A biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-1866), the wife of essayist Thomas known for her “marvelous letters.”
A longtime professor at the City University of New York, Chamberlain has lectured and published numerous essays on Carlyle, widely regarded as one of England’s great masters of the epistolary, a literary form of writing as much confessional as novelistic. Her letters—and her strong instructions to correspondents—insist that one must relate not only events, but also their effects. She believed that good letter writing involved a “splash of the mind,” something like speaking. Encouraged by friends to pen a novel, she preferred her correspondence. Chamberlain traces her subject’s lifelong quest to make a mark beyond the wifely duties of a Victorian wife. She worked tirelessly, through her many acquaintances, to help find work for unemployed women, and her husband’s growing reputation as a writer brought all the brightest minds across their path: Dickens, Emerson, Thackeray, Margaret Fuller, Erasmus Darwin, and Giuseppe Mazzini, to name a few. One other acquaintance caused considerable trouble in their marriage: Lady Harriet Baring, with whom Thomas enjoyed a long, reportedly platonic relationship. Thomas, a patronizing, infantilizing husband, subjected Jane’s jealousy to what the author terms “gaslighting.” He was an influential Victorian literary figure but also a chauvinist who condemned abolitionists and derided blacks. Jane also found a place for German writer Amely Bölte as governess to a truly horrid child, whom the author points out would become a “three volume novel of a little charge,” as well as the basis for Thackeray’s cynical character in Vanity Fair Becky Sharp. Chamberlain’s literary skills serve to showcase her expertise on a woman whom history has undeservedly ignored.
A delightful book about the early stirrings of feminism in Victorian England and a celebration of the lost art of letter writing.