Today’s birthday belongs to Jane Welsh Carlyle, 1801-1869.
The only thing that makes one place more attractive to me than another is the quantity of heart I find in it.
So, if you look Jane up on the web, you might wonder what she’s doing here, one of those archetypal good wives, you might think, helpmeet to her husband, forgiver of his misdemeanours (although they liked a good argument) hostess to his grumpy reluctance to speak to people. Despite all that Jane was accepted as one of the most brilliant women of her age, and in terms of her relationships with women this is a case of needing to know about her ‘known associates’. Unless there is something wrong with the search mechanism on the site that purports to hold all her letters, they haven’t bothered loading any of those between Jane and Geraldine Jewsbury (birthday 22/8 since you’re asking or they no longer exist). Geraldine and Jane collaborated on Geraldine’s first Novel, Zoë, with another friend Elizabeth Paulet, and they had a lifelong friendship with a very deep emotional attachment.
On the other hand, 126 of Geraldine’s letters to Jane are available in totality in an upload of the collection made by ANNIE E. IRELAND
Here was a nature with which Mrs. Carlyle, endowed by heredity with a decided strain of ‘Bohemianism,’ could sympathise keenly enough. The small conventionalities and meaningless proprieties of daily life were as nothing in the eyes of these two. They could laugh together, they could utter to each other the scathing judgments on men and things which neither really felt; but, what is more, they could weep together, quarrel like lovers, make peace like lovers, despair together when all was dark to both, smile when the smallest ray of sun shone on either and show each to the other the wounds which each was too proud to show to the world – those terrible hurts which a woman instinctively hides, and most anxiously from those of her own sex. Each was isolated in many ways, and the stronger one suffered more, needed more, and received more, was less able to bear sympathy, while more utterly incapable of admitting pity – that cruel would-be healer of wounds.
Jane Welsh Carlyle, in a fragment of a journal kept by her, under date of March 26, 1856, says:-
‘To-day it has blown knives and files – a cold, rasping, savage day excruciating for sick nerves. Dear Geraldine, as though she could contend with the very elements on my behalf, brought me a bunch of violets, and a bouquet of the loveliest, most fragrant flowers. Talking with her all I have done, or could do.’
Annie finishes her introduction:
I would say, ‘What a woman is to a woman, only a woman knows.’
And with these words I close my imperfect record of a woman whom I, too, loved, and whose letters tell what she was to one of the most remarkable women the world has known – or, rather, has not known.
Geraldine to Jane
You suggest my living in London? No, I would like a cottage in the country with you! You should keep the house absolutely – keep the accounts, keep the money – and I would write; and you should make me work, and we would see each other alone, as wisdom inspired, and that is what would tempt me.
Slightly depressing that Geraldine is setting Jane up in the same support role she took with her husband, but still, Geraldine did eventually move to be nearer Jane.
It’s worth reading her letters in full. It is hard to pin down what it is in an extracted sentence – the endless longing for a letter from her ‘Dearest Jane’, the forthright tone, the saying what she really thinks? The planning to meet and hating spending time in other people’s company? It certainly does read, from time to time, like a lover affair.
Jane would be an absolute hit at a party, she knew how to make people laugh and enjoy themselves, and she was a clever, clever woman.
I wonder, since she had a lifetime of doing without and illness, whether she’d like to push the boat out now and have something rich and throughly bad for her, or whether she’d prefer something plain and sustaining?