As Stefan Collini pointed out in a recent review of a biography of Leslie Stephens, the great Victorian intellectual who was also Virginia Woolf's father,
At the end of the nineteenth century, for a "man of letters" to ruminate upon the possibility of domestic tyranny was, inescapably, to ruminate on "the Carlyle scandal". Shortly after Carlyle's death in 1881, his anointed biographer, J. A. Froude, published materials which brought the domestic suffering and unhappiness of Jane Welsh Carlyle into full public view. The history of the Carlyles' marriage raised in acute form the question of whether a writer was an inherently unsuitable marriage partner, at once too demanding, too self-absorbed and too much at home. Froude certainly revealed Carlyle to have been "ill to live with" (and for this he was roundly denounced for having betrayed his master). But he did more: he alluded to, but ostentatiously refused to confirm or deny, rumours that the Carlyles' was "not a real marriage, and was only companionship etc", an innuendo which careered off into a full-scale controversy on that most delicate of subjects, whether Carlyle had compounded his unsatisfactoriness as a husand by also being impotent. . . . In the course of the 1880s and 90s, the name of "Carlyle" had come emblematic of "the Man of Letters as bad Husband."
Collini reminds us that Froude's biography, which anticipates many modern works in that genre, not only generated a scandal about the Carlyles' marriage but was itself a scandal that raised an entire series of questions:
- Was the apostle of manliness "unmanly" in his personal affairs?
- What, then, is the relation between a sage's life and a sage's ideas?
- And do flaws in the first necessarily indicate flaws in the second?
- Does the biographer owe first allegiance to his subject or to his audience? To friendship or to truth?
- To whom does the biographer owe allegiance, moreover, when he has a dual subject — in this case, both Jane as well as Thomas Carlyle — ?
Stefan Collini. "Having Emotions the Manly Way," Times Literary Supplement June 4 1999, p. 6. [A review of Trev Lynn Broughton, "Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and literary autobiography in the late Victorian period."
Last modified 20 February 2002