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Woman of Letters – Scottish Review of Books
Jane Welsh Carlyle: Barely a day went by when she didn’t write a letter.

Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World

Kathy Chamberlain
Duckworth Overlook, £25, ISBN: 9780715651650, PP384
by Rosemary Goring

Woman of Letters

June 10, 2017 | by Rosemary Goring

The figure of Thomas Carlyle looms over the Victorian literary scene like a giant from the imagination of George MacDonald. The Sage of Ecclefechan, whose spiritual memoir Sartor Resartus and magisterial The French Revolution – famously rewritten after the original manuscript was accidentally thrown on the fire – was a pivotal link between the Romantic and Regency ages, and Victorian times. It was said that he had ‘knocked out his window from the blind wall of his century,’ allowing people to see ‘the new sun’. George Eliot remarked that, ‘There is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings, there has hardly been an English book written for the last ten or twelve years that would not have been different if Carlyle had not lived.’

In his own lifetime, however, even his closest friends and admirers recognized that he could not be an easy man to live with. As one woman remarked, to be married to him would be ‘something next worse to being married to Satan himself’. When a German friend told him that in her country women were asking for equality in law, he cried: ‘God bless me! First the women, next the dogs!’ His views on slavery and the abolitionist cause were even more repellent. Testy, moody, demanding, but also funny and affectionate, he has lived down the decades since his death in 1881 as vividly as Abel Magwitch or Edward Casaubon.

But what of his wife? The witty, sharp-tongued and exceedingly capable Jane Welsh Carlyle has been portrayed in countless biographies as a match for her husband’s mind and spirits, but typically and tragically subservient. Constrained by convention, she was obliged to nurture Thomas’s immense talents at the expense of her own, to tolerate his combustible, quixotic temperament while setting aside her own ambitions. Reading most accounts of the Carlyle household is to assume that had they been living today, their union might have ended in divorce. Yet according to Jane’s latest biographer, the American writer Kathy Chamberlain, to accept that interpretation of one of the most famous marriages of the nineteenth century is to do a great disservice to Jane, as well as to Thomas. (Though one suspects she is a great deal less bothered about any damage done to his reputation, and might possibly think he deserves it.)

Instead of rehashing the whole life, Chamberlain concentrates on the period 1840 to 1849, the decade in which Jane Welsh Carlyle, who was born in 1801, began to shape her ideas and aspirations. The author describes her purview as being ‘Jane Carlyle’s unfolding, the story of her development as a woman and a writer,’ and the pleasing result is a work in which the spritely Victorian woman’s voice and personality rise from the page as if she were alive today. In this Chamberlain is aided by her use of the present tense when drawing on scenes described in Jane’s letters, giving them an immediacy of which Jane would no doubt approve. Although Chamberlain tells us the essentials – Jane’s upbringing in her beloved doctor father’s home in Haddington, East Lothian, her marriage in 1826 to the humbly born but incandescent genius Thomas from Dumfries and Galloway, and their eventual moving to London in 1834 – we are spared the doleful last chapters of a conventional biography in which decline and death lie in wait. This tightly focussed and lively framing device is thereby doubly effective, leaving the reader invigorated, and inspired.

It would, of course, be hard to write a book about Jane, quoting liberally from her letters as Chamberlain does, without an infusion of fun, not to mention vivid and occasionally mischievous social and political commentary. The author’s voice, however, fits well with her subject’s, and while there could not be a more enthusiastic or sympathetic champion of this not always easy woman, no whiff of hagiography spoils the venture, and the rare notes of hero-worship can be chalked up to understandable zeal.

Jane emerges both as an individual and as an exemplar of the difficulties clever middle-class women faced. Using her copious letters – there was barely a day when she did not write to at least one relative, or friend – Chamberlain draws a colourful picture of the Cheyne Row house, near the reek of the Thames – ‘tar and sewage and salt’ – and Jane’s natural home-making skills. We see her boiling worms out of a chair’s horsehair stuffing, nailing down carpets, supervising annual redecorating, and dealing with the couple’s remarkable maid of all work, Helen. A petite woman from Kirkcaldy, Helen had, in Thomas’s estimation, ‘an intellectual insight almost as of genius’. She also had a drink problem, and during the worst sessions would have to be locked in her room until she sobered up.

Helen is only one of the supporting cast in a book teeming with intelligent women, notably Jane’s dear friend the emancipated novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Another is a young and hapless German governess, Amely Bolte who, it becomes clear, was madly in love with her mentor and with whom, later in the decade, Jane exchanged letters whose tone raises questions about what form her own feelings might have taken in return. As well as the couple’s closest friends, who included Jane’s confidante Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary, Cheyne Row was renowned for its exalted visitors, from the likes of the tongue-tied Alfred Tennyson, to Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. These were names to fill the autograph book, but their guests felt equally honoured to be invited by the most august and engaging literary couple in town.

While Jane’s letters were passed around a wide circle, they were never published. Indeed, in her lifetime her copious writing did not result in anything reaching the press. Thomas, who was a constant supporter and encourager, once asked, ‘is a thing nothing because the Morning Papers have not mentioned it?’ Certainly, Jane’s reputation as a first-class letter writer elevated her to a position of fascination in her own right, and shows the discernment of her peers, who immediately recognized her literary gifts. ‘In her letter writing,’ Chamberlain comments, ‘Jane often exhibits the clear-seeing eye of a socially observant English novelist.’ The comparison she makes with Jane Austen is inevitable: ‘both are sharply observant, humorous, ironic, and morally astute’. But while their instincts may have been akin, the extracts from Jane’s letters show she could not match Austen’s remarkable concision, nor her brilliant if chilly detachment. Perhaps Jane Carlyle would have agreed, for she once confessed: ‘I was meant to have been a subaltern of the Daily Press… a Penny-a-liner – for it is not only a faculty with me but a necessity of my nature to make a great deal out of nothing!’

Sadly, as the thread that runs through this book shows, any hope of becoming a professional writer was, for someone in Jane’s position, if not impossible, then daunting. She did have female friends who made their living from their pen, but they were unusual. Far more passed the hours genteelly deploying their needle. The early Victorian age is a lesson for those who believe in unstoppable progress. Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, and uprisings across Europe and beyond, Britain narrowed its mind. By the 1830s and 40s, it was as if Mary Wollstonecraft had never written her Vindication of the Rights of Women. More in tune with the repressive public mood was Sarah Stickney Ellis’s tract, The Wives of England: Relative Duties, Domestic Influence, and Social Obligations (1843). In this she cautioned that she who marries ‘has voluntarily placed herself in such a position that she must necessarily be her husband’s inferior’.

There is no opportunity for Chamberlain to do more than suggest that Jane, like too many intellectually frustrated Victorian wives and daughters, suffered from ‘protective invalidism’, whose symptoms included disabling headaches that allowed them to retreat to their rooms. Therein, she suggests, is a rich theme for further study. There is little doubt that Jane’s stifled opportunities, and her complicated marriage contributed both to physical and mental anguish. What one might call the commonplace hiccups and grumblings of their situation, possibly exacerbated by childlessness, took an entirely new turn in the middle of the decade. June and July 1845, Chamberlain writes, ‘mark the point where 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.’

The cause was Thomas’s infatuation with Lady Harriet Baring, a stately aristocrat in whose sumptuous home he became such a familiar, as Jane told a friend, that ‘he has established a small permanent wardrobe there!’. This, despite both parties being married. A portrait of Lady Harriet shows an imposing figure with an expression trained to be sphinx-like. Jane described her as ‘immensely large’. Worse, she was to represent a serious and ongoing threat to the close relationship she and Thomas enjoyed. The distress he caused his wife by refusing to break all ties makes upsetting reading. While there is no evidence to confirm Thomas committed adultery, the passion in his letters to Lady Harriet – ‘Adieu, dear Lady mine, – mine yes, and yet forever no!’ – make such proof redundant. Whether or not it was physically consummated, theirs was a disloyal bond that no loving wife could have tolerated without heartache. Letters flew over these anguished years between husband and wife ‘as if to the tick of a metronome’, but those that touch on their torment capture only a fragment of the pair’s feelings. None is to Thomas’s credit, whose thoughtlessness, or heartlessness, is hard to fathom.

What followed, naturally enough, was a cooling of Jane towards her husband that very possibly helped her think more clearly for and about herself. There is no resounding finale to this book, no magnificent literary outcome for its heroine, despite the implicit promise early on that Jane’s quest to find her creative niche will come good. Instead, it draws to a close shortly after Jane makes a solitary pilgrimage back to Haddington, in the summer of 1849. That bittersweet return to her happy childhood home inspired an essay, ‘’Much ado about nothing’, which, when posthumously published, showed what she was made of. In addition, ‘She became one of the best letter writers in the English language – accomplishment enough.’

By its end, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World has evoked its subject with something close to brilliance. Speaking of his work on Oliver Cromwell, Thomas opined that ‘Only what you at last have living in your own heart is worth putting down to be printed; this alone has much chance to get into the living heart and memory of other men.’ He might have been speaking of Chamberlain’s method, because she presents Jane Carlyle as if there is no barrier between her and us, allowing her to walk straight into our presence. By turns a sparkling social history and the story of a marriage in crisis, this is also a penetrating glimpse of a tremulous point in attitudes towards women and what they could and should be allowed to achieve. This reader remains to be convinced that Jane was not cruelly confined by her circumstances, not least Thomas’s divided romantic attentions, and that an early biographer’s description of her suffering ‘a life of pain’ is entirely misguided. What Chamberlain has done, however, and superbly, is to show that Jane was vividly present during the difficulties she and her husband faced, and refused to accept them meekly. Her unbowed spirit, and her never-still pen saved her from the dreadful fate of married martyrdom, a charge that can now be wiped from the slate.

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