Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Letter and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle


Mrs.C: - Bout’ ye Mr.C
Mr.C: - Can’t complain Mrs.C.
Mrs.C: - Try harder Mr. C.
Mr.C: - Now is desolation made more desolate and the treacherous phare of mine enemy has brought me to the rocks and ruin.
Mrs.C: - How so Mr.C?
Mr.C: - This toast stinks of smoking sea coal. Can they not light the fire in the range earlier to get good hot embers before the toast is plied to it. This is Stygian. Besides I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. There was a cat running up and down the garden wall. And the porridge. Have we run out of good East Lothian oats?
Mrs.C: - The history of Frederick the Great of Prussia has laid waste to this house. Twelve years on it and only 5 books written. One more will complete it and finish me.

That last sentence nor any like it was never uttered before Mr. C(arlyle). She, Jean Welsh Carlyle, always referred to him as such in her many letters in which the complexity of ministration to her husband was mentioned. As Frederick waxed she waned. In the end he had a posthumous victory and Thomas Carlyle only became aware of her suffering after she died. This knowledge came to him through the reading of her journal. However others realized this and made sure that she had regular spells of time away from him to recover. John Stewart Collis in his book on their marriage The Carlyles maintains that fond absence was the glue that kept them together. So she married a genius and that is what she got dyspepsia, insomnia, moaning in the gloaming with a lassie by my side and all. Her letters were not a valve for venting but genuine warm communication with her friends and family.

In the opening letter of Vol.3 J.W.C.

My dear Miss Barnes,—How nice of you to have written me a letter,' all out of your own head' (as the children say), and,'how very nice of you to have remarked the forget-me-not, and read a meaning in it! It was certainly with intention I tied up some forget-me-nots along with my farewell roses ; but I was far from sure of your recognising the intention, and at the same time not young enough to make it plainer. Sentiment, you see, is not well looked on by the present generation of women; there is a growing taste for fastness, or, still worse, for strong-mindedness ! so a discreet woman (like me) will beware always of putting her sentiment (when she has any) in evidence—will rather leave it—as in the forget-me-not case—to be divined through sympathy; and failing the sympathy, to escape notice.
And you are actually going to get married! you ! already ! And you expect me to congratulate you ! or ' perhaps not.' I admire the judiciousness of that 'perhaps not.' Frankly, my dear, I wish you all happiness in the new life that is opening to you ; and you are marrying under good auspices, since your father approves of the marriage. But congratulation on such occasions seems to me a tempting of Providence. The triumphal-procession-air which, in our manners and customs, is given to marriage at the outset—that singing of Te Deum before the battle has begun—has, ever since I could reflect, struck me as somewhat senseless and somewhat impious. If ever one is to pray—if ever one is to feel grave and anxious—if ever one is to shrink from vain show and vain babble—surely it is just on the occasion of two human beings binding themselves to one another, for better and for worse, till death part them; just on that occasion which it is customary to celebrate only with rejoicings, and congratulations, and trousseaux, and white ribbon! Good God !

Frederick the Great was casting his curse on her marriage. Thomas Carlyle in a note to Letter 214 writes:

In October, after getting home, there was a determined" onslaught made on ' Frederick,' an attempt (still in the way of youth—16 rather than 60!) to vanquish by sheer force the immense masses of incondite or semi-condite rubbish which had "accumulated on ' Frederick,' that is, to let the printer straightway drive me through it!—a most fond and foolish notion, which indeed I myself partly knew, durst I have confessed it, to be foolish and even impossible! But this was the case all along; I never once said to myself, 4 All those chaotic mountains, wide as the world, high as the stars, dismal as Lethe, Styx, and Phlegethon, did mortal ever see the like of it for size and for quality in the rubbish way? All this thou wilt have to take into thee, to roast and smelt in the furnace of thy own poor soul till thou fairly smelt the grains of gold out of it!' No, though dimly knowing all this, I durst not openly know it (indeed, how could I otherwise ever have undertaken such a subject ?) ; and I had got far on with the unutterable enterprise, before I did clearly admit that such was verily proving, and would, on to the finis, prove to have been the terrible part of this affair, affair which I must now conquer tale quale, or else perish! This first attempt of October-February, 1859 —-1860 (after dreadful tugging at the straps), was given up by her serious advices, which I could not but admit to be true as well as painful and humiliating! November 1860 had arrived before there was any further printing: nothing thenceforth but silent pulling at a dead lift, which lasted four or five years more.
My darling must have suffered much in all this; how much! I sometimes thought how cruel it was on her, to whom ‘Frederick' was literally nothing except through me, so cruel, alas, alas, and yet inevitable ! Never once in her deepest misery did she hint, by word or sign, what she too was suffering under that score ; me only did she ever seem to pity in it, the heroic, the thrice noble, and wholly loving soul!

It is a curious fact that three Victorian sage writers, Ruskin, Mill and Carlyle, with more remedies than Boots the Chemist, had serious trouble in the trousers department. All the rest of us have to do is hang them up on a convenient nail. Meanwhile back in Vienna.....

Find Vol.3 at letters J.W.C.




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