Jane Carlyle
Jane Carlyle; drawing by David Levine

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.

Up went the carpets my own hands had nailed down, in rushed the troops of incarnate demons, bricklayers, joiners, whitewashers…. My husband himself at the sight of the uproar he had raised, was all but wringing his hands and tearing his hair like some German wizard servant who had learned magic enough to make the broomstick carry water for him, but had not the counter spell to stop it.

She ends her letter with, “Alas, one can make fun of all this on paper; but in practice it is anything but fun, I can assure you. There is no help for it, however; a man cannot hold his genius as a sinecure.”

It is almost ignoble to inspect these domestic letters with anything except gratitude for the intense, flowing picture they give us of a life, for the brilliance of the social history and the way the house, 5 Cheyne Row, becomes a Victorian treasure, itself a character. The value of Jane Carlyle’s letters lies very much in their rendering of the prosaic scenery in which a truly staggering Victorian energy like Carlyle’s had its existence. Frederick the Great took thirteen years in the writing (“Would Frederick had died when a baby,” Jane said); Oliver Cromwell burned up four years. This was the way it went on throughout Carlyle’s life. His discipline and gospel of Work had its fearful apotheosis in his own practice. This is altogether different from nailing carpets and shaking out curtains.

Jane Carlyle’s letters have something subversive in them; the tone is very far from the reverent modes that came naturally to Dorothy Wordsworth. Both the journals of the poet’s sister and the letters of the wife of the great Prophet are ways of preserving and discovering self-identity. It is easy to imagine that the steady literary labors going on around the two women made a kind of demand upon them; a supreme value attached to sitting at the desk with a pen rushing over the pages. Both had gifts of an uncommon nature, but the casual, spontaneous form of their writings is itself the ultimate risk. We are not expected a hundred and fifty years later to have them in our hand, to read them. It is only by the luckiest chance that they survive, and no doubt many letters were lost. Jane’s letters might not have been collected, but The French Revolution would certainly have stepped forth; Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland might have perished, while The Excursion was not written for obscurity.

Jane Carlyle’s letters have very much the character of a social necessity for her. They are meant to delight, to preserve and pass on her unique way of detailing the happenings of the day. They are pictures of things and people, imitations, mimicry, autobiography of a narrow sort. Most of the ones we have were written to family members and to very close old friends, largely living in Scotland. The largest number are to Carlyle himself. There is a sameness to them because the tone is established early and continued long; it is familiar, light, personal within limits. It tells of an attempt to live in the midst of things in London, to manage their feelings for each other, their uncertain temperaments, their unsteady nerves, his work—to make of all this a life reasonably plain and undemanding and yet worthy of their odd and valuable natures.

One of the things that made life hard for the Carlyles was that they shared alike so many burdens of body and soul; their complaints ring out in unison and, of course, there is no one to answer. Their hypochondria and neurasthenia are scandalous. Jane had headaches, neuralgia that seldom gave up its dominance, insomnia raging like a train through the whole night, indigestions, vomiting, aches and pains of every kind. Harriet Martineau observed that Mrs. Carlyle always had eight attacks of influenza each winter; she was frail and exhausted, pale, and yet could be roused from invalidism by interesting events. Carlyle had headaches, insomnia, dyspepsia, indigestion, melancholy, ill temper, irritability. They took an enormous number of pills and purges, and it appears that Mrs. Carlyle in middle life became addicted to morphia. This seems to have caused some of her vomitings and faintings. During her most suffering years in the early 1850s she was deranged with depression, jealousy, suicidal feelings. He too was scarcely ever free from depression and irritability, and was not able to put any kind of rein on the flow into his mind of extreme opinions and the flow from his tongue of the same opinions. During his later years Carlyle exhorted mankind to a sacrificial life of Work and heroic, manly Silence. Mazzini noted that Carlyle’s love affair with Silence “was only platonic.”

There is very little in Jane’s letters about Carlyle’s ideas or about the actual matter of his books. And, of course, he is all Idea, caught up in a shifting heroic and prophetic tendency that finally engulfs him in the unworthy authoritarianism and depressing angers and superiorities of the Latter-Day Pamphlets. He scorns Democracy, suffrage. A visit to a reformed prison brings out a hailstorm of hateful pellets of abuse.

These abject, ape, wolf, ox, imp and other diabolic-animal specimens of humanity, who of the very gods could ever have commanded them by love? A collar round the neck and a cart-whip flourished over the back; these, in a just and steady human hand, were what the gods would have appointed them….

John Stuart Mill broke with Carlyle over the violence of his feelings and recommendations, and this work received a bad press generally.

As Carlyle grew older he became more and more aggressive and illnatured about his contemporaries. His own reputation suffered from his increasing lack of generosity and openness and his peevish self-importance. Visitors to Cheyne Row left in anger and disappointment. Jane is not known to have differed with his opinions, and Julian Symonds in his biography of Carlyle has a distressing picture of a woman who did not combat his warped inclinations on the intellectual level, but grew rather more privately and emotionally bitter and unhappy and crushing to him over personal matters.

There is a story that, in his [Carlyle’s] last years, a group of people were discussing in his presence the silliness and blind adulation by which great men’s wives often made their husbands look foolish. “In that respect,” he said, “I have been most mercifully spared.”

Indeed Jane Carlyle does not seem interested in the passionate concern for the nature of society’s arrangements and values—the flame that burned so madly in her husband. Her friendship with Mazzini was intense. She gave him a lock of her hair and confided some of her complaints about Carlyle, but she did not take seriously any of his plans and hopes for Italy. She had narrowed her sufferings and disappointments down to some private, nagging unfulfillment.

What was the trouble? It is very difficult to set the thing out with any certainty. The incredible question of Carlyle’s impotence has no possibility of ever being laid to rest. Froude, the historian-disciple of Carlyle and the one to whom was entrusted the printing of Jane’s letters and Carlyle’s strange remorseful memorial to her, seems to have liked Carlyle a good deal less than he knew. The man was no sooner gone than Froude moved in on the papers, started the biography, and also dealt Carlyle’s reputation so many slashes and lacerations it never recovered. Froude said that “Carlyle ought never to have married.” The accusation survives, gathering later fuel from Frank Harris’s assertion that a doctor examined Jane in her forties and found her virgo intacta. Jane is supposed to have told the story about their wedding night—that when he fumbled, she burst out laughing and he “got out of bed with one scornful word, ‘Woman!’ and went into the next room; he never came back to my bed again.”

Carlyle’s nature is so confident and expansive that it is hard to believe him somehow blocked and incapacitated in this way. Their letters to each other are filled with exuberant appreciation and with an obsessive dependence on the very presence of the other, a condition not likely to lend itself to forty years of chastity and distance. The thing that brought about the pitiful misery and bitterness of the marriage was a matter of at least a secondary sexual nature—Jane’s jealousy and fury over Carlyle’s friendship with Lady Ashburton. That this jealousy may not have been sexual did not diminish the profound pain of it. It appears that it was, in the end, Carlyle’s insensitivity to her wishes that drove Jane Carlyle into a debilitating madness of rage and depression, morphia and pill-swallowing.

Lady Ashburton was a powerful, intelligent, rich woman who liked Carlyle much better than she liked Jane. She made a great fuss over him, invited them to her country house, The Grange, and called him “her Prophet.” At Lady Ashburton’s Carlyle was the star. He who had been accustomed to protesting social life with the complaint that “No health lies for me in that,” or “My welfare is possible only in solitude,” suddenly and surprisingly changed his tune and was ever ready to attend functions, make long visits, do any bidding. He had never valued idleness, riches, or relaxation, but now he seemed to find the comfortable luxuries of the town and country houses very much to his liking. Authoritarianism and a regard for privilege were growing on him also, like gray hairs he hardly noticed.

Lady Harriet was six years younger than Jane, rather large, and utterly, bewilderingly confident of her own worth. She was moderately unconventional but not scarred by a rash of self-examination or complicated modesties and judgments. After Carlyle’s acquaintance with her was established, she began to pursue him, to flatter him, to feel quite an urgent need to include him in her circle and in her activities. Lord Ashburton also accepted Carlyle with a good deal of warmth.

Lady Ashburton was not so greatly charmed by Jane. Jane had been adored at home and was much appreciated in London among writers and friends, but her style and tone were not comfortable for the ladies of the aristocracy. She was too ironical and humorous, too quick to identify with a mocking phrase; and most of all her wit was a sort of private gem. Its sparkle depended upon everyone’s understanding the shape of it, the voice. Lady Ashburton was friendly and correct with Jane but it didn’t work. Also the society at the Ashburtons’, where Carlyle was soon glowing in the attention he received, was much richer and in every way different from the kind of life and purpose he had taught Jane to value.

The worst of it was that Carlyle had suddenly turned away from his old notions—the Scotch Calvinist ones that had united them. He no longer felt bound by the dogmas of Work, Duty, and Spiritual Strength. He now was on the road leading to the New Aristocracy and Lady Ashburton was a good starting point. When she summoned him he would answer, “Sunday, yes, my Beneficent, it shall be then; the dark man shall again see the daughter of the sun, for a little while; and be illuminated, as if he were not dark.”

Between 1846 and Lady Ashburton’s death in 1856 the Carlyles’ life was distressingly unhappy. Their great marriage, the collaboration of two superior, tortured souls, was just a nest of miseries, discontents, frustrations. Jane Carlyle’s tolerant irony deserted her. She could not bear Carlyle’s indifference to her feelings, his neglect of her wishes. It had been bad enough when his work made him demanding and overwhelming, but to have him take pleasure and find relaxation in company other than hers was unendurable. Still, so extreme is her emotion that one can only feel this particular neglect had come to stand for feelings much greater than the friendly, more or less harmless, claims of Lady Ashburton.

It seems that all Jane Carlyle’s efforts were dramatically brought into question by Lady Ashburton, by her riches, her arrogance, her birth. All of the carpets, the bedbugs, the papering and hammering, the creation of Cheyne Row to encircle and house the needs of Carlyle had been neither the pure expression of her own nature nor a claim, as it seemed, upon his loyalty. For whom had she labored? Running the house with one somewhat shaky servant had been a triumph; the funny Scotch girls were her material and her stories about them are among the best things in her letters. But her dealings with them show some of the defects and difficulties of her character. Jane Carlyle needed a great deal of care and concern herself. Her disasters with servants were bravely and humorously endured, but her way with them was a little mirror showing her deepest, hidden nature—that of a clever, spoiled, and expectant only child.

When a servant appeared she was imagined to be the vessel of goodness, joy, trust; the poor creature was to give the exalted love, consideration, capability, attention, leisure, comfort Jane Carlyle secretly felt her nature was entitled to receive. “She is far the most loveable servant I ever had; a gentle, pretty, sweet-looking creature, with innocent winning ways.” This is the way the hope rises at the beginning, time and again, but it soon sinks and the reality are beasts, drunkards, thieves, with no knowledge of cooking or cleaning. With all of this longing never deserting her, Jane Carlyle could feel that in managing to live, to create their lives, at great pains to herself, she was doing something noble and important. Especially because it was she, never meant for it, who was the origin, the mover of it. She had endured Carlyle’s bearishness, his grumbling, his fantastic, consuming labors, his refusal of practical affairs. She had never felt very capable at the things she learned to do; they were against the grain.

She had sacrificed something—it was not altogether clear what—in vain for Carlyle, and that discovery, if such it was, accounted for her exaggerated frenzy over Lady Ashburton. Some of the needs working on him she was not sufficiently knowledgeable about or sensitive to. (Her old indifference to the matter, while treasuring the producer.) Carlyle felt an increasing and insistent wish to shine and to find unplowed ground to shine upon. His ideas and programs were running out. He was a prophet rather worried about the next prophecy. Also in a sad way his own madness was being transformed into character. He was becoming inseparable from his defects and distortions.

The projects he set out upon with Lady Ashburton and her friends were small and, even if worthy, retrograde in the light of the larger issues he was turning away from. His projects needed only money; he did not ask that his new friends remake their lives or redeem society. The London Library, new parks, that sort of thing. Members of the aristocracy should “bestir themselves” to fight off the stabs of the lazy rabble at the door.

Carlyle, morose at home, gladdened in the opulent warmth of Bath House, the Ashburtons’ place in the city. But for Jane the visits were trying; they created an unease in her spirits and apparently a lowering sense of being an appendage, there but not at all necessary. When she showed her distress that invitations were accepted without her agreement, visits were, nevertheless, made by her husband alone, even though she might be ill and needing him at home. Carlyle became vexed, insensitive to the depth of her unhappiness, or merely willfully indifferent to it. He would write, “Oh, my Jeannie! My own true Jeannie! Into what courses are we tending?” But he would go to the Ashburtons’ in any case and remain for five days. For a time he and Lady Ashburton corresponded in secret because of the hysterical frenzy of feeling into which Mrs. Carlyle had somehow thrown herself.

It all seems negligible, out of proportion, one of those trivial points upon which marital rages ludicrously come to rest. Still, the angers and quarrels darkened their lives. The sadness is that even with a clever and uniquely attractive woman like Jane Carlyle a conviction of having sacrificed only to be undervalued drove her to despair and pulled Carlyle along with her.

At this point she began to keep a melancholy little journal. It is bitter, freely complaining about just those indignities the letters approached with a guarded amusement. There is a measure of vindictiveness in the entries, some eye toward revenge or perhaps only toward the instruction of Carlyle in her true feelings.

That eternal Bath House. I wonder how many thousand miles Mr. C has walked between here and there, putting it all together; setting up always another milestone and anchor betwixt him and me…. When I first noticed that heavy yellow house…how far was I from dreaming that through years and years I should carry every stone’s weight of it on my heart.

Mrs. Carlyle’s sudden death plunged her husband into a deep grief. He lived on and on, for sixteen years, always melancholy, lonely, and preoccupied with his lost love and her rare qualities. He saw her journal of the Ashburton years. (Lady Ashburton died in 1856, ten years before Jane. The acute and pointed misery abated, but the general bitterness remained, by now hardened with illness, depression, and the thickening of angry feelings on both sides.) He read over her letters. Remorse struck Carlyle, a strange, repeating, beating, insisting remorse. He treasured her brilliant letters and saw the delight in them and also the undercurrent of the breathless effort she had made to create their lives.

His idea seemed to be that she had misunderstood the Lady Ashburton business. “Oh, if I could but see her for five minutes to assure her that I had really cared for her throughout all that! But she never knew it, she never knew it.” He collected and edited her letters and gave them at his death to Froude for publication, and he wrote his odd, almost senile, remorseful memorial to her in Reminiscences.

He sat down to write and all the bafflements of Jane Carlyle’s place in the nature of things immediately and urgently confronted him. It was not the outlines of her life—that he knew or thought he knew from their long marriage. No, it was much deeper, more puzzling, more to the point. When he started the composition it was not as a family treasure, a book of memory; instead it was to be a real book. What then was she that might have a claim on the world’s attention by way of print, a sort of biography? Even he could not feel it was as his wife alone that she had a kind of eminence; nor could it be for her highly original and pleasing personal qualities. On the other hand she was certainly not Schiller, nor even his friend the preacher Edward Irving or the theologian John Sterling, about both of whom he had written.

In the end the riddle is never solved and the work is both public and private. It is an ode to a lost love and a curiously, traditionally organized presentation of a life. The beginning strikes a classical note, mixed with worry and compositional confusion about his intentions.

In the ancient country town of Haddington, July 14, 1801, there was born to a lately wedded pair, not natives of the place but already reckoned among the best class of people there, a little daughter whom they named Jane Baillie Welsh, and whose subsequent and final name (her own common signature for many years), was Jane Welsh Carlyle, and now stands, now that she is mine in death only, on her and her father’s tombstone in the Abbey Kirk of that town.

The work is filled with guilty hyperbole, yet he takes on his blame so openly, with such a manly fullness, that we can see it is one of those guilts happily assumed as a gratification to the ego. Still, he must decide what Jane was, what she had given up to be his alone, and he is soon placing her in his thoughts above George Eliot and George Sand in creative powers. With this exaggeration and lack of precision, the excellence of the letters fades. They have not been defined, thought about, carefully placed.

When Jane Carlyle was cleaning and sweeping and keeping the accounts within discreet limits she certainly did not set a price upon her actions. But of course there was a hidden price. It was that in exchange for her work, her dedication, her special, if somewhat mocking, charms, Carlyle would, as an instance, not go out to Lady Ashburton when she would rather he stayed at home. This is the unspoken contract of a wife and her works. In the long run wives are to be paid in a peculiar coin—consideration for their feelings. And it usually turns out to be an enormous, unthinkable inflation few will remit, or if they will, only with a sense of being overcharged.

It is sad to think of Jane Carlyle’s last years. Neurasthenia accounted for a lot of her torments in the middle of the night. But she had such gaiety and reasonableness that we are scarcely prepared for the devastation that swept over her as a result of feeling undervalued, put-upon without the consolations of a rare gift for consideration—something harder for Carlyle than singing an aria. Once when she told him that she had, at a certain moment, thought of leaving him, Carlyle replied, “I don’t know that I would have missed you. I was very busy just then with Cromwell.” The raging productivity of the Victorians shattered nerves and punctured stomachs, but it was a thing noble, glorious, awesome in itself.

Jane Carlyle’s subversive irony, her ambivalence make her the most interesting of the wives we know about in this period. It is very risky to think of her as a failed novelist or as a “sacrificed” writer in some other form. All we can look for are the openings she—and Dorothy Wordsworth, also—came upon, the little alleys for self-display, the routes found that are really a way of dominating the emotional material of daily life. The chanciness of it all, the modesty, the intermittent aspect of the production—there is pathos in that. In the end what strikes one as the greatest personal loss of these private writing careers is that the work could not truly build for the women a bulwark against the sufferings of neglect and the humiliations of lovelessness. The Victorian men, perverse as many of them are, were spared these pinches of inadequacy and faltering confidence.

(This is the second part of an essay about Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle.)

This Issue

December 14, 1972