Jane Welsh Carlyle, the Flower of Haddington

Jane Welsh Carlyle, the wife of poet, writer and philanthropist Thomas Carlyle, was the only daughter of Dr John Welsh, a highly respected G.P. who had a flourishing practice in Haddington.

Jane was born in Lodge Street on the 14th July 1801 and grew up a tomboy. She attended school in St. Anne’s Street, where she overtook the boys in her class to become the dux of the school. Jane, a beautiful dark-haired girl in her early teens, was acclaimed the Flower of Haddington.

She was already well known as the belle of the town and many a head turned as she took her customary evening walk down the High Street, past the Nungate Bridge, round by St. Mary’s Church and on to Babbie’s Butts.

This extremely pretty girl with the gypsy looks had several romantic liaisons and at the comparatively young age of 17 formed a brief relationship with Edward Irving, a school teacher who had tutored her as a child.

Many a young man called at Lodge Street – and many a heart was broken as they were turned away. Jane was to stay in this house for 25 years with her parents, where her life was rich in elegance and good sense.

But Jane’s sheltered life was shattered when her father died in September 1819. Jane faced up to her loss with stoicism and her depression lasted a long time, as did her disenchantment with life in general, and Haddington in particular. She was so ill at ease with the town, that she wrote in one of her letters, “that it was the deadest spot in the whole universe.”

It was two years after her father’s death before she could blank out the mental anguish which seemed to suffocate her. However, Jane was soon to meet the man in her life who would win her heart and eventually marry her – Thomas Carlyle.

During the years of Jane’s courtship with Thomas Carlyle, she saw Victoria crowned Queen and the gradual demise of the stagecoach as a means of travel before steam appeared to revolutionise a speedier means of travelling and communication.

Shortly after she married, the couple moved to Comely Bank in Edinburgh. Then she stayed for a while in Dumfriesshire before moving south to Cheyne Row, in what was then one of London’s most fashionable suburbs. Her mother Grace also died in 1842.

Sometime after moving to Chelsea, Jane wrote to a friends giving her own account of the district. One can imagine her sitting in her rented house overlooking the River Thames watching the bustle of city life; women shouting, children shrieking, door bells ringing, wagon carts creaking, steeple bells pealing and the stench of smoking chimneys. It was as if the plague itself had returned with sudden death and wee Eppie Daidle.*
The couple had a wide circle of friends. Leigh Hunt, the poet, lived a few doors away and other literary callers included Tennyson, Thackery, Dickens, Ruskin and the actor McCready. Even with such a host of visitors, Jane cut a lonely figure. Thomas needed total silence and complete solitude when he was writing and therefore it was only in the evenings that the couple actually met. Jane would tell him the day’s accounts in the most dramatic way imaginable – so much so that it was said she could tell a story about a scrubbing brush and still make it interesting.

So great were her powers of narration that Charles Dickens tried to persuade her to write a novel and this was discussed frequently between them. Shortly before Jane died, she had sketched out her ideas to him, getting well into a second volume.

It’s a pity that Jane never wrote about Haddington, the town she moaned about so often, for she never ceased to be homesick, and some time in 1849, she made a short, clandestine visit to the place. Visualise Jane sitting in the George Hotel, where she stayed during her visit, reminiscing about her childhood. She took time to visit the Haugh and St. Mary’s Church where she placed a posy of flowers on her father’s grave. She walked through Dodds Gardens and Babbie’s Butts, ending up at Sunnybank, of which she made a sketch. The latter is now called Tenterfield House.

This visit proved to be her last and for the next 17 years she stayed in Chelsea with her husband. One dull Saturday morning, the 21st Of April 1866, she went for a drive in her carriage, taking along a friend’s dog for company. The dog was struck by a coach, although not seriously hurt. Jane, who had had a fright, climbed back into her own carriage and ordered the driver to continue. It was only after several circuits of the park with no new instructions, that the driver stopped to check how she was. He only saw Jane’s pale, lifeless hands clasped in her lap – she had died of a heart attack.

Thomas, who had been away, was recalled to London. He immediately made preparations for her body to be taken to Haddington for burial. The coffin lay overnight in William Dodd’s house, now the Haddington branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The next day, Thursday April 26th 1866, the Flower of Haddington was laid to rest in the ruined choir of St. Mary’s Church alongside her beloved father.

For 40 years she had been a loving wife to Thomas Carlyle (who was eventually buried elsewhere) but she was now in a fitting resting place.

Although Jane’s novel never saw the light of day – did she choose not to compete with her demanding husband? – her literary skills can be seen in her diaries and letters.

The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle: January-December 1851 v. 26 (Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle) are available from Amazon

Rosemary Ashton’s 2003 book “Thomas and Jane Carlyle: Portrait of a Marriage” provides a detailed look at the times and conditions under which these two interesting people lived.

This entry was posted in People. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *