Ian Campbell of Edinburgh University to speak to the Carlyle Society in Edinburgh. Through him, I met my great mentor K. J. Fielding, who eventually invited me to join the editorial team of the Carlyle Letters in 1998. I have been with the project since then, 20 volumes ago. 

Q. How close is the project to completion? Do you have a sense of how many more years or volumes it might require?  This latest NEH award, extending to 2021, will take us to within three volumes of completing the entire edition. We estimate that the project will conclude with the publication of volume 52, approximately six years from now. If the gods are merciful, we may reach the finish line. 

Q. How much money in aggregate has been granted to pursue this project over the past two decades?  Since 1999, the NEH, together with various smaller granting bodies, have generously provided us with over $2 million: it’s a remarkable run for a Humanities project, and we certainly would not have been able to survive without this funding, together with the loyal and steadfast support of the Duke University Press. 

Q. What has changed for you in relation to the project over that time?  The project has involved all of the editors in a remarkable range of research: on any given day, we can be considering very broad philosophical, political, religious, literary, and scientific matters in the nineteenth-century. Then suddenly, we need to find out the name of a photographer or a grocer in Chelsea, or a haberdasher in Bond Street. It’s an endless journey, and the destination is never the same. So the subject matter changes with mercurial speed, yet the challenge remains to provide a coherent context to these changes. It’s an exhausting and very unrelenting kind of work — we are contracted to publish one volume every 12 months—but the excitement of new discoveries always drives us forward.

Q. This correspondence reads like a Who's Who of 19th Century thinkers and leaders. What about the Carlyles led all these thinkers and political figures to leap into correspondence with them?  The most remarkable aspect of the Carlyles’ life is their force of character and intellect. Thomas and Jane, these two Scottish outsiders, with very peculiar accents and manners, drew hundreds of visitors to their very modest row-house in a then poorer part of London. Many more were inspired to write to them and to solicit their opinions on a myriad of issues. The Carlyles were neither wealthy nor connected, but people wanted to contact them, either in person or through the mail, to catch some sense of their uniquely lambent presence.    

Q. Do you have a favorite letter? Of the two, Mrs. Carlyle was the greater letter-writer, as her husband later realized after her death in 1866. She could be witty, venomous and sentimental in the course of a paragraph. The only thing she could never be was dull. Her letters probably rank as some of the greatest in the history of the English language, and it would be almost impossible for me to choose a favorite. Carlyle’s are less electric and more prosaic, yet they often convey a sense of his fierce engagement in his times. They bristle with indignation and scorn.

Q. Do the Carlyles have anything to teach us in this very different time, when so much communication has been compressed down to texts and Tweets? What can we learn from them? There were just as many numbing distractions in the 19th Century as there are in the 21st. What Carlyle called “mechanical” habits of mind perpetually posed a threat to original thinking and fresh insight, then as now. We should value the Carlyles because in themselves and in their lives, they demonstrate the ennobling qualities of the life of the mind. For them, great books and literature did not represent a retreat from ordinary reality, but an enhancement of it. They both had an insatiable appetite for knowing more about the world around them, and their letters overflow with this shared sense of tenacious curiosity.  


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