Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Carlyles At Home"

“The Carlyles At Home” by Thea Holme (Persephone, 1965)

At home in their literary shrine. Thomas and Jane Carlyle. The Victorian socialites open their door and reveal what really goes on below stairs.

For someone who has a large amount of time working on the editorial desk at OK! magazine for the past few years, there is a certain irony about a book called “The Carlyles At Home”. I can see the feature introduction now (accompanied by glossy shots of erstwhile Victorian gloom-mongers Thomas and Jane Carlyle scowling away in high-necked collars and tight eyebrows): “As OK! magazine reclined in the Carlyle’s Chelsea living room, gracious hostess Jane poured us tea while her delightful pooch Nero scampered on the hearth rug. And Thomas, looking dapper in a raw silk dressing-gown handmade by his mother, even left his 13-volume creation ‘Frederick The Great’ to join us for a chat. Read on as the Carlyles open their hearts about the trouble with maid servants, the reason why their building works are never ending, and the gritty truth about Thomas’s so-called affair with Lady Ashburton...”

It wouldn’t have happened.

Fresh from our visit to the Carlyle’s Chelsea home a few weeks ago, Big P and I are still keen supporters of the Carlyles (although we can’t quite bring ourselves to read any of Thomas’s turgid books). So I snapped up a copy of the Persephone reprint of Thea Holme’s book - in which she imagines, through Thomas and Jane’s letters, what life must have been like for them at home at 24 Cheyne Row.

The never-ending stream of useless maids, the never-ending stream of rip-off builders, and the never-ending quest for silence as Thomas struggles to finish “Frederick” are all covered. Each chapter is broken down into a different area of their life (clothes, money, the sound-proofed study etc), and into each chapter comes an assortment of wonderful visitors (Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë et al).

This is a fascinating and highly readable book about life for a prominent Victorian couple who are trapped in a time that doesn’t suit them. And many of their woes are ones we can still identify with today.

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