'Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World' brings a forgotten talent to life

Kathy Chamberlain's excellent biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle takes her out of the shadow of husband Thomas and puts her own formidable talent and complex character on display.

Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World: A Story of Love, Work, Friendship, and Marriage By Kathy Chamberlain The Overlook Press 400 pp.

History hasn't been kind to Jane Welsh Carlyle, and her contemporaries over a century ago were often unkind as well, both about Jane individually and about her famously turbulent marriage to the great Victorian essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle. Samuel Butler famously quipped “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four,” and the quip has stuck to Thomas and especially Jane ever since.

She's viewed as that most chimerical of man-dominated censure: a difficult woman – prickly, contentious, and worst of all from a traditional 19th-century view, opinionated. She seldom gave her celebrity husband the kind of submission great men of all eras have expected from their wives, and in her private correspondence – the vivid, glorious, unstoppable outpouring of her letters – she pulls no punches about the couple's marital discord.

Kathy Chamberlain, Jane's latest and incomparably best biographer, is fully aware of all this negative historical momentum. At the start of her thoroughly excellent new biography, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World, Chamberlain admits immediately that any modern biographer has to contend with Jane's problematic reputation. “The old myths about Jane Carlyle as part of a couple who ought never to have married – which the Victorians and their descendants largely conjured up from their own urgent sex and gender anxieties – do not reflect the complicated lives of the Carlyles as presented in their collected letters, nor do they speak to us,” she writes. “Yet, most strangely, those stereotypes linger on.”

In these pages Chamberlain makes more extensive and more adroit use of those letters than any previous writer chronicling this couple, and particularly Jane, whose fascination with the social innovations of her era competed unevenly in her mind with her respect for the conventions of married life; “Tradition and modernity contend very differently in individuals,” Chamberlain writes, and this book is the fullest and most compelling portrait of that inner struggle that's ever been written about Jane, teasing out the nuances and complexities of this woman who could be fun or caustic by turns, who was devoted to her friends but every bit as capable as her irascible husband of making enemies, who had literary talents as prodigious as Thomas's but chose not to share them with the world, focusing instead on her unpublished satires, parodies, and letters, her “private writing career,” as Elizabeth Hardwick put it.

Even in childhood, Jane herself had imagined a magical doorway to an adulthood that might somehow allow her more choices than she saw in her real-world future. In an 1859 letter to George Eliot, she wrote about that door, as Chamberlain quotes: “As a young girl, after a magical year of pondering the wondrous door, which Jane refers to as door-worship, it smote her 'like a slap on the face' that 'It was a door into – nothing! Make-believe! There for uniformity! Behind it was lath and plaster; behind that the Drawing-room with its familiar tables and chairs! Dispelled illusion no. 1!'”

That sense of jagged, almost wounded honesty pervades Chamberlain's book, which takes readers inside one of the most famous of all Victorian literary marriages and shows them far, far more than the standard picture of the Carlyles always at war with each other. Both were blazingly intelligent and equally impatient with the normal societal expectations of their day. Their sojourns in the country houses of friends and relatives are especially likely to irritate; “In letters to others,” Chamberlain writes, “the Carlyles complain of idleness and donothingism, owing to the extravagant amount of time the English aristocracy managed to waste at house parties.”

Jane's extensive network of personal relations is traced with energy and subtlety, from her family to her female friends to her housekeepers to gaunt and charismatic Erasmus Darwin (older brother of Charles), “the likest thing to a brother I ever had in the world.” Oddly, and unfortunately, the only such relation that's sometimes disappointingly drawn in the book is the most central one, Thomas Carlyle; the book's passages dealing with his tormented personal life can be touched with purple prose (“It is not exaggeration to say that at the worst moments the dragon breath of madness blew down upon him”), and some of the armchair psychoanalysis lavished on him is less than convincing (“some unconscious connection involving projection seemed to exist between his reprehensible views on slavery and the Abolitionist movement, and his torment about his own writing-work”).

But it's almost entirely Jane's book in any case, and Chamberlain's evocation of her is pitch-perfect. In the 1840s, Jane tried her hand at a memoir essay that she titled, with typical sardonic self-effacement, “Much ado about Nothing.” Chamberlain calls it one of her finest achievements, in which readers are confronted with “the jolting shock of the familiar having become alien, and oneself a ghost.”

"Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World" carries something of that same shock; it gives us, at last, a Jane Carlyle who seems thrillingly alive.

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