Carlyle’s House

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‘Not so much a dwelling place as a battlefield’

Carlyle’s House, Cheyne Row, Chelsea

The stair­case at Car­lyle’s House, with light flood­ing in through the gar­den door

Thomas and Jane Car­lyle are almost for­got­ten today, yet in the Vic­to­ri­an era they were A‑list celebri­ties in the lit­er­ary world, acquaint­ed with and admired by many writ­ers and thinkers whose fame has out­last­ed their own. Ralph Wal­do Emer­son trav­elled across the Atlantic to track Thomas down when he was liv­ing in a lit­tle hide­away in Dum­friesshire and the couple’s Lon­don cir­cle includ­ed Dick­ens, Ten­nyson, Brown­ing, Thack­er­ay, Ruskin and Dar­win.

The son of a Scot­tish stone­ma­son, Thomas Car­lyle was born in 1795. He mar­ried Jane Bail­lie Welsh in 1826 and eight years lat­er they moved from Scot­land to the house in Chelsea in which they spent the rest of their lives. Jane died in 1866, Thomas in 1881. The house and its con­tents were acquired by a memo­r­i­al trust in 1895 and were giv­en to the Nation­al Trust in 1936.

Thomas was a pro­lif­ic essay­ist, a trans­la­tor of Ger­man clas­sics and the author of sev­er­al books, most notably The French Rev­o­lu­tion, A His­to­ry (1837). As a young man, he held rad­i­cal views on social issues but he became increas­ing­ly con­ser­v­a­tive (indeed pos­i­tive­ly feu­dal) in his lat­er years. Though he enjoyed the com­pa­ny of intel­lec­tu­als, he seems to have dis­liked the rest of human­i­ty – and he har­boured a par­tic­u­lar hatred for hawk­ers and bar­rel organ grinders, from whose noise he could not escape, despite shut­ting him­self away in the most iso­lat­ed room at the top of the house.

“Are you not glad that Mr and Mrs Carlyle were married to one another and not to other people? They certainly were justly formed to meet by nature.”

Eliza Mary Ann Savage, Letters between Samuel Butler and Miss EMA Savage, 1871–85

Jane’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished let­ters not only con­firmed her own lit­er­ary tal­ent but revealed a mar­riage choked by poi­so­nous fumes – at least for her; Thomas may sim­ply have been obliv­i­ous to his fail­ings as a hus­band. As John Drinkwa­ter put it, in The Out­line of Lit­er­a­ture, “Car­lyle was a hard man to live with. His wife was gen­tly bred. He remained a peas­ant. He was a chron­ic dys­pep­tic, ill-tem­pered, giv­en to grum­bling and nag­ging … There are prob­a­bly few women less to be envied than the wives of lit­er­ary genius­es.”

Carlyle's House - Virginia Woolf

In a love­ly essay enti­tled ‘Great Men’s Hous­es’ (in which she also vis­its Keats House) Vir­ginia Woolf describes Thomas and Jane’s home as “not so much a dwelling place as a bat­tle­field …” – adding that an hour spent here “will tell us more about them than we can learn from all the biogra­phies.”

On your arrival at the battlefield’s front door you’ll need to ring the bell, which is done by pulling rather than push­ing – an authen­ti­cal­ly olde-worlde touch. Almost every­thing in the house is gen­uine­ly orig­i­nal rather than a repro­duc­tion or some­thing bought at an antiques auc­tion – unlike, for exam­ple, in Leighton House, where all the fur­nish­ings are fac­sim­i­les, albeit very well researched and craft­ed ones.

Chelsea in the Car­lyles’ time was less fash­ion­able and con­sid­ered more remote than it is now, which made the house afford­able to the rel­a­tive­ly impe­cu­nious cou­ple. Though their for­tunes improved, the Car­lyles nev­er attained great wealth, and could not run to domes­tic lux­u­ries like piped water or ade­quate heat­ing. Apart from a com­fort­able draw­ing room, much of the house verges on the spar­tan – like the kitchen with its bed for the maid, shown below.

The cura­tor and his assis­tants are tremen­dous­ly knowl­edge­able and are hap­py to engage in chat­ty spec­u­la­tion on any aspect of the house or the lives of its occu­pants. They pro­vide a per­fect reminder of why it’s always best to inter­act with the guides in London’s less well-known vis­i­tor attrac­tions. At a major tourist des­ti­na­tion like Madame Tussaud’s it’s prob­a­bly no use ask­ing a mem­ber of staff for in-depth infor­ma­tion about a par­tic­u­lar exhib­it: the atten­dants are most­ly there to stop you from mis­be­hav­ing and they may not even have a flu­ent com­mand of Eng­lish. But in small his­toric hous­es you’ll usu­al­ly find true enthu­si­asts on hand, and con­ver­sa­tions with them will huge­ly enhance your vis­it.

The ochre and brown kitchen at Carlyle's House, with a bed for the maid

Carlyle’s House, 24 (originally 5) Cheyne Row, London SW3 5HL
Phone: 020 7352 7087
Website: National Trust
Open: early March to the end of October, bank holiday Mondays and Wednesday–Sunday 11am–5pm (last admission 30 minutes before closing)
Admission: £5.10 (adults), £2.60 (children), £12.80 (families)
Nearest station: South Kensington (District and Circles lines)
Further reading: Oliver Garnett, Carlyle’s House, National Trust, 2013