Carlyle, Jane Welsh (1801–1866)

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Carlyle, Jane Welsh (1801–1866)

Brilliant conversationalist and letter-writer whose correspondence is filled with entertaining and detailed accounts of her day-to-day experiences and of the many men and women, famous and not so famous, with whom she came into contact. Name variations: Jane Welsh Baillie; Jane Baillie Welsh; Mrs. Thomas Carlyle; known by close friends and family as Jeannie. Born Jane Baillie Welsh on July 14, 1801, in Haddington, near Edinburgh, Scotland; died in London on April 21, 1866; daughter of John Welsh (a country doctor) and Grace Baillie (Welsh) Welsh (despite the same last name, parents were not related); educated at schools in Haddington, Miss Hall's finishing school in Edinburgh, and by a private tutor; married Thomas Carlyle, on October 17, 1826; no children.

Childhood and young adult life spent in Haddington; first 18 months of married life at Comely Bank in Edinburgh followed by six years at an isolated farmhouse at Craigenputtock in Dumfriesshire; moved to London (1833); made many visits to family and friends in Scotland, Manchester, and near Liverpool and, after Thomas Carlyle had found fame, to country houses of the English aristocracy, especially

that of Lord and Lady Ashburton in Hampshire; seriously injured in an accident (1863).

Selected publications: none in her lifetime but several collections of her letters are available, including (Charles R. Sanders, general ed.) The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (12 vols., 1970–85); (J.A. Froude, ed.) Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle prepared for publication by Thomas Carlyle (3 vols., 1883); (Alexander Carlyle, ed.) New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle (2 vols., 1903); (Alexander Carlyle, ed.) The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh (2 vols., 1909); (Leonard Huxley, ed.) Jane Welsh Carlyle: Letters to Her Family, 1839–1863 (1924); (Townsend Scudder, ed.) Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle to Joseph Neuberg, 1848–1862 (1931); (Trudy Bliss, ed.) Jane Welsh Carlyle: A New Selection of Her Letters (1949).

In the early evening of July 25, 1849, a slim, graceful, middle-aged woman, her smooth, raven-black hair parted in the center, stepped out of the train at the little station in Haddington, a lovely old country town 16 miles to the east of Edinburgh. Laden with two boxes, a writing-case and a carpet bag, she took the only vehicle, a dusty little omnibus, and was soon installed in the best room on the first floor of the George Inn. Having taken tea, she informed the landlord that she wished to visit the old village church and allowed herself to be shown over the schoolhouse, the playground, the village green and, finally, the cemetery. Alone in the churchyard, she slowly approached one of the graves. It was surrounded by nettles, the lettering overgrown with moss except for just two lines of the inscription that had recently been cleared. Then she slowly walked into the church and stood silently for a while before one of the pews. To her it looked untouched since she had last occupied it as a young woman. The green cloth was almost white with age. Her visit to the church accomplished, she spent a little more time wandering around the town before returning at long last to the inn. Even then, although it was very late, she sat writing furiously for two hours before going to bed.

The next morning she was up very early. Soon after six, she was to be found in front of an elegant but shabby house, which, with its façade of Corinthian pilasters topped by a stone balustrade and four stones urns, was sorely in need of a coat of paint. Here she stood for some time in quiet contemplation before making her way back to the churchyard. At that early hour it was still locked, but she scrambled over the wall and having rediscovered the same grave as the evening before pulled out a pearl-handled button hook, a treasured possession that had belonged to her father, and started to scrape the moss out of the inscription. A few hours later she was back on the train. Very few people had recognized her. Indeed, when questioning one young shopkeeper, she had actually been told that he remembered a Miss Welsh whom he considered the "tastiest young lady in the whole place," but she had gone to England and died there. As she had written to her husband that morning, "I am so glad I came here on this incognito principle. It is the only way in which I could have got any good of the dear old place—God bless it! how changed it is and how changed am I!"

In fact, Jane Welsh had been living for the past 15 years in London, with her husband, the writer and historian, Thomas Carlyle. Their house stood in a flag-pathed street known as Cheyne Row, which ran down towards the river Thames at Chelsea, once the resort of the Court but now a quiet, unfashionable village. However, in 1849, with her husband away on a trip to Ireland, lonely, and feeling considerable bitterness at his infatuation with the brilliant Lady Harriet Ashburton , she made plans to visit her native Scotland. On the spur of the moment, she had suddenly decided to make Haddington, her childhood home, her first stop, to revisit her beloved father's grave and, perhaps, to try to relive some of her past happinesses and recapture her lost dreams.

Jane had been born in Haddington on July 14, 1801. Her father John Welsh, who came from a family of moorland sheep farmers, had studied to become a doctor at Edinburgh University and had a flourishing practice in the town where he was much admired for his striking good looks and highly respected for his professional wisdom. After two years in practice, he had married Grace Welsh who was not related to him but also came from a long-established farming family. Grace Welsh was a good-looking woman. She dressed well, managed the household admirably, and was an excellent hostess. However, she was also very temperamental—reputed to be capable of 15 different moods in an evening—and made heavy demands on the patience and goodwill of her family.

Jane grew up secure in the knowledge of her parents' love and affection, but, as their only child, it is probable that she was spoiled and overindulged. She was a lively, intelligent child, and her father took great pride in her scholastic achievements. He was happy for her to tackle subjects rarely taught to girls at that time, logic, arithmetic, algebra; Jane also had little difficulty in persuading him to allow her to learn Latin. By age ten, she was coming to grips with Virgil under the tutelage of the local schoolmaster, Edward Irving, who was shortly to embark on his fiery career as a revivalist preacher. She would read late into the night and then be up and about when Irving arrived at six to tutor her for two hours before breakfast. During the day, she attended the village school and, not to be outdone, pitted herself against the most daring of the boys, once actually hitting one of them who had upset her. She was determined to prove herself and bravely crawled across the Nungate bridge, face down on the parapet's narrow edge. On another occasion, accompanied by a groom who held the lantern for her, she went out before daybreak to skate on the frozen river. Eventually, though, Grace Welsh made sure that the more feminine and genteel accomplishments such as piano playing, dancing and singing, writing with a fine copper-plate, drawing and languages were not neglected by insisting that her daughter become a boarder at Mrs. Hemmings' newly opened establishment for girls in Haddington. The final year of Jane's formal education was spent at Miss Hall's finishing school in Edinburgh where she renewed her acquaintance with Edward Irving. By age 16, Jane had already written a novel and a five-act tragedy. She had developed a quick wit and was starting to acquire a reputation for being sharp and haughty. At the same time, she was beginning to suffer more and more from prostrating headaches, a foretaste of the ill-health that was to plague her for the rest of her life.

When she was 18, Jane's happy comfortable existence was suddenly shattered when her father caught typhus fever from a patient and within four days had died. Both Jane and her mother were devastated, and for Jane it felt that there was no one left who could appreciate her intellectual achievements. Life at Haddington became very dull. Occasionally, Irving paid a short visit, and, in 1821, he wrote asking if he could bring his friend, Thomas Carlyle, to meet Jane and her mother. Thomas was then 25, struggling to earn a living and make a name for himself as a writer. He and Irving stayed for three days, and it was to be the beginning of a five-year correspondence between Jane and Thomas. For four years, Jane was determined the relationship should remain one of intellectual friendship in which Thomas acted as teacher and mentor. He sent her books to read, corrected her German translations, encouraged her study of history. They rarely met, and even when Thomas eventually succeeded in persuading her to marry him, during their 18-month engagement a year went by in which they did not see each other.

Why, after four years, did Jane finally agree to marry Thomas Carlyle? She was after all a rich and desirable heiress. He was a writer struggling to make a name for himself, the eldest of eight children of a stonemason, raised in a puritanical, impoverished family in the grim little village of Ecclefechan. His mother, whom he was very close to, was illiterate, but, in her 40s, she taught herself to read so that she might enjoy his letters at first hand. His rough, craggy physical appearance did not appeal to Jane. He was awkward. He had virtually no social graces. He had annoying habits such as a tendency to scratch the fender (fireplace screen) with his heavy walking boots and to crumble his cake into his tea. In September 1823, she still felt marriage was impossible, "Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never!"

Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf">

[Jane Welsh Carlyle was] the most wonderful letter-writer in the English language.

—Sir Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf

However, she certainly found in him a substitute for her sadly missed father, "I had never heard the language of talent and genius but from my Father's lips—I had thought that I should never hear it more—you spoke like him—your eloquence awoke in my soul the slumbering admirations and ambitions that His first kindled there." She was certainly ambitious for intellectual fame for herself. She certainly recognized his genius and perhaps hoped that they would be able to work in partnership, and Thomas encouraged her to write, "sit down and write … begin to write something, if you can, without delay, never minding how shallow and poor it may seem." She certainly longed to escape from her difficult relationship with her mother and the boredom of her existence in Haddington. There were many social callers and many visits to relatives but, as it was, "a tea-party, a quarrel, or a report of a marriage now and then, are the only excitements this precious little borough affords." There were undoubtedly other suitors but they had little appeal. To Eliza Stodart , a childhood friend in Edinburgh, she wrote: "A visit from a man with any brains in his head would really be an act of mercy to us here." She certainly had high ideals. In 1822, she read Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse. Her imagination was fired by Julie's passionate but doomed love for her tutor Saint-Preux and her resigned acceptance of Monsieur de Wolmar, the man chosen for her by her father. In another letter to Eliza, Jane poured out her belief that she would never find anyone who could live up to her expectations: "No lover will Jane Welsh ever find like St. Preux—no Husband like Wolmar … and to no man will she give her heart and pretty hand who bears to these no resemblance." She then went on to list all her past and present suitors and finished with the anguished cry, "Oh Lord Oh Lord! Where is the St. Preux? Where is the Wolmar?" There had been only one man whom she is thought to have loved passionately, her erstwhile tutor, Edward Irving, but he was betrothed to another. It seems it was only when Irving was finally beyond her reach, and she became aware she was in danger of losing the intellectual companionship of Carlyle as well, that the realization came to her that marriage to him was what she wanted.

Jane and Thomas Carlyle were married on October 17, 1826. Only four others were present, Thomas' brother and Jane's mother, grandfather, and aunt Jeannie. After a few months in Edinburgh, Thomas felt his health and writing would benefit from a move to the countryside. Shortly before their marriage, Jane had made her inheritance over to her mother as Thomas' pride would not allow him to be dependent upon his wife's income. Her inheritance had included her father's family's farm at Craigenputtock, a house tucked away in the southern Scottish moorlands, which they now decided to rent from Grace Welsh. During this period, the Carlyles were visited by the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson who found them, "among wild and desolate heathery hills, and without a single companion in this region." It was at Craigenputtock that Thomas Carlyle labored away at what was to become his first masterpiece, Sartor Resartus.

While her husband was closeted in his small library room or going for long solitary walks across the heather-clad hills, Jane found herself having to struggle with the demands of running the house. With only one woman servant, she was obliged to undertake cooking, housework and routine sewing such as stitching nightshirts and darning socks. Scouring floors and blacking the grates, households task she had never had to do before, had to be tackled regularly. She also looked after the poultry and learned to milk the cows.

Friends and family came to visit occasionally but there were long periods when they were on their own. They were short of money. They both suffered from chronic ill health, and the harsh conditions did little to help. The winters were particularly hard, and in 1829 when Jane needed nursing through suspected diphtheria her mother had to struggle up to the farm through deep snowdrifts. Both Thomas and Jane gradually came to realize that neither of them was really suited to such an isolated existence and that they badly missed the stimulus of intellectual companionship with others. In 1834, therefore, after six years at Craigenputtock, they moved to Cheyne Row, and their home soon became the haunt of many of the foremost thinkers, writers, and artists of the time.

However, it was not an easy marriage. Both of them were plagued by insomnia and vaguely defined illnesses. It seems likely that the marriage was consummated but that sexual relations did not survive for long. Before many years had passed, they had separate bedrooms and even spent most of the day in different parts of the house. Thomas was often irritable, totally absorbed in his work. He would go for long walks and rides, alone or with others. Jane felt neglected and even more so when her husband became increasingly absorbed with the grand, wealthy, clever, high-spirited Lady Ashburton. But there were also many good times, especially in the earlier years. They exchanged long and affectionate letters when apart. In the evenings, if at home with no visitors, they would read together, study languages together, or she would make little stories for him out of the trials and tribulations of her day.

Jane's literary ambitions were never realized. Instead, she devoted herself to soothing the path of her "Lion." If he wanted to go off on travels of his own, she did not stand in his way. He was sensitive to the slightest sound, and, if anything disturbed his work or his sleep, she made it her mission to seek out and eradicate the source of the offending noise. Unlike most women of her day, she even managed his financial affairs and on one traumatic occasion went to fight his case before the Commissioners of Inland Revenue arguing, when told that Thomas should be there to swear his own statement, that she understood her "husband's affairs fully, better than he does himself." It is doubtful whether at that time it could have been otherwise. Thomas' own view of marriage was merely a reflection of contemporary thinking, which was constantly repeated in the literature of the day and subscribed to by many other eminent Victorian writers such as Coventry Patmore and John Ruskin. Writing some six months before they were married, Thomas explained his objection to Jane's suggestion that her mother should be allowed to share their home on the grounds that:

The Man should bear rule in the house and not the Woman. This is an eternal axiom, the Law of Nature herself which no mortal departs from unpunished. … Think not, Darling, that this comes of an imperious temper; that I shall be a harsh and tyrannical husband to thee. God forbid! But it is the nature of a man that if he be controlled by any thing but his own Reason, he feels himself degraded; and incited, be it justly or not, to rebellion and discord. It is the nature of a woman again (for she is essentially passive not active) to cling to the man for support and direction, to comply with his humours, and feel pleasure in doing so, simply because they are his.

However, between the rows with domestic staff, the household upheavals, the regular bouts of frenzied cleaning—"earthquaking" as she called it—the unending stream of visitors, the constant demands of her husband's career and ill-health, struggling with her own bouts of sickness and hypochondria, which were never fully explained or sympathized with, Jane Carlyle managed to find the time to write detailed accounts of her daily experiences. She poured out letters to her husband when they were apart, to her family, to her friends, to her husband's family. These sparkling, vibrant letters are the legacy she left behind. The editors of the definitive edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle have found about 3,000 letters written by her and have estimated that in her most prolific period, 1841–45, judging only by the letters that have survived, she was writing on average 116 each year. To a Mrs. Russell, the wife of the doctor who attended her dying mother, Carlyle wrote: "I never sit down at night, beside a good fire, alone, without feeling a need of talking a little, on paper, to somebody that I like well enough, and that likes me well enough, to make it of no moment—whether I talk sense or nonsense, and with or without regard to the rules of grammar." She wrote about "everything and everybody," about herself, her difficulties with the maids, her problems with running the house, her travels, her family, the people she met, both celebrated and ordinary. She had a keen eye for a detail and was a brilliant story-teller, making great play, often in a mocking and mischievous way, of the trivia and absurdities of everyday life.

Jane Carlyle died on April 21, 1866, while out for a ride in her brougham in Hyde Park. Three years previously, she had had a fall in the street, and this had been followed by several months of intense pain and miserable illness, which was eventually only relieved by a long period of convalescence with family and friends in Scotland. Back in London, her health continued to be very poor, and it is probable that she died from heart failure. Thomas had just been triumphantly installed as rector of Edinburgh University, and the news of her death was brought to him by telegram as he stayed with his brother and sister in Dumfriesshire. Two days later, she was reunited with her father, buried alongside his grave in the churchyard at Haddington as she had wished. Thomas Carlyle was shattered by her death. It was only then that he realized how much she meant to him, and, full of remorse for the way he had neglected her, he set to work to write his reminiscence of her and to prepare her letters and "memorials" for publication. It was Thomas, consumed by his guilt, who by his selection and annotation of Jane's letters created the portrait of her as a neglected, self-sacrificing, genius manqué. This was the interpretation used by Thomas' disciple, James Anthony Froude, who in his biography, which created a sensation when it appeared in 1882, presented Jane as the long-suffering, sexually unfulfilled wife, deserted in middle-age for a more brilliant woman and allowed to sacrifice her literary ambitions on the altar of her husband's career. On the other hand, the work of Alexander Carlyle, Thomas' nephew, which was produced at the instigation of the Carlyle family as a riposte to Froude, attempted to vindicate Thomas and absolve him from responsibility for Jane's supposed hypochondria and failure to achieve fame as a writer. It was not, Alexander Carlyle argued, that Thomas never gave her the opportunity; the fault lay within her as she did not have the ability to make the necessary sustained effort.

Whatever the truth, the portrait that Thomas Carlyle and Froude drew from Jane's letters is without doubt too harsh an interpretation. Jane's letters also reveal a different story. True, she could be bitter, but she could also be bubbling over with joy and excitement. True, she was sometimes full of self-pity, but at others she was full of affection and concern. Moreover, she may have devoted herself constantly to her husband's well-being but her friends spoke highly of her own successes and abilities, both as a brilliant conversationalist and letter-writer. For some, she was "the cleverest woman in London" and many of those who called to see the Carlyles in Cheyne Row came to visit her in her own right. As her close friend, novelist Geraldine Jewsbury wrote in 1849: "I do not feel that either you and I are to be called failures. We are indications of a development of womanhood which as yet is not recognized. It has, so far, no ready-made channels to run in, but still we have looked, and tried, and found that the present rules for women will not hold us."


Brysson Morrison, N. True Minds: The Marriage of Thomas & Jane Carlyle. London: J.M. Dent, 1974.

Burdett, Osbert. The Two Carlyles. London: Faber & Faber, 1930.

Simpson, Alan, and Mary McQueen, eds. I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Surtees, Virginia. Jane Welsh Carlyle. Salisbury: Michael Russell, 1976.

suggested reading:

Christianson, Aileen. "Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Friendships with Women in the 1840s," in Prose Studies. Vol. 10, no. 3. December 1987, pp. 283–295.

Froude, James Anthony. My Relations with Carlyle. 1903.

Holme, Thea. The Carlyles at Home. London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Ireland, Mrs. Alexander, ed. Selections from the Letters of Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle. 1892.

Rose, Phyllis. Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. London: Vintage, 1994.

Vicinus, Martha. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.


Substantial numbers of Jane Carlyle's letters are held by The National Library of Scotland at Edinburgh, the University of Edinburgh, the New York Public Library, and the Ashburton collection at Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire, England. Others are to be found in some 30 libraries and private collections in English-speaking countries.

The Carlyle house in Cheyne Row has been preserved by The National Trust and still contains furniture, books, personal relics and portraits.

Sylvia Dunkley , part-time tutor in women's history and in social history, Division of Adult Continuing Education, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, England