20 October 2010
Book Review: The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
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.