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Froude’s Life of Carlyle

Abridged and Edited by John Clubbe

Perhaps no biographer has ever had so much manuscript material by and about his subject as did James Anthony Froude when he undertook to write the life of Thomas Carlyle. The four-volume work that resulted from his labors attests that he drew heavily on the mass of letters, journals, and reminiscences that Carlyle left him.

The biography’s formidable length and the criticisms leveled against it on publication in 1882 and 1884 that it was inaccurate and slipshod, that it presented a flawed portrait of Carlyle, have served over the years to discourage all but the most dedicated students of the Victorian period from tackling it. Professor Clubbe regrets that the allegations against Froude have never been satisfactorily answered and that the biography has been relegated to undeserved obscurity. His introduction by focusing on Froude’s art and technique offers, in effect, a substantially new interpretation of the author’s purpose in writing the biography. It is Professor Clubbe’s opinion that Froude’s Life is one of the two or three truly great biographies in the English language.

This abridgment reduces by more than one-half the nearly two thousand pages of the original through judicious pruning of the lengthy quotations from Carlyle and others (one extract alone runs to almost thirty pages) that the conventions of Victorian biographical practice led Froude to include and that disrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. Happily, too, Professor Clubbe is able to demonstrate conclusively that though Froude often got punctuation wrong and copied words incorrectly, he rarely distorted the sense of what he quoted: almost all quoted passages that remain are given in accurate texts. The shrill protests of Carlye’s niece and nephew notwithstanding. Froude’s assessment of his subject’s character is intelligent, informed, and responsible—weighted, no doubt, by sympathy for Mrs. Carlyle, but not malicious, nor essentially unjust to Carlyle.

In a real sense, then, Professor Clubbe has restored to literature and to our appreciation a masterpiece long hidden. His notes clarify obscure matters, indicate discoveries of later scholarship, and try to answer obvious questions that the reader is likely to have. By freeing Froude’s text (almost all of which he retains) from the excessive documentation of the Victorian “life and letters,” he makes it accessible to the modern reader, who will find, to his profit and perhaps to his surprise, that whether his interest is in biography as a genre, the nineteenth century in general, or specifically in Carlyle, few books have more to teach him than Froude’s Life of that most eminent of Victorians.

John Clubbe is professor of English at the University of Kentucky.

1979 725 pp. 48 illustrations This title is no longer available in a traditional print edition. Click here for free access to the book’s full text.