Founded by private subscription in 1841, the London Library was the brainchild of Thomas Carlyle, a serious man. For its 150th anniversary, the present guardians of the London Library have chosen an eminent comedian, John Wells, to write their celebratory history. The sage of Chelsea would not have been amused. But then, nothing did amuse him. He seems to have been immune to such essentially human feelings. Carlyle happened to be in the library in 1875 when Bryan Courthope Hunt - the child of a famously irregular marriage - chose to commit suicide there. Hunt had asked at the issue desk for the second volume of George Henry Lewes's Problems of Life and Mind but discovered that it was out. Lewes's wife had been his father's mistress, which may have had something to do with the tragedy that followed. The young man went to the Magazine Room, where he shot himself in the head with a Derringer pistol, then reloaded and did it again. This led to a quarter of an hour's hiatus in library services while the dying member was discreetly removed to Charing Cross Hospital and the blood and brains mopped up. Carlyle, who witnessed the confusion and was told what had happened, showed no symptoms of emotion, and went up to the Reading Room, instructing the librarian to fetch the book he had ordered (the second volume of Motley's The Rise of the Dutch Republic), adding as an afterthought: 'Another of Thornton Hunt's bastards gone.' (In point of fact, Bryan was legitimate; it was his half-siblings by Lewes's wife who were bastards.) According to another version of the same story, Carlyle burst into a rage, shouting: 'Nice to think I can't get my papers just because some confounded relative of Leigh Hunt has gone and shot himself.' 'Rage' seems less likely than absolute indifference to human suffering where access to his books was involved.
LRB 26 September 1991 | PDF Download