Jane Welsh Carlyle

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Portrait of Jane Welsh Carlyle by Samuel Laurence, circa 1852.

Jane Welsh Carlyle (14 January 1801 – 21 April 1866) was a Scottish writer. She did not publish any work in her lifetime, but she was widely seen as an extraordinary letter writer. Virginia Woolf called her one of the "great letter writers,"[1] and Elizabeth Hardwick described her work as a "private writing career."[2]


Jane Baillie Welsh was born in Haddington, East Lothian, 14 January 1801. She was the daughter of Dr. John Welsh (1770-1819) and his wife, Grace Caplegill.[3] She was the wife of essayist Thomas Carlyle.

Marriage to Thomas Carlyle[edit]

Jane's tutor Edward Irving had introduced her to Carlyle, with whom she came to have a mutual romantic (although not sexually intimate) attraction. The couple married in 1826 and for the first six years lived on a farm in Scotland; the marriage was often unhappy. Thomas was always busy writing and Jane remained dutiful in doing the housework. After the couple moved from Scotland to London in 1834, Jane took on the added job of keeping the neighborhood quiet so that her husband could write undisturbed. Phyllis Rose wrote "the quintessential expression of Jane's role within the marriage was her continuing battle to protect her husband from the crowing of cocks." [4] In an 1844 letter to her husband, Jane wrote about this arrangement. "I slept much better last night, in spite of cocks of every variety of power, a dog, and a considerable rumblement of carts. But the evil of these things is not doubled or tripled for me by the reflection that you were being kept awake by them."[5]

Their voluminous correspondence has been published, and the letters show that the couple's affection for each other was marred by frequent quarrels. Samuel Butler once wrote: "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". Carlyle's biographer James Anthony Froude posthumously published his opinion that the marriage remained unconsummated.[6][7]

Historian Paul Johnson notes in Creators that she not only irked her husband but made prickly comments about others. One target was fellow female writer George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), whose decision to live openly with her married lover Henry Lewes had scandalised London society. Seeing the pair at the theatre one evening, Jane remarked of Eliot, "Poor soul! There never was a more absurd miscalculation than her constituting herself an improper woman. She looks Propriety personified. Oh, so slow!"[8]

Their long marriage was complicated by other relationships on both sides, though these appear to have been platonic. The Carlyle marriage itself was believed to have been platonic by some of their contemporaries.[9]

Jane was jealous of a friendship her husband had with the socialite and hostess Lady Harriet Mary Montagu (later Lady Ashburton). The friendship was non-sexual yet they still spent a lot of time together. Jane expressed her jealousy and anger in a letter dated in 1856.

Relationship with Geraldine Jewsbury[edit]

National Trust, Carlyle's House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation, Jane Welsh Carlyle, ca. 1856, by Mrs. Paulet
The grave of Jane Welsh Carlyle, St Mary's Church, Haddington

Jane had a long and close friendship (1841-1866) with fellow writer Geraldine Jewsbury. The two women first met when Thomas invited Geraldine to Cheyne Row, where Thomas and Jane lived. Geraldine had written to Thomas before the invitation admiring his work,[10] and also expressing her religious doubt. Geraldine was going through a depressive time, but she also contacted Thomas in the hopes of entering the literary realm in England. When Geraldine and Jane met, their friendship turned out to be more of a romantic relationship. It is evident both women had feelings for each other, but there is no evidence of them being lovers. Jane always remained dutiful to her husband and neither had acted upon any romantic feelings. This caused a lot of jealousy between the two women as Jane always remained married to Thomas and Geraldine had lovers of her own. However, they both had passionate feelings towards one another and that passion is expressed in their many letters to one another: as Geraldine wrote, “I feel towards you much more like a lover than a female friend”.[11]

They often had disagreements about common social issues of the era such as the place of men in women's lives and the purpose of women in general. Geraldine wasn't opposed to marriage, but she thought man and woman should be equal in marriage; she didn't witness that with Jane and Thomas, and criticised the great man for it.[12] Jane often tried to set up Geraldine with suitable bachelors in London. However, none of them stuck (Geraldine never married).

Plaque to Jane Welsh Carlyle, St Mary's, Haddington

When they were on good terms, Jane helped Geraldine with many of her literary works, including two of Geraldine's most popular novels, Zoe: the History of Two Lives,[13] and The Half Sisters, which Geraldine wanted to dedicate to her.[14]

In 1857, Geraldine became romantically involved with Walter Mantell. The two women became distant. But near the end of her life, when Jane was very ill, the two reconnected. When Jane died, Geraldine spoke of Jane as “the friend of my heart”.[15]

These two women had a very interesting relationship from a romantic, literary, and friendly perspective. Virginia Woolf based a 1929 article in the Times Literary Supplement on Geraldine's letters to Jane Carlyle,[16] later published in ‘’The Second Common Reader’’.[17] Their passionate relationship was recognized among their literary peers despite the ups and downs of their friendship.[7][18][19]


Plaque to Jane Welsh Carlyle, 23 George Square, Edinburgh

Throughout her life, Jane Carlyle valued letters. "A newspaper is very pleasant when one is expecting nothing at all; but when it comes in place of a letter it is a positive insult to one's feelings." [20] Francis Wilson writes that "Jane’s letters, which have lost nothing of their freshness and mischief, take us immediately into her world, or rather into the world as she chose to construct it. She saw her letters as a roman fleuve ...in which she recorded conversations, sketched what she called ‘dramas in one scene' and reshaped her days for comic effect."[21]

After Jane's sudden death from a stroke or heart attack in 1866 Thomas Carlyle published a highly self-critical "Reminiscences," based on her diary. He expresses remorse for the neglect and mistreatment evident in the diary. Phyllis Rose writes that "few women in history - or even literature - were more successful at making their husbands feel guilty than Jane Carlyle.[22]

The Scottish philosopher David George Ritchie, a friend of the Carlyle family, published a volume of her letters in 1889 under the title The Early Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Since then a number of the Carlyle letters have been collected and published, including the multi-volume collection of the correspondence of both Jane and Thomas.[23]

In 1973, American scholar G. B. Tennyson described her as "one of the rare Victorian wives who are of literary interest in their own right...to be remembered as one of the great letter writers (in some respects her husband’s superior) of the nineteenth century is glory beyond the dreams of avarice."


She died in London on 21 April 1866 and is buried with her father in St Mary's Collegiate Church, Haddington. The grave (railed off) stands inside the church close to the west end.

A plaque to Jane stands on the west side of George Square in Edinburgh.


  1. ^ Woolf, Virginia (1986). The Essays of Virginia Woolf. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich. p. 184.
  2. ^ Hardwick, Elizabeth (1974). Seduction & Betrayal. New York: Random House. p. 174.
  3. ^ Grave of Welsh family, St Mary's Church, Haddington
  4. ^ Rose, Phyllis (1983). Parallel Lives. New York: Random House. p. 246. ISBN 0394725808.
  5. ^ Bliss, ed., Trudy (1950). Jane Welsh Carlyle: A New Section of Her Letters (Second ed.). New York: The MacMillan Company. p. 148.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  6. ^ Froude, J. A. (1903). My Relations With Carlyle. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  7. ^ a b Cruikshank, Margaret (1979). "Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Carlyle". Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 4 (3): 60–64. doi:10.2307/3346151. JSTOR 3346151.
  8. ^ Haight, Gordon S., George Eliot’s Originals and Contemporaries: Essays in Victorian Literary History and Biography
  9. ^ Rose. Parallel Lives. p. 60.
  10. ^ Woolf, The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 143
  11. ^ Quoted in Woolf, The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 144
  12. ^ Woolf, ‘The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 145
  13. ^ Woolf, The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 147-8
  14. ^ Woolf, The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 150
  15. ^ Quoted in A Booth, Homes and Haunts (2016) p. 232
  16. ^ A Booth, Homes and Haunts (2016) p. 244
  17. ^ Woolf, The Second Common Reader (Penguin [1932]) p. 143
  18. ^ Howe, Susanne (1935). Geraldine Jewsbury, Her Life and Errors. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  19. ^ Clarke, Norma (1990). Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans, and Jane Welsh Carlyle. London: Routledge.
  20. ^ Bliss. Jane Welsh Carlyle. p. 52.
  21. ^ Wilson, Frances. "How Jane Carlyle Survived a Miserable Marriage". The Spectator. Retrieved 22 October 2019.
  22. ^ Rose. Parallel Lives. p. 254.
  23. ^ Campbell, Ian (1970). The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle (Ongoing ed.). Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ashton, Rosemary (2001). Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage. London: Chatto & Windus.
  • Bourne, H.R. Fox (1882). "Carlyle and His Wife," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCLII, pp. 685–705.
  • Brown, Francis (1910). "Miss Martineau and the Carlyles," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. CVI, pp. 381–387.
  • Chamberlain, Kathy (2017). Jane Welsh and Her Victorian World. New York: Overlook Duckworth.
  • Collis, John Stewart (1971). The Carlyles: A Biography of Thomas and Jane Carlyle. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
  • Drew, Elizabeth A. (1928). Jane Welsh and Jane Carlyle. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company.
  • Fielding, K. J.; David R. Sorensen & Rodger L. Tarr (2004). The Carlyles at Home and Abroad. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Pub.
  • Hanson, Lawrence & Elisabeth Hanson (1952). Necessary Evil; the Life of Jane Welsh Carlyle. London: Constable.
  • Ireland, Annie E. (1888). "George Eliot and Jane Welsh Carlyle," The Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. CCLXIV, pp. 229–238.
  • Ireland, Annie E. (1891). Life of Jane Welsh Carlyle. New York: C.L. Webster & Co.
  • Morrison, Nancy Brysson (1974). True Minds: The Marriage of Thomas and Jane Carlyle. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
  • Oliphant, Margaret (1883). "Mrs. Carlyle," The Contemporary Review, Vol. XLIII, pp. 609–628.
  • Scudder, Townsend (1939). Jane Welsh Carlyle. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Surtees, Virginia (1986). Jane Welsh Carlyle. Salisbury, Wiltshire: Michael Russell.
  • Uglow, Nathan. "Jane Welsh Carlyle". The Literary Encyclopedia. Ed. Robert Clark, Emory Elliott and Janet Todd.

External links[edit]