Saturday, October 15, 2011
The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
With that paragraph from The Carlyles at Home I was keen to discover more about the lady behind the tired eyes and simple dress. Her husband may have been hugely popular amongst other eminent Victorians of the day such as Dickens and Darwin but there is no doubt about who steals the story in Thea Holme's book. Jane's battle with illness, her dependancy upon opiates, being a clever woman in a man's world and oh, that wit. I couldn't get enough of reading whatever it was she had to say!
Going about things completely backwards, I visited 24 Cheyne Row knowing nothing at all about Thomas and Jane. Eyeing the details in the house I could have been viewing a potential home to purchase for all I knew about its former occupants. The rooms were cosy and the stairs creaked in a charming way. But when I started reading The Carlyles at Home I was thrilled to be able to visualize Thomas in his study, Jane in her bed, maid-of-all-work, Helen, staggering drunkenly around the kitchen and Nero curled up on the sofa.
When the Carlyles took possession of their home in 1834, Chelsea was hardly desirable. The street was full of the sound of horse hooves and carriages, vendors peddling wares, cocks crowing, and spectators gathering to listen to organ grinders. And the Thames, which was just a short stroll away, stank. The rent was a bargain though and being Scottish, Thomas and Jane were willing to put up with such things for the value. And this was a sentiment they repeated about themselves quite often.
This book works well as an introduction to this famous couple and their writings but also as a social history of the Victorian era. I was fascinated by how Jane dealt with a long string of domestic help. Some became a great comfort to her when she was bedridden with her terrible headaches and others were not to be trusted. Jane's refusal to wear a corset went against the fashion of the day and she quite happily ran errands at times without a bonnet on her head. Evidence of bedbugs was cause to send bed curtains to be boiled and for carpenters to disassemble bed frames. Mealtimes and indigestion were frequent topics of conversation between man and wife. To read the letter that Jane wrote to Thomas justifying the increase in her household spending is, well, I could have cheered for her.
The Carlyles at Home is my thirty-fifth Persephone title. I bought it with no expectation other than as a reminder of a day out in Chelsea, hoping it would be somewhat of an extension of my tour around the house. It has turned out to be so much more than that and I can honestly say that it is now firmly one of my favourite Persephone titles.