‘A stormy day, within doors; so I rushed out early and walked, walked, walked! If peace and quietness be not in one’s own power, one can always give oneself, at least, bodily fatigue.’ This is Jane Carlyle, possibly England’s greatest woman letter writer, turning her hand, and thoughts and emotions, to a diary. Today is the 210th anniversary of her birth.
Jane Baillie Welsh was born on 14 January 1801 in Haddington, near Edinburgh, into a doctor’s family. As a child, she was considered something of a tomboy. At 10, her father employed Edward Irving to tutor her. She is said to have written her first novel when only 13. She also wrote verse, sang and played the piano. Two years after her father had died suddenly from typhoid, in 1821, Irving brought his friend, the writer Thomas Carlyle, with him on a visit to Haddington. Thereafter, Carlyle corresponded with Jane, ostensibly to help with her studies, although Jane’s mother disapproved of him.
Jane married Carlyle in 1826, and lived much in awe of his shining intelligence. Although they had two reasonably happy years, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), Jane was very lonely after they moved to a remote farm at Craigenputtoch in Dumfriesshire. In 1834, though, they relocated to London, where they developed a busy social circle, and where Jane was influential in her husband’s success. Nevertheless, she continued to find life with Thomas difficult, partly because she was always in his intellectual shadow, despite being very clever and literate herself. Her resentment increased when Thomas seemed to transfer his loyalty to Lady Harriet, later Lady Ashburton.
Jane died in 1866, leading Thomas to retire from public life. However, he passed on her papers and letters, some of which which first appeared in 1883 as Letters and Memorials edited by James Anthony Froude. He also passed on a secret journal, though this was not included in any of the first publications. However, parts of the diary do appear in New Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, published by John Lane in 1903. The letters especially, but also the journal, reveal a huge amount about Jane and the marriage.
According to the ODNB, ‘it is hardly disputed that [Jane] is the greatest woman letter writer in English. Her skill often lay in the immediacy of her letters; their appeal lies partly in the story that emerges from her self-dramatization. . . Their effectiveness has nothing to do with elegant prose, to which she could always rise, much to do with her sympathetic imagination, clear head, alertness, and a quick eye and ear for entirely natural expression.’
Although there is not very much biographical information about Jane Carlyle online (except at the excellent ONDB, which requires a subscription or UK library card login), Wikipedia and The Diary Junction have a few useful links. However, her letters are easily found online, as is the journal she wrote in 1855-1856, when her husband was already visiting Lady Ashburton at Bath House. The letters and journal can be found at The Carlyle Letters online, or Internet Archive.
Here are some of the first entries in the journal. They give a good feeling not only of Jane’s literary skill, but the depth and range of her emotional life.
21 October 1855
‘Neither my birthday nor newyear’s-day this; anniversaries on which I “feel it my duty,” usually, to bloom out into the best intentions, beginning and ending always with the intention to resume my old journal. But if “carried out” to the extent of a few pages, it has “gone,” even that smallest of good intentions, “to the greater number,” before a week was out! Decidedly I am no longer the little girl who used to say over her most difficult tasks, “I'll gar myself do it”!
The mother of Invention has garred me do so much against the grain, that I am too fatigued now to gar myself do anything I can get let alone. And after all; one may keep a journal very minutely and regularly and still be a great fool! all the greater perhaps for this very labour of selfconsciousness which is so apt to degenerate into a dishonest striving to “make a silk purse out of a sows ear” for posthumous admiration or sympathy - from one’s Executors; or even for present self-complacent mistification of oneself!
I remember Charles Buller saying of the Duchess de Praslin’s murder; “what could a poor fellow do with a wife who kept a journal, but murder her?” There was a certain truth hidden in this light remark. Your Journal “all about feelings” aggravates whatever is factitious and morbid in you; that I have made experience of; and now the only sort of journal I would keep should have to do with what Mr Carlyle calls “the fact of things”. It is very bleak and barren this “fact of things” as I now see it - very! And what good is to result from writing of it in a paper-book is more than I can tell. But I have taken a notion ‘TO’; and perhaps I shall blacken more paper this time, when I begin “quite promiscuously,” without any moral end in view but just, as the Scotch Professor drank whiskey “because I like it, and because it's cheap.” ’
22 October 1855
I was cut short in my introduction last night by Mr C’s return from Bath House. That eternal Bath House. I wonder how many thousand miles Mr C has walked between there and here, putting it all together; setting up always another milestone and another betwixt himself and me. Oh, good grasious! when I first noticed that heavy yellow House without knowing, or caring to know, who it belonged to, how far I was from dreaming that thro’ years and years I should carry every stone’s weight of it on my heart. (About feelings already! Well, I will not proceed - tho the thoughts I had in my bed about all that, were tragical enough to fill a page of “thrilling interest” - for myself; and tho’, as George Sand has shrewdly remarked, “rien ne soulage comme la rhètorique” [nothing soothes like rhetoric].)’
23 October 1855
‘A stormy day, within doors; so I rushed out early and walked, walked, walked! If peace and quietness be not in one’s own power, one can always give oneself, at least, bodily fatigue - no such bad succedaneum after all! - Life gets to look for me like a sort of kaleidiscope; a few things of different colours (black predominating) which Fate shakes into new and ever new combinations, but always the same things over again! Today has been so like a day I still remember out of ten years ago! The same still, dreamy October weather - the same tumult of mind contrasting with the outer stillness - the same causes for that tumult; then as now I had walked, walked, walked, with no aim but to tire myself; . . .’
25 October 1855
‘ “Oh good gracious alive”! what a whirlwind - or rather whirl-pool of a day! Breakfast had “passed off” better or worse, and I was at work on a picture-frame, my own invention and pretending to be a little “work of art”; when Mr C’s bell rang like mad, and was followed by cries of, “come! come! are you coming?” Arrived at the second landing, three steps at a time, I saw Mr C and Ann in the spare bed room, hazily, thro’ a waterfall! The great cistern had overflowed; and it was “raining and pouring down” thro’ the new ceiling, and plashing up on the new carpet! All the baths and basins in the house and even “vessels of dishonour” were quickly assembled on the floor, and I on my knees mopping up with towels and sponges. When the water ceased to pour thro the ceiling, it began to pour thro the roof of the bed! If the water had only been clean! but it was black as soot, and the ground of the carpet white! At last it faired in the Spare Room, and I retired to change my shoes and stockings, which were soaked, as if I had been fishing while doing this, I became aware of a patter-pattering in the drawing room; and looking in, perceived a quite romantic little lake on the green Brussels carpet! There too the water had flooded half the ceiling. More mopping with towels and sponges, and another pair of shoes and stockings soaked. Finally, after three hours of this sort of thing, I came down to the parlour fire; and the first thing I saw was great black splashes of wet on the parlour ceiling! What am I to do with all these spoiled ceilings and carpets? And how is ‘the water’ to be prevented coming again when it likes?
In spite of this disaster on the premises, and the shocking bad temper induced by it, I have had to put on my company-face to night and ‘receive’ [guests]. Decidedly I must have a little of “that damned thing called the milk of human kindness” after all; for the assurance that poor Mrs George was being amused kept me from feeling bored.
And I have no notion of bed; would rather go on writing - ever so many pages “about feelings”; my heart is so very sore tonight! But I have promised myself not to make this Journal a miserere. so I will take a doze of morphia and do the impossible to sleep.’
26 October 1855
‘My morphia a dead failure last night - gave me neither sleep nor rest; but only nausea. So much the better perhaps. If morphia had always, instead of only at long intervals, its good effect on me - making me all whole, for the time being, like a cracked dish boiled in sweet milk, I dont know what principle would be strong enough to keep me from slowly poisoning myself with it. Today then I have been up to nothing, naturally.’
31 October 1855
‘Rain, rain, rain! “Oh Lord, this is too ridiculous”! (as the Annandale Farmer exclaimed, starting to his feet, when it began pouring, in the midst of his prayer for a dry hay-time.) I have no hay to be got in, or anything else to be got in that I know of; but I have a plentiful crop of thorns to be got out, and that too requires good weather. . . The evening devoted to mending; Mr C’s trousers among other things! “Being an only child” I never “wished” to sew mens trousers - no never!’
1 November 1855
‘At last a fair morning to rise to! Thanks God! (Mazzini never says “thank God,” by any chance; but always “Thanks God.” And I find it sound more grateful!) Fine weather outside in fact; but in doors, blowing a devil of a gale! Off into Space then! to get the green mould that had been gathering on me of late days brushed off by human contact.’
6 November 1855
‘Mended Mr C’s dressing-gown and washed some “finery” (as the Laundress calls it - lace-caps and collars). Then off to Geraldine who gave me a nice little “early dinner” . . . Peacefully sated with revenge and food, we streamed off to Pimlico and bought clogs
As usual staying out till twilight. I am very idle just now, and cause of idleness in others - at least one other (Geraldine). But it is not wilful idleness exactly. Much movement under the free sky is needful for me to keep my heart from throbbing up into my head, and maddening it. They must be comfortable people those who have leisure to think about going to Heaven! My most constant and pressing anxiety is to keep out of Bedlam - that’s all! Ach! If there were no feelings; what steady sailing craft we should be (as the nautical gentleman of some novel says.)’