cover image Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle

Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle

Simon Heffer, Rudolf Steiner. George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $29.95 (420pp) ISBN 978-0-297-81564-8

Few eminent Victorians were as unlikable, unreadable or miserable as Thomas Carlyle. Heffer, his newest biographer-a London newspaper editor whose first biography this is-concedes this in his bicentenary life. Carlyle (1796-1881) was selfish, obsessive, morose and mean-spirited, especially to his long-suffering wife, Jane, with whom he apparently never consummated his marriage of 40 years. Although Carlyle would be an appropriate subject for a pathography, Heffer does not attempt one. For him, the dark side of Carlyle's genius is the price paid for the work, written in ""an abrupt, exclamatory and interjectional manner"" that often reads at its most accessible like a literal translation from the German. But ""Carlylese""-its ""strings of breathless clauses interrupted by semi-colons""-proved a successful strategy for marketing German history and philosophy to 19th-century English readers. The first volume of his ""apostrophic history"" of the French Revolution, however, had to be rewritten after it was inadvertently burned by a maid. An influence even on writers who rejected the undemocratic ideas he promoted in dozens of polemics, Carlyle also wrote idiosyncratic yet popular lives of Cromwell and Frederick the Great. So conservative that he not only upheld autocrats but condoned slavery, he approved of welfare for the poor if it kept them quiescent. After years of financial struggle that exacerbated an already cranky personality, he earned more from his writing then he cared to spend. Carlyle comes alive in the present work less for his literary impact than for his gross neglect of his increasingly neurotic, ailing and drugged wife. Only in his self-pitying guilt after her death did he acknowledge her love. Although Heffer had access to more of Carlyle's correspondence than did past biographers, the portrait of the writer as reclusive despot remains unchanged. Illustrations. (Dec.)