Oh we can afford very well to laugh at their ideas

Dear Jane,

Ok, I confess: I’ve violated your correspondence, and I did it more than once. In my defence, though, I have to say that your letters read almost as if they were begging me to open them. Read me, you seem to be writing. I am here, too.

Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters (2004), edited by Kenneth J. Fielding and David R. Sorenson, comprises a selection of 250 letters (out of roughly 2000), mostly rendered in long excerpts, and dated from September 26, 1819, when you were eighteen years old, to April 21, 1866, the day you died. The book also includes a selection from the journal you kept in 1855-1856.

The letters (and diary) are divided into twelve chapters – with titles such as “In Search of Genius, 1819–26,” “Finding a Mission, 1845–47,” “Like a Dim Nightmare, 1863–64,” and “The Perfectly Extraordinary Woman, 1865–66”, structured like a narrative in which the protagonist – you! – must overcome several obstacles so as to have her talents recognized in the end.

Most of the letters in this volume are addressed to Thomas, your husband. From your evolving (and often contradictory) perspective, we follow your courtship, your marriage, and the development of Carlyle’s career. Your relationship to him emerges as conflicting and fraught with pain: what did you mean by “blue marks on my wrists”? Were those a sign of mistreatment? We are left with no clues here, and full of suspicion.

Many letters are addressed to your mother and some of your Scottish relatives; to your London friends and acquaintances; and to Lady Ashburton, with whom you seem to have had an ambiguous, tormented relationship. The letters documenting your friendship to Ellen Twistleton and Charlotte Cushman count among the new discoveries that, according to the editors, could lead to a reconsideration of the nature of your attachments to other women. What really caught my attention was the fact that many of the letters provided illuminating glimpses into the events and the people of your time – particularly, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emerson, George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, and Tennyson.

The problem of this collection for me was the fact that practically none of the letters is presented in complete form, and most of them lack helpful annotations and footnotes. The editors provide interpolations with brief introductory commentaries that contextualise and link some of the letters, but I missed more in-depth annotations about literary allusions, as well as more information about your main correspondents.

The collection’s ‘plotline’ is fairly well-known: a talented girl marries a penniless boy she admires; in their first years of marriage, they live with modest means on an isolated farm in Scotland, where the man is completely absorbed in writing; as his career blossoms, they move to London, where the man eventually becomes a famous literary figure; the couple grows apart, and the clever girl turns into a sarcastic, embittered woman; she will be admired by Dickens, and some critics will even think that she wrote Jane Eyre; in truth, this woman will never write a brilliant novel of her own; instead, she will endure loneliness, illness, and, most probably, domestic abuse; later, when she finally dies, her man will be consumed by guilt (he will still be famous though). The end.

That doesn’t sound like a very delightful read, does it? Except for one small detail: this woman’s voice. The Jane that emerges from these letters is so amusing and lively, infinitely curious, and full of wit. She can be both tender and caustic. And she is a master at using various literary techniques in her letter-writing.

Some of your letters read like monologues; in others, you seem to invite the reader to take part in what you are telling. Some letters render snippets of dialogue as if in a novel; in others, you carefully provide explanatory (often cynical) asides. In one letter I particularly liked, you write in the form of a parliamentary speech, asking your husband to increase your allowance. Your sense of humour spared no one, not even yourself. The excerpts of your journal, on the other hand, are less artful, more naked– in contrast to the letters, resentment plays the central role in your diary.

Much as the editors might have selected the letters & journal to reinforce the narrative they wanted to impose on this collection, your voice escapes the plotline. You are not a self-sacrificing, dull wife. You are a skilled ironist, an engaging story-teller, a sharp social commentator, and even, at times, a loyal confidante. If anything, you seem to be torn between the desire of surrendering to your duty as a wife of ‘a great man’, and your hatred of this surrender, your scorn at being seen as ‘inferior’ for being a woman.

For me, these letters read like role-playing acts: they are your stage, the place where you can look for recognition on your own terms. You seem to be as aware of your audience as we are of the elaborate role-playing you are acting out. Let us not overlook the core of your performance: your desire for connection and recognition. From a long long distance, you are writing to reach us.

Yours truly,


Mary Cassatt, “The Letter”, 1891.

“How one is vexed with little things in this life! The great evils one triumphs over bravely, but the little eat away one’s heart.” – Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters

“Oh dear me! I wonder why so many people wish for high position and great wealth when it is such an ‘open secret’ what all that amounts to in these days – merely to emancipating people from all those practical difficulties which might teach them the fact of things, and sympathy with their fellow creatures.” – Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters

“So these arrogant men may please themselves in their ideas of our inferiority to their hearts content; they cannot hinder us in being what we will and can be. Oh we can afford very well to laugh at their ideas, so long as we feel in ourselves the power to make slaves, and even fools of the wisest of them!” – Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters

“I have got for reading Fielding’s Amelia! and The Vicar of Wakefield – which I am carrying on simultaneously – I find the first a dreadful bore – one prays to heaven that the poor woman would but once for all get herself seduced, and so let us have done with her alarms and precautions; on any terms! Upon my honour I do not see the slightest sense in spending one’s whole existence thro out three volumes in taking care of one’s virtue” – Jane Carlyle: Newly Selected Letters

About the book

  •  Ashgate Publishing, 2004, 400 p. Goodreads
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • This book was read for Victober.

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