Thursday 12 September 2019

Carlyle's House

SPOILER: There are no scones at Carlyle's House in Chelsea, as there's no space for a tea room. The building is almost Harry Potter-esque, in that you leave the King's Road, head down a leafy London side street, and probably walk straight past the house if you weren't paying attention.

And if you do manage to spot the neat little sign and go inside, you find yourself immediately in the 19th century. It genuinely feels as if you're paying a visit to Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane. It's very different to other National Trust properties and quite an odd experience to be having in 21st century London.

But let me share some highlights as it's a lovely, fascinating house:

Thomas Carlyle - influencer of the 1830s and 1840s
Carlyle was a Scottish author, historian, and social commentator who influenced Dickens, Ruskin, William Morris, and many others. His most celebrated book, The French Revolution, almost didn't make it into print - he lent the only copy of the manuscript to John Stuart Mill, who appeared at the front door one night in 1835 with the unenviable task of telling Carlyle that a servant had accidentally thrown it on the fire. Carlyle had to start all over again from scratch.

Thomas Carlyle bust
One of the many busts and portraits of Carlyle in the house
- I'm surprised he got any work done with so many artists turning up.
Jane Carlyle - the witty one 
Jane and Thomas married in Scotland in 1826, although her mother wasn't happy about it as she had higher hopes for her daughter. Jane and Thomas seem to have become a bit of a Carlyle double act - she was witty and sociable, and was well-liked by many of Carlyle's friends.  

The house - never actually owned by the Carlyles
The Carlyles always rented the house on Cheyne Row. I might not know much about his books, but I do know that Thomas deserves a lifetime achievement award for being the only person in the history of mankind that has managed to live in London for longer than two weeks without ever seeing a rent increase; for the 47 years that he lived in the house, the rent was £35 a year. 

Cheyne Row - not the stylish part of town
Chelsea wasn't an attractive part of London in the 1830s and 40s. Thomas himself described the house as "unfashionable in the highest degree but in the highest degree comfortable and serviceable." However, lots of illustrious people lived on Cheyne Row, including the artists Turner and Whistler and the authors George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell.

Jane Carlyle - the demanding one? 
Until Jane died in 1866, the couple managed with one live-in maid-servant who had to do pretty much everything. The fact that Jane got through 34 of those maid-servants in 32 years says a lot. One was fired for being "mortal drunk", while another one gave birth in a closet without Thomas knowing, even though he was sitting in the next room at the time. The mind boggles.

The Parlour 
There's a lovely picture from 1857 on the wall of the Parlour that shows Thomas and Jane actually in the very same Parlour. It's a strange experience, as the furniture and decoration are exactly the same, so it's almost like a mirror - you half expect to turn around and see Jane sitting at the table (probably writing out another P45).

Carlyles House Parlour

A shrine since 1895 
Thomas died in 1881. A Carlyle devotee called George Lumsden visited the place in 1894 and was shocked to see that it had been taken over by stray cats and dogs. He launched a campaign to buy the house and it was opened to the public in 1895. The National Trust took over in 1936.

The National Trust Scone Blog podcast
I live about 9 miles from Carlyle's House, so it's unforgiveable that I hadn't visited before, scones or no scones.

But I had an extra reason for my visit today; the brilliant staff at the house had very kindly agreed to let me record an episode of the upcoming National Trust Scone Blog podcast. I got to hang out in the kitchen that would once have been presided over by Jane Carlyle and her endless stream of skivvies.

My interviewee was Helen Wood, the comedy performer who took her one-woman show, the National Trust Fanclub, to the Edinburgh Festival last month. She's going on tour in the spring and I recommend getting yourself a ticket if she comes to a town near you - there's a whole section devoted to scones. Anyway, watch out for the release of this podcast episode in the next few weeks. And a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful Linda and the team for accommodating us.

The weighing scales belong to the kitchen and are not part of my recording equipment,
just in case Colin the podcast tutor is reading this and thinking "HUH?"

Carlyle's House: 5 out of 5
Scone: there's no tea room
Staff: A million out of 5. The loveliest people ever.

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