Two years ago our Valentine’s Day blog featured the youthful romance between Jane Austen and Thomas Lefroy. Austen had died long before Lefroy entered the House of Commons in 1830 as MP for Dublin University. In today’s blog, we look at the more enduring relationship between another pair of erstwhile suitors: George Rennie, Liberal MP for Ipswich, 1841-2, and Jane Welsh, who married the essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1826. Rennie had been one of her suitors in their native Haddingtonshire in the early 1820s, but in January 1822, Jane wrote that ‘he has wasted all the affections of my poor heart – and now there is not the vestige of a flirt about me’.
Despite her disappointment, Jane remained in contact with Rennie during what was, even by the standards of Victorian parliamentarians, an eclectic career. She was a prolific letter-writer, and although often tinged with bitterness, her candid observations provide telling insights into Rennie’s character which cannot be gleaned from official records or the somewhat anodyne obituaries published in the press.
Rennie was the son and namesake of George Rennie, a noted exponent of agricultural improvement, and the nephew of the renowned civil engineer John Rennie. However, he chose an entirely different career, leaving Scotland in 1822 to study sculpture in Italy. Jane Welsh predicted that ‘this fatal liberty that his too indulgent Father allows him can lead only to ruin’, but demonstrated some vestiges of affection, reflecting that ‘false’ and ‘heartless as he is, I tremble to think on all the dangers … to which he is about to be exposed’. She noted sardonically that the sculptors Francis Chantrey and Samuel Joseph ‘have cruelly told him he has a genius for it—and who is unwilling to believe himself a genius?’
Rennie confounded Jane’s expectations: following his return to England in 1828 after several years’ study on the Continent, he produced his best-known sculpture, The Archer, and became a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy. In 1834 he carved a series of bas-reliefs for the Bank of England’s dividend office. Meeting him again that year, Jane described him as ‘a grave handsome, man … much improved by age, in appearance, manner, and also I think in character’, but ‘still self-willed and vain enough to show me as often as I see him that I made an escape’.
Although sculpture seemed an unlikely preparation for a political career, Rennie’s interest in improving the arts in England brought him into contact with MPs including William Ewart and Joseph Hume, and he gave evidence to several parliamentary inquiries on the subject. At the 1837 general election he initially came forward as a candidate for Hull, but withdrew from a crowded field. He stood instead for Beverley, a notoriously corrupt borough, alongside another Reformer, James Clay. They were defeated, in part because, as one election squib complained:
‘Rennie and Clay,
Will never pay,
For Clay and Rennie,
Aren’t worth a penny’.
After abandoning his candidature at Kidderminster in 1841 because he would not countenance corruption, Rennie offered for Ipswich, where his Liberal colleague promised that they would win ‘on purity principles’. This did not prove to be the case, for although they were victorious, they were unseated on petition due to bribery undertaken by their agents. Rennie later confessed ‘with shame and regret’ that ‘I lost my virtue’ at Ipswich.
Rennie directed his energies elsewhere, drafting a plan in 1842 for a new settlement in New Zealand. Advising a relative whose son thought of getting involved, Jane Carlyle cautioned that
‘any adventure which George Rennie is at the head of would need to be looked at on both sides… tho’ a clever and enterprising man, [he] has some want of perseverance or other want in him which hinders his ever succeeding in any business he undertakes, besides I do not like his principles of action which are all for his own vulgar aggrandisement’.
Although Rennie pursued extensive correspondence with the New Zealand Company and the Colonial Secretary in an effort to get his plans off the ground, Jane’s forecast of failure proved accurate. In 1845 he was ousted from the project by fellow Scots who were keen to promote an exclusively Free Church settlement. However, Rennie still deserves some of the credit for initiating what eventually became Dunedin.
After deciding not to stand again at Ipswich in 1847, Rennie was appointed governor of the Falkland Islands, where his successes included improving its agriculture to remove its dependence on rations from England, and seeing off American incursions on its fisheries and coastline.
When he arrived back in London with his family in 1856, Rennie again came into contact with the Carlyles, and Thomas Carlyle noted that he
‘was well worth talking to on his Falkland or other experiences: a man of sternly sound common-sense… of strict veracity… [who] had swallowed manfully his many bitter disappointments’.
Jane’s assessment of Rennie was rather less generous, writing in 1859 that ‘great ambition and small perseverance have brought him a succession of disappointments and mortifications which have embittered a temper naturally none of the best!’ She added, though, that ‘in spite of all this, I am always glad to meet George, for the sake of dear old long ago; and if he is not glad to meet me, he is at least still very fond of me, I am sure’. Their continued closeness was shown by the fact that Jane helped Rennie’s wife to tend him on his death-bed in 1860.
Rennie’s biography is among those currently being written for our 1832-68 volumes. For details of how to access our draft articles, see here.
The quotations from Jane Carlyle’s correspondence come from the excellent Carlyle Letters Online project.