Tuesday 21 April 2009

Jane Welsh Carlyle

On this day in 1866, Jane Welsh Carlyle was found dead in her carriage in Hyde Park - a surprisingly quick and unfussy end for one whose life had been one long-drawn-out epic of mysterious ill health. Jane was one of the great Victorian Valetudinarians - a crowded field, in which she had stiff competition from her husband, a life-long martyr to troubles mostly digestive, details of which he shared with his beloved from early on in their courtship. The Carlyles were also one of the great Victorian Unhappy Marriages. V.S. Pritchett links them with the Tolstoys and the Lawrences as 'the professionals of marriage; they knew they were not in it for their good or happiness, that the relationship was an appointed ordeal, an obsession undertaken by dedicated heavyweights.' The Carlyles' house in Chelsea, though in the hands of the National Trust, still retains a potent neurotic gloom, an atmosphere of boiled mutton, acrimony and sickrooms. And yet, as her letters - one of the great Victorian collections - attest, Jane Welsh Carlyle had a lively, sparkling intellect and wit, as well as the formidable mental and emotional resources needed to support the brooding intellectual colossus (and, for much of their married years, failed writer) she was married to. Her letters might even outlast her husband's writings - they are certainly an easier read - and, happily, she will always be remembered for a frisky moment celebrated by Leigh Hunt in the much anthologised poem, Jenny Kissed Me:

'Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.'


  1. Ah, Jane. Did you ever read "Parallel Lives", Nige? Great book about several Victorian marriages (I should say 'unions,' as one of them was George Eliot & G.H. Lewes), including that of the Carlyles. I believe that Mr. C., like John Ruskin, was a victim of his age and station. He thought too much, had too many anxieties and repugnances and his sex drive wasn't strong enough to blot them out, not even for the first ten minutes it might have taken to make theirs a happy marriage. Instead, a whole hedge of roses had to suffer and Jane was left with words rather than wordless ecstasy.

  2. I own the smoking cap of the great sage. Whether it will prove more or less valuable than the Cheque Wot Gordon Brown Bounced On Me, time alone will tell.

  3. And a fine cap I'm sure it is too, Dearieme. As great a miserabilist as Carlyle would need a good smoke just to keep going.

  4. Great superfluous upper-class item - the smoking cap.

    "Where's my blasted smoking cap? I want to have a smoke! Can't have a smoke without my blasted smoking cap!"

  5. Thanks for posting this, Nige--a good way to start my day. Now I'll have to track down a collection of Jane Carlyle's letters (and thanks, Susan B. for the reminder about Parallel Lives, a book I've eyed before but never picked up).

    I hate to disagree with V. S. Pritchett, who 1) seems always to have been right about writers and 2) knew a thing or two about difficult marriages, but I'm not sure I'd put the Tolstoys in the "professional marriage" category. The sense I've always gotten of their union was that it involved way too high a degree of pathological neediness and mutual torment to be classed as anything but a sort of tortured anti-love match.

  6. Yes a tortured anti-love match indeed Levi - and yes I believe I did read Parallel Lives Susan, tho my memories of it are so vague it's hard to be sure - must look it out again... As for the smoking cap, this was - like the smoking jacket - an excellent invention, well due a revival. Kept the smell of baccy off your hair and clothes. Carlyle was not allowed to smoke in the house proper, so he would spend long periods sucking meaningly on his pipe below stairs, while the poor hardworked general maid (one of whom gave birth in a closet in the house while Jane entertained her friends to tea on the other side of the closet door) waited for the master to bog off so she could get to bed. There's a lovely photo in the house of Carlyle smoking moodily in the garden, perched on a Chinese porcelain garden seat (a kind of large inverted urn, quite the rage at the time).

  7. Who was it in Rupert the Bear wearing that outfit, Paisley smoking jacket etc?

    Personally, I prefer the George Saunders look.