Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 5 - Carlyle's House

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CHAPTER V

CARLYLE'S HOUSE

(1895)

THE Centenary of Thomas Carlyle was appropriately celebrated, both in London and at Ecclefechan, December 5th, a final disposition of the historic house in Cheyne Row having been made at that time. It had been purchased and turned over to the Trustees, Americans, as is usual in such cases, being liberal subscribers to the fund. It has always been somewhat difficult to comprehend the American worship of Carlyle. He had no great love for us, and seldom let an opportunity pass to show his dislike. There are many well authenticated stories of his incivility toward citizens of the republic, a goodly number of whom no doubt intruded unjustifiably upon his privacy, but he was somewhat too impartial in his attitude, rebuffing those who brought to him letters that should have commanded his toleration, had he not been remarkably deficient in this quality. A little more than $8,000 was paid for the house, a very plain, old-fashioned London residence of three stories, and rather dismal within and without. The numbers of the houses in Cheyne Row have been changed since the death of Carlyle, but, as is the London custom under such circumstances, instead of obliterating the historic "No. 5," a black line has been simply painted across the numeral. A medallion - a rather imperfect bas-relief - has been set in the wall, and any fine day during the tourist season a crowd of adoring Americans can be seen standing in front of it, paying silent [-46-]  homage to the memory of Carlyle, a very small proportion of whom, it probably would be found, really knew much of the man or of his works. At Ecclefechan, on the anniversary, the school children had had a holiday; there was a gathering of the survivors of the Carlyle family and a wreath of immortelles was placed upon the grave by Mr. John Carlyle, a farmer now living at Langholm. It was supposed that the wreath was the gift of the Emperor of Germany, as a tribute to the biographer of his great ancestor. In London a meeting was held in the Southwest Polytechnic Institute, Chelsea, at which Mr. John Morley presided. His speech, which was brilliant and able, was strikingly characteristic-an example of plain-speaking of especial value in an age prone to superlatives. He warmly commended the custom, rapidly growing in London, of distinguishing houses that had been occupied by great men and women with commemorative tablets, such as had been placed upon the house where Carlyle once lived, and he pronounced Carlyle the foremost figure of his time in English literature, although he objected to the title that had been given him- "The Sage of Chelsea." "Sage" was a term which might be truthfully accorded Goethe, Emerson, or Wordsworth, but Carlyle, he said, was far too tempestuous a spirit to justify such a title. He might be considered rightfully enough a poet, an artist, a prophet or a preacher; but not a sage. Contrasting him with Emerson and Wordsworth, the speaker said: "Far from him was their radiant sanity and their serene humanity."
    Touching upon Carlyle's domestic life, which had been so widely and so minutely criticized, he thought that point had been well dealt with by his distinguished friend, Frederick Harrison. He had put one aspect of it in exactly the right way when he had said that everything that had happened in the little house, so far as the past was [-47-] concerned, should be regarded as something that had happened in Brobdingnag, and that we should resort to the scale of Brobdingnag in order to form a moral judgment. There was a giant living in it; husband and wife railed at each other like a giant and giantess in a fairy tale; the cocks and hens, of which readers knew so much, were as large as ostriches and screamed and crowed with the power of a steam whistle, and the smallest creature in the bed was as big as a hedge-hog. Mr. Harrison could not have put the aspect of that case more truly; but it was to be remembered that when we were estranged and alienated for the moment by these so-called revelations, we were dealing with a man and also with a woman who were not ordinary persons, who used very strenuous language, and experienced very profound emotions on what most people would have considered ordinary occasions calling for no display. That Carlyle was not a patient man and thought ill of his age and considered many of his contemporaries-even eminent contemporaries-really poor creatures, were things that we all knew. He said that Carlyle did not resemble Emerson, and upon the particular points raised by the biographers it would no doubt have been better had he taken a piece of advice which Emerson gave, and for which all people would be better if they followed: that "one topic is peremptorily forbidden to all rational mortals; namely, their distempers."
    Of his inconsistent attitude on the question of slavery. Mr. Morley admitted that Carlyle was no doubt to some extent against human reason, and, he was sorry to say, in the most vital historic case of his generation, unfortunately against human freedom; and these, no doubt, were serious flaws. But he counseled his hearers not to be overcome by them. It had been his good fortune to visit the illustrious man from time to time in his little home, and he saw around him those who had shared that priv-[-48-]ilege, who, he knew, would agree that no more courteous, cheery, considerate and encouraging friend and counselor could be desired for any young man coming to London and trying his literary fortune. He railed and cursed, denouncing many things that he, the speaker, still permitted himself to value. He systematically denounced logic, and particularly reviled political economy, which in that day had not yet been banished to a remote planet. He was very anxious always that one should on no account do two things, and often repeated it; on no account should one write poetry and on no account aspire to any performance in the direction of what he called "London wit."
    In his conclusion the speaker thus referred to Carlyle's contempt for science:
    "Carlyle," he said, "flung himself across many of the elements that push society forward, but against science he was more resolutely antagonistic than almost any other force of his time. If he had said that natural science and the discoveries of natural science did not cover the whole field of human life, and that wisdom in those things is a very poor substitute for moral wisdom, of course nobody would have been able to gainsay him; but he was contemptuous - almost maniacally contemptuous - of the speculations and work of that great man of science-so modest, so patient, so untiring, so serene, who from his quiet hill-top in Kent shook the whole world of European thought. Well as had been said by Mr. Arthur Balfour, it is now a matter of common knowledge, belief and conviction - the common property of all educated men - to look upon the material world in which we live from an evolutionary standpoint - and perhaps the same standpoint was applicable to phenomena not material, but to some moral and social phenomena.
    In his summing up, however, notwithstanding these courageous criticisms, Mr. Morley delivered an eloquent [-49-] eulogy upon Carlyle, whom he believed to be "a mighty genius," "a power for regeneration in character building," a seeker for that truth which he discerned as the real force in great events and movements.
    It was one more evidence of the irony of destiny that that privacy and seclusion which was as the breath of life to the crabbed Scotchman should have been at last invaded; and that the house from which the intruding Philistine was so resolutely barred during his life-time should have been converted into a museum which any one of decent manners and appearance might visit upon payment of a shilling at the door.
    The collection of relics shown was pitifully small. When I went to look Through the house there were not more than half a dozen other visitors present. Two of these had arrived in a splendid carriage, with prancing, sleek-coated horses, and with groom and coachman in spick and span livery on the box; the whole equipage was a glaring contrast to the dingy, humble little house before whose door it was drawn up. Most of the visitors walked about nonchalantly, fingering the weather-beaten old bath-tub and the few other utensils and furniture upon which they could put the finger of investigation; peeping into closets and making observations in no very reverent spirit. The few articles of apparel shown, an old silk hat of prodigious size among them, were pathetic evidences, if not of poverty, at least of that regard for humble things which Carlyle inherited and which he never lost. The bare, wooden floors were rough and uneven; the little window of the dining-room looked out upon a tiny garden with its gravelled walk and the tree under which Carlyle sat and read in his long, loose dressing gown with his pet cat by his side. A photograph representing him thus was one of the most interesting of the collection of likenesses, which included several pencil sketches and portraits in [-50-] oil. The desk upon which most of his books had been written stood in one corner of the dismantled drawing- room. It was a plain, deal desk, stained and varnished, with a sloping lid. Along the front was a brass plate with this inscription, an extract from Carlyle's will:
    "And hereby give and bequeath the same writing table to the said Sir James Fitz James Stephen. I know that he will accept it as a distinguished mark of my esteem. He knows that it belonged to my honored father-in-law, and his daughter, and that I have written all my books upon it, except only Schiller, and that for fifty years and upward that are now passed I have considered it among the most precious of my possessions."
    The desk was lent by Lady Fitz James Stephen, to whom it belongs, and was placed originally in the drawing-room when the Carlyles moved to No. 5 (now No. 24) Cheyne Row, in 1834. In 1854 when Carlyle began his "Frederick" it was removed to the famous sound-proof room at the top of the house, where it remained until 1865, when it was returned to its old place in the drawing-room, where it was kept during Carlyle's lifetime.
    An interesting picture of the drawing-room on the ground floor, "A Chelsea Interior in 1858," is now the property of Louisa, Lady Ashburton, by whom it was loaned; Carlyle stands by the fire in his dressing-gown smoking, while Mrs. Carlyle sits by the table, her little white dog sleeping on the sofa. The floor is covered with a brilliant red and green carpet, and while the furnishings would hardly accord with modern ideas, the room had an air of cheerfulness and comfort which did great credit to Mrs. Carlyle's thrifty house-keeping. There were many portraits of Mrs. Carlyle - one as a young girl, a bright piquant face; the others, while retaining the youthful brilliancy of expression, were remarkable for the irregularity of features, the face as a type resembling the por-[-51-]traits of Goldsmith. In a corner of the dining-room was the death-mask of Carlyle under glass, the rigid face wearing an added sternness-the grim severity of the dead. On the wall near it were two pencil sketches which were most pathetic, having a profound mournfulness of expression ~h'ich was not apparent in the plaster. These were made two hours after the death by Miss Allingham, to whom they still belong; the originals from which the familiar prints have been reproduced. There were remarkably few manuscripts and letters. One letter was addressed to some public official and was a frank reminder that governments should honor intellect, to which they owed their existence. In a frayed note-book, written very indistinctly in lead pencil, was a tribute, evidently addressed to his dead wife, and it ended thus:
    "Oh, my love, where - where ?"
    It was painful to have this expression of grief and regret eyed and commented upon by the curious, who had paid their shilling, and who came and went with the indifference of gratified curiosity. Among the books, of which there was only a small collection, was a set of the first edition of "Frederick the Great." In a glass case in the study - the "sound-proof room," which was reached by a steep and narrow stair-case - were several long stemmed clay pipes, such as Carlyle habitually used. Here also was a very small fragment of the manuscript of the "French Revolution," all that remains - with half a dozen closely written pages of "Sartor Resartus," and a number of medals and seals and congratulatory addresses of various kinds. The study had been built at a cost of £200, but it seems strange that one could imagine any contrivance could be invented within the thin walls of an ordinary house, that would shut out the eternal roar of London, which is never hushed, even at night. The ceaseless roll of traffic along the Chelsea embankment, and the [-52-] strident cries of the costermonger in the adjacent streets could be heard distinctly. The study was lighted by a skylight, and a front window in a recess had been cut off by a door; otherwise it was an ordinary garret chamber. As I came away I walked to the foot of the street, across the pretty "Carlyle Gardens," and paused a moment to look at the fine bronze statue that had been placed there in the midst of grass and shrubbery. It represents Carlyle sitting, clad in the ample dressing-gown of the portrait, which had adapted itself more kindly to the demands of plastic art than the conventional frock coat and trousers, that may well be the despair of modern sculptors. The face was exquisitely fine and the folded hands, long, thin and delicate, were beautiful and expressive. A wreath of palms and immortelles, which had been placed there by the Carlyle society the day previous, adorned the granite base. Within four months the house had been visited by more than seventeen hundred people from all parts of the world. Why Carlyle should have been held in such reverent memory passes comprehension, for no man ever lived who had greater and more out-spoken contempt for the race- most of them fools, according ·to his own estimation. Had he been a genial optimist, with a kindly regard for mankind, he would not have been half so highly esteemed, nor so reverently remembered.