Years after Carlyle dubbed Panizzi a fat pedant, the highest office in the Museum, the so-called Principal Librarianship, fell vacant. Two names were submitted to the Queen from which to select one for the post: those of Panizzi and the accomplished Anglo-Saxon scholar, John Mitchell Kemble. Lord Palmerston was Prime Minister, and through his correspondence with Cavour and other Italian statesmen, Panizzi had been serviceable to him and Lord Clarendon. Doubtless, it was at the instance of Lord Palmerston that the Queen appointed Panizzi to the most important literary office in the gift of the Crown, and far more important than the Laureateship. The origin and progress of controversy between Panizzi and Carlyle were the following:
While Carlyle was writing his history of the French Revolution, he contributed to the Westminster Review an article 'Histories of the French Revolution' on the materials accessible for the composition of a book on that great theme, with some trenchant criticisms on such of his predecessors in the attempt as Thiers and Mignet. In the course of the article he mentioned the existence in Paris of a vast collection of the pamphlets, newspapers, broad-sheets, and even street placards which were issued in the French capital day by day, as the Revolution evolved itself. Then he subjoined the following note:
'It is generally known that a similar collection, perhaps still larger and more curious, lies buried in the British Museum here, inaccessible for want of a proper catalogue. Some fifteen months ago the respectable Sub-librarian seemed to be working on such a thing. By respectful application to him you could gain access to his room, and have the satisfaction of mounting on ladders and reading the outside titles of his books, which, the satirical Carlyle adds, was a great help.
After 'weary months of waiting' for greater help than this, Carlyle gave up dancing attendance on Panizzi, as, he wrote, 'a game not worth the candle'.
Panizzi never forgave Carlyle this caustic comment on his procedure. It was offensive enough to find himself represented as in his official capacity as the head of the National Library obstructing the progress of a great historical work. But still more offensive, in his eyes, was in all probability the designation of 'respectable Sub-librarian', applied to the high and mighty Keeper of the Printed Books in the British Museum, a man who dined at Holland House, who was intimate with Macaulay and Brougham; with the leading Whig statesmen of the day and Mr. Panizzi, etc.' closing the lists, in the Morning Post, of guests at numbers of aristocratic receptions in London. Panizzi resented ever afterwards the sarcastic note in the Westminster Review, as Carlyle found to his cost when he came to write his Cromwell. He would fain have consulted somewhere, in the quiet interior recesses of the Museum Library, the unique collection it contains of pamphlets and so forth issued in London from day to day during the great English Civil War of the seventeenth century and the Protectorate which followed it. The 'respectable Sub-librarian' would not hear of such a concession, and Carlyle was left, with what assistance he could command, to do his best in the crowded and incommodious reading-room of those days . . . Carlyle detailed his grievance when giving evidence — very interesting and instructive, sometimes even entertaining — before the Royal Commission subsequently appointed to inquire into the affairs of the British Museum, and he mentioned as one of his reasons for wishing to escape from the reading-room into the interior of the library that he was 'thin-skinned'. Panizzi retorted in his evidence that he 'did not feel readers' skins'. Years afterwards, and deep in the composition of Frederick, Carlyle renewed his application, in a letter to Panizzi, which was for him not only calm but conciliatory. All the return he received was a reply from the vindictive Italian so insolent that Panizzi's biographer and panegyrist refrained from printing it. The great Lady Ashburton herself was applied to, to exert on behalf of Carlyle's application her influence with Panizzi, whom she knew, but the appearance on the scene of even this Dea ex machina was fruitless. . . . Clothed in a little brief authority, and having completely gained the ear of the working members of the Museum's Board of Trustees, the fat pedant and Italian language-master proved more than a match for the Scottish man of genius.
From Francis Espinasse, Literary Recollections and Sketches (1893), pp. 190-2.