Saturday, November 1, 2014

Cool Woman From History: Jane Carlile

Barely anything comes up when you run a Google search for her, but I'll tell you everything I know about Jane Carlile, because she deserves it. She deserves to have some spotlight to herself, apart from her more famous husband Richard. This is my somewhat limited attempt at some feminist scholarship. Maybe someone will decide she deserves her own Wikipedia page.

The information I first received was from an e-book called The Freemasons: A History of the World's Most Powerful Secret Society by Jasper Ridley. I bought it for $1.99 from Barnes and Noble and downloaded to my Nook. I read it every now and then when I'm not in the mood for Pray the Gay Away. I got it because it was on sale shortly after I'd finished reading Religio Duplex, a scholarly work that also looked into the history of the Freemasons, to a lesser extent.

On page 188 of Ridley's book, we begin to read about Richard Carlile (1790-1843). "He wrote a number of pamphlets attacking religion, became the editor of a popular newspaper, The Republican, and opened a bookshop where he sold his own publications and the works of other freethinkers and rebels who criticized the monarchy and the Church of England and advocated republicanism and atheism." I like him already!

In the next paragraph we learn that "In 1813 he married Jane, the daughter of a cottager in Gosport in Hampshire. Six years later they agreed to separate as husband and wife, but she continued to help him run his bookselling business. He said that he would have been unable to carry on without her help."

I haven't been able to discover what Jane's birth family name was or when she was born, which is a shame. I'm not sure if no one kept those records or if neither Ridley nor the Internet think them important enough to share with the world. Yet clearly, from Ridley's point of view, Richard thought she was important to his bookselling activities. I like her already!

Richard Carlile's writing criticized Freemasonry, an organization to which the king of England - then George VI, Queen Victoria's uncle who had acted as Prince Regent during his father's periods of mental illness. Rupert Everett played him The Madness of King George - belonged. That's the salient point as far as Ridley's history is concerned.

Ridley then goes on to tell us that Richard and Jane Carlile's bookish ways got them into legal trouble. Richard was arrested and tried several times, serving several short terms in prison for selling books on atheism. In 1819, he was convicted of, among other things, selling a parody version of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer. (Still in use by the Church of England and its American cousin the Episcopal Church today, the BCP is a lovely text and a remarkable piece of religious literature.)

Jane was also arrested. The prosecutor called her "a person of wicked and dangerous mind and disposition." Those are the best women to know, generally.

In her defense, Jane is recorded as having said, "I was guided entirely by my husband. I do not feel myself a competent judge to decide its propriety or impropriety as having been brought up as the daughter of an humble cottager in a sequestered part of Hampshire, I had reached the age of maturity without the least education."

Was she being sincere, or was she playing the "don't ask me, I'm just a girl" card? It's possible she hadn't had any formal education, but it seems as if she was an integral part of the bookselling business rather than a helpless pawn. After all, the Bronte sisters were raised in remote, rural areas, but their genius shown through their humble circumstances. Who could blame her for misrepresenting herself in court? A woman's got to do what a woman's got to do for her freedom.

Her bid appears to have failed, though. She was sentenced to two years in prison. Richard served six years of an even longer sentence before he was released. Ridley tells us nothing else about what became of Jane.

If we look at Wikipedia, we have to look at Richard's entry, and it tells us even less. It says of Richard, "In 1813 he married, and shortly afterwards the couple moved to Holborn Hill in London where he found work as a tinsmith. Jane Carlile gave birth to five children, three of whom survived. Some time after 1829, Carlile met Eliza Sharples and she became his common law wife. Together they had at least four children." The author of this entry apparently took Jane's courtroom testimony at face value and understands her most significant accomplishment to have been breeding.

I snort contemptuously at Wikipedia.

If you look at WorldCat (the online catalog of libraries), you'll find ten materials for which women named Jane Carlile are listed as an author. This doesn't necessarily mean that our Jane Carlile physically wrote these documents. She may not even have known how to read and write - I'm not sure how paltry a 19th-century rural English woman's education would actually be. Some of them appear to be transcripts from legal proceedings. Some of them appear to refer to a woman named Ann(e) Jane Carlile (1775-1864), an Irish woman who was active in the temperance and prison reform movements. She sounds very cool, too, but she's clearly a different woman.

Another document is an 1825 book called The Trials with the defences at large of Mrs. Jane Carlile ... : being the persons who were prosecuted for selling the publications of Richard Carlile in his various shops, written by Richard Carlile. The New York Public Library owned or owns a physical copy of the book and had it digitally scanned. It can be accessed online at;view=1up;seq=1, in the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

I don't have time to read it. But maybe you do, and maybe Jane Carlile's story will inspire you. I'd like to think of her as a free speech warrior woman and a self-publishing foremother. The scanty details of her life could become the bare bones of a fictional tale based on her life and the lives of Richard and Eliza.

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