Great, super-great man though he was, nothing which he ever did or wrote has made Carlyle more famous than the story of his marriage. He was a genius, a great genius, and, like many of his kind, made of marriage but a dismal failure. A self-centred, dyspeptic sentimentalist, he knew not the meaning of true love. He wanted a cook, a housekeeper, somebody to take care of him, a woman who was prepared to sacrifice her life before the altar of his talents, not a wife.
Margaret Gordon, the Blumine of "Sartor Resartus," might have proved for him a fitting mate, but he was destined to wed a woman who was herself a genius, a creature pulsating with the highest human passions, a frail and tender hot-house plant.
Even in her earliest years - she was born at Haddington on July 14, 1810 - Jane Welsh displayed exceptional precocity, and as childhood gave place to girlhood she developed into a cultured scholar with an insatiate desire for learning.
Her mind soared rapidly above the shallow limits within which convention bound the women of her time, and her views on many questions became advanced even when gauged by the standards of to-day.
For her relatives, with the exception of her father, she displayed but little affection. Her father, however, was a very real friend to her, and when, in her eighteenth year, death deprived her of his counsels, she lost a man who might have saved her much. Dr. Welsh understood his daughter, and always supported and encouraged her literary aspirations; but it was he who introduced her to Edward Irving, and thereby, all unwittingly, wrecked two lives.
A brilliant scholar himself, Irving, at the age of eighteen, became a schoolmaster at Haddington and, in his spare time, private tutor to Jane Welsh.
Master and pupil fell in love with each other almost at first sight, but love between them was hopeless and impossible, for Irving already was betrothed, and, try as he would, neither Miss Martin, his fiancee, nor her father would release him from his bond. He therefore married, and spent many loveless years, until finally despair drove him to a fanaticism almost akin to madness.
Jane, meanwhile, turned to literature for solace, and, to comfort and amuse her in her loneliness, Irving brought to her a writer whom he had discovered in Edinburgh, a man poor and without fame, strange, unkempt, and gloomy; an unknown star, but, as Irving realised already, a star destined ultimately to shine brightly and for ever in the firmament of art.
In June, 1821, Jane first made the acquaintance of Thomas Carlyie. It was "a red and dusky evening, the sky hanging huge and high, but dim as with dust or drought." The whole scene was one which could not fail to appeal to the imaginative senses of the visionary, and to Carlyie, amidst the profundity of her surroundings, Jane immediately became the woman of bis dreams. He loved her, and immediately his love aroused her interest. He was quaint, uncouth, and masterful. He amused her. But love him she did not. She swore that never would she marry him.
Indeed, so late as 1823, she wrote : "My friend, I love you . . . But were you my brother I would love you the same. No, your friend I will be, your honest, most devoted friend, while I breathe the breath of life. But your wife, never, never....."
But Fate decreed otherwise. Irving one day, from the anguish of his heart, revealed the secret of his hopeless Jove to a certain Mrs. Basil Montagu. This good lady, ignorant of the relations which then existed between Carlyle and Jane, wrote to the former and asked him to be a friend to and console the lovelorn maid.
Jane heard of this action, and was greatly wroth, on the one hand with Mrs. Montagu for her uncalled-for interference, and, on the other, with Irving, whom she held to have betrayed her.
Partly, therefore, in order to spite Irving, and partly in order to show Mrs. Montagu and the world that "she was not pining for another woman's husband," she allowed her engagement to Carlyle to be announced.
Then Mrs. Montagu realised what she had done. She knew Carlyle, what manner of man he was, and implored Jane not to marry him, but implored in vain. It was too late. Jane was resolute, and on October 17, 1826, the marriage ceremony took place.
Never, perhaps, was there a man more impossible to love than Carlyle. Immediately before his wedding his letters were morbid to an extreme. He dreaded being left alone with the woman who was to become his wife, and he even wanted the brother of his bride to chaperone them on their honeymoon.
At first Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle lived at Comely Bank, near Edinburgh, and the few months during which this place claimed to be their home were months almost of happiness. Comely Bank was within reach of civilisation. Jane was still impressed with the novelty of her position, and, in spite of his utter and selfish absorption in his work, Carlyle did show some consideration for her feelings and her interests.
But when they moved to Craigenputtock, then did Jane realise in its entirety the full horror of the matrimonial tragedy in which she was destined to play the leading part. The move itself is a striking example of Carlyle's criminal indifference to all aims and interests other than his own. It is hard to comprehend how any man could have forced a woman filled with the joy of life to bury herself in the midst of a bleak and lonely moor, when, prior to her marriage, she had declared times without number that she could? not live in such a place under any circumstances or with any man. Not even the fact that Carlyle had longed for many years to live and work there can justify his action or make the retribution which marred his later years less merited.
For six weary years in this desolate spot Jane eked out a sentence of imprisonment with a morose, silent, exacting, and sometimes almost violent man, who was for ever whining over his own fictitious ills, wholly unconscious of his wife's physical and mental torment, utterly oblivious to the canker which was gnawing at her heart.