Who was Jane Carlyle?
Celebrity couples are nothing new. Victorian literary luminaries clustered at the home of writer Thomas Carlyle and his wife, but there was more to the woman known as Mrs Carlyle than her husband.
Jane Baillie Welsh
Thomas Carlyle met Jane Baillie Welsh in 1821. A doctor’s daughter from East Lothian, she was clever and – her mother thought – a cut above him. He fell in love with her at once.
Jane had feelings for her former tutor but Carlyle persisted and she eventually accepted him. She had come to need him as much as her ‘slippers or bonnet’, and they married in 1826.
Jane supported Carlyle’s literary ambitions, and in 1834 they moved to Chelsea in London where they became well-known figures.
Robert Tait’s portrait of the Carlyles depicts them in the parlour where they entertained guests including Dickens and Ruskin. Jane, not Carlyle, is at its compositional centre. Her company was sought as much as his. So respected was Jane that she was wrongly thought to have written Charlotte Brontë's celebrated novel, Jane Eyre.
Tait’s portrait depicts the couple in warm colours, but the atmosphere between the Carlyles could be frosty, even literally so at times as Jane complained that Carlyle insisted on keeping the doors and windows open in all weathers.
Carlyle was difficult and Jane was hurt by his friendship with society hostess Lady Ashburton. Jane became close to the writer Geraldine Jewsbury, whose novels she helped edit.
Jane suffered from mysterious pains and took morphine, leading some biographers to think her symptoms were a manifestation of intellectual frustration. Had she sacrificed her literary potential for Carlyle’s?
After Jane’s death in 1866, Carlyle read her letters and realised how troubled she was. Remorseful, he wrote a reminiscence and entrusted it to the historian J.A. Froude.
Froude published the reminiscence following Carlyle's death in 1881. The Carlyles’ relatives were outraged but Froude insisted he was fulfilling Carlyle’s wishes.
Speculation grew that the Carlyles had never consummated their marriage, and Virginia Woolf suggested that the relationship between Jane and Jewsbury had indeed been romantic.
The revelation of Jane’s unhappiness with Carlyle tarnished the Victorian ideal of the benevolent patriarch.
But scandal obscured the complexity of the Carlyles’ relationship. They were intellectual companions. In their drawing room stands a screen which Jane decorated with prints of people and places Carlyle wrote about.
Carlyle himself recognised that Jane’s many letters – now available online – had literary merit. Witty and insightful, they provoke the question: should we study only writers who write for publication?