Book Review: The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme


I just found out thanks to the Google that the Carlyles’ home on Cheyne Row in Chelsea is actually open to the public. The bad news is it appears to close for the season at the end of October so I won’t be able to visit it while I am in London. That is a bummer because the house is easily the third main character in Thea Holme’s social historical look at the life of Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s life in their Chelsea home from 1834 to Jane’s death in 1866. Turns out Thea Holme’s husband Stanford was the curator of the house museum and they actually lived in the house in the 1960s. Not surprising then that she decided to write this book.

I started reading The Carlyles at Home during the readathon, but all the descriptions of home improvements kept my mind wandering to all the things that we needed to do to our place. I also couldn’t really read it before going to sleep either for that same reason.

There is lots of domestic minutiae for those of us that like that sort of thing. The Carlyles at Home is a primer on daily life in the mid-19th century. Almost a behind the scenes look at all those costume dramas we love to read and watch. Food (limited selection, always leading to indigestion), gardening (Jane liked flowers, Carlyle like fruits), home improvement (seemed to be constantly making changes to their home), finances (misers with unsteady but overall decent income), and servants (always hard to find and keep).

I love books that deal with incomes and expenditures and this one includes a whole chapter on money. I had to do a little online research to understand the difference between pounds, shillings, and pennies. After so many years of not really understanding it is nice to finally know that there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. And that a price of 1/7/6 would mean that something cost a pound, seven shillings and 6 pennies. But don’t try and convert those pennies into modern pennies because the old pennies were  not of equal value to the new pennies that were ushered in upon decimalization in 1971.

And speaking of money. Remember how annoyed I was by the fact that the Provincial Lady was not very organized or good with money? Well Jane Carlyle would be just the person to put her in her place. She is the personification of competence in domestic housekeeping. And Jane’s skills and abilities went well beyond what most women were allowed to do at the time. She was an executive ahead of her time.

After reading The Carlyles at Home, I am even more interested in reading Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives which looks at the married lives of five Victorian couples including the Carlyles. I am curious to read a less romanticized view of the couple. For Thomas Carlyle just seemed like a bit of a baby and a bully. He was constantly complaining, and it was Jane’s lot to make everything perfect for him. A pretty impossible task.

One of the more amusing stories about Jane was the crisis she faced at the prospect at having to attend an aristocratic ball décolletée. The fashion at the time was that even the most modest of ladies during the day would bare their shoulders and (ahem) bosoms by night. For 49-year old Jane this proved to be almost too much. She was fairly forced into it by Carlyle who declared that true propriety required conforming to the fashion of others. (That is some message for all you parents trying to get your children to dress with some sense of modesty.) In the end Jane became entranced by how well she looked in the dress once she saw herself in it in the candlelight.
This is social history that doesn’t necessarily feel like non-fiction. You will find lots of quotes interspersed but you won’t find any citations so it doesn’t really have an academic feel.

This book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand the daily life of a middle class Victorian couple or anyone who likes reading about domestic details. Or both.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

  1. lyn October 20, 2010 / 5:09 am

    I loved the Carlyles. I visited the house when I was in London over 10 years ago now, just loved it. It's a shame it won't be open while you're there. Parellel Lives is a terrific book, I read it a long time ago but it covers 5 Victorian marriages, all fascinating from a social history & a relationships point of view.


  2. Darlene October 20, 2010 / 8:40 am

    I love social history so this would be right up my street, thanks Thomas!

    There is a case of extreme envy going on here over your upcoming trip to London. Can't wait to read all about it once you're back!


  3. verity October 20, 2010 / 12:36 pm

    This is one of my very favourite Persephones, and you will be very envious to hear that the last time I met up with Claire, back in August when I was fianceless for a weekend, we went there! We did get very lost en route, carrying huge bags of books, but it was definitely worth it…


  4. Danielle October 20, 2010 / 1:26 pm

    My library has this book, though not the Persephone edition, and I have looked at it so many times–bringing it to my desk with the intention of checking it out–now I just need the opportunity to squeeze it in–I love this sort of NF and have the Rose book as well. Maybe you can at least see the outside of the house–not the same as really visiting, but it would still be fun to see the actual place now that you've read about it.


  5. Nan October 20, 2010 / 2:37 pm

    Wonderful review, Thomas. I have the book and look forward to reading it. We did visit the house long ago when we were English lit majors in college. Sorry you won't be able to do so this trip. Next time.


  6. mary October 20, 2010 / 6:01 pm

    So ashamed that I've never got round to visiting the house. (And got sidetracked and didn't finish the book, either.)
    But you might enjoy Linley Sambourne House in Kensington, though it's more High Victorian; anyway, I think it stays open later in the year.


  7. Paperback Reader October 21, 2010 / 1:43 pm

    Ah, I see Verity has already mentioned our visit to Caryle's House! One of these days I mean to stop of at his birthplace, Ecclefechan, on the long road home to Scotland.


  8. bookssnob October 21, 2010 / 3:42 pm

    I visited Carlyle House this past summer. It was lovely – a real oasis! And exactly as if the Carlyles upped and left yesterday.

    I have the book at home home (ie in England) and meant to read it after I visited but never got around to it. One day! Your review has made it sound much more interesting than I expected, hence why I have put off reading it for so long!


  9. Thomas at My Porch October 23, 2010 / 12:16 am

    Lyn: I can't believe I never knew about it before.

    Darlene: There is so much going on right now around here that I haven't really taken it in that we will be there next month.

    Verity: You are right, I am envious.

    Danielle: If you like this sort of NF, I don't know what would keep you from reading it.

    Nan: It seems everyone but me knew about the house. And so many of you have been there.

    Mary: Good thing about the book is that it seems like it would be easy to pick back up and not have to back track to refresh your memory.

    JT: Depends on what novellas are on the TBR pile.

    Claire: She did. You will have to tell me when I see you how one pronounces Ecclefechan.

    Rachel: Might be good if you get homesick. Maybe you could have your family send it to you.


  10. mary October 23, 2010 / 10:43 am

    Thomas, you have times your trip exactly right; I noticed that Ecclefechan tarts (a seasonal delicacy) were back in the supermarket yesterday!


  11. Dorothy W. October 24, 2010 / 7:44 pm

    The book sounds great. I've been reading some of Jane Carlyle's letters (in I Too Am Here), and have been enjoying them. I read quite a few on their remodeling and other domestic problems, and it's so interesting to learn about what everyday life was like then!


  12. A Bookish Space October 25, 2010 / 4:46 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful review. I read my first Persephone this year (Miss Pettirgrew), and you post has highlighted how many wonderful discoveries I have ahead of me!


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