It was not easy to be the wife of Thomas Carlyle. A woman with a less original mind than Jane Welsh might have been crushed into insignificance by a man who, while probably never consummating their marriage, announced at its inception, ‘I must not and I cannot live in a house of which I am not head.’ In time, their voluminous correspondence suggests, the relationship became alternately affectionate and bitterly accusatory. It lasted, however, and not only because of the difficulty and scandal of divorce in 19th-century Britain. It was a bond that neither could break; as Jane wrote in a poignant letter: ‘it is sad and wrong to be so dependent for the life of my life on any human being as I am on you; but I cannot by any force of logic cure myself at this date, when it has become second nature.’ Kathy Chamberlain’s welcome biography, in which the Sage of Chelsea becomes a secondary character, amply demonstrates that she did manage to maintain a life of her own, her ‘i-ity’, as she called it. Jane’s premature death left Thomas as bereft as any connubial paragon.
Both were Scots, but from very different backgrounds. Jane Welsh was a cherished only child and particularly close to her father, a doctor with progressive views on female education who saw to it that she had the best teachers available. Thomas Carlyle grew up in poverty, one of