Saturday, February 6, 2010
Review: The Carlyles at Home, Thea Holme
Original publication date: 1964
My edition: 2002 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: Browsing in the Persephone bookshop
How I acquired my copy: bought from the Persephone shop in Lambs Conduit Street, London when I was there in September
The Carlyles At Home is an account of the years that Thomas and Jane Carlyle lived at 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, London, moving there in 1834 and covering the years up until Jane’s death in 1866. Thomas Carlyle was, of course, a famous writer and essayist, and the couple hobnobbed with many famous people (as a side note, it was interesting to learn that John Stuart Mill's maid accidentally burned the manuscript of Carlyle's The French Revolution, thinking it was waste paper!). Carlyle's relationship with his wife was stormy, to say the least; but this book is less about all of that than it is about the couple's domestic arrangements.
The book is short (about 200 pages), but it covers a lot of ground, from the animals the couple kept (the story of their dog, Nero, is especially touching), to the clothing they wore both inside and outside the house, to the various repairs and restorations the Carlyles made to the house (it turns out that 19th century contractors are much like their modern-day counterparts), to the wacky, noisy neighbors at number 6 (and the not-soundproffed soudproof room they had built), to their Servant Problem (34 maids-of-all-work in 32 years), it’s all here. And all very interesting, despite the fact that the domestic matters of famous people are frequently overlooked in favor of their accomplishments.
The book draws heavily from the voluminous correspondence that the Carlyles maintained over the years—it turns out that not only was Carlyle a writer, but Jane was as well. Her letters are witty and funny, and prove that the story of the woman behind the man is as interesting as the story of the man himself. Really, this book is more about Jane. Although I appreciate the tone of their correspondence, I’m not sure I would have wanted to live with the Carlyles—it seems as though Thomas was always complaining about something, or that Jane was constantly sick and in a bad temper. Their marriage has been described as unhappy, but in this book, I don't see that at all.
I thought the organization of the book could have withstood some better organization; it’s organized by subject matter and not chronologically, so things could often get confusing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of two intelligent, interesting people, written by an actress who lived in the Carlyles house nearly a hundred years after Jane’s death (the house is now a museum; her husband was the curator there). Although a strong female is at the heart of this account, it’s not an overly feminist book.
This is Persephone no. 32 (endpaper below; it's the 1857 portrait of Thomas and Jane at home; Carlyle here is wearing the silk, striped dressing gown that's made mention of in the book)