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Amateurs: Jane Carlyle

Jane Carlyle died suddenly one day, in her carriage. She was sixty-five years old and had been married to Thomas Carlyle for forty years. It seems, as we look back on it, that at the moment of her death the idea was born that she had somehow been the victim of Carlyle’s neglect. He thought as much and set out upon a large remorse, something like the “penance” of Dr. Johnson, although without the consolations of religion. The domestic torment the Carlyles endured in their long marriage is of a particular opacity because of the naturalness of so much of it, its origin in the mere strains of living. The conflicts were not of a remarkable kind, and domestic discontent was always complicated by other problems of temperament and by the unnerving immensity of Carlyle’s literary undertakings.

They were, first of all, persons who drifted in and out of unhappiness, within the course of a single day. Nothing in their lives was easy, and so at one minute they were weary of the yoke and the ‘next quite pleased with themselves. From their letters we can see an extraordinary closeness that took in all aspects of life, the literary as well as the domestic. A lot of letters went back and forth between them because of their pressing need for communication with each other. Except for a period in middle life their vexations were almost worth the pleasure of the telling of them.

They were very much a union. He is Mr. Carlyle and she is Mrs. Carlyle, entirely. Perhaps it is not quite accurate to say that theirs was the Victorian marriage; it was an imaginative confrontation from the beginning to the end. The center of the marriage was Carlyle’s lifelong, unremitting agony of literary creation, done at home, every pain and despair and hope, underfoot. Jane Carlyle’s genius, in her letters and in her character, was to turn his gigantism into a sort of domestic comedy, made out of bedbugs, carpets, soundproof rooms, and drunken serving girls. Just as the form and style of Carlyle’s works set no limit upon themselves, so she set limits upon everything. His grandiosities were accomplished in the midst of her minute particulars.

The bare facts of the French Revolution, of the life of Cromwell and all the others, were an exhausting accretion. And the style was also an exhaustion, strange, brilliant, the very words outlandish, outsized, epical. Carlyle had an exalted idea of his mission and of the power of literature. He thought of the writer as “an accident in society,” one who “wanders like a wild Ishmaelite, in a world of which he is the spiritual light, either the guidance or the misguidance! Certainly the Art of Writing is the most miraculous of all things man has devised. Odin’s Runes were the first form of the work of a Hero.” The capital letter and the exclamation point are Carlyle’s characteristic punctuation. Jane Carlyle’s signature is the quotation mark of mimicry. Thus the two natures stand in balance, breathing in the coal dust of London, suffering the insomnias, the dyspeptic cruelties of their porridge and potato diets, the colds and headaches, the wrung nerves of two strong and yet precariously organized persons.

Jane Carlyle’s letters, published after her death, are more brilliant, lively, and enduring than all except the best novels of the period.* She was so interesting a woman, such a good conversationalist, such an engaging storyteller that everyone was always urging her to write novels. Carlyle himself liked to say she had surrendered her own talents in order to help him to have his great career. Among her friends in London there were a number of women writers. Professional activity was not unthinkable or even especially daring—and she was childless and he was as busy as Thor up in his study. Imagining Mrs. Carlyle as a novelist is a natural extension of her letters with their little portraits of ordinary people, their gift with anecdote, their fluent delight in the common events of the day. But she lacks ambition and need—the psychic need for a creation to stand outside herself.

One of the most interesting things about Jane Carlyle is the predominance of the social in her character. Not Society in any sense of wordly advancement—it was on the ground of the “new aristocracy” that she later suffered wounds from her husband. The “social” with Jane Carlyle was her interest in the daily, in her chores and friends, in her love of gossip and her anxious housekeeping. She was born to live in London, having the sort of nature that took naturally to the city’s complaints of exhaustion, headache, and insomnia.

Still there was a good deal of the Scotch Calvinist in both of the Carlyles, and Scotland itself, their birth and youth there, was very much a part of their characters. Jane Carlyle kept from her provincial background a large store of Scottish witticisms and phrases, and a feeling for the eccentric and unexpected in ordinary persons. She had something of Dickens’s eye for the flow of characters in and out of her house, in the street, and also his ear for their characteristic emblems of speech. Dickens was much impressed with her and said when she died, “None of the writing women come near her at all.”

The fact of the Carlyles’ marriage to each other is somewhat unusual. Jane Welsh was an only child. Her father had been a doctor, and she and her widowed mother were important in the town of Haddington. She was thought to be clever and was used to having her own way. Carlyle’s family was poor and strict; his father was cold but somehow impressive and the children in the family turned out well. Carlyle himself was awkward, intense, and always special because of his large intellectual powers and ambitious concentration. His powers of mind were the stone upon which the lines and curves of an extravagant, eccentric nature were cut. A description of him, at the University of Edinburgh, before he met Jane Welsh:

Young Carlyle was distinguished at that time by the same peculiarities that still mark his character—sarcasm, irony, extravagance of sentiment, and a strong tendency to undervalue others, combined, however, with great kindness of heart and great simplicity of manners. His external figure…was tall, slender, awkward, not apparently very vigorous…. His speech copious and bizarre.

Jane Welsh’s acceptance of Carlyle seemed to rest upon her clear sense of his intellectual worth. She procrastinated, let him know her most serious and most capricious doubts. Her letters at this point are impudent, and she seems to feel the courage of her own eligibility and his much smaller claim to consideration.

I love you, I have told you so a hundred times…but I am not in love with you; that is to say, my love for you is not a passion which overclouds my judgment and absorbs all my regard for myself and others…. I conceive it a duty which every one owes to society not to throw up that station into which Providence has assigned him; and having this conviction I could not marry into a station inferior to my own…. You and I keeping house at Craigenputtock!… Nothing but your ignorance of the place saves you from the imputation of insanity for admitting such a thought…

Yet she did accept him and she did go to live in the wilds of Craigenputtock for six years. Carlyle was in no sense established when they married; she gave over immediately to her own conviction of his great worth. Jane was not sentimental like Dorothy Wordsworth. From the first she began in her letters and her conversation the amused creation of Carlyle at home. As a writer he was self-created, like Zeus, but the living person, gruff, self-absorbed, driven, intolerant, comes to life mostly from her London letters. But perhaps she never got over the feeling that she had, in choosing Carlyle, undertaken an original adventure for which credit was due her. She, for all her wit, was conscious of playing a great role in the creation of Carlyle. Even she was a sort of collaborator in his sacred mission.

The Carlyles are very contemporary. Perhaps the fact that they were childless gives a sort of provisional, trial-and-error aspect to the arrangements of their lives. They set themselves up in Cheyne Row in a respectable and yet properly Bohemian fashion. Things were interesting and suitable, but not at all yearning for grandeur or luxury. After her spoiled youth, her brilliance at study, the high place she held among her acquaintances, this is what she came to stand on in a private way: properly, if not rigidly, running the house with one servant and sometimes none; prudence with finances; visits to make an appeal to the Tax Collector (“Where was Mr. Carlyle?” they wanted to know); cleaning, dusting, chasing bedbugs, sewing, supervising redecorations.

She did these things with a nervous, anxious sort of Scotch efficiency that never lost some lingering astonishment that such were actually her duties. The tone of her letters is guarded, and her feelings were always masked by the wit and the good breeding and pride that make a direct plea for sympathy impossible; it is not easy to judge the true significance of her personal outbursts. After spending an evening mending Mr. Carlyle’s trousers, she writes, “Being an only child I never wished to sew men’s trousers—no, never.” To these duties her charms, the enjoyment people took in her company, her own fame as a special person added much. She was admired, treasured, and had her own group of confidants that included Mazzini and the wild novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. But, with some naturalness and a great deal of inevitability, Carlyle took, as a day-to-day matter, her charms and wit for granted. It was still his right, his need to scream when the piano started up in the next house, to live out at home the appalling strains of his labors.

His health and his temper were fearful; her health and her tongue were awful. A typical letter:

Carlyle returned from his travels very bilious and continues very bilious up to this hour. The amount of bile that he does bring home to me, in these cases, is something “awfully grand!” Even through that deteriorating medium he could not but be struck with a “certain admiration” at the immensity of needlework I had accomplished in his absence, in the shape of chair-covers, sofa-covers, window curtains, &c., &c., and all the other manifest improvements into which I had put my whole genius and industry, and so little money as was hardly to be conceived!

In the letters it is all turned into a comedy. Carlyle decided that the exhausting redecoration of the house was not enough, that he needed a work place on the top, a room built on the roof.

  1. *

    Duke University Press is preparing the complete Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Carlyle. The letters from 1812 to 1828 have been published in the first four volumes.

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