By Anne Olshansky
During the 1840s, Jane Welsh Carlyle led a stimulating and privileged life. As the wife of the greatly admired but tormented and self-absorbed author Thomas Carlyle, Jane associated with London’s literary elite—surrounded by writers, artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries during a period of social and political change. Many of the frequent visitors to her home are still well-known—Dickens, Emerson, Tennyson, and Chopin, to name a few. These illustrious men had great respect for Jane’s intellect and some considered her more brilliant than Thomas. However, prevailing attitudes toward women caused them, at times, to be uncomfortable with Jane as an intellectual equal. One evening, while Thomas was out, Tennyson visited. To reduce his anxiety about her “womanness,” Jane offered pipes, tobacco, and brandy. It worked.
With all that she had to be grateful for, Jane despaired. She was conflicted and depressed for most of her life. Victorian restrictions on women’s rights and behavior were experienced by many women as suffocation of their souls. Code books instructed respectable middle-class and upper-class brides as to their social obligations and duties, and that a married woman “must necessarily be [her husband’s] inferior.” They encouraged women to be “unobtrusive, quiet, willing to bend to all circumstances.” Jane’s circumstances included the humiliating acceptance of her husband’s “platonic” romantic affair, accompanying him on extended trips to his paramour’s country estate, and bending graciously as the two engaged in their platonic relating in Jane’s presence. Also expected was the quiet acceptance of laws. One stated that a husband, upon marriage, became the legal owner of his wife’s property and any income she may earn. As divorce required a private act of Parliament and was costly, a woman was unlikely to obtain one unless the husband initiated it—after which, she would be broke, scandalized, and unable to find respectable work. Without support from friends or relatives, the remaining options were prostitution, the workhouse, or the poorhouse. Most concluded it was best to be obedient.
But constant subjugation and restraint stifled self-realization and creativity, affecting physical and psychological health: Many middle-class and upper-class women suffered from depression, chronic illness, even invalidism. Periodically, Jane spent months in bed. Her health would improve, however, when she was allowed to express herself and feel fully human. Traveling alone made her feel self-reliant and independent.
Jane wanted to work, to be useful. Although she assisted women in need with finding governess and servant positions, free of charge, Jane yearned for greater fulfillment—a mission.
There was one avenue available to Jane which could provide unlimited self-expression and freedom—letter writing. People wrote regularly and letters were taken very seriously—by some, as art. Jane wrote almost daily throughout her life. Author Kathy Chamberlain’s biography introduces us to Jane’s world via the many letters she wrote and received, and thorough research of the period. The letters provide a vivid, intimate, and detailed account of Victorian life. Most interesting, however, is the discussion of personal circumstances, acquaintances, and European politics and culture.
Jane became known for her brilliant letters. She wrote with great speed—metaphors, allusions, references, quotations. Some letters employed imagery; some were dream-like; others were similar to one-scene, plays with friends and family as characters; some offered sexual gossip and information about lovers and jealousies. As it was customary to pass around letters of interest, Jane developed a reputation among many readers she didn’t know personally. Some suspected she was the author of Jane Eyre and other novels published pseudonymously.
Although Jane also wrote fiction, parody, poetry, and memoirs, she never showed these to others. Many who admired her talent, including her patriarchal husband at times, encouraged Jane to write for publication. She considered doing so, fretted about it continually, but always held back. Chamberlain suggests that a lifetime of indoctrination against “egotistical display in a woman” and “pervasive cultural belief that assertion in a woman [was] unnatural” caused Jane to be torn between respect for tradition and ambition; she was too uncomfortable with becoming her own person. Yet, London was filled with liberal-minded thinkers, and Jane knew of a growing number of women, some famous, who had published and earned their own money.
We don’t learn why Jane was not influenced by these women to write professionally, but she never published during her life. She remained ambivalent, and spent years writing brilliant letters in her parlor.