The letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle have always been a source of fascination to readers. John Gross, for example, has recently claimed that Jane Carlyle is “unsurpassed among women letter-writers for wit and graphic power,” and he ranks her second among all letter-writers of the nineteenth century, surpassed only by John Keats (Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2006). Gross is not the first scholar to recognize Jane Carlyle’s epistolary skill, one she shared with her husband. In fact, long-term recognition of both Carlyles’ letter-writing ability is affirmed by an equally long history of prolific collection and publication.
Soon after Jane Carlyle’s death in 1866, Thomas began calling in her correspondence from family and friends, assuaging his grief by reading, sorting, and annotating her letters as he prepared his Reminiscences (1881). The number of editions of the Carlyle letters that appeared in the following years and into the next century, from the letters of Carlyle and Emerson to the letters of Carlyle and Ruskin to the love letters between Thomas and Jane, is simply astonishing.
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that a concerted effort was undertaken to publish the Carlyle letters in a comprehensive edition. In 1952 Charles Richard Sanders (1904–1998), a professor at Duke University who had been interested in Carlyle since his undergraduate days, began actively to seek out and to collect Carlyle letters. He asked for and received photostats and reels of microfilm from numerous university libraries and private collections around the world.
From these facsimiles, the letters were transcribed, typed, and stored in folders chronologically. Sanders also cataloged each letter on a 3 x 5 index card and created additional cards for persons, place-names, titles of books, battles, Scots words, coterie speech, and other proper nouns of interest. All of these were cross-referenced to their occurrences in individual letters by date and recipient. The result was a large and growing database that affirmed the immensity of the task at hand.
Knowing that a project of such magnitude would require extensive cooperation, Sanders made a visit in 1960 to Edinburgh, where he met with William Park, keeper of manuscripts, and James S. Ritchie, manuscript department, both at the National Library of Scotland, as well as John Butt (1906–1965), Regius Professor of Literature at the University of Edinburgh. This group outlined the framework for the edition, with Butt agreeing to serve as an editor.
Tragically, Butt died well before the first volumes were ready for publication. Fortunately, Kenneth J. Fielding (1924–2005), a renowned Dickens scholar and the recently appointed George Saintsbury Professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, offered to help Sanders with the project.
Before and through this difficult period of transition, the processes of transcribing, typing, annotating, and proofreading the letters for the now joint project continued unabated, and in 1970 the first four volumes of the Duke-Edinburgh edition of the Collected Letters were published as a boxed set by Duke University Press.
Twenty years after the project had commenced under the general editorship of Sanders, the first title page also included Fielding, Ian M. Campbell (Edinburgh), John Clubbe (Duke), and Janetta Taylor (Edinburgh). Aileen Christianson, who joined the Edinburgh office in October 1967, was also a significant participant in the work associated with the first four volumes. Also in 1970, Hilary J. Smith, listed on the title page from volume 8 and eventually named editor for volume 25, began her work in the Duke office.
Of the other editors associated with the first four volumes, Taylor left the project just prior to their publication, and Clubbe remained on the title page through volume 9. However, Campbell, who began working on the project in October 1964, has remained with the edition ever since. Thus both he and Christianson have worked on the edition from the first published volumes, and they continue to do so now as senior editors.
Current Editorial Teams
For many years Fielding, Campbell, and Christianson were the heart of the Edinburgh office, with Fielding serving as a senior editor and authoring the majority of the introductions for volumes 13–30. Also working on the edition during this period was Bill Bell, now director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh. Bell served as assistant editor for volumes 19–24. After his departure in 1994, Sheila McIntosh joined the Edinburgh team as an assistant editor and then as an editor for volumes 29–35. Along with Campbell and Christianson, Elizabeth Sutherland, with the project since 1999 and now editor, Jonathan Wild, editor, and Jane Roberts, associate editor, complete the current editorial roster in Edinburgh.
After Sanders’s retirement as general editor in 1980, Clyde de L. Ryals (1928–1998), a Duke University professor who had made his reputation as a Browning and Tennyson scholar, became managing editor and then a senior editor, serving for volumes 10–27. After Ryals’s death in 1998, Duke University Press appointed David Southern, his assistant, as managing editor. Also at this time, David R. Sorensen, St. Joseph’s University, replaced Ryals as the academic editor representing the Duke office. Sorensen continues to serve as a senior editor. In late 2000 Brent E. Kinser, Western Carolina University, joined the project as an editorial assistant. He now serves as an editor of the print edition and as the coordinating editor of the CLO.
From its inception in 1952, the Carlyle Letters Project has sought to present the correspondence of a marriage and an intellectual partnership in such a way that the letters themselves become a lens through which one may view many of the most interesting and important events and inhabitants of the nineteenth century. With the ongoing print version of the Collected Letters now at volume 40, with volume 41 forthcoming in November 2013, with volume 42 in production for publication in November 2014, with perhaps six volumes yet to come, and with Duke University Press fully committed to the completion of the edition, there is much work being done, and there is much work to be done.
In both Scotland and the United States, the editors continue to work diligently to finish the scholarly achievement that Sanders envisioned more than a half century ago. New light continues to be shed on this remarkable couple and their century; letters continue to be checked and rechecked on both sides of the Atlantic; previously missing or unknown letters continue to be discovered and published; allusions by the Carlyles to obscure family members and events of their day continue to be tracked down and documented.
In other words, progress continues apace toward the completion of what Robert Nye has called “a monumental undertaking” (The Scotsman, 26 July 2003), what A. N. Wilson has called a “great” edition (The Telegraph, 20 May 2003), and what Simon Heffer has called a “magnificent work in progress” (The Spectator, 24 May 2003).
For more on the history of the print edition, see the introduction to volumes 1–4; see also Charles Richard Sanders, “A Brief History of the Duke-Edinburgh Edition of the Carlyle Letters,” Studies in Scottish Literature 17 (1982): 1–12.
Purchasing the Duke-Edinburgh Edition
Print copies of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle are available for ordering at Duke University Press.