The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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May 6, 2011

Only connect: Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Carlyle

{Elizabeth Gaskell, painted in 1851}
{Jane Carlyle, painted in 1856}

Reading The Carlyles at Home for Persephone Reading Weekend has made me want to read more about Jane and Thomas Carlyle, but in the meantime it's been fun to see them again in the Elizabeth Gaskell biography I'm currently reading. Elizabeth is visiting London in April and May, 1848, as a literary celebrity after the publication of her first novel, Mary Barton:

There was one initial disappointment. Jane Carlyle asked her to 'a quiet tea,' saying how much Carlyle would like to meet her. The sage himself, apparently, had not been consulted. Elizabeth sat an hour in the dining-room while Jane peered anxiously out at the garden, where according to a furious Emily Winkworth, 'her great rude husband was walking backward and forwards in a dirty Scotch plaid smoking.' Despite four appeals he would not come in, and at last Jane went out herself, 'but it was no use, and she came back looking so mortified.' Carlyle behaved better on later occasions and Elizabeth, in any case, would have forgiven him anything.
-- from Elizabeth Gaskell:  A Habit of Stories, by Jenny Uglow

{the Carlyle's dining room}

But there's another interesting 'character' -- someone I had never heard of -- who appears both in the Carlyles' lives and in Elizabeth Gaskell's. {One of the charms, for me, of reading biographies is finding these connections.) In The Carlyles at Home, there's an amazing story of Thomas Carlyle sitting obliviously in the dining room with a visiting friend, Miss Jewsbury, while one of the Carlyles' maids gives birth in the china closet.  Since we don't learn much, in that book, about her, you could almost imagine that she's a quiet, literary, bluestockinged spinster, until you read this:

There were writers...among [Elizabeth's] Manchester acquaintances -- in particular, Geraldine Jewsbury, only two years younger, who kept house for her brother nearby in Carlton Terrace, Greenheys. Geraldine's older sister Maria Jane, who had died in 1833, had also been a writer, a Manchester celebrity who rose to be leading writer for the Athenaeum and was a close friend of Wordsworth's daughter Dora...Geraldine loved to mix with the colourful foreign settles in the city -- Germans, Italians, Greeks -- and in the 1840s her house was a centre for local journalists, theatre folk and American visitors like Ralph Waldo Emerson.... Since 1842 she had been wrapped up in a passionate friendship, amounting to almost hero-worship on her side, with Thomas Carlyle's wife, Jane. ...
      There could have been fellow feeling between Elizabeth and her neighbour, but Geraldine was almost shockingly outspoken and flamboyant. Ella Hepworth Dixon, the daughter of the Athenaeum editor, vividly remembers her mass of red-brown hair, her spectacles and endless supply of cigaritos, her clothes made by a modish dressmaker and her earrings like miniature parrots which swayed as she talked. She was rather condescending to the more conventional Gaskells and once, as she lay on the floor at Upper Rumford Street reading Lamb's Essays of Elia, she told them that their drawing room was so ugly that they could never be happy there.
Well, I guess not. {Talk about livening up the book club...}. 

{images from The National Gallery and the National Trust}

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