POSTCARD FROM LONDON
Soon after arriving in England we joined the National Trust, giving us entry to dozens of historic homes around the country. It provides a great insight into how people lived hundreds of years ago. That is, as long as those people were earls and dukes whose houses look like movie sets. With one notable exception. Within walking distance of our south-west London flat, anonymous among identical four-storey terraces, is Carlyle’s House, home to the great Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane for almost half a century in the mid-to-late 1800s.
Haven’t heard of him? Don’t feel bad. Not too many people have these days, but in his prime Carlyle was one of the world’s biggest celebrities. The door of the unremarkable-looking terrace in Chelsea was once opened to the likes of Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others who sat around Carlyle like hungry children, feasting on his words.
His three-volume history of the French Revolution and biographies of Oliver Cromwell, Frederick the Great and the early kings of Norway were big sellers in the 1800s but lacked the wizards and vampires to gain an audience today. The popularity of his written works has faded, but the way in which Carlyle and his wife lived is frozen in all its fascinating normality. The table around which Dickens and co sat in awe of the man his wife called His Greatness, the desk at which Carlyle wrote, the bed on which their maid slept in the kitchen, Carlyle’s dressing gown and books, portraits by such artists as Whistler and Tait. A sofa, about which Jane had written excitedly after buying it on sale.
Incredibly, the Carlyles never owned the home. They rented. In today’s London market it would fetch about $A6 million, which should serve as a lesson to all current celebrities. Fame is fleeting, but real estate lasts forever.