“A subsisting and alas! self-seeking me” - Jane Carlyle

In 1840, Rowland Hill succeeded in implementing the penny post scheme, which proposed that any letter weighing less than an ounce should cost no more than a single penny to send. Overnight, a form of communication that had previously been afforded only to the upper class with any sense of regularity was made available on a mass scale. The effects were galvanizing: the reform of the postal service transformed Victorian Britain, but it also offered an unrestricted platform for self-expression and -construction; distance and quantity provided no obstacle to the faithful recording and dissemination of one’s thoughts, coterie speech and quotidian observations. Letters became a means of instantly transcribing the self, and a relatively direct line may be drawn between the epistolary culture of 19th century Britain and the rich subjective interiority of modernist literature.

It is against this backdrop of letter writing that the life and works of Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, took shape. Welsh herself praised the liberating effect of the penny post, exclaiming in 1839, “when the penny post bill comes into action, I shall surely send ‘Sybilline leaves’ all over the world!” Her epistolary output was prodigious, and brilliant: Virginia Woolf reckoned her among history’s greatest letter writers, praising her “hawk-like swoop and descent of her mind upon facts,” or what Welsh referred to more demurely as “splashing off whatever is in my mind” and “the real transcript of your mind at the moment”.

Interest in Welsh’s letters has been persistent, ever since Thomas Carlyle, upon his wife’s death, compiled a collection of six volumes, the talent of which he claimed to “equal and surpass whatever of best I know to exist in kind”. Any biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle will necessarily be a selection and interpretation of these letters – now collated in the Duke-Edinburgh 44 volume edition of the Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle – which sing resolutely against the voluminous and overbearing voice of her husband, the “Prophet of Chelsea”, and against the restraints imposed by the strictures of the Victorian era.

Biographers have tended to follow in the footsteps of J.A. Froude, who first published the Carlyles’ correspondence and his four-volume Life of Carlyle in the late 19th century. Histrionic, reductive, and often misleading, Froude’s account arranged the Carlyles’ lives into what he considered a tragedy “as stern and real as the story of Oedipus”, in whichWelsh had played the self-sacrificing heroine, helplessly downtrodden and cuckolded by her husband’s apparently platonic, yet egregious, relationship with the aristocrat Lady Harriet Baring (in one letter he writes to Lady Harriet, “before the Queen, so bounteous, gracious in all living things… I kiss the hem of your garment!”).

Stereotypes have lingered. In more recent times, however, writers have substituted Froude’s essentialising narrative and have begun to examine Jane as a separate entity, removed from the frame of marriage. Welsh’s most recent biographer, Kathy Chamberlain, former professor of English at CUNY, has done much to broaden our understanding of the complexities of Welsh’s character. Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World provides a scrupulously close reading of Jane Welsh’s life between the years 1843-1849, the heady years when the likes of Charles Dickens, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson, and Elizabeth Gaskell all frequented the Carlyles’ Chelsea home. But it was also a period of turbulent social change – the Irish potato famine, the European Spring, education reform for women, and the relentless industrialization in England are all treated extensively by Chamberlain – and a period of intense upheaval for Jane Welsh herself. Thomas Carlyle’s success elevated the middle-class couple into the social circles of the aristocracy, which bemused and troubled Welsh (“…a life which is after all a mere dramatic representation”), and increasingly so, as Carlyle’s relationship with Lady Harriet created an acrid friction within their marriage.

However, for the most part, Thomas remains predominantly in the background of Chamberlain’s biography, relegated to his study, working on his belaboured Life of Cromwell and emerging only to incinerate unworthy drafts in the hearth of their Cheyne Row house, with great ceremony. Chamberlain instead endeavours to elicit from Welsh’s letters what she referred to as her “I-ity”, her “subsisting and alas! self-seeking me!”, a persistent grappling for an identity which might transcend the nominal role allotted to her by her Victorian context. In an era that encouraged types prescribed by conduct books and etiquette manuals, Chamberlain reads Welsh’s letters as an expression of “an apparent female egotism that – from a modern perspective – indicates an emerging sense of personal agency”, yet effectively situates Welsh’s personal world within the confluence of socio-political issues of the period, placing the often sardonic and mordant writer against the expectations of gender and class, noting points of convergence with and separation from her Victorian context.

However, it was in her writing that Welsh sought the kernel of identity, and Chamberlain places great emphasis on Jane as a writer, situating her within the epistolary culture that defined her prolific output. Although she never published, Welsh achieved what Elizabeth Hardwick termed “a private writing career”; family and friends circulated her letters, giving her a wide audience among London’s literary circles. She tried her hand at memoir, fiction, and poetry, and flirted with the idea of full length books. Far from being a novelist manqué, however, Chamberlain insists that we read Welsh’s literary oeuvre as a means of dramatizing herself, her marriage, and her world, utilising the letter’s façade of privacy to immure herself against the very public success of her husband, and the tribulations this entailed.

The strength of Chamberlain’s biography is in its wider exploration of how writerly practices and discursiveness played a very active role in both establishing and dismantling gender roles and hierarchies. How writing was valued, and by whom, might reveal the nature of social relations and their structures of power. When asked, Welsh refused to edit the articles and poetry of John Sterling, disavowing “playing at editors” and ironically claiming to be “born for the ornamental rather than the useful”. However, she collaborated with Geraldine Jewsbury and Elizabeth Paulet, writing and editing what would result in Jewsbury’s incendiary first novel, Zoe. Both Jewsbury and Paulet went on to become professional novelists: Jane Welsh remained Jewbury’s first reader, even for minor journalistic pieces. Reading tastes were telling: Austen was regarded by Jane Welsh as “washy watergruel”, but Ludwig Tieck’s heroine Vittoria Accorombona, a free-minded creative woman, philosopher and poet, appealed as an example for Welsh’s circle. In a period in which control over the written word was being steadily democratized through reforms in education and communication, Chamberlain’s appraisal of the efficacy of Welsh’s letters on a social as much as aesthetic or historic plane is stimulating.

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