There’s a lot to be said for escapism at the moment, and a good amount of my reading lately has been wallowing in classic crime (always so soothing). However, there are lots of other options for comforting reads, including a good deal of 20th century women’s fiction from publishers like Virago and Persephone. I haven’t read any of the latter’s books for a little while, although I love their subtle grey covers and their choice of authors; and in fact they publish one of my all-time favourite happy reads, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”. Anyways, I was lucky enough to be gifted with a Persephone book token just before Christmas, thanks to lovely Cate at the Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing group; and it took me quite a while to decide which Persephone to pick as there are so many choices. In the end, I went for one which I’d been thinking about reading for an age, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful, involving, distracting and, in the end, moving read: “The Carlyles at Home” by Thea Holme.

The history of the book itself is interesting; Holme was an actress, often in roles produced by her husband Stanford; and later in their marriage Stanford was curator of the Carlyles’ home in Cheyne Walk, where they both lived. Thomas Carlyle was, of course, the great essayist and author of the classic account of the French Revolution (which is still lurking in the stacks in all its bulk, shouting at me to read it); his wife Jane has perhaps been a somewhat neglected character, although is now regarded as a fine writer in her own right because of her prolific correspondence. Although both were born in Scotland, much of their life together was spent in the Cheyne Walk house and Holme’s book draws on her privileged knowledge to tell the story of the Carlyles’ time at that location, with much focus of Jane.

I have to declare up front that I was always going to be fairly partisan about this book: not only was I entrance by Virginia Woolf’s “Carlyle’s House” essay, but I’ve actually visited the house, with my BFF J. on one of our rambles round London. So I was particularly keen to read Holme’s account and learn more about Jane, a strong woman whose reputation seems to have been very much eclipsed by that of her husband.

The couple moved from Scotland to London when Jane was 33, and her role seems to have been to run the house smoothly and keep the noise of local fowl, dogs, building works or frankly anything else from disturbing her husband while he worked (and from Holme’s narrative, it sounds as if his writing was a constant trial and strain). As well as running the house, dealing with visitors, making clothes for her husband, having an ongoing issue with servants and dealing with her own ailments, Jane oversaw a constant stream of house improvements designed to reduce the strongest homeowner to a jelly. Alongside this she kept up the voluminous correspondence on which her reputation now rests, as well as maintaining a close friendship with the author Geraldine Jewsbury and meeting luminaries such as Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. Frankly, I think she was something of a superhero!

….Carlyle could not write, could not think, could not sleep or concentrate on anything except giving vent to his rage, if he heard certain sounds. He was selective: cocks and pianos were his chief enemies. A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in his wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.

Holme’s book is fascinating and structured in perhaps an unusual way. Instead of taking a linear look at the Carlyles’ lives, she instead divides her chapters up by subject – “Seven Maids”, “Neighbours and Nuisances” and “Clothes” are just some of the titles. Drawing on her access to Jane’s letters and diaries she gives a marvellous insight into life at the time. The amount of time spent dealing with bedbugs makes you shudder, but Jane was no wimp: at one point when Cheyne Walk was being plagued by burglars, Holme relates that Jane went to bed with a pair of loaded pistols beside her! It’s clear that the marriage was often volatile, with Jane finding it easier to get major jobs around the house done when she sent Thomas away on a vacation of a few months; and that latter fact has often yielded rewards in that there are letters between the two Carlyles upon which Holme can draw.

Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The letters and diaries quoted by Thea Holme reveal a woman who was lively, entertaining and often funny; Jane can take any kind of domestic drama and turn into something humourous, even the much-quoted tale of the housemaid who gave birth in a cupboard while Mr. Carlyle and Miss Jewsbury were taking tea, with only a thin wall between them! There were also some wonderful insights into Carlyle’s writing process and I hadn’t been aware that the manuscript of the first volume of “The French Revolution” had been burned by accident; that must have been some re-write…

Thea Holme brings the story of the Carlyles to life wonderfully; the domestic details, the descriptions of the country round Chelsea (because it *was* in the country at the time), the specifics about the daily chores of the time, all remind you quite how hard things were back then and how we do take our mod cons for granted. The various house alterations sound unbelievably stressful; and I must admit I was surprised to hear the house described as bright and cheerful at times. When we visited, I was astonished at how small it seemed for the household which lived there, with dark wood everywhere making it seem even more closed in…

But that’s by the by. “The Carlyles at Home” was a wonderful (and distracting when I needed it!) read; I became so involved in Jane Carlyle’s life that her death at a relatively young age was an emotional shock. Carlyle was apparently wracked with guilt and although he outlived her for a good number of years, he very much retired from society. The Cheyne Walk house is now owned by the National Trust (for whom Stanford Holme worked as curator) and you can visit it (when we are able to move about more freely again…) Thea Holme’s book was a fascinating read, a real delight from start to finish; I’m so glad I used my token for it, and I’m so glad that Persephone republished it! 😀