Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Chelsea Is Unfashionable…

..so wrote the Scottish writer and historian Thomas Carlyle**. Back in June, when I visited the V&A along with Floss and friends, one of the paintings we looked at was this one

chelsea interior tait

It is “A Chelsea Interior” by Robert Tait, painted in 1857, showing Thomas and Jane at home in Cheyne Row. As we looked at it, I said to my companion [Pomona, of Little Cottage Comforts] “I really ought to find out more about the Carlyles – I know nothing, other than that the maid used his manuscript to light the fire”

Immediately, the erudite Pomona said “You should read ‘The Carlyles at home’ by Thea Holme. Persephone have done a reprint of it” I have to say at this point, that the whole V&A Cult of Beauty exhibition was fabulous, but having Pomona beside me made it even more wonderful. She really knows her stuff about Victorian art, and I was just drinking in all her helpful comments. It was like having my own personal tour guide – brilliant [thanks P]

carlyles at homeI finally got round to ordering the book from AbeBooks. I bought an ‘original’ OUP, as it was cheaper than the reprint – and the cover design was the left half of the above picture [with strange sepia overtones]My review…

This book is great fun – really informative about how this unusual couple lived, and is an instructive and entertaining piece of social history. Full of anecdotes, and based mainly on Jane’s letters - we learn so much.

Jane did all she could to keep her husband happy, and to run the household thriftily. She kept careful accounts and watched every halfpenny. She managed to get through a regiment of servants – believing each to be the perfect girl on arrival, and the worst maid ever as they departed! One particularly inefficient young woman was referred to by the couple [presumably not to her face!] as Sereetha The PeaSweep.

Jane reused, recycled, repaired and renovated with all the enthusiasm of today’s Frugal Bloggers…

“I told Mrs Hunt I had been busy painting. ‘What, is it a portrait?’ she asked. ‘Oh No!’ I told her ‘Something of more importance – a large wardrobe!”

“To see how they live here – it is a wonder the whole city [of London] does not bankrape….flinging platefuls of of what they denominate ‘crusts’ into the ashpits. In Scotland, we have no such things as ‘crusts’”

This is a good read, and in conjunction with this website gives as much information about this fascinating pair as you could want. Two quotes…

The condition of the most passionate enthusiast is to be preferred over the individual who, because of the fear of making a mistake, won't in the end affirm or deny anything. [Thomas]

The only thing that makes one place more attractive to me than another is the quantity of heart I find in it.[Jane]

**Actually, I am not aware that Chelsea has ever truly been considered unfashionable

Thanks Pomona for the recommendation!


  1. Oh and thank you for the lovely compliments! I have come over all embarrassed and hope that I didn't go on too much. I must admit I really did enjoy our day together - I am going to visit the Postmodernism exhibition soon, which is a bit out of my comfort zone. I am so glad that you enjoyed the book anyway - I was fascinated by the battles with the bugs, and loved reading about Jane Carlyle's domestic battles - far worse than ours!

    Pomona x

  2. Wow - blogmeet sparks bookreview!

    This does sound like a good book. I've gone through a weird phase of not liking any of the books I currently have in the house (it's been OK - I've read the boys' books and my teaching texts instead) but maybe I should give biography a try next.

    Thanks for the review - I love the comment about the crusts.

  3. No Pomona, you didn't 'go on too much' - I loved every minute!
    Floss- I DO understand the feeling of 'I don't want to read any of these' - but I have to be in the right mood for biography. And with your Scottish connections, you would know all about crusts!
    blessings x

  4. that is an interesting website. He was born in Ecclefechan, I have actually been there many years ago.

    Great post,

    Gill in Canada



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