Virginia Woolf: Geraldine and Jane

Jane Baillie Carlyle (née Welsh) by Samuel Laurence detail.jpg
Jane Baillie Carlyle (née Welsh), by Samuel Laurence

Geraldine Jewsbury would certainly not have expected anybody at this time of day to bother themselves about her novels. If she had caught one pulling them down from the shelf in some library she would have expostulated. “They’re such nonsense, my dear”, she would have said. And then one likes to fancy that she would have burst out in that irresponsible, unconventional way of hers against libraries and literature and love and life and all the rest of it with a “Damn it all!” or a “Confound it!” for Geraldine was fond of swearing.

The odd thing about Geraldine Jewsbury, indeed, was the way in which she combined oaths and endearments, sense and effervescence, daring and gush: “ . . . defenceless and tender on the one hand, and strong enough to cleave the very rocks on the other”— that is how Mrs. Ireland, her biographer, puts it; or again: “Intellectually she was a man, but the heart within her was as womanly as ever daughter of Eve could boast”. Even to look at there was, it would seem, something incongruous, queer, provocative about her. She was very small and yet boyish; very ugly yet attractive. She dressed very well, wore her reddish hair in a net, and ear-rings made in the form of miniature parrots swung in her ears as she talked. There, in the only portrait we have of her, she sits reading, with her face half-turned away, defenceless and tender at the moment rather than cleaving the very rocks.

But what had happened to her before she sat at the photographer’s table reading her book it is impossible to say. Until she was twenty-nine we know nothing of her except that she was born in the year 1812, was the daughter of a merchant, and lived in Manchester, or near it. In the first part of the nineteenth century a woman of twenty-nine was no longer young; she had lived her life or she had missed it. And though Geraldine, with her unconventional ways, was an exception, still it cannot be doubted that something very tremendous had happened in those dim years before we know her. Something had happened in Manchester. An obscure male figure looms in the background — a faithless but fascinating creature who had taught her that life is treacherous, life is hard, life is the very devil for a woman. A dark pool of experience had formed in the back of her mind into which she would dip for the consolation or for the instruction of others. “Oh! it is too frightful to talk about. For two years I lived only in short respites from this blackness of darkness”, she exclaimed from time to time. There had been seasons “like dreary, calm November days when there is but one cloud, but that one covers the whole heaven”. She had struggled, “but struggling is no use”. She had read Cudworth through. She had written an essay upon materialism before giving way. For, though the prey to so many emotions, she was also oddly detached and speculative. She liked to puzzle her head with questions about “matter and spirit and the nature of life” even while her heart was bleeding. Upstairs there was a box full of extracts, abstracts, and conclusions. Yet what conclusion could a woman come to? Did anything avail a woman when love had deserted her, when her lover had played her false? No. It was useless to struggle; one had better let the wave engulf one, the cloud close over one’s head. So she meditated, lying often on a sofa with a piece of knitting in her hands and a green shade over her eyes. For she suffered from a variety of ailments — sore eyes, colds, nameless exhaustion; and Greenheys, the suburb outside Manchester, where she kept house for her brother, was very damp. “Dirty, half-melted snow and fog, a swampy meadow, set off by a creeping cold damp”— that was the view from her window. Often she could hardly drag herself across the room. And then there were incessant interruptions: somebody had come unexpectedly for dinner; she had to jump up and run into the kitchen and cook a fowl with her own hands. That done, she would put on her green shade and peer at her book again, for she was a great reader. She read metaphysics, she read travels, she read old books and new books — and especially the wonderful books of Mr. Carlyle.

Early in the year 1841 she came to London and secured an introduction to the great man whose works she so much admired. She met Mrs. Carlyle. They must have become intimate with great rapidity. In a few weeks Mrs. Carlyle was “dearest Jane”. They must have discussed everything. They must have talked about life and the past and the present, and certain “individuals” who were sentimentally interested or were not sentimentally interested in Geraldine. Mrs. Carlyle, so metropolitan, so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs, must have captivated the young woman from Manchester completely, for directly Geraldine returned to Manchester she began writing long letters to Jane which echo and continue the intimate conversations of Cheyne Row. “A man who has had le plus grand succès among women, and who was the most passionate and poetically refined lover in his manners and conversation you would wish to find, once said to me . . . ” So she would begin. Or she would reflect:

It may be that we women are made as we are in order that they may in some sort fertilise the world. We shall go on loving, they [the men] will go on struggling and toiling, and we are all alike mercifully allowed to die — after a while. I don’t know whether you will agree to this, and I cannot see to argue, for my eyes are very bad and painful.

Probably Jane agreed to very little of all this. For Jane was eleven years the elder. Jane was not given to abstract reflections upon the nature of life. Jane was the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women. But it is perhaps worth noting that when she first fell in with Geraldine she was beginning to feel those premonitions of jealousy, that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves, which had come to pass with the establishment of her husband’s fame. No doubt, in the course of those long talks in Cheyne Row, Geraldine had received certain confidences, heard certain complaints, and drawn certain conclusions. For besides being a mass of emotion and sensibility, Geraldine was a clever, witty woman who thought for herself and hated what she called “respectability” as much as Mrs. Carlyle hated what she called “humbug”. In addition, Geraldine had from the first the strangest feelings about Mrs. Carlyle. She felt “vague undefined yearnings to be yours in some way”. “You will let me be yours and think of me as such, will you not?” she urged again and again. “I think of you as Catholics think of their saints”, she said: “ . . . you will laugh, but I feel towards you much more like a lover than a female friend!” No doubt Mrs. Carlyle did laugh, but also she could scarcely fail to be touched by the little creature’s adoration.

Thus when Carlyle himself early in 1843 suggested unexpectedly that they should ask Geraldine to stay with them, Mrs. Carlyle, after debating the question with her usual candour, agreed. She reflected that a little of Geraldine would be “very enlivening”, but, on the other hand, much of Geraldine would be very exhausting. Geraldine dropped hot tears on to one’s hands; she watched one; she fussed one; she was always in a state of emotion. Then “with all her good and great qualities” Geraldine had in her “a born spirit of intrigue” which might make mischief between husband and wife, though not in the usual way, for, Mrs. Carlyle reflected, her husband “had the habit” of preferring her to other women, “and habits are much stronger in him than passions”. On the other hand, she herself was getting lazy intellectually; Geraldine loved talk and clever talk; with all her aspirations and enthusiasms it would be a kindness to let the young woman marooned in Manchester come to Chelsea; and so she came.

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