A woman of literary substance
NAMING famous Victorian writers with Lothian connections isn’t hard - Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But fewer people would volunteer the name Jane Welsh Carlyle.
Yet the Haddington-born author has been dubbed the world’s first feminist writer and her contributions to literature as important as her more famous husband, Thomas Carlyle.
The life of the writer, who died in 1866, had until recently been commemorated in a museum which recreated her home and showcased a number of original artifacts, prints and paintings.
However, the Jane Welsh Carlyle House, run by the Lamp of Lothian Collegiate Trust was forced to close in June because it couldn’t meet a repair bill of 20,000. The museum was only drawing 15 visitors a year.
The contents of the property are due to be auctioned off on Thursday at Thomson Roddick and Medcalf, which hopes to raise 15,000 for the trust, according to general manager Hilary Dickinson. "It will be absolutely fantastic if we raise this money as it will fund the main thrust of the trust," she says.
"It’s the furniture from the house which is for sale as it’s recreated. There’s no personal artifacts, paintings or prints as we wanted to keep these to be displayed in another museum as it’s an important piece of history."
The artifacts may well be of great significance, but the owner, for many, is largely unknown despite her local heritage.
So, who was Jane Welsh Carlyle?
Born at what is now Carlyle House, Haddington, on July 14, 1801, the daughter of Edinburgh doctor John Welsh, she
begged her father to teach her Latin at five years old, and by the time she was a teenager, she completed her first novel.
Dickinson says: "In Haddington, Jane is remembered with great affection because there’s much documentation about her. In her late teens she was the belle of Haddington society. Her father saw her ability and talent and ‘allowed’ her to be a boy and study. She became a great letter writer, and had a charm about her writing. The fact she wrote was unusual for women and this is how she got her title of first feminist writer."
She was educated for a while in Edinburgh and her tutor introduced her to the then-unknown Thomas Carlyle in 1821.
They married in 1926, and moved to Comely Bank, then to Carlyle’s remote family estate of Craigenputtock in Dumfriesshire. This was a desperately lonely time for Jane and sparked the beginning of her letter-writing.
Eventually, in 1834 they moved to London where Thomas Carlyle became known as the Sage of Chelsea and Jane finally got her desired social life and literary circle.
A spokesman for the National Trust for Scotland, which owns Thomas Carlyle’s birthplace in Ecclefechan, near Lockerbie, says: "That we know Jane Welsh Carlyle by her own name, and not simply as ‘Mrs Thomas Carlyle’ is testimony to her intellect and the importance of her contribution to Victorian literature.
"It is no coincidence that Carlyle produced his greatest works during their marriage. A brilliant conversationalist and witty observer of 19th century life, as evidenced by her surviving letters and journals, she chose to follow what we may consider now to be the path of convention and supported her husband in his career as they moved from Athenian Edinburgh to Craigenputtoch and on to London.
"Yet perhaps Jane realised this would provide her with unrivalled opportunities to exercise her own talents. She is famous for directing the conversation in the Carlyle salon at Cheyne Row - no mean feat when the guest list included Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and John Stuart Mill.
"Her contribution to the literature of the period, both in her role as midwife to Carlyle’s oeuvre and in her own writings, is as important as her husband’s. Jane Welsh Carlyle deserves to be better known in the country of her birth in her own right."
Jane was celebrated in her life for her intelligence and biting wit, often aimed at her husband, but was never a published author in her lifetime. Instead she supported her husband through his career and ill-health. When she died in 1866 her body was returned to Haddington, where she was buried alongside her father in St Mary’s Parish Church.
• The auction is at 10.30am on December 2 at Thomson Roddick and Medcalf in Edinburgh. Call 0131-454 9090
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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