Carlyle’s Statue

Carlyle’s statue in Kelvingrove, Glasgow, after recent vandalism.

The news last week, suddenly, was all about the toppling of statues. When it comes to the bronze representation of a slave-owner like Colston in Bristol, my only feeling is a mild surprise that it hasn’t been quietly got rid of long ago (which would have avoided its noisy elimination this week).

List of targeted statues. Click it for a larger image.

But when I examined the list of statues that activists want to be demolished, one name caught my eye. It was that of the Victorian essayist, historian and trouble-maker, Thomas Carlyle, who has long been an enthusiasm of mine. His monument in Glasgow has already been daubed with paint, and some, apparently, would like it removed altogether.

I can see why. Carlyle was not a comfortable character. These days he would be called a contrarian. Think of him as a sort of intellectual Rod Liddle. In the eighteen-forties he deliberately wrote pieces designed to annoy the politically correct, and what he thought of as the sanctimonious Exeter Hall set, ‘cultivating the broad-brimmed form of Christian sentimentalism, and long talking, and bleating, and braying’.

His most notorious exercise in this genre was ‘An Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’, first published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1849. It was an essay on the West Indies, and what had happened to the slave population since emancipation. Carlyle saw them as demoralised by British subsidy which allowed them to live idle, not bothering to do meaningful work. ‘Living off benefits’ would be the modern phrase for it. His depiction of them is decidedly offensive, and not just to modern eyes; his erstwhile friend John Stuart Mill was deeply offended by it. Here’s Carlyle in full unpleasant spate:

[W]e have a few black persons rendered extremely “free” indeed. Sitting yonder, with their beautiful muzzles up to the ears in pumpkins, imbibing sweet pulps and juices; the grinder and incisor teeth ready for every new work, and the pumpkins cheap as grass in those rich climates; while the sugar crops rot round them, uncut, because labour cannot be hired, so cheap are the pumpkins…

When Mill answered back, Carlyle doubled down on his essay’s offensiveness, by re-naming his essay ‘An Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question.’

So I can fully see why some people would want the author of this essay to be cast out of the canon, and his monument defaced.

The problem is, though, that he happened to be a great and original writer (though other works show his quality much better than the ‘Occasional Discourse’). He has now dropped quite out of fashion, mind you, and is largely unread, except by the most dedicated of Victorianists – and they routinely disapprove of him.

I first came across him nearly fifty years ago, in 1971. I had just returned from Africa, and was beginning an M.A. Course in Victorian Literature at the University of Leicester. Carlyle and Tennyson were the two writers on whom we would concentrate in the first term. Volunteers were invited for delivering papers to seminars. Knowing nothing about him, I volunteered to deliver a talk on Carlyle, and was allotted the Latter-day Pamphlets, a series of very Carlylean fulminations from the same period of his career as the ‘Occasional Discourse.’ I took a look at them; they were strange. They were, extreme, unbalanced, wild, opinionated, unstable, excessive, and in places rather nasty. In fact, they were unlike anything else I had ever read. Luckily it would be eight weeks or so before I had to give my paper. Julian Symons’s popular biography of Carlyle gave me a start towards beginning to understand him, and we had talks by lecturers more expert than myself to help me along. It was reading Sartor Resartus that made me realise that here was an extraordinary and rather wonderful writer.

Sartor Resartus is Latin for ‘The Tailor Re-clothed’. The book is presented as a commentary of the philosophy of Herr Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, a wayward German thinker whose surname means ‘Devil’s dung’). The book is a chaos of voices, as Teufelsdröckh’s ideas (about the importance of clothes and appearances) are presented and argued over by others. It is a radically unstable text. Nothing can be taken for granted. You never quite know what is supposed to be a joke and what is to be taken seriously. There are wild lyric flights, passages of dense philosophy, and explosions of ribald humour.

Over the past fifty years or so, there has been a fashion for self-referential post-modern literature that use many of the same devices. Few of these contemporary efforts are quite as wild, as challenging or as extraordinary as Sartor Resartus.

After Sartor, Carlyle wrote powerful essays on the condition of England. He invented the phrase ‘the Condition-of-England question.) His Past and Present compares capitalist Victorian Britain unfavourably with the organic society of the mediaeval period. He wrote dazzling histories: his French Revolution is a profound study of men and power, and of historical processes getting out of control. Doubtless its historical analysis is now outdated, but it is still very much worth reading for its drama and its insight into characters like Robespierre, ‘the sea-green incorruptible’.

Carlyle was a major presence in Victorian thought, and his appeal is suggested in a passage from another immensely unfashionable writer. In George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career (1875) Rosamund is puzzled by the reading choice of young Neville Beauchamp, a book that is clearly Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship:

His favourite author was one writing of Heroes, in (so she esteemed it) a style resembling either early architecture or utter dilapidation, so loose and rough it seemed; a wind-in-the-orchard style, that tumbled down here and there an appreciable fruit with uncouth bluster; sentences without commencements running to abrupt endings and smoke, like waves against a sea-wall, learned dictionary words giving a hand to street-slang, and accents falling on them haphazard, like slant rays from driving clouds; all the pages in a breeze, the whole book producing a kind of electrical agitation in the mind and the joints. This was its effect on the lady. To her the incomprehensible was the abominable, for she had our country’s high critical feeling; but he, while admitting that he could not quite master it, liked it. He had dug the book out of a bookseller’s shop in Malta, captivated by its title, and had, since the day of his purchase, gone at it again and again, getting nibbles of golden meaning by instalments, as with a solitary pick in a very dark mine, until the illumination of an idea struck him that there was a great deal more in the book than there was in himself.

Carlyle is a writer who challenges the reader. He is not one who expects to be taken literally. As I’ve said, the texts are unstable; they invite the reader to doubt and question them, and there is a humour at work in them as dark as Swift’s. Those who object to the ‘Occasional Discourse’ perhaps do not notice that it is intended as a comic work. It is an account of a speech probably (but not certainly) by one ‘so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present!’ So the discourse has a highly unreliable narrator. Its ideas are not to be taken for granted. It is, however, a reminder that the philanthropic discourse of Exeter Hall (what today we should call P.C. language) is not the only way of talking about the West Indian question.

That paper of mine about the Latter-Day Pamphlets went fairly well, and when asked to choose a dissertation subject, I stuck with Carlyle, and chose to study the hardening of his thought and style, from the radicalism of ‘Chartism’ to the reactionary tone of his later works, during the crucial period of the 1840s. My central idea was that a crucial event was his journey to Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine, where he saw so many of the Irish pauperised, living off charity rather than living productive lives. The ‘Occasional Discourse’ is as much about Ireland as it is about the West Indies.

But should Carlyle’s statue stand? Or statues, I should say, because as well as the one in Glasgow that has been singled out for vandalism, there are more impressive ones in his his birthplace, Ecclefechan, and in Chelsea, where he lived for the second half of his life.

Well, Carlyle himself wrote about statues, and he didn’t think much of them. One of his most gloriously riotous literary performances is ‘Hudson’s Statue’, published in 1850 as one of the Latter-Day Pamphlets.

In this he considers the fact that a subscription to build a statue to the great railway magnate, George Hudson had raised the commendable sum of £25,000. Unfortunately, before the statue could be built, Hudson had been exposed as a crook and swindler. Carlyle expresses ferociously satirical regret that the monument had not been built, and sarcastically suggest that it still should be, as a permanent reminder of the stupidity and gullibility of the public.

He speaks of the symbolic place of statues in our lives, as declarations of the men we honour: ‘Show me the man you honour; I know by that symptom, better than by any other, what kind of man you yourself are.’ Those who erected the statues of Carlyle after his death were honouring him – not for his politics (I have read articles from the time that state this very firmly) nor for his moral character but for his writing, and for its liberating effect on the Victorian mind. Since then, Carlyle’s reputation has sunk; it does not help that Adolf Hitler had Carlyle’s multi-volume Life of Frederick the Great as comfort reading in his bunker.

I would certainly like his statues to stay in place, but I don’t know if Carlyle himself would agree with me. The peroration of ‘Hudson’s Statue’ sets standards for statue-buiding that few artistic attempts would survive:

When a company of persons have determined to set up a Brazen Image, there decidedly arises, besides the question of their own five-pound subscriptions, which men of spirit and money-capital without employment, and with a prospect of seeing their names in the Newspapers at the cheap price of five pounds, are very prompt with, — another question, not nearly so easy of solution. Namely, this quite preliminary question: Will it permanently profit mankind to have such a Hero as this of yours set up for their admiration, for their imitation and emulation; or will it, so far as they do not reject and with success disregard it altogether, unspeakably tend to damage and disprofit them? In a word, does this Hero’s memory deserve a high column; are you sure it does not deserve a deep coalshaft rather? This is an entirely fundamental question! Till this question be answered well in the affirmative, there ought to be a total stop of progress; the misguided citizens ought to be admonished, and even gently constrained, to take back their five-pound notes; to desist from their rash deleterious enterprise, and retire to their affairs, a repentant body of misguided citizens.
But farther still, and supposing the first question perfectly disposed of, there comes a second, grave too, though much less peremptory: Is this Statue of yours a worthy commemoration of a sacred man? Is it so excellent in point of Art that we can, with credit, set it up in our market-places as a respectable approach to the Ideal? Or, alas, is it not such an amorphous brazen sooterkin, bred of prurient heat and darkness, as falls, if well seen into, far below the Real? The Real, if you will stand by it, is respectable. The coarsest hob-nailed pair of shoes, if honestly made according to the laws of fact and leather, are not ugly: they are honest, and fit for their object; the highest eye may look on them without displeasure, nay with a kind of satisfaction. This rude packing-case, it is faithfully made; square to the rule, and formed with rough and ready strength against injury; — fit for its use; not a pretentious hypocrisy, but a modest serviceable fact; whoever pleases to look upon it, will find the image of a humble manfulness in it, and will pass on with some infinitesimal impulse to thank the gods.
But this your “Ideal,” my misguided fellow-citizens? Good Heavens, are you in the least aware what damage, in the very sources of their existence, men get from Cockney Sooterkins saluting, them publicly as models of Beauty? I charitably feel you have not the smallest notion of it, or you would shriek at the proposal! Can you, my misguided friends, think it humane to set up, in its present uncomfortable form, this blotch of mismolten copper and zinc, out of which good warming-pans might be made? That all men should see this; innocent young creatures, still in arms, be taught to think this beautiful; — and perhaps women in an interesting situation look up to it as they pass? I put it to your religious feeling. to your principles as men and fathers of families!


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted June 17, 2020 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    I just read this once, quickly. Now I’m looking forward to reading it again, slowly.

    There’s a lot to chew on. Thank you!

      Posted June 17, 2020 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      Can you read Carlyle’s or Meredith’s prose quickly? That’s an achievement in itself!
      George Hudson Street in York, named in Hudson’s honour and then changed to Railway Street, was returned to its original name after a long enough period had passed. Perhaps it’s time to put up his statue too.

      • Posted June 18, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        I used to romp through Carlyle, but these days I find he’s best taken a couple of pages at a time.
        Meredith I find hard to read. Or late Meredith, anyway. I’ve not read Harry Richmond recently, but recall it as quite a page-turner. I’ve never managed to finish The Egoist. I forced my way through The Tragic Comedians a few years ago, finding it very stodgy, until the last 20% or so, which was terrific.
        Last year, I embarked on re-reading Beauchamp’s Career, which I found interesting but a bit ponderous. I’ve got a theory that V. Woolf’s Jacob’s Room is indebted to B.C. – or maybe a sort of inversion of it. I’ll explain in a post here one of these days.

  2. Posted June 18, 2020 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    I appreciate your nuanced take on Carlyle, whom I consider a great and challenging writer. (I like Meredith also!) The tearing down of statues is a crude gesture, but then so is the erecting of them; I am trying to stay out of statue (and re-naming) arguments. The end of the line, though, is refusing to honor or even engage with anything from the past because IT IS NOT FROM THE PRESENT, and we are so much smarter now don’t you know.

    Posted June 18, 2020 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Meredith’s poetry – especially Modern Love – is good, I think. I’ve never managed to read all of a novel of his – perhaps because I first heard of Meredith through his first wife’s father, Thomas Love Peacock, who had a very different style, so I was expecting something different.

  4. Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Walk has been closed by the National Trust ‘until further notice.’ When it eventually reopens, Carlyle will be put into a ‘full historical context’ – which means seeing his more disreputable views as part of a history that includes the slave trade and the modern Black Lives Matter movement. A podcast by a National Trust trainee explains their stance more fully:—a-podcast-from-ellie-ikiebe-a-new-museum-school-trainee-at-carlyles-house

    Posted October 21, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    There’s a certain irony in Carlyle’s view of freed slaves when their owners had been paid about £20 million in compensation. If anyone was “demoralised by British subsidy which allowed them to live idle, not bothering to do meaningful work”, it wasn’t the former slaves.

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