Jane Baillie Welsh, the only child of Dr John Welsh (1776–1819) and Grace Grizel Welsh (1782–1842), was born on 14th July 1801, in Haddington, Scotland. As a child she was given private tuition by Edward Irving. After he left the area to teach in Kirkcaldy he kept in contact with Jane while she attended a school in Edinburgh . At the age of 16 she felt herself to be in love with Irving. However, he was already engaged to Isabella Martin, who refused to release him from his promise.
Dr John Welsh died in 1819. Jane was courted by several young men but they were dismissed as unsuitable. It would seem that she had never recovered from the failure of her relationship with Irving. Jane met Thomas Carlyle in May 1821. Carlyle was immediately impressed with Jane and described her as a "tall aquiline figure, of elegant carriage and air". According to Carlyle's biographer, Fred Kaplan: "Carlyle spoke that evening of his own reading, writing, and literary ambitions. Jane listened intently, impressed by his learning and amused by his Annandale accent and country awkwardness.... Frightened of marriage because, among other reasons, she was frightened of sex, Jane Welsh could not imagine that such a man could become her husband." However, she was willing to read the articles he was writing and came to the conclusion that he was a "genius".
Kenneth Fielding has argued: After this Jane Welsh's life was inextricably involved with Carlyle's and though her attachment was sorely tested, and not without exasperation and pain, their mutual admiration and often tender affection kept them together. This was partly because she knew that she had made the choice of a genius to remove her from the dull sobriety and provincialism of Haddington."
After much prevarication Jane agreed to marry Thomas Carlyle. The wedding took place on 17th October 1826. Fred Kaplan has argued: "Clearly, puritanical inhibitions and romantic idealizations were in the 7 foot-wide bed with two sexual innocents. Fragile evidence suggests that though they were able to express affection with whispers and embraces their sexual relationship did not provide physical satisfaction to either of them, despite their efforts during the first half-dozen or so years of the marriage." Carlyle's biographer James Anthony Froude has argued that the marriage was unconsummated.
The couple settled in Craigenputtock. Carlyle told his friend, Thomas Story Spedding : " It is one of the most unoccupied, loneliest, far from one of the joyfullest of men. From time to time I feel it absolutely necessary to get into entire solitude; to beg all the world, with passion if they will not grant it otherwise, to be so kind as to leave me altogether alone. One needs to unravel and bring into some articulation the villainous chaos that gathers round heart and head in that loud-roaring Babel; to repent of one's many sins, to be right miserable, humiliated, and do penance for them - with hope of absolution, of new activity and better obedience!" However, Jane was desperately lonely during this period. She told a friend, Ellen Twisleton, that she found Carlyle no fit companion, and regularly went to bed in tears.
Thomas Carlyle's reputation as an expert on literature and philosophy resulted in him receiving commissions from The Edinburgh Review and The Foreign Review. He also started work on his first book, Sartor Resartus. However, he had great difficulty finding someone willing to publish this philosophical work. It eventually was serialized in Fraser's Magazine (1833-34).
In June, 1834, Jane and Thomas Carlyle moved to London and established a home at 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea . Although her health was often poor, Jane enjoyed her new social life. Visitors to their home included John Stuart Mill , Charles Dickens , John Forster, William Macready, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Sterling, Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. She also became friendly with other important political and literary figures such as Frederick Denison Maurice, Harriet Martineau, James Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.
Carlyle appeared to hold his wife in great esteem. He later wrote: "She could do anything well to which she chose to give herself.... She had a keen clear incisive faculty of seeing through things, and hating all that was make-believe or pretentious. She had good sense that amounted to genius. She loved to learn and she cultivated all her faculties to the utmost of her power. She was always witty … in a word she was fascinating and everybody fell in love with her."
Her biographer, Kenneth Fielding has claimed: "Jane was dark and slender, and extremely pretty as a girl, though not showing to advantage in most of her portraits or many photographs. She had an exceptional fascination for men, who appreciated her wit, charm, and intelligence.... She was ambitious, though maybe mainly for Carlyle. She was a good linguist, brilliant in conversation, utterly independent, spirited, a hero-worshipper if there ever was one, and ready to take up the women's cause." Fielding then goes onto argue: "I t is hardly disputed that she is the greatest woman letter writer in English. Her skill often lay in the immediacy of her letters; their appeal lies partly in the story that emerges from her self-dramatization. Short excerpts can barely do them justice. Their effectiveness has nothing to do with elegant prose, to which she could always rise, much to do with her sympathetic imagination, clear head, alertness, and a quick eye and ear for entirely natural expression."
Thomas Carlyle was always concerned about his health but it was Jane who was constantly unwell and suffered from insomnia. She wrote to a friend that she was "suffering from a bad nervous system, keeping me in a state of greater or less physical suffering". Thomas Carlyle, wrote to Catherine Dickens on 24th April, 1843: "We are such a pair of poor sickly creatures here, we have to deny ourselves the pleasure of dining out anywhere at present; and, I may well say with very great reluctance, even that of dining at your house on Saturday, one of the agreeablest dinners that human ingenuity could propose for us!"
Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary, was a regular visitor to 5 Cheyne Row , and they had long discussions on parliamentary reform. Jane and Mazzini developed an increasing intimate relationship. In 1846 Jane considered leaving her husband over his platonic relationship with Lady Harriet Baring, the wife of Bingham Baring, 2nd Baron Ashburton, but Mazzini strongly advised her not to. It has been claimed that Alfred Tennyson one remarked: "It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four."
On 21st April 1866, Jane went for her regular afternoon carriage ride in Hyde Park with Kate Dickens Perugini . According to Henry Fielding Dickens : "Mrs. Carlyle was a great friend of my sister Kitty; and indeed, they were driving together in a carriage when they ran over a dog, which was a shock to Mrs. Carlyle as to hasten her death from heart trouble." Thomas Carlyle's biographer, Fred Kaplan, argues that "after several circuits of the park the driver, alarmed by Mrs Carlyle's lack of response to his request for further instructions, asked a woman to look into the carriage." According to the witness she "was leaning back in one corner of the carriage, rugs spread over her knees; her eyes were closed, and her upper lip slightly, slightly opened".
She could do anything well to which she chose to give herself.... She had a keen clear incisive faculty of seeing through things, and hating all that was make-believe or pretentious. She had good sense that amounted to genius. She loved to learn and she cultivated all her faculties to the utmost of her power. She was always witty… in a word she was fascinating and everybody fell in love with her.
Mrs. Carlyle was a great friend of my sister Kitty; and indeed, they were driving together in a carriage when they ran over a dog, which was a shock to Mrs. Carlyle as to hasten her death from heart trouble.