Gavan Duffy’s Conversations With Carlyle (1892)

by Mark Wallace

One of Carlyle’s more interesting, as well as more enduring, friendships was with Charles Gavan Duffy, Irish nationalist and later Australian politician. On the surface, such a friendship seems unlikely. Carlyle was not an advocate for Irish independence, but very much the reverse:

The Irish National character is degraded, disordered; till this recover itself, nothing is yet recovered. Immethodic, headlong, violent, mendacious: what can you make of the wretched Irishman? “A finer people never lived,” as the Irish lady said to us; “only they have two faults, they do generally lie and steal: barring these”—! A people that knows not to speak the truth, and to act the truth, such people has departed from even the possibility of well-being. Such people works no longer on Nature and Reality; works now on Fantasm, Simulation, Nonentity; the result it arrives at is naturally not a thing but no-thing,—defect even of potatoes. Scarcity, futility, confusion, distraction must be perennial there. Such a people circulates not order but disorder, through every vein of it. (Chartism, 1839, Ch. 4)

Yet though Carlyle was fairly consistent in his denunciations of the Irish character, and in the Carlylean heirarchy of races the Irish was somewhere near the bottom, he enjoyed a certain amount of popularity with the Young Ireland movement (see Dugger, Julie M. “Black Ireland’s Race: Thomas Carlyle and the Young Ireland Movement.” Victorian Studies 48.3 (2006)). Anti-Irish as we was, his outspoken denunciation of existing ideal of material progress and capitalist economics, as well as the  notions of instinctive morality on which his doctrines rested (as opposed to the dominant utilitarian principles of John Stuart Mill, et al., in which morality was worked out through rational principles) apparently made them view him as a potential ally. When Duffy was tried for seditious conspiracy in the later 1840s, Carlyle wrote to him letters of support, support not so much for Duffy’s cause as for the man himself, as a person of industry, sincerity and good sense, though he did not come out publicly in favour of Duffy.

Duffy later moved to Victoria, Australia, became a politician, and was much-loved by Victoria’s large Irish population. His friendship with Carlyle survived an they corresponded intermittently and met whenever Duffy was in London. After Carlyle’s death, Duffy witnessed the decline of his reputation, and determined to set down a picture of Carlyle as he knew him: not the cranky, selfish and self-pitying individual of Froude’s biography, but a caring, good-tempered and humorous man, one a good deal more tolerant than his public writings showed.
Duffy’s Conversations with Carlyle (1892), based on notes the author made of conversations at various times from the 1840s to the late 70s, and Carlyle’s own letters, is the anti-Froude. He manages to paint Carlyle as a fairly engaging and humorous character. Witness the following:

One Sunday, walking to Battersea Park with two or three friends, one of whom since became a judge and another was an eminent man of letters, we came on a street preacher haranguing a mob at the top of his voice: “Will you open your ears to the word of God, my brethren?”  he cried: “Do you accept this message which I bring you from the fountain of living truth?”

“Not altogether, my friend, if you insist upon knowing,” Carlyle whispered with comical emphasis when we had passed the preacher. (Conversations with Carlyle, 220)

Carlyle’s sly irreverence is funny, though perhaps less so when seen in the context of Carlyle’s own uncompromising fanaticism, and his own pretensions to setting out “the Eternal Law of things” (Carlyle, loc 220); he was hardly in a position to mock the pretensions of the preacher. That was the contradiction of Carlyle: so alive to the absurdities of speech and thought in others, yet himself guilty of far greater extravagance than any. The modern reader is probably aware of Carlyle, if at all, as the fanatic and intolerant preacher, but he was also something of a humorist. Not that that really excuses his excesses, but it helps explain his great popularity and influence. Sometimes the humorist and the prophet come together in a strange, almost grotesque, amalgam – see for example the “Specimen of an Harangue” reproduced by Duffy. Lazy, simplistic and self-indulgent as political commentary, this harangue is greatly enlivened by the metaphorical form in which Carlyle delivers his message: a conversation with his horse, the “worthy quadruped” who wishes to go to Greenwich when his owner intends to be taken in “a quite other direction” (Duffy, 183). (The horse stands for the common herd, who must be driven, not allowed to lead. Carlyle’s point is that democracy sucks.) The humour is missing from Froude’s account, but is central to Duffy’s defence of Carlyle as a man. Carlyle himself would have insisted on the seriousness of his message, but sometimes it is better to see him as a self-parodist. He was what Matthew Arnold called him: “Part man of genius, part fanatic – and part Tom-fool!” (Heffer, 274).

Carlyle, Thomas, Latter-Day Pamphlets (Kindle: Amazon, 2011)

Duffy, Sir Charles Gavan. Conversations with Carlyle (London: Sampson Low, 1892). [Also available online at the Internet Archive]

Heffer, Simon, Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle (London: Phoenix-Orion, 1996)