Thomas Carlyle’s 221st birthday was yesterday, 4 December. In his honor, we are sharing several lectures on Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle given by Carlyle scholars Brent Kinser and David Sorensen last May at the Carlyle House in Chelsea. The event, “A Tale of Two Marriages,” included Kinser and Sorensen’s talks on the Carlyles and two talks on the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert Browning, by distinguished Browning scholars Simon Avery and Scott Lewis. The event compared and contrasted the relationships of the two couples through the lens of Victorian marriages.
Read the full versions of the talks from David Sorensen and Brent Kinser by selecting the titles of the lectures. We have included excerpts from the talks below.
An excerpt from David Sorensen’s talk, “Selective Affinities: The Browning and Carlyle Marriages Through Their Correspondence“
The Browning and Carlyle marriages were unusual in their own time because of the manner in which they lived up to the ideal of a union between equals, which many members of the Victorian intelligentsia championed. In The Subjection of Women (1869) the philosopher John Stuart Mill memorably denounced the Victorian “command and obedience” model of marriage and insisted on the primacy of mental compatibility between men and women in the conjugal sphere. Mutual intelligence, both emotional and psychological, inevitably fostered mutual interests. As Mill pointed out, “when each of two persons, instead of being a nothing, is a something; when they are attached to one another, and are not too much unlike to begin with; the constant partaking in the same things, assisted by their sympathy, draws out the latent capacities of each for being interested in the things which were at first interesting only to the other; and works a gradual assimilation of the tastes and characters to one another … by a real enriching of the two natures, each acquiring the tastes and capacities of the other in addition to its own.” The result of this interaction, conducted on a basis of respect and curiosity, was the creation of a “solid friendship, of an enduring character, more likely than anything else to make it, through the whole of life, a greater pleasure to each to give pleasure to the other than to receive it.” In these remarks Mill set a standard that some thought was too high. One remembers Mrs. Allonby’s remarks in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance (1903): “How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?”
An exerpt from Brent Kinser’s talk, “The Tautology of Prose and Poetry in the Carlyle and Browning Marriages“
For the Carlyles, marriage began as a matter of prose. In the months before the Carlyles married in 1826, Thomas wrote long missives to Jane out of deeply anxious insecurity regarding his prospects. At one point, he made the mistake of telling her that if there was another suitor she would prefer, then she was free to accept the offer. Her response says much:
But surely, surely Mr Carlyle, you must know me better, than to have supposed it possible I should ever make a new choice! To say nothing of the sentiments I entertain towards you, which would make a marriage with another worse than death; is there no spark of honour, think you, in this heart, that I should not blush at the bare idea of such shame? Give myself to another, after having given myself with such unreservedness to you! Take another to my arms, with your image on my heart, your kisses on my lips! Oh be honest, and say you knew this would never be,—knew I could never sink so low! Let me not have room to suppose, that possessing your love, I am unfortunate enough to be without your respect! For how light must my open fondness have seemed; if you doubted of its being sanctified by a marriage-vow—a vow spoken, indeed, before no Minister, but before a presence, surely as awful, God and my Conscience— And yet, it is so unlike you, the sworn enemy of cant, to make high-sounding offers, in the firm confidence of their being rejected! and unless I lay this to your charge in the present instance how can I help concluding that there is some virtue in me, which you have yet to learn?— For it is in no jesting, or yet “half-jesting” manner that you tell me my hand is free— “If there be any other—you do not mean whom I love more—but whose wife all things considered I would rather be; you call upon me as my Husband—(as my Husband!) to accept that man.” Were these words really Thomas Carlyle’s, and addressed to me? Ah! ich kenne dich nicht mehr! Dearest! Dearest! it will take many caresses to atone for these words! (CLO: JBW to TC, [4 March 1826]
The Carlyles’ move towards marriage seems a long way from “I love your poems, and I love you, too,” the legendary beginning of the Brownings’ courtship.
For more on the Brownings, read the talk by Scott Lewis, “‘Penini means to be very good tomorrow’: The Browning Marriage and Their Son,” and the talk by Simon Avery, “Love, Marriage and Violence in the Work of the Brownings.”
Stay connected! Learn more about Carlyle’s friendship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning at the Carlyle Letters Online. To learn more about the Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle and to read their many letters, visit the Carlyle Letters Online. Follow @carlyleletters for daily tweets from these prolific writers.