The Carlyles At Home

“She flickered round me like perpetual radiance, and in spite of my glooms and my misdoings, would at no moment cease to love me and help me…” — Thomas Carlyle

Jane Carlyle is the hero of The Carlyles At Home. I picked up this book because I was interested in Thomas; when I put down the book I was thinking of Jane.janecarlylepastels2

‘Certain it is that she had an indomitable spirit, a stern, strong sense of duty, an heroic endurance of hardship, and an uncompromising love of honesty and truth.’ [Critical and Biographical Essay by H.J. Gibbs]

Spirited and with a keen mind that matched that of her brilliant husband, Jane has left a legacy that continues to interest people today. She didn’t write books or novels, although she occasionally penned a poem. But, being of a social disposition, an engaging, witty person with a flair for storytelling, she wrote letters prodigiously. Thus in a way, though she loved quiet, Jane is a woman who is still talking.

“My Dear, how is it that women who don’t write books write always so much nicer letters than those who do?”—

‘I told her— [wrote Jane] It was, I supposed, because they did not write in the valley of the shadow of their possible future biographer—but wrote what they had to say frankly and naturally.’  — Letters of Jane Carlyle

Even the barest outlines of her ‘frank and natural’ life appeals to the romantically inclined, but the author of The Carlyles at Home has given us more than the barest outlines. What Thea Holme did was extraordinary. The voluminous correspondence the Carlyles left behind is daunting to get through. It is volumes…not slim folios…and the letters criss-cross madly over the years between Thomas and Jane, Thomas and literary friends, Jane and Thomas’ friends, Jane and family, etc.image

This body of correspondence has occupied scholars on many levels, looking for minutia and sometimes concocting elaborate fictions from a few lines. Being a patchwork of random brilliance and witty snippets, trifles and aggravations, and fusses over anything from servants to syllabubs, these letters have provided valuable information to understand the life, the career, and to some degree the mind, of Thomas Carlyle. As well, they they provide a rarely seen snapshot of life in the Victorian age.

By selective rendering, Holme pieced together a chronology and a fascinating, even entertaining, narrative of their life. (You can read the Carlyle letters online here)

Persephone Publishing reissued this fine book in 2002:

‘The Carlyles at Home evokes everyday life from the day the Carlyles moved in, in 1834, until Jane’s death in 1866. Each of the eleven chapters describes different aspects of the house, whether it is yet another builders’ drama or a maid giving birth in the china closet.’ — from the Persephone website

Of particular interest to me, Thea Holme actually lived in the Carlyle home during the writing of this book. (first published in 1965 by Oxford University Press) Her husband, a respected architect, was appointed curator of the property in 1959, which by then had become property of the National Trust. Many of the Carlyle’s original possessions had been restored to the rooms, the small backyard garden — ‘a union of quietness and freshness’ — was brought back to its early days of sweetness, when the Carlyles were anxious to bring a bit of their beloved Scotland into the cramped London space. Even the Carlyle fig tree, planted by Thomas, still produces fruit.

‘A right old strong roomy brick house’, wrote Thomas with satisfaction.

Thomas was particularly keen on the fact that some of the bricks on the property had been made in the time of Henry VIII.

Nothing I know of is more lasting than a well made brick…. We have them here, and still perfect in particular.’

He approved the stair and entry, describing it as ‘a broadish stair, with massive balustrade…corniced and thick as one’s thigh.’ Thomas obviously loved strength, and had to point it out, even if just in a brick or a balustrade.

Jane, ever practical, loved the ‘eight rooms, and innumerable closets and cupboards’, also rejoicing in the fact that the walls were painted white and the rooms were free of bugs.

The feeling that Thea Holme knew well her subject is everywhere in the book, but it is not intrusive or boring, like a tour guide marching us through rooms with a mere recitation of facts. I particularly enjoyed her comment on the aforementioned balustrade that Thomas loved, as one who obviously had lived with it for a few years.

‘These hand-turned spiral banisters, and the ornamental curly carving on which they were supported, were delicate and dust-catching, and must have presented a constant challenge to generations of servants.’

Speaking of servants, there is an entire chapter devoted to them and their ‘winsome’ ways. Jane’s skills as a writer came particularly to the fore when she was describing their servant woes.

In answer to her mother-in-law’s question of ‘what does she do with her time, since she has no children’… (oh dear—surely reams of untold stories here!) Jane provided Mrs. Carlyle with a lively account of ‘what she had been doing’.

‘For my part, I am always as busy as possible; on that side at least I hold out no encouragement to the devil; and yet, suppose you were to look through a microscope, you might be puzzled to discover a trace of what I do. Nevertheless, depend upon it, my doings are not lost; but, invisible to human eyes, they ‘sail down the stream of time into the ocean of eternity,’ and who knows but I may find them after many days?

At present, I have got a rather heavy burden on my shoulders, the guarding of a human being from the perdition of strong liquors. My poor little Helen has been gradually getting more and more into the habit of tippling, until, some fortnight ago, she rushed down into a fit of the most decided drunkenness that I ever happened to witness. Figure the head of the mystic school, and a delicate female like myself, up till after three in the morning, trying to get the maddened creature to bed; not daring to leave her at large for fear she should set fire to the house or cut her own throat. Finally we got her bolted into the back kitchen, in a corner of which she had established herself all coiled up and fuffing like a young tiger about to spring, or like the Bride of Lammermoor (if you ever heard of that profane book). Next day she looked black with shame and despair; and the next following, overcome by her tears and promises and self-upbraidings, I forgave her again, very much to my own surprise. About half an hour after this forgiveness had been accorded, I called her to make me some batter; it was long of coming, and I rang the bell; no answer. I went down to the kitchen, to see the meaning of all this delay, and the meaning was very clear, my penitent was lying on the floor, dead-drunk, spread out like the three legs of Man, with a chair upset beside her, and in the midst of a perfect chaos of dirty dishes and fragments of broken crockery; the whole scene was a lively epitome of a place that shall be nameless. And this happened at ten in the morning! All that day she remained lying on the floor insensible, or occasionally sitting up like a little bundle of dirt, executing a sort of whinner; we could not imagine how she came to be so long in sobering; but it turned out she had a whole bottle of whisky hidden within reach, to which she crawled till it was finished throughout the day.’

Oh, this account had me laughing; particularly when she wrote, ‘suppose you were to look through a microscope,’ —!

Meanwhile Thomas lives in these pages. But once I had Jane in my head, Thomas begins to almost disappear into the Thomas approved ‘quiet room’, the Thomas approved library, the Thomas approved garden for smoking, and the special Thomas gruel, Scots porridge, and various other preparations that Jane supervised the making of for his comfort.

‘Jane’s faith in her husband’s genius was unshakeable.’  The Carlyles at Home

So when it comes to Thomas, I think of him as one of the few philosophers and intellectuals of his age who retained a full head of hair. And of course he outlived Jane by many years.


As to his writings—they are difficult to grasp, and, though I have not taken a survey, it is safe to say he is little read today. The beautiful red cloth bound set you see in the pictures is from my own collection; purchased years ago in a fit of optimism that I was going to read the entire corpus of Carlyle’s works.

What Carlyle really left behind, in terms of literary greatness, ideas, originality, or even a clear blueprint of what he believed, I’ll leave it to the experts to sort out. (They are still sorting it out.)

Yet, to Jane’s credit and far-seeing gaze, he was as deep a thinker as she thought him to be. Some of the fame she had hoped for—and helped him to achieve—they did see in their lifetime.

I don’t like to talk much with people who always agree with me. It is amusing to coquette with an echo for a little while, but one soon tires of it. — Letters of Thomas Carlyle

Thomas and Jane in their Chelsea home

Jane kept a clean and ready table of hospitality for the friends and admirers that began to gather around Thomas. No doubt there was a fair amount of ‘coquetting with echoes’ that went on, but one can only imagine the fascinating conversations held in this dining room at Number 5 Great Cheyne Row! Thinkers, poets, writers, artists of the day gathered here; Dickens, Ruskin, Thackeray, Leigh Hunt were regular visitors. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a friend and correspondent. Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson, visited Carlyle and wrote home to his wife of the experience. For experience it was, spending an evening in the company of Carlyle.

‘His wit was sombre, severe, hopeless, his every merriment had madness in it; his humour was tragic even to tears: there lay smouldering in him a whole French Revolution—a Cromwellian Rebellion…. nor could the rich mellowness of his voice, deepened as it was, and made more musical by his broad northern accent, hide from me the restless melancholy.’ — Bronson Alcott

While Jane wrote of him merrily, in a letter to her mother:

‘Aye, faith, is he; a fine, wild, chaotic, noble chap.’

I would like to have been a fly on the wall listening in to these nights of discussion and debate, but, given Jane’s mania for cleanliness, I doubt my presence would have gone unnoticed; said fly would have been summarily dealt with, and likely a maid chastised because of it.

‘Living in a universe of bugs outside; I had entirely ceased to fear them in my own house—having kept it so many years perfectly clean from all such abominations…. But on a sudden—I stooped to look at something the size of a pin point— A cold shudder ran over me, as sure as I lived it was an infant bug!—and oh heaven that bug, little as it was, must have parents,—grandfathers and grandmothers perhaps!— I went on looking then, with phrenzied minuteness—and saw—enough to make me put on my bonnet and rush out wildly, in the black rain, to hunt up a certain trustworthy carpenter to come and take down the bed— The next three days I seemed to be in the thick of a domestic Balaklava—which is now even, only subsiding—not subsided—‘  — Letters of Jane Carlyle

I enjoyed The Carlyles At Home very much, but in the interests of honesty (and feeling Jane’s stern eye of integrity upon me) I should point out that I didn’t always feel that way. imageI bought this book years ago, began to read it eagerly, then put it down. It was a matter of poor timing on my part. What with all the old row house remodeling with attendant moldy dust, crumbling plaster, painting over plaster, papering over paint…not to mention a knack for finding the most irresponsible workmen, it was not the cosy escape into Victorian domesticity I had hoped for. It mirrored too much of my own situation at the time.

Add to that hysterical housemaids crumpling under the strain of keeping house for Jane, the moody brute Thomas railing at fate and dyspepsia, drafty rooms, frequent talk of puddings, drowning of kittens, and little lap dogs being run over by hackney carriages, it was a bit of a rough go. I put it aside for awhile. Like, for a few years.

Yet the Carlyles and their domestic concerns continued to radiate a strange magnetism. The murmur of their endless conversations and lively arguments, the smoke from their sooty fires, the fragrance of Jane’s bread pudding wafting out from the tiny kitchen, the glimpse of Thomas’ deepset blue eyes watching carefully for Jane’s rare, quicksilver smile… waves and currents of invitation seemed to emanate from my bookshelf, pulling me back.

I had to return to the tumultuous household of the Carlyles.

While Jane lived Thomas Carlyle wrote of Heroes. He wrote as freely as his great, conflicted brain and self-doubt would let him, and as widely as the spaces Jane created for him. He wrote a life of Frederick the Great in fiery, glowing prose. He expounded on Oliver Cromwell with fierce pride, and polished the image of John Knox.


When Jane died, Thomas wrote no more of heroes. But he did write of Jane.

‘When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.’  —Thomas Carlyle


The Dandiacal Body

Since this has been my Week of the Carlyles—immersed in letters, books, and the valiant effort of trundling my tiny brain over the rugged crags and valleys of Carlyle’s monumental Sartor Resartus, (The Tailor Re-tailored) the word ‘stylish’ caught my attention.


Everyone has style, whether they know it, embrace it, love it, or cultivate it. You may not like your style, and even wish to change it, but inevitably it returns like the prodigal, all sheepish, bedraggled, and larger than life. Style is not bought; it is not something that comes from a shop, or by following a fashionista. It has more to do with your DNA than the era you live in–although environment certainly influences it.

But not everyone is stylish. Stylish, as a concept, is fluid, it conveys an idea of the moment, a whim of makers, movers and shakers in the fashion world. (“Tomorrow, my dear,” say the style mavens, “that color will be so passe and only fit to adorn a garden hybrid….”) and let’s not even attempt to recall the ‘stylish’ Big Hair of the 80’s….

Around our house we have the expression ‘it’s so out it’s in’. So much of our style had to do, in our youthful days, with loving anything retro, and now it’s ‘in’. It’s just our bodies that aren’t as with it, so the dream of stylish still eludes one. But oddly enough, so my hair stylist tells me, silver hair is ‘in’. Leave it to the Baby Boomers to create a new reality.image

The attempt to be stylish can either make you shine as a natural talent, or make it evident that you are really out of touch with who you are.

In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle’s most famous work—in which he borrows from an eighteenth-century concept of linguistic style depicted as types of  clothing—he includes a chapter which amused me by his use of the word dandiacal. Carlyle was known for his creative and rough word coinage, and this choice specimen is now going into my Curious Word repository. Regarding the stylish pretensions of the dandy, he writes (in satire, of course; all of this is satire):

‘Your silver or your gold he solicits not; simply the glance of your eyes. Do look at him, and he is contented.’

Under the heading ‘The Dandiacal Body’, Carlyle lists, in mockery, seven Articles of Faith. They are all confusingly amusing, in a way, and no doubt reference certain elements unique to the early eighteenth century of which we are now ignorant, but I will repeat only number seven:

7. The trousers must be exceedingly tight across the hips.’

As Carlyle was known, both tongue in cheek and respectfully as the Sage of Chelsea, this bit of satire, written in 1836, does look to the future, does it not?

And—at the risk of making Carlyle turn in his grave, I include a bit of Ogden Nash whimsy, that expresses Article 7 on the style of trousers in a slightly different way:

‘Sure, deck your limbs in pants;
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance —
Have you seen yourself retreating?’

The desire to look good and be stylish at the same time is often a wish in excess of reality.

For more on The Carlyles At Home, read here.

“Apace the wasting summer flies…”


So Gilbert White of Selborne, England wrote to his niece in 1784.

It is the shorter days and cooler mornings that get me rummaging through my library for certain reading fare–the diarists, the journalists of old, the country observers. Another season is passing, another tick of the universal clock has just echoed; yet there is a comfort in the regularity of natural life as recorded in these yellowed pages. Of this trusty lot of journal keepers the ineffable Mr. Gilbert White of Selborne is a favorite. While he wrote with the same scrupulous care and loving attentiveness to all the seasons, it is when the autumn approaches that I find him the most…well…lively.

I want to know what Gilbert was up to in August of 1788. And here we find him:

1781: August 23, 1781 – ‘Caught 8 hornets with a twig tipped with bird-lime…. No wasps in my garden, nor at the grocer’s, or butcher’s shop.  Five or six hornets will carry off a whole nectarine in the space of a day.’

“What make ye of Parson White in Selborne?” inquired Thomas Carlyle in 1832. One cannot help but note the slightly dismissive snort in this question. Yet Carlyle–who wrote thunderously of kings and controversies, not the mating habits of hirundines–is hardly read these days, while the diaries, carefully composed nature notes, and humble letters of ‘Parson White’ have never been out of print in the over 200 years since they were written. He is as beloved to the English as Jane Austen. He has a besotted following in Japan. His complete diaries are published online. His letters have made it to the ‘Penguin Classics’ distinction. His words penned on November 15th, 1792 regarding the now famous tortoise: ‘Timothy comes out’, still give a thrill of pleasure.

My copy of The Natural History of Selborne is a treasure. But I must admit that I hadn’t given it my complete attention until reading a brilliant little essay on White several years ago. If you’ve never read the work of Helen Bevington before, you’re in for a wonderful discovery. Her description of Gilbert White, in the essay, ‘The Seasonable Mr. White of Selborne’ is part of a larger collection of random essays by Bevington in a book entitled ‘Beautiful, Lofty People’.

A brief excerpt (written circa 1950):

‘The way to be happy in London in the spring,’ (Mrs. Bevington writes) ‘is to spend one’s days in the British Museum, reading the manuscript of the journals of Gilbert White. Except for a small selection, they have never been printed–ten thousand daily records, twenty five years (1768-1793) of the serenest life I’ve ever envied. Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

Of course the journals and diaries of Gilbert White are richly available now, as surely Mrs. Bevington would have rejoiced to know; his diary is online, and in printed form aplenty.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that I didn’t get to discover him as a secret and startling pleasure while spending a month at the British Library, reading his own journals penned from his own hand. (A picture of his journal here, plus other lovely pictures of Selborne)

That’s fine. I will get my book, pour myself a cup of tea, settle in to my armchair, and open to…

September 11, 1777 – ‘Mrs Snooke’s tortoise devours kidney-beans & cucumbers in a most voracious manner: swallows it’s food almost whole.’ 

Ah. The world is restored to peaceful order again. Timothy is rampaging in Mrs. Snooke’s garden with a healthy appetite and all is well.

As Mrs. Bevington notes, ‘Mr. White of Selborne is my peace.’

‘Oft on some evening, sunny, soft and still; The Muse shall lead thee to the beech-grown hill; To spend in tea the cool, refreshing hour; Where nods in air the pensile, nest-like bower.’ (Mr. Gilbert White)