The Carlyle home: haven for a writer. In search of peace and quiet, he retreated to `sound-proof' attic
Tucked away in London's Chelsea district, at No. 24 Cheyne Row, is one of the most remarkable London houses open to the public. It's the home of 19th-century literary lion Thomas Carlyle and Jane, his wife. Revered in his own time as a writer, philosopher, and historian, Carlyle is best remembered for such works as ``The French Revolution'' (1837), ``The Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell'' (1845), and ``Frederick the Great'' (1858-65).
Dozens of famous Europeans and Americans visited the Carlyles at this address, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, and John Ruskin.
But this red-brick, Georgian-style row house, built in 1708, is more than a literary monument. Almost unchanged since the Carlyles' time, the house is filled with their furniture, books, pictures, letters, and even clothing. Viewed all together, it offers today's visitors the best remaining glimpse into middle-class life in a mid-Victorian London home.
Stepping through the front door, one passes Carlyle's walking stick in the stand near the door and enters the ground floor drawing room or parlor. The Carlyles are still ``at home'' for visitors in a charming painting to the left of the mantle, done by Robert Tait in 1857, depicting the literary couple in this very room. In his best dressing gown, Carlyle stands by the fire, while Jane, prim and dignified in her matron's garb of black gown and white lace cap, sits opposite him and gazes at her little dog, Nero, seated on a sofa across the room.
Behind the parlor is the dining room where Carlyle liked to sit ``in dewey morning sunshine and breakfast on hot coffee and the best of bread and butter.''
``Below stairs'' is the Carlyles' kitchen, complete with the original stone sink, which was once filled with water pumped from a well beneath the flagstone floor, and the cast-iron saddle-back range installed by the Carlyles in 1852.
In the adjoining back room, Carlyle took his daily cold shower bath, standing in a tub while a pulley raised three buckets of water to cascade over him. ``The shock is indescribable,'' he wrote, ``and whether it strengthens me or shatters me I have not yet made up my mind.''
Upstairs on the first - or as Americans would say, the second floor - is the library. Carlyle was having tea here one afternoon in 1836 when John Stuart Mill rushed in, ``pale as Hector's ghost.'' Mill's ignorant housemaid had lighted a fire with the manuscript of the first volume of Carlyle's ``The French Revolution,'' which he had asked Mills to read. All 171 pages were ``irrevocably annihilated,'' Carlyle mourned. ``Mill, poor fellow, is very miserable; we must try to keep from him how serious is the loss. ... It shall be written again.'' And it was.
Across the hall, looking out over the garden, is Jane Carlyle's small bedroom. In the adjoining dressing room stands the marbletopped mahogany washstand presented to Jane by her husband with an accompanying note: ``Blessings on her bonny face, and be it ever blithe to me, as it is dear - blithe or not.''
On the top floor is Carlyle's attic study - the most interesting part of the house. This so-called ``sound-proof room'' was constructed for Carlyle, who required absolute silence for his work. Throughout her married life, Jane tried to suppress all noise, postponing cleaning until her husband was away and battling dogs, roosters, and street vendors.
To minimize noise, Carlyle's 20-foot-square stark white study was lighted by an overhead skylight, and double walls were constructed in front and back. But once he settled into his costly cocoon, he discovered a barrage of noise entering through the skylight: church bells, steamer sirens from the Thames, and railway whistles. As Jane wrote: ``The silent room is the noisiest room in the house, and Mr. Carlyle is very much out of sorts.'' Here, nevertheless, the author toiled for more than 12 years writing his six-volume ``Frederick the Great,'' which he came to call ``the Nightmare ... the Minotaur ... the Unutterable book.''
Nowhere in the Carlyle house does today's visitor feel closer to this genius than in his strange white cell. Standing before his desk, surrounded by shelves of books and piles of his maps, prints, and papers, one almost feels like an intruder.
Surely Mr. Carlyle will return to his desk at any moment, one thinks. And how he will fret at the sound coming through his skylight - voices, the familiar thrum of a London taxi pulling up to let off a fare at the house next door, and the roar of a jet coming in to land at Heathrow Airport. Practical information
The Carlyle House is open April through October from Wednesday to Saturday, and on bank holiday Mondays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.