The nineteenth-century writer Thomas de Quincey once wrote that if you wanted to read the best English prose of his day, you should mug a postman and make off with all the letters written in feminine handwriting. Fortunate indeed the person who purloined the letters of a woman of De Quincey’s acquaintance, Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801–66). And that’s not just my opinion: she is now identified by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as almost indisputably the “greatest woman letter writer in English.” Margaret Oliphant, the novelist and a younger friend of Jane Carlyle—she is mentioned in the last letter Jane wrote—noted that her correspondence kept “half-a-dozen men of letters—the best of their time, Mill, Darwin, Forster, many more—in delighted attention.” In Oliphant’s view, Jane Carlyle’s letters show her to be a woman “of observation lively and keen, of whimsical humour, and a gift of self-revelation as rare as it is delightful.” She was not always likable—with her “constant caustic, sharp-biting criticism, her indisposition to run in the rut of ordinary opinions, her jibes and satirical vein,” she could sometimes be “a puzzle and pain” to her friends. Nonetheless her “infinite variety of moods”—“of intolerance and patience, of kindness, irritability, quick anger, love, enthusiasm, cynicism”—helped make her a “keen-sighted critic, so independent and outspoken in her judgment.” In short: a “woman of genius.” But ever since Jane Welsh had been a precocious and determined little girl the question has been: a genius of what?

This is the pea-sized irritant lying under the mattresses of Kathy Chamberlain’s new partial life of Jane Carlyle—partial because Chamberlain focuses on just five years (1843–48), and partial, too, out of genuine but not distorting affection for her subject. Chamberlain’s surface story, however, is a pleasantly idiosyncratic traversal of both the century’s and Jane’s forties. Past is Jane’s relatively privileged upbringing in Scotland as the intelligent only child of a doctor who arranged for her to have the discipline of the classical education usually reserved for boys. She later recalled a formative moment in her education, which reflects both her childhood passion and her adult wry perspective. When she was nine, an admired adult (I suspect her tutor, the inspirational Edward Irving) teased her that a girl studying Virgil should be too old to play with dolls. Putting childish things behind her with a vengeance, she built a funeral pyre:

this new Dido, being placed in the bed with my help, spoke through my lips the sad last words of Dido the First, which I had then all by heart . . . . [I]n the moment of seeing my poor doll blaze up . . . in that supreme moment my affection for her blazed up also and I shrieked and would have saved her . . . and went on shrieking till everybody within hearing flew to me and bore me off in a plunge of tears—an epitome of most of one’s “heroic sacrifices,” it strikes me, magnanimously resolved on, ostentatiously gone about, repented of at the last moment, and bewailed with an outcry.

Carlyle had generous and intense friendships.

When Chamberlain picks up Jane’s story, Jane and Thomas Carlyle had known each other for almost twenty years, about ten of which they’d spent in London fitting themselves in literary circles—Jane’s charm, for instance, inspired Leigh Hunt to write the equally charming little poem “Jenny Kiss’d Me.” Their marriage was childless, and, while Thomas was writing, Jane filled much of her time as an intensely loyal and practical encourager to people in difficulties—most famously Giuseppe Mazzini who had been in exile in London since 1837, but also to powerless people such as two Germans: a governess whom she hosted for long periods and several times helped to a job, including one with the Home Secretary; and a young revolutionary exile who went mad and was incarcerated at Wandsworth Lunatic Asylum. Jane enlisted her friend Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s older brother) as respectable cover when she went there to extricate him. Somewhat surprisingly, the fusspotty Thomas, hypersensitive to the disturbances caused by neighborhood dogs, roosters, and little girls practicing the piano, generously agreed to have the recovering madman stay with them; in this self-denying offer, Thomas was, as Jane remarked, “good as he always is on great occasions.” Behaving generously was usually Jane’s bailiwick, although in letters to friends, as Oliphant notes, she often “darted forth . . . a complaint, as most of us do.” She had generous and intense friendships, particularly with Geraldine Jewsbury, a younger woman beginning to write book reviews and novels which Jane helped edit.

Most of the rest of Jane’s time was taken up in keeping house. Victorian houses required a lot of hard work, of course, and wives had plenty to oversee and tasks of their own, but in middle-class houses servants did the most back-breaking and monotonous drudgery. Thea Holme’s book The Carlyles at Home ends with a nine-page small-type appendix of the servants who passed through their small Cheyne Row house in the thirty-two years the couple lived there, excluding temps and chars but including thirty-four maids and “an old half dead cook.” And yet Jane Carlyle could often be found on her knees nailing carpets, on the ladder whiting the curtain rods, sewing the interminable seams on full-length curtains, dying old blankets to patch the corners of the drawing-room carpet, coping with bedbugs. Why? Chamberlain identifies Jane’s marriage to a man of persnickety fastidiousness (Thomas “considered [it] a sin against the Holy Ghost to set a chair or a plate two inches off the spot they have been used to stand on!”), her Scottish thrift-verging-on-parsimony, and her conviction, almost certainly correct, that she could do any job better than most servants.

Jane found—or made—it a constant battle: “ever since [a new maid] came the house has been like a sort of battle of Waterloo—and when I lie down at night it is with something of the same feeling Napoleon must have had when he went to sleep (I forget where) under the fire of the Enemy’s cannon!” Jane tended to embark on major household work when Thomas was away and then would write to amuse him about what would not have amused him in situ. Her comic animadversions on household matters are epic: “For the next few days I should have something like the sack of Troy on my hands. The sweeps are here, and the whitewashers, and the carpet-beaters! and myself is at this moment all over breadcrumbs, from cleaning the parlor papers, and—and—and—.”

In a letter to Thomas before their marriage, Jane had anticipated the problems that housework and her attitude toward it might cause: “[Marriage] would . . . expose me to petty tribulations which I want to despise [such as housework] and which, not despised, would embitter the peace of us both.” Jane’s complaints, usually comic, sometimes bitter, about her husband and her household tasks have misled many of her readers into thinking she disliked both. Oliphant wisely recognized the Carlyles’ bond: “There were times when they could with difficulty live together; and yet there was never a time when they could have done without each other.” With equal wisdom Chamberlain recognizes Jane’s pride in her housewifely skill, not least in luxuriating in her thrifty determination to turn her daily experiences with servants to amusing epistolary account.

Even the industrious Jane occasionally found it trying to be married to the Apostle of the Gospel of Work, and presumably Thomas, an expert on heroism, did not always appreciate being thought wanting. In the summer of 1845, Chamberlain writes, “a dark vertical line might be drawn through Jane’s life to indicate when the richness of her sparkling London existence was put in jeopardy.” Thomas was taken up by an intellectually minded and lushly beautiful society hostess, Lady Harriet Baring. Her emollient attentions soothed his prickles; her lavish households were studded with silent servants; her company rather than Jane’s filled his evenings and weekends. There is no doubt that this crisis fractured Jane’s marriage and her conception of herself. When Thomas had courted her for five years, she had been the catch: witty, intellectually serious, pretty, richer. Now, even on the occasions that she accompanied Thomas to Lady Harriet’s, she felt left behind. In return, she left behind some letters and notebooks into which she vented her frustrations with him—everything from his constant niggly complaints to the social engagements and mental abstractions that brought an end to the shared occupations of their early married life, talking about German philosophy and learning Spanish together in order to read Don Quixote.

Chamberlain recognizes Jane’s pride in her housewifely skill.

Many, perhaps even most, writers on the Carlyles range themselves against Thomas at this point, but Chamberlain eschews the flattened portrait of a “self-sacrificing Jane Welsh who suffered from a tyrannical Thomas Carlyle”—a portrait we have inherited, ironically, from Thomas himself. After Jane’s sudden death, while he had been away, Carlyle found and read her notebooks. He couldn’t forgive himself. When he learned, for instance, that while he had been working on his magnum opus she had groused “Life is too monotonous, and too dreary in the valley of the shadow of Frederick the Great!,” he flagellated himself: “My darling must have suffered much in all this; how much! . . . the heroic, the thrice noble, and wholly loving soul!” As penance he prepared a way for them to be literarily if not literally together in death, but now with Jane as the dominant spirit: her text, his footnotes and annotations. He entrusted his friend J. A. Froude to publish a two-volume self-excoriation after his death as Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle.

Jane Carlyle worked hard at her letter-writing. Paralleling Thomas’s sessions in his study, she’d retreat for days at a time to her bedroom. More than two thousand of her letters survive, and they still make good, often great, reading—mercurial rather than slapdash, artfully spontaneous. Writing to writers put her on her mettle and she excelled at “set-pieces” of dramatized description showing impressive quicksilver shifts of tone and character.

So it’s not surprising that many people have thought of her as an unfulfilled talent, a novelist manquée perhaps. Chamberlain wonders, too: “Could she or should she have written directly for publication, as several of her closest friends did?” Jane was married to a man who forged his own literary category from book reviewer to incandescent historian to prophet and sage. Why did Jane never find or make a niche as her quirky husband did? Her admirers over the last 150 years have come up with some reasons: she was married to a demanding man, she had domestic responsibilities, ill-health, not enough money, a bit too much money . . . And yet married women with children and hard-working husbands managed to write (Elizabeth Gaskell), as did women with writer-husbands (Mary Howitt and Frances Ternan Trollope), widows with children (Margaret Oliphant), impecunious unmarried childless women (the Brontë sisters), and even invalids (Elizabeth Barrett Browning). England had a significant tradition of women poets and novelists, and there was a growing number of women reviewers (Oliphant and Jewsbury) and writers on brainy topics (Harriet Martineau) and philosophic translation (George Eliot). Jane Carlyle knew all these women; she didn’t lack models or an encouraging sisterhood.

Why did Jane never find or make a niche as her quirky husband did?

Chamberlain provides plenty of data points to hypothesize with. I might hazard a few shots: Perhaps she had become too comfortable being clever in a warm circle of discerning friends but dreaded to prove herself to a chilly multitude. Perhaps, although she liked to think of herself as a bold revolutionary—the heartfelt confidante of Mazzini—she finally couldn’t let go of respectability. Perhaps, despite her excellent literary judgment, she didn’t like to imagine herself in the background as a publisher’s reader or didn’t have the energy to shape her skills organizing shambolic people as a social-working reformer. The cause could have been a mismatch of temperament and genre: the speed and camaraderie of letter-writing are almost the antitheses of the solitary accretions of literary or scholarly discipline. There were very few occasions, Chamberlain points out, when Jane Carlyle worked on a second draft.

As I sententiously tell my children, the difference between doing something and not doing something is doing something. In general I am impatient with questions about Jane Carlyle’s possibly lost career—it reminds me of the attitude of Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh towards playing the piano: “If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.” There’s no shame in being the best female letter-writer in English. It would, however, be a real shame if Jane Carlyle lives on not in the talents she proved but mainly as a warning symbol of patriarchal frustration. Chamberlain’s book provides the seeds for a corrective.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 1, on page 72
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