The sage of Chelsea

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall visits scenes from the life of the writer Thomas Carlyle.

On the landing in Thomas Carlyle's house in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, hangs a signed tribute, presented to the philosopher-historian on his 80th birthday by more than 100 eminent contemporaries "who have derived delight and inspiration from the noble source of your writings". Among those congratulating "a teacher whose genius and achievements have lent radiance to his time" were Browning, Darwin, Huxley, Tennyson, Thackeray and Trollope. Dickens wrote that "he would go at all times farther to see Carlyle than any man alive"; George Eliot that "there is hardly a superior mind of this generation that has not been modified by his writings".

It's easy to forget Carlyle's importance to the Victorians. Today his principal works - Sartor Resartus, On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, Frederick the Great, The French Revolution - are read less than those of many of the writers who so revered him - though two recent biographies, and the forthcoming publication of his Reminiscences, suggest a continuing interest.

The Chelsea house, now run as a museum by the National Trust, is a rarity among writers' houses: it remains almost exactly as it was when Thomas and Jane Carlyle lived here, after moving from their farm in Scotland in 1834.

Carlyle's extraordinary learning, huge personality and conversational gifts earned him the title the "Sage of Chelsea", and made this modest Georgian terrace-house a literary gathering-place of considerable importance for years, though Jane's wit, intelligence and looks were also part of the attraction.

The beautifully-proportioned library was where he wrote The French Revolution. At one stage, a distraught John Stuart Mill, who had borrowed the manuscript of the first half, rushed in to tell him that his maid had used it to light the fire. Only a fragment, now on display, survived: Carlyle just began again. He had a morbid dislike of noise, whether it came from boats on the river, a piano next door, or chickens in a neighbour's garden. Carlyle tried different rooms for writing, and eventually had a sound-proof one built in the attic. Even then it took him 12 gloomy years to write Frederick the Great.

His desk remains, as do a bookcase full of his books, some pipes, and the large clothes pegs he used as paper clips. Here too are copies of the letters between him and Disraeli in which he rejects the offer of a baronetcy. The simple basement kitchen, with its stone sink and the Carlyles' dresser and pine table, doubled as a bedroom for the servant, who had to wait to go to bed until Carlyle finished his late-night smoke there.

The Carlyles had a tempestuous relationship. Both were insomniacs, and she eventually had her own room. Whether this move was also due to sexual inadequacy on Carlyle's part is, according to his biographer Ian Campbell, a matter for dispute. According to Dickens, and as is evident from her letters, Jane was a talented writer; but Carlyle refused to look at her poetry. The growing interest in her life is reflected in the recent opening to the public of her birthplace at Haddington in East Lothian, where the couple first met. Carlyle's birthplace, a small, attractive house in the village of Ecclefechan near Dumfries built by his stonemason father, is now run by the National Trust for Scotland. A short walk away, near his grave in the churchyard, stands one wall of the village school he attended. Nearby, his statue looks down quizzically on the "little district" that helped form his fervently-held ideas.

Carlyle's House: 0171 352 7087; Birth-place: 01576 300666; Jane Welsh Carlyle Museum: 0162 082 3738; Thomas Carlyle by Ian Campbell, Saltire Society Pounds 4.99

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