OK, how has this happened? For the third visit in succession, I’ve found myself in the house of a writer called Thomas! This time, though, it was Thomas Carlyle and not Hardy. I didn’t know a lot about Carlyle before visiting the house as he was a writer of histories and biographies rather than my favoured fiction, but I have to say I’m now quite fascinated by the man and may try to get hold of a full biography, of which there were many examples scattered around the house. Fortunately for biographers, he and his wife were prolific letter-writers so many of the small details of their everyday life at the house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, are readily accessible to all. I think I’ll stick to a biography though rather than attempting any of Carlyle’s own writings as it was said that his writing style was ‘strange and incomprehensible’ and that his sentences had a habit of rambling on and on and on and on and on and… (someone stop me!)
While biographies of Carlyle may be relatively easy to find, the house itself is less so and I had to ask a local dog-walker for directions. She didn’t know where it was either but had an iPhone to hand so we soon tracked it down between us. I wasn’t the only failure in that regard – while I was admiring the small, walled garden I could hear one of the volunteers talking someone in on the phone. Still, going the wrong way meant that I came past the home of the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Cheyne Walk, as well as a statue of him in the nearby gardens so that was nice. I’m a bit of a fan of Rossetti (although that might have something to do with the fact that the lovely Aidan Turner played him in a television drama!)
When you do eventually find it, 24 Cheyne Row is one of a terrace of three- and four-storey houses and can be identified only by the number and the discreet National Trust sign showing the opening times, which is on the wall to the side of the front door. You can’t just walk in either; there is an old Victorian bell-pull so you have to pull the knob and listen for the old-fashioned jangle inside (much nicer than a tinny modern doorbell playing the William Tell overture) before one of the very friendly volunteers comes and lets you in. It makes you feel like an important visitor, just like the many illustrious guests who came to visit Thomas and his wife Jane once his fame had spread.
And that is what strikes you most from the house – this man was extremely famous in his own lifetime, much more so than he appears to be now. Perhaps the first sign of this is the number of portraits of Carlyle that pepper the walls, but the National Trust has also done a good job of including information about his strong connections in the literary and artistic world of Victorian London. Many well-known writers visited Cheyne Row and were full of admiration for Carlyle, including Dickens who seems to have been his good friend and who used some of Carlyle’s writings about the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution as inspiration for his novels ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Hard Times’. There are also signs that Carlyle gave advice to aspiring writers who are now household names themselves; for example, Elizabeth Gaskell sent him her first novel ‘Mary Barton’ and received some apparently useful comments. The general admiration for Carlyle at the time is nowhere more evident than in an 80th birthday tribute that hangs on one wall; the tribute was signed by dozens of well-known names from the era, including George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Robert Browning and Anthony Trollope to pick out just a few. It was a who’s who of the time and would have been a Victorian autograph hunter’s dream.
Another indication of Carlyle’s fame lies in the very fact that the house still holds so many remnants of his life there. In 1895, just 14 years after his death at Cheyne Row, the house was bought by the Carlyle House Memorial Trust so as to keep it intact for the nation and the National Trust took it over in 1936. It remains relatively unspoilt and you certainly feel as though you’ve stepped into another time as you wander up and down the stairs. And you will wander up and down a lot of stairs! 24 Cheyne Row is narrow and tall and there are rooms to be seen on five separate floors if you include the basement kitchen. Another thing that is authentic – yet thankfully modern at the same time – is the outside privy. Fortunately, the Thomas Crapper toilet with a square wooden seat, high-hung cistern and china-handled pull chain is a reproduction and not the original one that may once have stood there.
The overlapping of time is also evident in some of the Carlyle quotes that are readily distributed around the house on helpful laminated sheets. Reading some of his thoughts about his era, I felt like I was quoting myself (only in much more flowery language). Carlyle lamented the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which he felt had created a selfish and money-seeking population, leading them to forget some of the dutiful values he himself had grown up with. I have often been heard whingeing (we no longer lament!) about how modern life has made everyone self-centred and focused on how much money they can make and spend. Reading Carlyle’s views made me think that maybe things haven’t changed, maybe it has always been this way and I simply notice it more now I’m older (and wiser?!)
Although Carlyle wrote at a time when the terms ‘deleted file’ or ‘computer crash’ weren’t even in his vocabulary, he experienced something very similar when the first volume of his French Revolution manuscript was used by a servant to kindle the household fire. This took place in the house of philosopher John Stuart Mill (coincidentally a former resident of my own home village) and it is reported that Mill was devastated by what had happened, although I would think a lot less so than Carlyle himself when he found out! Thomas carried on to write the next two volumes before going back and rewriting volume one from scratch… ouch!
I can’t finish this (very lengthy) review of Carlyle’s House without mentioning Nero. I love a good animal story – as readers of this blog will no doubt realise quite quickly if they haven’t done so already – so I was delighted to find out about Jane Carlyle’s dog Nero and some of his exploits. Nero is featured in the famous painting of Thomas and Jane in their front parlour and he is buried somewhere in the garden, although the headstone has now gone. One of the nicest stories about him was about the time he tried to learn to fly and leapt out of an upstairs window, to the shock of the room’s occupants. Fortunately, Nero survived this experience and like a sensible dog decided not to attempt it again.
My visit to Carlyle’s House concluded in the garden where a very kind volunteer gave me a glass of water. The weather forecasters had got it wrong again and had promised heavy rain by lunchtime, which finally deigned to arrive at 7.30 in the evening when I was safely back home in front of the TV. So having left my bottle of water at home so I could fit an umbrella in my bag, I was very grateful to the lovely gentleman who fetched me a cold glass of water before I headed back out into the very hot London streets. A short rest in the garden also got me out of earshot of the noisy neighbour who was shouting threatening abuse at someone down the road for about ten minutes solid (with a rather restricted vocabulary made up of words beginning with ‘F’!). Carlyle had often complained about how hard it was to write in Cheyne Row with all the noise of neighbours, cockerels, boats and trains… so once again, Thomas, things really haven’t changed.
Highlights: Learning about a ‘man of letters’ who had previously passed under my radar
Refreshments: Glass of water, kindly provided by a volunteer!