I Too am Here

I just began reading the letters of Jane Carlyle, wife of Thomas Carlyle, in a collection called I Too am Here. I don’t think I’ve ever read a volume of someone’s letters before, which seems strange to me (and makes me think I’m forgetting something??). But if this book stays as good as it has begun, I may begin to read collections of letters regularly. Recently I’ve been preparing for a letter-reading binge by buying collections here and there, including ones by John Keats, Charles Lamb, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, and Jane Austen. Since I love epistolary novels so much, perhaps reading letters by real people is a logical next step?

I’ve read only maybe 20 pages of the Jane Carlyle book, but right off the bat she charmed me with this passage, written to a friend:

Do read this book [Rousseau’s Julie, or the new Heloise] — You will find it tedious in many of its details, and in some of its scenes culpably indelicate; but for splendour of eloquence, refinement of sensibility, and ardour of passion it has no match in the French language. Fear not that by reading Heloise you will be ruined — or undone — or whatever adjective best suits that fallen state into which women and angels will stumble at a time — I promise you that you will rise from Heloise with a deeper impression of whatever is most beautiful and most exalted in virtue than is left upon your mind by ‘Blairs sermons’ ‘Paley’s Theology’ or the voluminous ‘Jeremy Taylor’ himself — I never felt my mind more prepared to brave temptation of every sort than when I closed the second volume of this strange book — I believe if the Devil himself had waited upon me in the shape of Lord Byron I would have desired Betty to show him out …

It makes me wonder how much time she spent thinking about the devil waiting upon her in the shape of Lord Byron …. The rest of the letters so far are addressed to Thomas Carlyle in the years before their engagement and marriage. The two of them write about their literary ambitions, their reading, and their feelings for each other. Unfortunately for Thomas, so far Jane has insisted that she can only love him as a friend. Her reading of Rousseau’s novel has made her impatient with common, everyday lovers, and even Carlyle with all his genius and potential can’t live up to her ideal.

I know from reading the introduction that theirs will be a difficult though loving marriage, but it’s fun for right now to read Jane’s feelings about their relationship as it is still fresh and new.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

13 responses to “I Too am Here

  1. I bet these will be a great read: they are both such remarkable characters. My favorite literary tourist site on my trip to London last year was their house in Chelsea, which is about 90% just as when they lived there including the “sound proof” attic study for Thos. to write in (it never really succeeded in keeping the noise out, to his frustration!).

  2. I read L.M. Montgomery’s journals, but I haven’t finished any book of correspondence I started. I’ll be interested to know how this one proceeds for you.

  3. Rousseau is such a trouble maker. J Carlyle’s description of Julie is just right, though.

    The Keats letters are really good. “Negative capability” comes from them – he was a fine theorist – but they have enormous personal charm as well.

  4. Rohan — oh, how wonderful to see their house! I hope to make it to London next spring, and maybe I can stop there.

    Lilian — I’ll certainly post on it again. I’ve read a volume of Woolf’s diaries, but that’s it as far as diaries are concerned, I think, although I’m intrigued by the idea of them. Definitely it’s a genre to explore more.

    Amateur Reader — oh, yeah, big-time trouble maker. If a sometimes dull one :) I’m looking forward to Keats’s letters greatly.

  5. Nan

    Have you read the Persephone book, The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme? I have it on the shelf but haven’t read it yet.

  6. Have you read A Sultry Month by Alethea Hayter? That’s a wonderful group biography of the Carlysles, Browning, Dickens, Tennyson, etc in June 1846. I have never read a whole collection of letters, as I wonder how anyone could keep up a fascinating correspondence and not sink occasionally to saying ‘ran out of milk’ and ‘dropped a stitch in my knitting and it was a real pain getting it back’. But I should give it a go one of these days and see what I am missing!

  7. I like the idea of reading collections of letters though it is not something that I have tried yet. I want to read “In Tearing Haste” though – a collection of letters from the Mitford sisters.

  8. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I’ve read the Thomas and Emerson letters and those were a hoot. I’ve got to do some reading of Jane’s letters too!

  9. verbivore

    Literary correspondence is so fun! Can’t wait to hear more about these. Now I’m going to imagine the devil as Lord Byron…:-)

  10. I love the idea of reading letters or diaries but I never seem to do it. Does the book only have Jane’s letters or also the responses? Whenever I read things like this, it makes me think I received the entirely wrong sort of education–people seemed to know so much more before (or does it just seem that way) or know more about literature than I do now–and she’s so thoughtful and perceptive about what she reads. Of course maybe she had more time to think about these things and didn’t have to worry about working 40+ hours and a commute on top of it all! :)

  11. I enjoyed the Mitfords collection Letters Between Six Sisters, and of course Charing Cross Road. I like literary letters if they are unconsciously written, but if they are written with half an eye on possible publication they don’t always feel genuine.

  12. Nan — no, I haven’t read it, so thank you very much for the heads-up!

    Litlove — this book is the selected letters, so the editor could cut out all the boring bits! It seems that quite a lot of Jane’s letters survived, so there is a lot to choose from. They continue to be wonderfully entertaining. I agree, though, that someone’s complete letters would be dull at times. Thanks for the book recommendation — I’d never heard of it, so I’m glad to put it on the list.

    Willa — I’ve liked the idea of reading letters too, so I’m glad I’m finally doing it. Letters by the Mitford sisters would surely be interesting!

    Stefanie — I think you would enjoy Jane’s letters; they would certainly be a different perspective on Carlyle. So far I’m enjoying them very much.

    Verbivore — the letters have been lots of fun so far. One of my favorites was a description of Dickens at a party. Can you imagine?

    Danielle — the letters are mostly Jane’s, although I’ve come across a couple from Thomas Carlyle to her. Yes, the people do sound so educated and thoughtful, although I suspect people in the future might look back at us and think we sounded smart because we know about things they don’t. Maybe, at least! :)

  13. I love letters, and diaries. I’ve read many of both, but not Jane Carlyle’s. Must remedy that, would love to see her description of Dickens! My husband was updating a blog of literary letters for a while at The Postman’s Horn — that was fun, digging out letters to share.

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