Geraldine Jewsbury (1500 words)

Joanne Wilkes (University of Auckland)
Download PDF Save to Bookshelf Tweet Report an Error


Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury was a mid-Victorian novelist and journalist whose works and career, after falling into obscurity by the early twentieth century, have enjoyed a revival of interest among feminist literary scholars since the 1970s. She was born at Measham, near the Derbyshire-Leicestershire border, on 22 August 1812, the fourth child of Thomas Jewsbury, a cotton manufacturer, and his wife Maria (née Smith), a cultivated woman of artistic tastes; there were eventually six surviving children. In 1818 the family moved to Manchester, where Thomas became an insurance agent. Maria died the following year, however, so that the eldest child and only other girl, Maria Jane (b. 1800), became responsible for running the household and for superintending Geraldine’s education, while also establishing a successful career as a writer. Geraldine spent several years at the Misses Darbys’ boarding-school at Alder Mills, near Tamworth, and then in 1830-31 continued her studies in French, Italian and drawing in London, her sister intending her for a governess. But when Maria Jane married in 1832 and accompanied her clergyman husband to India, Geraldine in turn took charge of the Jewsbury household. Maria Jane died of cholera in 1833, leaving her sister with powerful but ambivalent memories whose character is suggested by the older woman’s surviving letters. Deeply religious herself, she had urged Geraldine to eschew any worldly ambitions and to adhere devoutly to her duty – but she had also given her Shelley’s iconoclastic drama Prometheus Unbound and had outlined with satisfaction her own literary achievements.

Through her late teens and twenties, Geraldine Jewsbury read widely in metaphysics and science, and became increasingly disenchanted by what she saw as the narrow and desiccated Calvinism of her Manchester environment. In April 1840, in a state of severe depression aggravated by an unhappy love affair and her father’s mortal illness, she wrote to Thomas Carlyle, whose novel Sartor Resartus (1838) and translations of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels had made a deep impression on her. Having lost her faith in God, and lacking any sense of purpose, Jewsbury asked him to elaborate on the solutions to such dilemmas that his works had suggested to her. Carlyle replied, and the correspondence led to lifelong friendships with both Thomas and Jane Carlyle: despite many vicissitudes in their relationship, Jewsbury became Jane Carlyle’s closest friend.

After her father died in 1840, Jewsbury kept house for her youngest brother Frank, in Green Heys and later Ardwick, on what was then the outskirts of Manchester. Her spiritual difficulties continued, partly because she found the life of middle-class women like herself especially meaningless: she thought their upbringing had no vocational or moral dimension, but was geared simply to securing husbands and ensuring decorous (rather than genuinely ethical) social conduct. From the early 1840s she worked on a novel that, as Zoe: the History of Two Lives, was accepted by John Forster for Chapman and Hall and published in 1845. It explores the passionate but unconsummated love between the title character, who marries for lack of any alternative, and a Roman Catholic priest assailed by religious doubts; the novel’s interlinking of sexual feeling and spiritual anguish owes much to the fiction of George Sand, which was enjoying a succès de scandale in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s. Jewsbury told Jane Carlyle that Zoe was a novel that raised questions about the meaning of life, to which she herself had no answers; it was also a novel whose outspokenness shocked many contemporary readers.

Jewsbury’s next novel, The Half Sisters (1848), which she considered her best – it is certainly her most coherently structured - challenged conventional assumptions about women, by contrasting the dreary and unsatisfying existence of a businessman’s wife with the active and purposeful life of her actress half-sister. It is the outwardly respectable woman, it transpires, who has the fewer resources against sexual temptation. The novel’s focus on the performer’s life owes something to Madame de Staël’s influential novel Corinne (1807) and to Sand’s Consuelo (1843), and something too to Jewsbury’s friendship with prominent American actress Charlotte Cushman. Marian Withers (1851) again examines the emptiness of middle-class women’s lives, but also shows Jewsbury’s familiarity with the growth of manufacturing and its implications for labour relations.

Jewsbury continued to publish fiction, albeit of less interest, until 1859. For adults, she produced Constance Herbert (1855, about hereditary insanity, and reviewed lukewarmly by George Eliot in the Westminster Review for July 1855), The Sorrows of Gentility (1856, about a disastrous inter-class marriage), and Right or Wrong (1859). For children, she published The History of an Adopted Child (1852) and Angelo, or The Pine Forest in the Alps (1855). Jewsbury had brought out short tales and articles in Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine in 1846-47, and, in the wake of her success as a novelist, was invited by Dickens to contribute to Household Words, where seventeen of her tales appeared during the 1850s. Notable amongst her other work for periodicals are her translations from Italian of Giuseppe Mazzini’s articles on Carlyle and Dante, and her own ‘Religious Faith and Modern Scepticism’ (Westminster Review, 52, January 1850), in which she presents spiritual problems as ‘the beginning of a wider and deeper insight – a larger faith and increased knowledge’. But her main endeavour in this regard was as a reviewer, mainly of fiction, for the weekly Athenaeum: covering over two thousand books in thirty years (1849-1880), she would have been one of the most prolific reviewers of the nineteenth century.

Jewsbury also became an important publisher’s reader, particularly of novels – for Hurst and Blackett, and, from 1858 to her death, for Bentley. She recommended that Bentley accept Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), which became a best-seller, but her advice lost for the firm the later popular authors Rhoda Broughton, M. E. Braddon, and Ouida – partly because Jewsbury had become more conservative about the representation of sexual feeling in fiction. Her career as a reviewer also shows her becoming less radical: she attacked the ‘sensation fiction’ produced by writers like Broughton and Braddon, and became less given to blaming external factors, rather than women themselves, for the grievances of middle-class women.

Jewsbury’s literary prominence gave her an entrée to intellectual circles. Her behaviour – such as smoking – could startle, but she was an excellent conversationalist, and attracted many notable people to her home in Manchester. In 1854, when her brother Frank married, she moved to Chelsea to be near Jane Carlyle. Her friends included the Huxley, Kingsley, Rossetti, and Browning families, as well as W. E. Forster, John Tyndall, Frances Cobbe, John Bright, Samuel Bamford, A. H. Clough, John Ruskin, G. H. Lewes, and Helena Faucit Martin. She also helped the elderly Lady Morgan – a novelist and professional woman of letters of an earlier generation – to write her memoirs (published 1862), and composed much of the narrative after her subject’s death in 1859.

Jewsbury had a succession of abortive emotional entanglements with men, even proposing by letter to the French socialist-turned-Muslim Charles Lambert in 1847. Her most serious entanglement was the last, in the late 1850s, with New Zealand settler Walter Mantell, some years her junior, whom she encouraged in his efforts to right what he considered injustices perpetrated by the Crown on New Zealand’s indigenous Maori. Although she abandoned her marital hopes when he returned to New Zealand in 1859, she continued to correspond with him for the rest of her life. None the less, as Virginia Woolf put it in an 1929 article in the Times Literary Supplement on ‘Geraldine and Jane [Carlyle]’, Jewsbury, ‘though the prey to so many emotions, … was also oddly detached and speculative’. She was certainly aware of being a self-made woman of letters in a man’s world, and had predicted in a letter to Jane Carlyle of 1849 that women of subsequent generations to theirs would feel less pressure to depend on men for their sense of identity.

On Jane Carlyle’s death in 1866, Jewsbury moved to Sevenoaks in Kent. In her last years, her writing was hampered by deteriorating eyesight, so that most of her later reviews for the Athenaeum deal with short children’s books. In 1874 she received a Civil List pension of £40, and on 23 September 1880, she died of cancer at a London private hospital. She was buried in Brompton Cemetery, in Lady Morgan’s vault.

Geraldine Jewsbury’s posthumous reputation was damaged by the furore over J. A Froude’s writings on the Carlyle marriage, which had drawn on comments made by her. Her letters to Jane Carlyle were edited by Annie E. Ireland in 1892, but the editor in her account of Jewsbury overemphasised her emotional volatility at the expense of her intellect and professionalism. (Jewsbury had destroyed the other side of the correspondence, after her friend’s sudden death.) Jewsbury naturally continues to be of interest to Carlyle scholars, but in recent years, her earlier more radical novels have received critical attention, and are certainly worth reading. Jewsbury’s importance as a pioneering self-supporting woman of letters, influential publisher’s reader, and prolific reviewer, has also been recognised.

Citation: Wilkes, Joanne. "Geraldine Jewsbury". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 11 January 2005 [, accessed 17 June 2021.]

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here