on 4 July 2002
Carlyle has long held a fascination for me - he came from Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, only a few miles from where I grew up. I always found his prose turgid and heavily Victorian ... unlike this biography.
It is to Rosemary Ashton's credit that she chooses to document the marriage, the relationship between man and wife, and not simply offer a biography of Carlyle himself. But then, she quickly demonstrates that this is a necessary approach. The Carlyles' was the best documented marriage of the 19th century, she suggests.
Jane Welsh Carlyle had a powerful sense of her own identity and individual worth - she was not simply Mrs.Carlyle, a social appendage, but an autonomous woman whose letters demonstrate considerable literary skill. A wee Scots farm girl, transported to social prominence in England, she would suffer from depression for many years.
Carlyle, himself, appears a complex individual - championing the poor and homeless but horrified by the working class, bad tempered, living a life of physical pain and spiritual turmoil. He seems to have fallen madly in love with his future Jane - but quickly emerges as a Victorian patriarch, demanding a housekeeper, not a wife. There is still doubt as to whether or not their marriage was ever consummated.
The Carlyle's kept a famous salon in Chelsea - anybody who was anybody in London visited. Jane kept house and sustained her husband's ego - she believed he was a genius and was determined to show him off to the world as such.
As I said, Carlyle's writing now appears like migraine on paper - he pontificates and bangs the pulpit. But his lifestyle opens up a cast of thousands. Rosemary Ashton weaves the literati and gliterati into the story. The Carlyle's came a long way from a wee Scots farmhouse to Chelsea fame. A famously public life ... but their bedroom remains locked.
Ashton had a treasure trove of material to use for her research - the book can be a touch over-detailed in places. But the decision to study the marriage and not just the man is an exciting one ... and a brave one. For anyone with an interest in Victorian society, this will be an essential read.
The marriage between the Carlyles was a complicated one. Jane Carlyle was very much a person in her own right, and her witty and often mocking letters suggest that she could have been an author herself. Visitors to their house in Chelsea were as charmed by her as they were impressed by her husband. There seems to have been little sexual attraction between them, and it has been suggested that their marriage was never consummated. They were often apart, Carlyle escaping the summer heat in London, and Jane, too, often travelling on her own.
She was proud of Carlyle's achievements, but resented the patronizing nature of his affection for her. The most fulfilment she found was in her friendship with foreign exiles, notably with Mazzini. Carlyle's besotted and extravagantly expressed admiration from the 1840s onwards for Lady Harriet Baring/Ashburton (much idolized also by many other Victorian worthies) put an enormous strain on Jane, though she frequently accepted Lady Harriet's hospitality not only together with her husband but even sometimes on her own. Her letters to her friends became more and more desperate and bitter about her husband, and for the last ten years of her life she also poured out her bitterness and resentment in a journal which a repentant Carlyle found after her death.
He had always been a difficult husband - frequently gloomy, bad-tempered and literally dyspeptic. He cavilled when his economical wife asked for more house-keeping money to meet rising costs. He dismissed concern for the role of women in society as `George Sandism'. Perhaps by way of assuaging his guilt, he would join in the laughter at Jane's public mocking descriptions his crotchetiness and his fits of temper; and he seems never to have written to or about her with the bitterness that she expressed about him. Until very nearly the end of her life, he seems to have been obtusely unaware of just how much she suffered. She was afflicted by a multitude of indispositions some of which may have been caused by the tensions she experienced in her life, and for which she took large doses of Victorian medication. There are occasional references to Carlyle's own mental torments, but that subject is not adequately explored.
Otherwise Rosemary Ashton leaves very little out, trivia included, and the book is rather swamped in exhaustively researched but often indigestible details about the couple's meetings with famous (and many not at all famous) people. In their prolific letters both Carlyle and Jane regularly give descriptions, often sarcastic, of the physical appearance and mannerisms of those they met; but for all that, relatively few of them truly come to life.
The book is far more than the `Portrait of a Marriage' of its subtitle. Not having read any biographies of Carlyle before this one, I would like to add something about the other aspects of his life that have interested me.
Carlyle's fame started late. There were a handful of people apart from Jane who early on appreciated his genius; but that was based on his conversation and on the reviews with which he eked out a penurious living for so many years. The subject of many of his reviews - his admiration of transcendental German thought and literature - was not initially something that would make him famous at home; but it was appreciated abroad, by no less a person than Goethe. Carlyle wrote a life of Schiller, who had been Goethe's friend. Goethe translated it into German, while Carlyle in turn published a translation of Goethe's `Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship'.
Carlyle's philosophical stance was unique: a critic of the Enlightenment and Utilitarianism for their materialism, he was at the same time critical of the pretensions of the ruling classes in Church and State. He sided with neither Reform nor Reaction, but thundered in his idiosyncratic declamatory style against both. He eventually made his breakthrough in 1837 with his dramatic history of the French Revolution, when he was 41; after which people began to read his `Sartor Resartus' (The Tailor Retailored), which, having been serialized in a magazine, was published in book form in 1838. In this book Carlyle's alter ego, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, among other things strips off the pompous clothing of his characters to show what, if anything, lies underneath.
His strong sense of justice gave him a genuine sympathy for the poor. This comes out most powerfully in `Past and Present' (1843), a `condition of England' story which became the precursor of many Victorian novels and of Engels' `Condition of the Working Class in England'. Carlyle believed that England could not look for remedies to the `National Palaver' (Parliament), but needed a strong leader. He had already lectured favourably on `Heroes and Hero-Worship' (published 1842), and would write books on heroes he admired: Oliver Cromwell (1845) and a six-volume life of Frederick the Great (1857 to 1865). In the middle of the Crimean War, he wrote that he preferred even Tsarist autocracy and `Grand-Turkism' to representative democracy.
Though still revered by many, Carlyle's high standing began to wane in the late 1840s as others became tired not only of his vehement style but also of the intemperate and unpleasant nature of his attacks on, for example: the Irish (much as he sympathized with their suffering during the Famine); the emancipated blacks and the concern of `rosepink Sentimentalism' for their continued oppression; the Americans (despite that fact that, thanks to the advocacy of Emerson, `Sartor Resartus' had been a success in America before it became famous in England); prisoners being `coddled' in newly built model-prisons; as well as his usual targets of parliamentary government, laissez-faire, Utilitarianism and the `Pig Philosophy' of organized Christianity.
Jane died suddenly in 1866. She had recovered from a severe illness in 1863/4; Carlyle at last showed her more affection and she felt more for him. After her death Carlyle wrote only one more work: a collection of her letters and his reminiscences of her. He left these to be published after his death (in 1881) to his biographer, J.A.Froude.
on 17 January 2014
This is a book that you can read more than once;not only is it historically interesting and well written, it also introduces other well known figures like Lamb, Hazlitt, Wordsworth and Coleridge etc. Thomas Carlyle's wife is amazing; her letters can be hilarious and also showing how 19th century life can be so challenging for the female in a marrage where the man is almost totally dominant. However, Jane wasent the kind to roll over without a fight.