London: Carlyle’s House

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As you may have surmised by now, I embark on a number of food-related quests in London. Most of them revolve around trying to track down much missed American foodstuffs, but an ongoing one is based around the ubiquitous croissant.  I’ve had many good croissants here, but I want to find the best one.  Poilane seemed like a contender, by virtue of actually being French; the only trouble was the need to justify (to the hermit in me who balks at leaving the house for anything unnecessary) venturing to Chelsea for something other than pastry (delicious and buttery though it may be). I gave consideration to the National Army Museum (which I will visit, one of these days), but Carlyle’s House won out in the end.

The Carlyles are a couple you can’t really avoid hearing about if you’re keen on either Victorian Britain, or the history of domesticity (I’m keen on both).  Jane Carlyle was one of those epistolary types (rather like Lady Mary) who left behind a sheaf of letters and a diary, which are often referenced in books about the history of the home, as she spent quite a lot of time bitching about her servants.  Thomas Carlyle, her husband, was known as the “sage of Chelsea,” primarily for writing books on topics like the French Revolution and Frederick the Great, which almost no one reads today because they are nearly incomprehensible (or so I’m told).  Essentially, they were famous because they were well placed in literary society, and enjoyed entertaining, so that everyone who was anyone in Victorian Britain came to visit them.  Also, they tended to make catty remarks about all their acquaintances, which is the main reason I like them.

The house is kind of a pain to get to, the nearest stations being South Kensington and Sloane Square, which are both a 15-20 minute walk.  I chose to go to Sloane Square route so as to pass Poilane, which meant a long stroll down the King’s Road where I was sidetracked by a random street market (I acquired some cheese bread that, whilst tasty, made my purse emit a disturbing miasma which I was concerned other people in the house could smell) and down to Cheyne Row (pronounced Chainee, apparently).  Obviously, it’s all rich people that live there now, but back in the Carlyle’s day, it was fairly cheap real estate.

Carlyle’s House still has an old-fashioned bell-pull (you pull a little knob out, which causes a bell to ring inside) in lieu of a doorbell to summon someone to let you in, which I found exciting. Admission was £5.10 for non-National Trust members, and I suspect they don’t take cards, though I could be wrong.  The lady working there gave me a brief introduction and then left me to wander around on my own (which is grand, guided tours usually bore me).  She described the house as a bit of a time capsule, with almost all the original furnishings, and it indeed had a hushed atmosphere (amidst the very creaky floorboards).  I don’t think I was necessarily the target audience for the house (judging from my slightly stilted welcome, although maybe my purse odour had something to do with that), as I was a good 30 years younger than everyone else there, but I’ve often felt like an old person inside a young person’s body, so I had no issue with that.  I hold out a vague hope that perhaps when I actually am old, my cantankerousness will be appreciated and I’ll have friends, but I suspect that cliques exist even amongst the elderly, and I’ll still be a misfit.  Anyway, it’s probably not a good place to bring children, as it is just a load of things to read, and antique furniture they’d likely just want to smear their sticky fingers over.

The house is a typical tall yet narrow Georgian, with only a few rooms per floor.  You begin in the parlour and work your way up (or down, to the kitchen).  Spread throughout the house are informational sheets and lots and lots of books (both by and about the Carlyles) and a selection of chairs where you can sit and read said books.  As I tend to share Thomas Carlyle’s views on reading in public libraries (something to the effect of being constantly annoyed by people sniffling and coughing), I skipped the books with the intention of just checking out a collection of their letters from my local library to read at home.  Actually, because he disliked the Reading Room at the British Museum so much, Thomas helped to create the London Library, which I aspire to someday joining (if someone wants to give me the £460 for yearly membership to help me achieve my dream, it would be much appreciated!).  I did read all the information sheets though, which provided a lot of background on the Carlyles.  My favourite things were all the quotes placed around the house; mostly snarky comments on other writers (none of which I can find online for some reason, but trust me, Orwell didn’t call Thomas the “master of belittlement” for nothing).  Jane held her own with the insults, and also believed firmly in the importance of healthy bowels (“most of life’s problems can be traced to the bowels”); she sounds like a woman after my own heart.

The rooms are well-preserved, full of charming furniture that I definitely covet for myself, including a decoupage screen Jane made.  I did find the pattern on the carpet rather dizzying however, and nearly tripped when walking up the stairs.  In addition to the parlour, you can go in Jane’s bedroom, a sort of living room/library (where Thomas died, wooo, spooky), and Thomas’s attic study. The attic was set up more like a museum, with some glass display cases, but everywhere else was arranged true to the period.

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You can also go into the garden (which is the only place where you can take pictures), where Thomas hung out and smoked his pipe.  I have the feeling that sort of thing would be frowned upon today, which is a bit of a shame as one of the best memories I have from the house I used to live in is hanging out in the garden during a party and smoking a pipe (of tobacco, don’t get excited) with my flatmates.  Very convivial, and that sort of thing.  The garden wasn’t terribly exciting, but the house was really enjoyable.

I know I’ve had some harsh words for the National Trust in the past (I believe I referred to most of their properties as “mediocre”), but the Carlyle’s House might help to bring me around.  It had a lovely atmosphere, and all the information provided made it actually interesting, though I have to think it was helped along mainly by the Carlyle’s wit.  I know I certainly want to do more research about the couple after visiting, which I think is what you want from a museum; to be inspired to learn more. Oh, and that croissant from Poilane was pretty damn tasty too, in case you were wondering. 4/5 for both.

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One comment

  1. when I visited in Sept 2012 I sympathised with

    “Chelsea, as London generally, grows every year noisier and is swelling out as if it were mad! It is astonishing how many cocks, parrots, dogs, dustcarts and dandy carriages do announce themselves.” (so he took to the top floor for his study)

    and was puzzled initially by this Sherlock Holmes connection:

    Vanity Fair Oct 22, 1870 – a caricature of Carlyle “The Diogenes of Modern Corinthians without his Tub.”

    but then regretted looking that up.

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