Where new writing finds its voice

Resurrecting the Carlyles

Jane Mornement


Jane Mornement enjoys a poke around the house of a long dead literary power couple

Late last year I found myself standing beside a tin bath belonging to a Victorian literary superstar, pondering the extraordinary pace of change in the last century and a half – and not just in the world of indoor plumbing. In these relaxed, socially mobile times, it’s hard to truly grasp the magnitude of Thomas Carlyle’s achievements. Born into a strict Calvinist family in the small rural community of Ecclefechan in southern Scotland, Carlyle was to die one of the most prominent figures of Victorian literature, revered by the likes of Dickens and Tennyson. Space was even made for him in Westminster Abbey, alongside such luminaries as Chaucer and Spenser (although in the end his wishes were respected, and he was buried back in Dumfries and Galloway, alongside his parents). In what is perhaps of sign of how deeply unfashionable all things gloomy and Victorian have become in recent years, despite his prolific output and the wealth of still-prominent figures he influenced, Carlyle has somehow slipped down the crack behind the literary sofa. But I think that this pen-wielding former maths teacher, who the ultimate sourpuss – Queen Victoria – declared rather ‘dour’, is ripe for resurrection. 

Born in 1795, Carlyle disappointed his stolidly religious family by refusing to become a preacher – and, to make matters worse, suffering a crisis of faith whilst at university in Edinburgh. It was this stubborn refusal to conform and his restless, questioning nature that made him the ideal spokesman for a generation struggling to come to terms with the scientific and political changes that were rapidly undermining traditional certainties.

In 1826, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, already a recognised raconteur and hostess who is one of history’s great correspondents (Jane’s friend Leslie Stephens told his daughter, Virginia Woolf: ‘Jane was the most wonderful letter writer in the English language.’). Despite the marriage apparently remaining unconsummated for reasons that remain obscure, it lasted, more or less happily, until Jane’s death in 1866. Carlyle considered his wife to be ‘beautiful, bright and earnest’, while she seems to have been mesmerised by his intellect, although she found him uncouth and clumsy. In fact, Jane made it clear that while she did not love her husband, she did respect him, and eventually became his greatest champion. 

The couple moved from Scotland to London in 1834 and set up home at 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row in Chelsea. As Carlyle’s notoriety grew – following the publication of Sartor Resartus in 1833–4 and the two-volume The French Revolution: A History in 1837 – the Carlyles became the toast of London, with Dickens, Tennyson, Browning, Ruskin and George Eliot clamouring for invitations to the poky Queen Anne house in then-unfashionable Chelsea to discuss the matters of the day in the art-filled first-floor library. Frédéric Chopin even popped in to tinkle the ivories in the Carlyles’s drawing room.

Nowadays the visitors, if less august, are no less enthusiastic. The five-floor house is maintained by the National Trust (it reopens in March and is well worth a visit), and provides an unusually vivid glimpse into Victorian life. Like many of their contemporaries, the Carlyles did not own their home, but rented it for the princely sum of £35 a year. The property may have been considered compact by many, but Carlyle found it perfect: ‘On the whole a most massive, roomy, sufficient old house with places, for example, to hang, say, three dozen hats or cloaks,’ he enthused. 

After Jane died in Hyde Park in 1866 (from an angina attack apparently prompted by a paw injury sustained by her dog) Carlyle continued to live at Cheyne Row with his niece Mary until his own death in the drawing room in 1881. Because the Carlyles had never owned the house, Mary took his possessions and returned to Scotland and the house in Cheyne Row was rented out for a further fourteen years. However, the Carlyles’s supporters lobbied to preserve the heritage of the property and in May 1895 the Carlyle’s House Memorial Trust took ownership of the property, which they passed to the National Trust in 1936.

 Enter the wood-panelled hallway of 24 Cheyne Row and peer into the drawing room, and you immediately find yourself in the centre of Robert Tait’s 1857 painting, ‘A Chelsea Interior’, which not only hangs in the room above the very piano once played by Chopin, but which has also been reproduced in virtually every book concerned with the Carlyles. As one can see from a brief comparison of the painting and its subject, the rooms have been painstakingly recreated exactly as they were in the 1850s. 

Exploring further, the literary voyeur is treated to a glimpse of the house’s original water pump; the tin bath where Carlyle washed beside the marble
wash stand he gave Jane one birthday (what a charmer); the red bed where Jane was born and in which she slept until her death; and, perhaps most interestingly, the attic room Carlyle had specially built to try to counteract his hatred of noise. 

Now, despite being only a few minutes’ walk fromthe bustling Kings Road, the house seems an oasis of peace. Even bearing in mind that in the Carlyles’s time the streets would have been bustling with endless clip-clopping horses and carts, the neighbours would have owned numerous crowing cockerels and the area would have been far livelier in general, it is difficult to imagine the noise that seems to have tormented Carlyle. But he was irate at the racket and Jane was frequently sent to shush the neighbours before Carlyle was eventually moved to
commission a soundproofed study in the attic. While largely unsuccessful, it was here, at his sloping desk, that Carlyle spent thirteen years working on his six-volume biography of Frederick the Great. 

One book that really captures the feel of 24 Cheyne Row is Thea Holme’s The Carlyles at Home, the recent Persephone edition of which features the Robert Tait painting on the endpapers. Thea lived at 24 Cheyne Row for several years in the sixties with her husband, who was curator of the property, and the book evokes life in the house from the day the Carlyles moved in until Jane’s death. Fascinating reading in its own right, it also makes an excellent companion to a visit to the house. 

Admittedly, many of Carlyle’s works aren’t very accessible (although Dickens claimed to have read his poetic history of the French Revolution five hundred times), and his modern reputation isn’t really helped by his later thinking, which
borders on the proto-Fascist. But his influence is undisputed and if you are of a brave constitution they come highly recommended, especially his essays. Contrastingly, the many volumes of Jane’s letters are much more agreeable, and were largely edited by Carlyle himself after his wife’s death. The couple wrote inexhaustibly to each other, and the reams of letters stand as testament to their
affectionate, if somewhat odd, partnership. 

Although 24 Cheyne Row is well worth a visit it seems a shame that this fascinating couple should live on only in their own home. Take a chance; stick your hand down the back of that literary sofa – you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find!