Amateurs: Jane Carlyle

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…

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