Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by H. J. Gibbs
Jane Welsh Carlyle (18061866)
JANE BAILLIE WELSH, afterwards wife of Thomas Carlyle, was born on July 14th, 1806. On her fathers side she had descended from John Knox, on her mothers she claimed descent from William Wallace. Whether it were too fanciful to attribute some of her gifts and graces to her distant progenitors is open to discussion. Certain it is that she had an indomitable spirit, a stern, strong sense of duty, an heroic endurance of hardship, and an uncompromising love of honesty and truth, and she may have owed somewhat to heredity as well as to early education and later self-discipline. Her father was a surgeon in Dumfriesshire, who met his death by typhus fever, caught from a patient; her mother was a woman of education and culture. The widow lady and her daughter dwelt in Haddington. Jane was a clever, sprightly, mischievous creature, and when put to books made great strides in learning. As she grew up she came under the pupilage of Edward Irving and was perhaps the first to discover his genius as she was afterwards, when notoriety in London was working him harm, amongst the earliest to detect and to sadly prophesy what the end must be with him. She, however, reaped much from the young mans teaching, and there appears to be little doubt that, had circumstances permitted, she would have taken him for her husband, and, as she wrote years afterwards, there would have been no tongues.
When introduced to Carlyle by Irving, she was a young, beautiful, well-read, and accomplished girl, several years under twenty. Carlyle was greatly impressed by her, and they quickly formed a friendship and established a correspondence. We find her writing to him in August 1823, I owe you much: feelings and sentiments that ennoble my character, that give dignity, interest and enjoyment to my life,in return I can only love you, and that I do from the bottom of my heart. She was only second to Irving in appreciating the great qualities of Carlyle, beneath whose somewhat rough, uncouth manners and self-doubting, self-questioning spirit, Jane Welsh discovered the man of genius. In 1826 they twain were married, and in wedding Carlyle Jane Welsh had faith in her own insight. When fame came to him, and people were recognising the presence of a great genius amongst them, she wrote, They tell me things, as if they were new, that I found out years ago. Nevertheless, it is a striking testimony to her originality, her insight, and her sympathy, that she, a remarkably beautiful, gifted girl, of good position and family, should dare all the inevitable struggle, the inevitable poverty, that must precede success, by marrying the rough, penniless peasant-scholar, whose position in life was so different from her own.
In order that Carlyle, in marrying her, should be under no suspicion of mercenary motives, Jane Welsh Carlyle, renounced, in her mothers favour, certain landed property, worth about £200 a year, and placed herself by her husbands side, who had nothing but the promise, very dimly visible to most people, of distinction later on. For some years they lived at Craigenputtock, a little property belonging to the Welshes, a dreary, solitary, moorland placea solitude almost Druidical. Here Carlyle,whose wife bore the solitude and submitted to much domestic drudgery for which her delicate physique was but ill-fitted, for her husbands sake,produced, besides some of his best essays, Sartor Resartus.
Leaving Craigenputtock, the Carlyles removed (in 1834) to No. 5, afterwards 24, Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Her arrival I best of all remember. Ah me! She was clear for this poor house (which she gradually, as poverty a little withdrew after long years pushing, has made so beautiful and comfortable) in preference to all my other samples; and here we spent our two-and-thirty years of hard battle against fate; hard, but not quite unvictorious, when she left me in her car of heavens fire.
It was here that this singularly gifted woman who (according to Mr. Froude), had she so pleased, might have made a name for herself, voluntarily sacrificed ambition and fortune for his sake, and watched over and defended from care and annoyance the gifted, but desperately trying, man by her side.
Not until she had been suddenly snatched from him, on the morrow of his triumphant reception by the University of Edinburgh (April 21st, 1866), did Carlyle fully appreciate all she had been to him. Could I be easy to live with? She flickered round me like perpetual radiance, and in spite of my glooms and my misdoings, would at no moment cease to love me and help me . Ah me! she never knew fully, nor could I show her in my heavy laden, miserable life, how much I had at all times regarded, loved, and admired her. No telling of her now.
Like other persons in this world, where even the best amongst us fall lamentably short of their ideals, the Carlyles had their hours, even their days, of estrangement; but surely far too much importance has been attached to their differences, and we shall not follow those rash, unwise, and sacrilegious people who have intruded into the griefs of Jane Carlyle. Unfortunately her marriage was not blessed with children: her fight with poverty was desperately prolonged, and she had a bitter experience of the Hope deferred which maketh the heart sick, and there were moments in her life when she craved for more tenderness and more outward displays of affection and sympathy than she obtained from her husband. If only they had been blessed with children, all might have been well. Nevertheless, they lived brave and noble lives.
In her very early days, before her marriage, Mrs. Carlyle wrote a good deal of verse; the poem here reprinted belongs to a somewhat later date. But who shall say how much of the pathos, tenderness, and poetry which abound in the writings of Thomas Carlyle is due to the gifted woman who detected his genius when none else did, who shielded him from the buffets of fortune, tended him in sickness, cheered him in despair, and was his loyal-hearted wife for forty years?