Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring Thomas Carlyle

The historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was an inveterate annotator who had no

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

business to be writing on books that did not belong to him. Nonetheless, Senate House Library has reason to be grateful for the fact that he did. The first edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s narrative poem Aurora Leigh (1857) is a drab production – but the Senate House Library copy has been considerably enlivened by having been annotated throughout by Thomas Carlyle, in typically acerbic fashion. These annotations have been reproduced in full in The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, vol. 32: October 1856-July 1857 (Durham [N.C.] and London: Duke University Press, 2004). But nothing substitutes for seeing his handwriting next to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s text: for example, as he urges ‘don’t!’when the protagonist says it is ‘too easy to go mad’, or as he sums up his view at the end of Book I of the poem: ‘How much better had all this been if written straight forward in clear prose utterance.’

            The treasures volume sometimes corrected long-held misconceptions. The compiler of the printed catalogue of Sir Louis Sterling’s library (1954), to which this copy of Aurora Leigh belongs, suggested that Mary Aitken, Carlyle’s niece and housekeeper (1848-95), had lent the book to Carlyle. Prof. Rosemary Ashton pointed out the impossibility of this hypothesis, Mary having been only eight years old at the time. The letters, not generally available when the printed catalogue was being compiled, reveal that the book had apparently been sent to Carlyle by his brother John from Dumfriesshire.


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