We recently made a very small but slightly unusual archival acquisition, in the form of a rather unassuming empty envelope.
Addressed ‘To the Author of Mary Barton’, it is signed by T. Carlyle and dated 8 November 1848.
The sender was, of course, the historian and man of letters, Thomas Carlyle, and the intended recipient Elizabeth Gaskell, whose first novel Mary Barton had been published on 25 October that year. The novel powerfully portrayed the lives of the Manchester cotton operatives and was based on Gaskell’s own personal observations of, and acquaintance with, working families in Manchester.
She was concerned at the plight of these families, and at the lack of communication and understanding she perceived between the mill-owners and their employees. She used her novel to give the urban factory workers a voice – making extensive use of Lancashire dialect speech – and to argue for social reconciliation.
The novel caused a sensation, and was both highly praised and fiercely criticised. Her frank depiction of the factory owners led many to feel that they had been attacked and misrepresented. Gaskell had predicted this response, which was partly why she chose to publish the novel anonymously.
The letter that this envelope originally held was sent before the author’s identity became known, and it was directed to 186 The Strand – the address of Gaskell’s publishers, Chapman and Hall. The envelope bears no postage marks, suggesting it was handed in at the office, perhaps by a messenger sent on Carlyle’s behalf. No other marks appear on the envelope aside from Carlyle’s seal on the reverse.
While mill-owners attacked Gaskell’s novel, in his letter Carlyle lent his voice to the body of writers and critics who praised the work – calling it a book ‘deserving to take its place far above the ordinary garbage of Novels’. While he had a low opinion of novels generally, he had a great interest in the social conditions of the Industrial Revolution, coining the phrase the ‘Condition of England Question’.
When Mary Barton came out, Gaskell asked for copies to be sent to writers she admired, Thomas Carlyle among them. We know that Carlyle’s letter was forwarded to Gaskell by Chapman and Hall, and was definitely in her hands by December 1848. In a letter to Edward Chapman dated 5 December she complained of the ‘impertinent and unjustifiable curiosity of people’ about the authorship of her novel, going on to say that ‘in the midst of all my deep and great annoyance, Mr Carlyle’s letter has been most valuable; and has given me almost the only unmixed pleasure I have yet received from the publication of MB’.
Despite the secrecy surrounding its authorship, Carlyle suspected that the novel was by a woman, opening his letter ‘Dear Madam’, and claiming to ‘catch the treble of that fine melodious voice very well.’ Gaskell believed that Carlyle may have heard her name mentioned by the Hollands (her mother’s family).
Gaskell was an avid autograph collector and was always ready to pass on letters written by well-known figures to other friends and acquaintances. However, Carlyle’s letter of 8 November 1848 was clearly treasured, and now forms part of a collection containing several hundred letters sent to, or collected by, Gaskell and her husband, from many prominent figures of the day – including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin and Florence Nightingale. The letters were bequeathed to the John Rylands Library by Gaskell’s daughter Meta, who died in 1913, and they were presented by her executors in the 1930s.
At what point Carlyle’s letter (Rylands English MS 730/14) became separated from the envelope that originally contained it remains a mystery. Gaskell’s publishers, Chapman and Hall, may have forwarded the letter to Gaskell as part of a larger package and retained the envelope. Alternatively, given her love of autograph hunting, Gaskell may have given away the envelope (with Carlyle’s precious signature) to another collector. Whatever happened, it ultimately made its way into a private collection and has only now come to light again. Its peregrinations during the past 150 years or so may never become known – but it has finally reached a permanent resting place, reunited with its original contents.
We are indebted to David Southern, Managing Editor of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, for bringing the envelope to our attention. You can view the full text of the letter – along with many others – on the excellent Carlyle Letters website.