Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World: A Story of Love, Work, Friendship and Marriage

Written by Kathy Chamberlain
Review by Laura Shepperson

The cover blurb for Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World claims that Kathy Chamberlain “brings Carlyle out of her husband’s shadow, focusing on her as a remarkable woman and writer in her own right”. Chamberlain creates the concept of Carlyle as a “professional letter-writer”. As a reader who enjoys reading writers’ collected letters, particularly those of Virginia Woolf, herself an admirer of Carlyle, this idea appealed to me. After all, Carlyle’s letters are now in print and much read and admired.

I did not feel that this biography achieved the aim of bringing Carlyle out of her husband’s shadow. Partly because her letters focused on her environment and on other people, and partly because she was surrounded by such strong personalities (including not only Thomas Carlyle but also Jane’s fascinating friend, governess Amely Bölte), I felt that there was at times a lacuna at the centre of the book where Carlyle should have been. This improved towards the end of the book, particularly Jane’s response to Lady Ashburton, her husband’s patron, perhaps mistress. While the focus of this book may have been on her Victorian World rather than on Jane Welsh Carlyle, it was still an informative and enjoyable read.