Frances Wilson

Back with a vengeance

By satirising it in long, amusing letters, written to be circulated among her friends, according to Kathy Chamberlain

One hour in No. 5 Cheyne Row, Virginia Woolf observed, will tell you more about the Carlyles than all the biographies. The house lived in by Thomas and Jane Carlyle from 1834 until their respective deaths, and now owned by the National Trust, was one of the great battlegrounds of domestic history. Here Jane warred against bedbugs and coal dust and her husband’s obsession with the vast and unstoppable Lady Harriet Ashburton (there were three people in her marriage), and Carlyle warred against the intrusions of the outside world. While next door’s rooster kept him awake at night, by day, as Jane wrote in one of her peerless letters, he was disturbed by

men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, wagons, carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, doorbells, gentleman raps, twopenny-post-raps and footmen-showers-of raps.

Not to mention the dutiful piano-practising of the girl in the adjacent house, the racket of hawkers, organ-grinders and washer-women, and the hourly chiming of the old Chelsea clock. No man could write under these conditions, and soundproofing his study made little difference.

Thomas Carlyle is now more famous for his feisty wife than his life of Frederick the Great, and observers of their marriage disagree over who was the most long-suffering. For some, he was the victim of a shrew who mockingly recorded his every gesture; for others she was the victim of a brute who failed to see her brilliance. ‘Being married to him’, said Jane’s friend Anna Jameson — having just braved the consequences of interrupting the sage in one of his monologues — must be ‘something next worse to being married to Satan himself’. Samuel Butler refused to take sides. ‘It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another,’ he quipped, ‘and so make only two people miserable and not four.’

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