Loving vs. Being in Love: Jane Welsh Carlyle on Navigating the Heart’s Contradictions
By Maria Popova
Like Alice James — the brilliant diarist who lived and wrote in the shadow of her brothers, Henry and William James — Jane Welsh Carlyle (January 14, 1801–April 21, 1866), unpublished and shadowed by her famous husband, was a literary genius whose private letters stand as masterpieces of prose in their own right. Virginia Woolf admired her as “so brilliant, so deeply versed in life and scornful of its humbugs… the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women.” Charles Dickens considered her a greater storyteller, with a superior talent for observation and character development, than any of the published women novelists of her day. For a time, she was rumored to have authored the pseudonymously published Jane Eyre.
What lent her letters their shimmering intensity of insight was Jane’s uncommon openness to and insight into the complex, often confusing inner workings of the human heart and is maddening contradictions.
Shortly after her twentieth birthday, Jane Welsh met Thomas Carlyle — the essayist, mathematician, historian, and philosopher, who was then a struggling young writer of lower social stature, with no stable income and no intellectual achievement to his name, but would later become Scotland’s most esteemed polymath. At first, she spurned his courtship with the adamant insistence — perhaps out of self-knowledge, perhaps out of self-protection and fear — that she is constitutionally incapable of romantic love, uninterested in marriage at the expense of her intellectual ambitions, and would only hurt him if she consented to a relationship. In a letter from early 1823, found in the devastatingly titled I Too Am Here: Selections from the Letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle (public library), she pushes him away with equal parts magnanimity toward his needs and uncompromising clarity about hers:
To cause unhappiness to others, above all to those I esteem, and would do anything within my duties and abilities to serve, is the cruelest pain I know — but positively I can not fall in love — and to sacrifice myself out of pity is a degree of generosity of which I am not capable — besides matrimony under any circumstances would interfere shockingly with my plans.
Carlyle, conflicted in his own right at the prospect of getting hurt but besotted nonetheless, plays into this game of push and pull, charging that it is “useless and dangerous” for him to love her and that she has made his “happiness wrecked” by letting him fall in love with her and then rejecting him. Jane responds by insisting that her love for him is true, but not the kind he yearns for. In the last week of summer, she grows even more resolute in her dual pledge that she will never leave him as a friend but will never be with him as a romantic partner:
My Friend I love you — I repeat it tho’ the expression a rash one — all the best feelings of my nature are concerned in loving you — But were you my Brother I would love you the same, were I married to another I would love you the same — and is this sentiment so calm, so delightful — but so unimpassioned enough to recompense the freedom of my heart, enough to reconcile me to the existence of a married woman the hopes and wishes and ambitions of which are all different from mine, the cares and occupations of which are my disgust — Oh no! Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life; but your wife! never never!
But then, having issued this most vehement of self-protective disclaimers, she adds:
Write to me and reassure me — for God’s sake reassure me if you can! Your Friendship at this time is almost necessary to my existence. Yet I will resign it cost what it may — will, will resign it if it can only be enjoyed at the risk of your future peace — …
They continued this conflicted dance for more than a year, until it became clear they had to make a choice. In a letter penned in the first days of 1825, a week before Jane’s twenty-fourth birthday, she confronts the abiding question of how you know whether you are in love, as opposed to merely infatuated:
I love you — I have told you so a hundred times; and I should be the most ungrateful, and injudicious of mortals if I did not — but I am not in love with you — that is to say — my love for you is not a passion which overclouds my judgement; and absorbs all my regards for myself and others — it is a simple, honest, serene affection, made up of admiration and sympathy, and better perhaps, to found domestic enjoyment on than any other — In short it is a love which influences, does not make the destiny of a life.
Jane had two primary reservations about marrying Carlyle: that their differences — of class, of means, of ambitions — were too vast, and that a life of domesticity would keep her from actualizing herself as a writer. Asserting that “the idea of a sacrifice should have no place in a voluntary union,” she suggests that marrying him would be a self-sacrifice — a form of settling for a life smaller than the life she wants. And yet she also acknowledges that her choice is not between marrying him and marrying someone else, but between marrying him and not marrying at all. She writes:
I should have goodsense enough to abate something of my romantic ideal, and to content myself with stopping short on this side idolatry — At all events I will marry no one else — This is all the promise I can or will make. A positive engagement to marry a certain person at a certain time, at all haps and hazards, I have always considered the most ridiculous thing on earth: it is either altogether useless or altogether miserable; if the parties continue faithfully attached to each other it is a mere ceremony — if otherwise it comes a galling fetter riveting them to wretchedness and only to be broken with disgrace.
She presents him with her take-it-or-leave-it proposition: If their love is to endure, it must not be rushed into marriage but allowed to grow organically, its rightness and resilience tested in the garden of time:
Such is the result of my deliberations on this very serious subject. You may approve of it or not; but you cannot either persuade me or convince me out of it — My decisions — when I do decide — are unalterable as the laws of the Medes & Persians — Write instantly and tell me that you are content to leave the event to time and destiny and in the meanwhile to continue my Friend and Guardian which you have so long and so faithfully been — and nothing more —
Jane struggles with the choice between her heart’s desire, with its conflicted factions of deep love and vibrating doubt, and what she believes is best for her beloved. Unwilling to err on the side of selfishness, she fears that in asking him to go on with their relationship while she wades through her own uncertainties would keep him from pursuing a relationship with someone else better suited for him and would thus stand between him and his happiness. She articulates her ambivalence with exquisite self-awareness:
It would be more agreeable to etiquette, and perhaps also to prudence, that I should adopt no middle course in an affair such as this — that I should not for another instant encourage an affection I may never reward and a hope I may never fulfill; but cast your heart away from me at once since I cannot embrace the resolution which would give me a right to it for ever. This I would assuredly do if youwere like the generality of lovers, or if it were still in my power to be happy independent of your affection but as it [is] neither etiquette nor prudence can obtain this for me.
Unsure whether she can give him the kind of love and kind of life he wants, Jane places the difficult decision — the choice of whether to part ways or carry forth toward an alluring but uncertain future — into her beloved’s hands. After “a sleepless night, with an aching head, and an aching anxious heart,” she writes:
If there is any change to be made in the terms on which we have so long lived with one another; it must be made by you not me — I cannot make any.
When a hurt and angry Carlyle, no doubt himself sundered by the intensity of love and the fear of its loss, accuses her of insensitively causing him unhappiness by framing the choice before them as so binary, she defends its validity as rooted in the respective realities of their two hearts:
I have refused my immediate, positive assent to your wishes; because our mutual happiness seemed to require that I should refuse it; but for the rest I have not slighted your wishes, on the contrary, I have expressed my willingness to fulfill them, at the expense of every thing but what I deem to be essential to our happiness: and so far from undervaluing you, I have shown you, in declaring I would marry no one else, not only that I esteem you above all the men I have ever seen; but also that I am persuaded I should esteem you above all the men I may ever see — What, then, have you to be hurt or angry at?
Returning to the fear that in choosing to be together, either of them might be settling for a lesser life than their ideal, Jane elects to be a realist rather than a romantic in steering love’s course:
My heart is capable (I feel it is) of a love to which no deprivation would be a sacrifice — a love which would… carry every thought and feeling of my being along with it — But the all-perfect Mortal, who could inspire me with a love so extravagant, is nowhere to be found — exists nowhere but in the Romance of my own imagination! Perhaps it is better for me as it is — A passion, like the torrent in the violence of its course, might perhaps too, like the torrent, leave ruin and desolation behind. In the mean time, I should be very mad, were I to act as if from the influence of such a passion, while my affections are in a state of perfect tranquility. I have already explained to you the nature of my love for you; that it is deep and calm, more like the quiet river, which refreshes and beautifies where it flows, than the torrent which bears down and destroys.
Two years into their relationship, she reminds him how much her feelings have evolved from the initial insistence that she is too closed down to love — strong evidence, though not a perfect guarantee, that they might evolve further still. She writes:
From the change which my sentiments towards you have already undergone, during the period our acquaintance; I have little doubt but, that, in time, I shall be perfectly satisfied with them. One loves you…. in proportion to the ideas and sentiments which are in oneself; according[ly,] as my mind enlarges, and my heart improves, I become capable of comprehending the goodness and greatness which are in you, and my affection for you increases. Not many months ago, I would have said it was impossible that I should ever be your wife; at present I consider this the most probable destiny for me; and in a year or so, perhaps, I shall consider it the only one. “Die Zeit ist noch nicht da!” [“The time is not yet here!”]
With an eye to these sentiments, she maps out the only responsible course forward — they must each endeavor to heal, grow, and refine their separate selves before they can unite their lives:
From what I have said, it is plain (to me, at least), what ought to be the line of our future conduct. Do you what you can to better you external circumstances; always, however, subordinately to your own principles, which I do not ask you to give up, which I should despise you for giving up, whether I approved them or no — While I on the other hand do what I can, subordinately to nothing, to better myself which I am persuaded is the surest way of bringing my wishes to accord with yours. (And let us leave the rest to Fate, satisfied that we have both of us done what lies with [us] for our mutual happiness.)
Jane takes issue with one particular passage of Carlyle’s accusatory letter, in which he narrowed the choices before them as marrying immediately or parting for good. Recognizing in it an insincere and defensive ultimatum based not on his true wishes but on fear and a desire for control in the face of uncertainty, she challenges him:
I will not believe that you have seriously thought of parting from me, of throwing off a heart, which you have taught to lean upon you, till it is no longer sufficient for itself! You could never be so ungenerous! you, who for years have shown and professed for me the most [selfless], most noble affection! How could I part from the only living soul that understands me? I would marry you tomorrow rather! but then,– our parting would indeed need to be brought about by death or some dispensation of uncontrollable Providence — were you to will it, to part would no longer be bitter, the bitterness would be in thinking you unworthy.
If Carlyle were to break things off with her because she stands in the way of his happiness, Jane concedes with “the weight of a millstone” at her heart that she could never begrudge his decision. But she reminds him that he had entered into this courtship willingly, in full awareness of her initial reservations, which she had transparently and repeatedly offered. And so if he has found himself hurt and unhappy, it is on account of unprocessed pain that predates her. In an astute sentiment which the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh would echo nearly two centuries later in his assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” Jane writes:
If indeed your happiness was to suffer from your intercourse with me in our present relation, I would not blame you for discontinuing it; tho’ I should blame you, perhaps, for not examining yourself better before you entered into it — But how can that be? Your present situation is miserable; it must be altered; but is it with reference to me that it must be altered? Is it I who have made it miserable? No! you were as unhappy before we met as ever you have been since: the cause of your unhappiness then must lie in other circumstances of your destiny, which I have no connection with — no real connection, however much I may seem to have, from being frequently associated with them in your mind. It is an alteration in these circumstances which your duty and happiness require from you; and not an alteration in your relation with me.
Jane and Thomas did not part ways. Having voiced, faced, and surmounted their respective fears and reservations, they moved closer and closer toward each other in the coming months. They told each other difficult truths. Jane confesses that she had been minimizing her feelings for another man — her engaged former tutor, with whom she knew she could never be but whom she had indeed loved, “once passionately,” even. Imploring Carlyle for forgiveness, she writes:
Woe to me then if your reason be my judge! … Never were you so dear as at this moment when I am in danger of losing your affection or what is still more precious to me your respect.
Jane finds herself “the forlornest, most dispirited of creatures” as she awaits his response. Awash in gladness and relief when an assuring letter from Carlyle finally arrives, she exults:
What is love if it can not make all rough places smooth!
Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle were married on October 17, 1826. Only four people attended the wedding — three of her family and one of his. Although shortly after the ceremony she wrote to a relative that her new husband possessed all the qualities she deemed essential in a mate — “a warm true heart to love me, a towering intellect to command me, and a spirit of fire to be the guiding star-light of my life” — the romantic fantasy soon gave way to the reality of their contrasting natures. For the remaining forty years of Jane’s life — she died considering herself an unrealized woman — they proceeded to have a tortured relationship that syphoned her creative aspiration and relegated her increasingly to the role of her husband’s helpmate. They had no children. Carlyle’s official biographer argued that the relationship was never consummated. Both Thomas and Jane went on to have romantic, though by all evidence not sexual, entanglements with other people — most notably, Jane’s intense relationship with the novelist Geraldine Jewsbury. Jane met Geraldine, as Virginia Woolf would write a century later, with “that uneasy sense that old relationships had shifted and that new ones were forming themselves,” and she became her most significant intimate attachment for the last quarter century of her life.
Complement with the Carlyles’ contemporary Stendhal, writing in the year Jane and Thomas met, on the seven stages of falling in and out of love and the poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran, writing a century later, on the courage to weather love’s uncertainties.
Published October 2, 2018