“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
‘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.
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
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. I 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