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Picture of Jane Welsh Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle

October 17, 1826
Thomas Carlyle, Jane Welsh
Carlyle, Marriage & Biography
by Steve King

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On this day in 1826, Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh married. Acquaintances knew them both to be difficult personalities -- George Eliot's husband quipped that it was a marriage made in heaven, as it would make two people miserable instead of four -- but no one was prepared for the portrait of a marriage that eventually emerged. When both were dead, the Carlyles became one of the most discussed couples of literary Victorian England; as an issue in the ethics of biography writing, most recently described in Ian Hamilton's Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, their relationship took on the status of a parable.

Jane died in 1866, when Carlyle was seventy. He was deeply grieved, and in a stock-taking mood: his major work was behind him, there would be "nothing of joyful" in his life without his "wife and helpmate," he could have no better final project than to peruse her notebooks and journals, with an eye to a memoir. And Jane was such a good writer, might not a collection of her letters be a companion tribute to his own reminiscences? He collected Jane's papers and correspondence, and discovered such horror that his life became a "pilgrimage through Hades" that went on "night after night, and month after month" for two years. Upon his wife's small mountain of complaints over his relentless demands, hypochondria and detachment -- so great she felt herself to be in a "madhouse," and on the verge of running away -- Carlyle heaped his own contrition and regret: "Shame on me!"; "Ah me! ah me! whither fled?"; "how miserable my books must have been to her"; "my little heroine"; "Oh was it not beautiful, all this I have lost forever"; "miserable egoist."

This double frankness -- her incriminations, his mea culpa, now in the form of a memoir and a set of annotated letters -- was entrusted to his literary executor and authorized biographer, James Froude. Accompanying them was a sequence of ambiguous instructions and counter-instructions concerning what could or couldn't be published. The upshot was that when Froude's 4-volume biography of Carlyle, and his 5-volumes of edited letters and reminiscences came out in the early 1880s, they raised a storm of outrage and controversy. Some of this was a personal attack on Froude for having gone too far; some of it a debate on the proper limits of biography; much of it was fueled by Carlyle's niece, who attacked Froude for being a traitor and a poor scholar, and her aunt for being full of hysterical nonsense.

Froude's plea was that he had been put in an impossible and unclear position, had agonized over it, and had finally chosen the full truth as the ultimate compliment to Carlyle. Not until after his death did his children publish what Froude had in fact held back: evidence that Carlyle was impotent, and that this was at the root of the marriage problem.

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