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The Story Of The Carlyles

To most persons, Tennyson was a remote and romantic figure. His homes in

the Isle of Wight and at Aldworth had a dignified seclusion about them

which was very appropriate to so great a poet, and invested him with a

certain awe through which the multitude rarely penetrated. As a matter

of fact, however, he was an excellent companion, a ready talker, and

gifted with so much wit that it is a pity that more of his sayings have
/> not been preserved to us.

One of the best known is that which was drawn from him after he and a

number of friends had been spending an hour in company with Mr. and Mrs.

Carlyle. The two Carlyles were unfortunately at their worst, and gave a

superb specimen of domestic "nagging." Each caught up whatever the other

said, and either turned it into ridicule, or tried to make the author of

it an object of contempt.

This was, of course, exceedingly uncomfortable for such strangers as

were present, and it certainly gave no pleasure to their friends. On

leaving the house, some one said to Tennyson:

"Isn't it a pity that such a couple ever married?"

"No, no," said Tennyson, with a sort of smile under his rough beard.

"It's much better that two people should be made unhappy than four."

The world has pretty nearly come around to the verdict of the poet

laureate. It is not probable that Thomas Carlyle would have made any

woman happy as his wife, or that Jane Baillie Welsh would have made any

man happy as her husband.

This sort of speculation would never have occurred had not Mr. Froude,

in the early eighties, given his story about the Carlyles to the world.

Carlyle went to his grave, an old man, highly honored, and with no

trail of gossip behind him. His wife had died some sixteen years before,

leaving a brilliant memory. The books of Mr. Froude seemed for a moment

to have desecrated the grave, and to have shed a sudden and sinister

light upon those who could not make the least defense for themselves.

For a moment, Carlyle seemed to have been a monster of harshness,

cruelty, and almost brutish feeling. On the other side, his wife took

on the color of an evil-speaking, evil-thinking shrew, who tormented the

life of her husband, and allowed herself to be possessed by some demon

of unrest and discontent, such as few women of her station are ever

known to suffer from.

Nor was it merely that the two were apparently ill-mated and unhappy

with each other. There were hints and innuendos which looked toward some

hidden cause for this unhappiness, and which aroused the curiosity of

every one. That they might be clearer, Froude afterward wrote a book,

bringing out more plainly--indeed, too plainly--his explanation of the

Carlyle family skeleton. A multitude of documents then came from every

quarter, and from almost every one who had known either of the Carlyles.

Perhaps the result to-day has been more injurious to Froude than to the

two Carlyles.

Many persons unjustly speak of Froude as having violated the confidence

of his friends in publishing the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle. They

take no heed of the fact that in doing this he was obeying Carlyle's

express wishes, left behind in writing, and often urged on Froude while

Carlyle was still alive. Whether or not Froude ought to have accepted

such a trust, one may perhaps hesitate to decide. That he did so is

probably because he felt that if he refused, Carlyle might commit the

same duty to another, who would discharge it with less delicacy and less


As it is, the blame, if it rests upon any one, should rest upon Carlyle.

He collected the letters. He wrote the lines which burn and scorch with

self-reproach. It is he who pressed upon the reluctant Froude the duty

of printing and publishing a series of documents which, for the most

part, should never have been published at all, and which have done equal

harm to Carlyle, to his wife, and to Froude himself.

Now that everything has been written that is likely to be written by

those claiming to possess personal knowledge of the subject, let us

take up the volumes, and likewise the scattered fragments, and seek to

penetrate the mystery of the most ill-assorted couple known to modern


It is not necessary to bring to light, and in regular order, the

external history of Thomas Carlyle, or of Jane Baillie Welsh, who

married him. There is an extraordinary amount of rather fanciful gossip

about this marriage, and about the three persons who had to do with it.

Take first the principal figure, Thomas Carlyle. His life until that

time had been a good deal more than the life of an ordinary country-man.

Many persons represent him as a peasant; but he was descended from the

ancient lords of a Scottish manor. There was something in his eye, and

in the dominance of his nature, that made his lordly nature felt. Mr.

Froude notes that Carlyle's hand was very small and unusually well

shaped. Nor had his earliest appearance as a young man been commonplace,

in spite of the fact that his parents were illiterate, so that his

mother learned to read only after her sons had gone away to Edinburgh,

in order that she might be able to enjoy their letters.

At that time in Scotland, as in Puritan New England, in each family the

son who had the most notable "pairts" was sent to the university that

he might become a clergyman. If there were a second son, he became an

advocate or a doctor of medicine, while the sons of less distinction

seldom went beyond the parish school, but settled down as farmers,

horse-dealers, or whatever might happen to come their way.

In the case of Thomas Carlyle, nature marked him out for something

brilliant, whatever that might be. His quick sensibility, the way in

which he acquired every sort of learning, his command of logic, and,

withal, his swift, unerring gift of language, made it certain from the

very first that he must be sent to the university as soon as he had

finished school, and could afford to go.

At Edinburgh, where he matriculated in his fourteenth year, he

astonished every one by the enormous extent of his reading, and by

the firm hold he kept upon it. One hesitates to credit these so-called

reminiscences which tell how he absorbed mountains of Greek and immense

quantities of political economy and history and sociology and various

forms of metaphysics, as every Scotsman is bound to do. That he read all

night is a common story told of many a Scottish lad at college. We may

believe, however, that Carlyle studied and read as most of his fellow

students did, but far beyond them, in extent.

When he had completed about half of his divinity course, he assured

himself that he was not intended for the life of a clergyman. One who

reads his mocking sayings, or what seemed to be a clever string of jeers

directed against religion, might well think that Carlyle was throughout

his life an atheist, or an agnostic. He confessed to Irving that he did

not believe in the Christian religion, and it was vain to hope that he

ever would so believe.

Moreover, Carlyle had done something which was unusual at that time.

He had taught in several local schools; but presently he came back to

Edinburgh and openly made literature his profession. It was a daring

thing to do; but Carlyle had unbounded confidence in himself--the

confidence of a giant, striding forth into a forest, certain that he can

make his way by sheer strength through the tangled meshes and the

knotty branches that he knows will meet him and try to beat him back.

Furthermore, he knew how to live on very little; he was unmarried; and

he felt a certain ardor which beseemed his age and gifts.

Through the kindness of friends, he received some commissions to write

in various books of reference; and in 1824, when he was twenty-nine

years of age, he published a translation of Legendre's Geometry. In the

same year he published, in the London Magazine, his Life of Schiller,

and also his translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. This successful

attack upon the London periodicals and reviews led to a certain

complication with the other two characters in this story. It takes us to

Jane Welsh, and also to Edward Irving.

Irving was three years older than Carlyle. The two men were friends, and

both of them had been teaching in country schools, where both of them

had come to know Miss Welsh. Irving's seniority gave him a certain

prestige with the younger men, and naturally with Miss Welsh. He had

won honors at the university, and now, as assistant to the famous Dr.

Chalmers, he carried his silk robes in the jaunty fashion of one who has

just ceased to be an undergraduate. While studying, he met Miss Welsh at

Haddington, and there became her private instructor.

This girl was regarded in her native town as something of a personage.

To read what has been written of her, one might suppose that she was

almost a miracle of birth and breeding, and of intellect as well. As a

matter of fact, in the little town of Haddington she was simply prima

inter pares. Her father was the local doctor, and while she had a

comfortable home, and doubtless a chaise at her disposal, she was

very far from the "opulence" which Carlyle, looking up at her from his

lowlier surroundings, was accustomed to ascribe to her. She was, no

doubt, a very clever girl; and, judging from the portraits taken of her

at about this time, she was an exceedingly pretty one, with beautiful

eyes and an abundance of dark glossy hair.

Even then, however, Miss Welsh had traits which might have made it

certain that she would be much more agreeable as a friend than as a

wife. She had become an intellectuelle quite prematurely--at an age, in

fact, when she might better have been thinking of other things than the

inwardness of her soul, or the folly of religious belief.

Even as a young girl, she was beset by a desire to criticize and to

ridicule almost everything and every one that she encountered. It was

only when she met with something that she could not understand, or

some one who could do what she could not, that she became comparatively

humble. Unconsciously, her chief ambition was to be herself

distinguished, and to marry some one who could be more distinguished


When she first met Edward Irving, she looked up to him as her superior

in many ways. He was a striking figure in her small world. He was known

in Edinburgh as likely to be a man of mark; and, of course, he had had

a careful training in many subjects of which she, as yet, knew very

little. Therefore, insensibly, she fell into a sort of admiration

for Irving--an admiration which might have been transmuted into love.

Irving, on his side, was taken by the young girl's beauty, her vivacity,

and the keenness of her intellect. That he did not at once become her

suitor is probably due to the fact that he had already engaged himself

to a Miss Martin, of whom not much is known.

It was about this time, however, that Carlyle became acquainted with

Miss Welsh. His abundant knowledge, his original and striking manner of

commenting on it, his almost gigantic intellectual power, came to her

as a revelation. Her studies with Irving were now interwoven with her

admiration for Carlyle.

Since Irving was a clergyman, and Miss Welsh had not the slightest

belief in any form of theology, there was comparatively little that

they had in common. On the other hand, when she saw the profundities of

Carlyle, she at once half feared, and was half fascinated. Let her speak

to him on any subject, and he would at once thunder forth some striking

truth, or it might be some puzzling paradox; but what he said could

never fail to interest her and to make her think. He had, too, an

infinite sense of humor, often whimsical and shot through with sarcasm.

It is no wonder that Miss Welsh was more and more infatuated with the

nature of Carlyle. If it was her conscious wish to marry a man whom she

could reverence as a master, where should she find him--in Irving or in


Irving was a dreamer, a man who, she came to see, was thoroughly

one-sided, and whose interests lay in a different sphere from hers.

Carlyle, on the other hand, had already reached out beyond the little

Scottish capital, and had made his mark in the great world of London,

where men like De Quincey and Jeffrey thought it worth their while to

run a tilt with him. Then, too, there was the fascination of his talk,

in which Jane Welsh found a perpetual source of interest:

The English have never had an artist, except in poetry; no musician; no

painter. Purcell and Hogarth are not exceptions, or only such as confirm

the rule.

Is the true Scotchman the peasant and yeoman--chiefly the former?

Every living man is a visible mystery; he walks between two eternities

and two infinitudes. Were we not blind as molea we should value

our humanity at infinity, and our rank, influence and so forth--the

trappings of our humanity--at nothing. Say I am a man, and you say all.

Whether king or tinker is a mere appendix.

Understanding is to reason as the talent of a beaver--which can build

houses, and uses its tail for a trowel--to the genius of a prophet and

poet. Reason is all but extinct in this age; it can never be altogether


The devil has his elect.

Is anything more wonderful than another, if you consider it maturely?

I have seen no men rise from the dead; I have seen some thousands rise

from nothing. I have not force to fly into the sun, but I have force to

lift my hand, which is equally strange.

Is not every thought properly an inspiration? Or how is one thing more

inspired than another?

Examine by logic the import of thy life, and of all lives. What is it?

A making of meal into manure, and of manure into meal. To the cui bono

there is no answer from logic.

In many ways Jane Welsh found the difference of range between Carlyle

and Irving. At one time, she asked Irving about some German works, and

he was obliged to send her to Carlyle to solve her difficulties. Carlyle

knew German almost as well as if he had been born in Dresden; and

the full and almost overflowing way in which he answered her gave her

another impression of his potency. Thus she weighed the two men who

might become her lovers, and little by little she came to think of

Irving as partly shallow and partly narrow-minded, while Carlyle loomed

up more of a giant than before.

It is not probable that she was a woman who could love profoundly.

She thought too much about herself. She was too critical. She had too

intense an ambition for "showing off." I can imagine that in the end

she made her choice quite coolly. She was flattered by Carlyle's strong

preference for her. She was perhaps repelled by Irving's engagement to

another woman; yet at the time few persons thought that she had chosen


Irving had now gone to London, and had become the pastor of the

Caledonian chapel in Hatton Garden. Within a year, by the extraordinary

power of his eloquence, which, was in a style peculiar to himself, he

had transformed an obscure little chapel into one which was crowded

by the rich and fashionable. His congregation built for him a handsome

edifice on Regent Square, and he became the leader of a new cult, which

looked to a second personal advent of Christ. He cared nothing for

the charges of heresy which were brought against him; and when he was

deposed his congregation followed him, and developed a new Christian

order, known as Irvingism.

Jane Welsh, in her musings, might rightfully have compared the two men

and the future which each could give her. Did she marry Irving, she was

certain of a life of ease in London, and an association with men and

women of fashion and celebrity, among whom she could show herself to be

the gifted woman that she was. Did she marry Carlyle, she must go with

him to a desolate, wind-beaten cottage, far away from any of the things

she cared for, working almost as a housemaid, having no company save

that of her husband, who was already a dyspeptic, and who was wont to

speak of feeling as if a rat were tearing out his stomach.

Who would have said that in going with Carlyle she had made the better

choice? Any one would have said it who knew the three--Irving, Carlyle,

and Jane Welsh.

She had the penetration to be certain that whatever Irving might possess

at present, it would be nothing in comparison to what Carlyle would have

in the coming future. She understood the limitations of Irving, but to

her keen mind the genius of Carlyle was unlimited; and she foresaw that,

after he had toiled and striven, he would come into his great reward,

which she would share. Irving might be the leader of a petty sect,

but Carlyle would be a man whose name must become known throughout the


And so, in 1826, she had made her choice, and had become the bride of

the rough-spoken, domineering Scotsman who had to face the world with

nothing but his creative brain and his stubborn independence. She had

put aside all immediate thought of London and its lures; she was going

to cast in her lot with Carlyle's, largely as a matter of calculation,

and believing that she had made the better choice.

She was twenty-six and Carlyle was thirty-two when, after a brief

residence in Edinburgh, they went down to Craigenputtock. Froude has

described this place as the dreariest spot in the British dominions:

The nearest cottage is more than a mile from it; the elevation, seven

hundred feet above the sea, stunts the trees and limits the garden

produce; the house is gaunt and hungry-looking. It stands, with the

scanty fields attached, as an island in a sea of morass. The landscape

is unredeemed by grace or grandeur--mere undulating hills of grass and

heather, with peat bogs in the hollows between them.

Froude's grim description has been questioned by some; yet the actual

pictures that have been drawn of the place in later years make it

look bare, desolate, and uninviting. Mrs. Carlyle, who owned it as an

inheritance from her father, saw the place for the first time in March,

1828. She settled there in May; but May, in the Scottish hills, is

almost as repellent as winter. She herself shrank from the adventure

which she had proposed. It was her husband's notion, and her own, that

they should live there in practical solitude. He was to think and write,

and make for himself a beginning of real fame; while she was to hover

over him and watch his minor comforts.

It seemed to many of their friends that the project was quixotic to a

degree. Mrs. Carlyle delicate health, her weak chest, and the beginning

of a nervous disorder, made them think that she was unfit to dwell in

so wild and bleak a solitude. They felt, too, that Carlyle was too

much absorbed with his own thought to be trusted with the charge of a

high-spirited woman.

However, the decision had been made, and the newly married couple went

to Craigenputtock, with wagons that carried their household goods and

those of Carlyle's brother, Alexander, who lived in a cottage near by.

These were the two redeeming features of their lonely home--the presence

of Alexander Carlyle, and the fact that, although they had no servants

in the ordinary sense, there were several farmhands and a dairy-maid.

Before long there came a period of trouble, which is easily explained

by what has been already said. Carlyle, thinking and writing some of

the most beautiful things that he ever thought or wrote, could not make

allowance for his wife's high spirit and physical weakness. She, on her

side--nervous, fitful, and hard to please--thought herself a slave,

the servant of a harsh and brutal master. She screamed at him when her

nerves were too unstrung; and then, with a natural reaction, she called

herself "a devil who could never be good enough for him." But most of

her letters were harsh and filled with bitterness, and, no doubt, his

conduct to her was at times no better than her own.

But it was at Craigenputtock that he really did lay fast and firm the

road to fame. His wife's sharp tongue, and the gnawings of his own

dyspepsia, were lived down with true Scottish grimness. It was here that

he wrote some of his most penetrating and sympathetic essays, which were

published by the leading reviews of England and Scotland. Here, too, he

began to teach his countrymen the value of German literature.

The most remarkable of his productions was that strange work entitled

Sartor Resartus (1834), an extraordinary mixture of the sublime and the

grotesque. The book quivers and shakes with tragic pathos, with inward

agonies, with solemn aspirations, and with riotous humor.

In 1834, after six years at Craigenputtock, the Carlyles moved to

London, and took up their home in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, a far from

fashionable retreat, but one in which the comforts of life could be more

readily secured. It was there that Thomas Carlyle wrote what must

seem to us the most vivid of all his books, the History of the French

Revolution. For this he had read and thought for many years; parts of

it he had written in essays, and parts of it he had jotted down in

journals. But now it came forth, as some one has said, "a truth clad in

hell-fire," swirling amid clouds and flames and mist, a most wonderful

picture of the accumulated social and political falsehoods which

preceded the revolution, and which were swept away by a nemesis that was

the righteous judgment of God.

Carlyle never wrote so great a book as this. He had reached his middle

style, having passed the clarity of his early writings, and not having

yet reached the thunderous, strange-mouthed German expletives which

marred his later work. In the French Revolution he bursts forth, here

and there, into furious Gallic oaths and Gargantuan epithets; yet this

apocalypse of France seems more true than his hero-worshiping of old

Frederick of Prussia, or even of English Cromwell.

All these days Thomas Carlyle lived a life which was partly one

of seclusion and partly one of pleasure. At all times he and his

dark-haired wife had their own sets, and mingled with their own friends.

Jane had no means of discovering just whether she would have been

happier with Irving; for Irving died while she was still digging

potatoes and complaining of her lot at Craigenputtock.

However this may be, the Carlyles, man and wife, lived an existence that

was full of unhappiness and rancor. Jane Carlyle became an invalid, and

sought to allay her nervous sufferings with strong tea and tobacco and

morphin. When a nervous woman takes to morphin, it almost always means

that she becomes intensely jealous; and so it was with Jane Carlyle.

A shivering, palpitating, fiercely loyal bit of humanity, she took it

into her head that her husband was infatuated with Lady Ashburton, or

that Lady Ashburton was infatuated with him. She took to spying on them,

and at times, when her nerves were all a jangle, she would lie back

in her armchair and yell with paroxysms of anger. On the other hand,

Carlyle, eager to enjoy the world, sought relief from his household

cares, and sometimes stole away after a fashion that was hardly

guileless. He would leave false addresses at his house, and would dine

at other places than he had announced.

In 1866 Jane Carlyle suddenly died; and somehow, then, the conscience

of Thomas Carlyle became convinced that he had wronged the woman whom he

had really loved. His last fifteen years were spent in wretchedness and

despair. He felt that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He recalled

with anguish every moment of their early life at Craigenputtock--how she

had toiled for him, and waited upon him, and made herself a slave;

and how, later, she had given herself up entirely to him, while he had

thoughtlessly received the sacrifice, and trampled on it as on a bed of


Of course, in all this he was intensely morbid, and the diary which he

wrote was no more sane and wholesome than the screamings with which his

wife had horrified her friends. But when he had grown to be a very old

man, he came to feel that this was all a sort of penance, and that the

selfishness of his past must be expiated in the future. Therefore, he

gave his diary to his friend, the historian, Froude, and urged him to

publish the letters and memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle. Mr. Froude,

with an eye to the reading world, readily did so, furnishing them with

abundant footnotes, which made Carlyle appear to the world as more or

less of a monster.

First, there was set forth the almost continual unhappiness of the pair.

In the second place, by hint, by innuendo, and sometimes by explicit

statement, there were given reasons to show why Carlyle made his wife

unhappy. Of course, his gnawing dyspepsia, which she strove with all her

might to drive away, was one of the first and greatest causes. But again

another cause of discontent was stated in the implication that Carlyle,

in his bursts of temper, actually abused his wife. In one passage there

is a hint that certain blue marks upon her arm were bruises, the result

of blows.

Most remarkable of all these accusations is that which has to do with

the relations of Carlyle and Lady Ashburton. There is no doubt that Jane

Carlyle disliked this brilliant woman, and came to have dark suspicions

concerning her. At first, it was only a sort of social jealousy. Lady

Ashburton was quite as clever a talker as Mrs. Carlyle, and she had a

prestige which brought her more admiration.

Then, by degrees, as Jane Carlyle's mind began to wane, she transferred

her jealousy to her husband himself. She hated to be out-shone, and

now, in some misguided fashion, it came into her head that Carlyle had

surrendered to Lady Ashburton his own attention to his wife, and had

fallen in love with her brilliant rival.

On one occasion, she declared that Lady Ashburton had thrown herself at

Carlyle's feet, but that Carlyle had acted like a man of honor, while

Lord Ashburton, knowing all the facts, had passed them over, and had

retained his friendship with Carlyle.

Now, when Froude came to write My Relations with Carlyle, there were

those who were very eager to furnish him with every sort of gossip.

The greatest source of scandal upon which he drew was a woman named

Geraldine Jewsbury, a curious neurotic creature, who had seen much of

the late Mrs. Carlyle, but who had an almost morbid love of offensive

tattle. Froude describes himself as a witness for six years, at Cheyne

Row, "of the enactment of a tragedy as stern and real as the story of

Oedipus." According to his own account:

I stood by, consenting to the slow martyrdom of a woman whom I have

described as bright and sparkling and tender, and I uttered no word

of remonstrance. I saw her involved in a perpetual blizzard, and did

nothing to shelter her.

But it is not upon his own observations that Froude relies for his most

sinister evidence against his friend. To him comes Miss Jewsbury with

a lengthy tale to tell. It is well to know what Mrs. Carlyle thought of

this lady. She wrote:

It is her besetting sin, and her trade of novelist has aggravated

it--the desire of feeling and producing violent emotions.... Geraldine

has one besetting weakness; she is never happy unless she has a grande

passion on hand.

There were strange manifestations on the part of Miss Jewsbury toward

Mrs. Carlyle. At one time, when Mrs. Carlyle had shown some preference

for another woman, it led to a wild outburst of what Miss Jewsbury

herself called "tiger jealousy." There are many other instances of

violent emotions in her letters to Mrs. Carlyle. They are often highly

charged and erotic. It is unusual for a woman of thirty-two to write to

a woman friend, who is forty-three years of age, in these words, which

Miss Jewsbury used in writing to Mrs. Carlyle:

You are never out of my thoughts one hour together. I think of you much

more than if you were my lover. I cannot express my feelings, even to

you--vague, undefined yearnings to be yours in some way.

Mrs. Carlyle was accustomed, in private, to speak of Miss Jewsbury as

"Miss Gooseberry," while Carlyle himself said that she was simply "a

flimsy tatter of a creature." But it is on the testimony of this

one woman, who was so morbid and excitable, that the most serious

accusations against Carlyle rest. She knew that Froude was writing a

volume about Mrs. Carlyle, and she rushed to him, eager to furnish any

narratives, however strange, improbable, or salacious they might be.

Thus she is the sponsor of the Ashburton story, in which there is

nothing whatsoever. Some of the letters which Lady Ashburton wrote

Carlyle have been destroyed, but not before her husband had perused

them. Another set of letters had never been read by Lord Ashburton at

all, and they are still preserved--friendly, harmless, usual letters.

Lord Ashburton always invited Carlyle to his house, and there is no

reason to think that the Scottish philosopher wronged him.

There is much more to be said about the charge that Mrs. Carlyle

suffered from personal abuse; yet when we examine the facts, the

evidence resolves itself into practically nothing. That, in his

self-absorption, he allowed her to Sending Completed Page, Please

Wait... overflowed toward a man who must have been a manly, loving

lover. She calls him by the name by which he called her--a homely

Scottish name.


You said you would weary, and I do hope in my heart you are wearying. It

will be so sweet to make it all up to you in kisses when I return. You

will take me and hear all my bits of experiences, and your heart will

beat when you find how I have longed to return to you. Darling, dearest,

loveliest, the Lord bless you! I think of you every hour, every moment.

I love you and admire you, like--like anything. Oh, if I was there,

I could put my arms so close about your neck, and hush you into the

softest sleep you have had since I went away. Good night. Dream of me. I


It seems most fitting to remember Thomas Carlyle as a man of strength,

of honor, and of intellect; and his wife as one who was sorely tried,

but who came out of her suffering into the arms of death, purified and

calm and worthy to be remembered by her husband's side.