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.