No one would have found it easy being married to Thomas Carlyle. Utterly absorbed in producing his wordy histories (Frederick the Great ran to six volumes), possibly impotent, and certainly obsessed with shit, he was as far from a loving Victorian paterfamilias as it was possible to be. But for Jane Welsh, the fellow Scot whom he married in 1821, it was doubly hard. Sharp as a tack, witty if not exactly merry, and with the natural sense of self-importance of a beloved only child, Jane found life with the gloomy, gusty Sage of Chelsea well-nigh impossible. She toyed with leaving and, during Carlyle's infatuation with the really rather ordinary Lady Ashburton, even considered suicide. In a period that specialised in spectacularly unhappy celebrity marriages - the Ruskins, Dickenses and Thackerays - the Carlyles still managed to take the prize as the couple least likely to endure. That their union, unlike these others, ended in neither divorce nor madness says a lot for their need to stick together, hurting and being hurt, until the end came in 1866, with Jane's death at 64.
Jane Carlyle has always come off better in the public-relations war that ensued from the moment that J A Froude started to publish his four-volume biography of Carlyle in 1882 and revealed that the marriage had been difficult. With her sense of fun, love of benign gossip and (one assumes) involuntary childlessness, she makes a sympathetic figure. Carlyle, with his windy rants against the modern world, his lack of interest in finding practical solutions to social problems, and his unfortunate record as one of the authors to whom Hitler turned at tricky moments, seems old-fashioned, and unpleasant with it. Then there is the beard, shaggy even by mid-Victorian standards, which only adds to the sense of a doomy Old Testament prophet determined that, if he wasn't having fun, then no one else was going to either.
Like the very best marriage counsellor, Rosemary Ashton refuses to take sides. Instead, she scrupulously points out the frailties and strengths of both parties and suggests the ways these collided to produce such painful results for all concerned (as in all bad marriages, friends, relatives and colleagues got dragged along in its choppy wake). For all his literal and metaphorical flatulence, Carlyle was a man of extraordinary integrity who refused to be seduced by the lure of either fame or fortune (doubly admirable given that he was over 40 before The French Revolution gave him an inkling of either). He was also touchingly kind to ordinary working men, the people from whom he had sprung and who, he believed, were the biggest losers in Britain's shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy. What's more, Ashton is careful to tell us, the iconic beard was actually a late arrival. Until he was nearly 60, Carlyle was clean-shaven and remarkably handsome.
By the same token, Jane had her dark side. She was quite candid about the fact that she had married Carlyle without loving him, all her passion having already been spent on his best friend, the charismatic preacher Edward Irving. What's more, well before Carlyle set eyes on Lady Ashburton, Jane had already embarked upon a friendship with the nationalist politician Mazzini so intimate that even his mother, back home in Italy, was suspicious. And then, with all the intensity of someone who spent too much time thinking about her own life, Jane had the habit of over-involving herself in other people's goings-on. Her appalling record with servants - more than 30 maids trooped through the doors of 5 Cheyne Row in as many years - was the result, suggests Ashton, of an inappropriate need to play mother rather than mistress.
Ashton is one of the country's leading authorities on the intellectual and literary culture of the Victorians, especially those who, like Carlyle, owed a debt to German transcendentalism in general and Goethe in particular. Her deep knowledge and immaculate scholarship allows her to put every passing person, book, debate and piece of legislation into its proper context. Nowhere does she perform that cheap and recent trick of arguing that the Victorians were just like us and so, by extension, the Carlyles' problems were those of any couple in the 21st century. While other commentators have rushed to see Jane as a thwarted artist, whose prolific and entertaining letters are a sad token of all the brilliant novels that marriage to Carlyle stopped her from writing, Ashton is far cooler in her analysis. Other women in difficult situations managed to write novels - the Brontës, George Eliot and even Mrs Gaskell all succeeded in domestic circumstances that were far from ideal. If Jane Carlyle never managed to make it into print, then something more complicated than patriarchy must have been to blame.
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