The point of going to other people’s houses is to play with a different set of toys. Sometimes you also have to put up with sharing with other children, which is why I like going to Granny’s. There I only have to fight for control of the horsey train ball sandpit set with my Marvellous Big Brother and get the dedicated attention of a besotted grandparent or two thrown in as well. But you have to take the rough with the smooth and some children are quite easily manipulated.
So I was hopeful when we rocked up to the house of Mama’s acquaintances, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, just over the river. Especially as it was a nice tall house in a clearly genteel area. Lots of kids I thought. Expensive toys I thought.
We rang the bell and an adult, who turned out to be neither Thomas nor Jane, ushered us straight into the lounge.
That’s when it started to go wrong. There weren’t any kids and I couldn’t see any toys. I immediately set off to look for them both, and Mama decided to take the opportunity presented by the seeming absence of her hosts to have a good nose round.
What we found was quite a lot of that oldish kind of furniture and a whole bunch of knick knacky stuff of the type Mama seems to think should not be touched. Great staircases though, really nice and steep and just when you think you have got to the top there’s another one.
It’s nice to know that even Victorians are obsessed with building extensions. The Carlyles’ is a sort of massive study at the top of the house in a specially designed sound proofed room. Which isn’t sound proof, apparently. Thomas goes on about that a lot, Mama says.
There were also a whole load of both painted and photographed portraits of a rather ruggedly handsome gent of varying age, occasionally with a really fashionable beard. Mama says it’s Thomas and he hates them all. She told me some of the things he says about them, which are written on bits of paper next to the pictures. Odd thing to do, but then adults are odd.
Mama’s favourite painting was one of the room we started in, with Thomas and Jane somewhere in the background. Apparently Jane hates this one, so presumably Thomas keeps it up as revenge for her insisting on displaying his face on every other available surface. She dislikes it because the painter told her it is how she will be remembered in 100 years time, and she considers that, therefore, she will be famous for having a really ugly tablecloth and a freakishly large lapdog. She is definitely right about the tablecloth. They seem to have changed it since the picture, but it is still outstandingly unattractive. Also, check out that carpet!
Thomas, on the other hand, is famous for writing extremely lengthy history books full of German-inspired impenetrably complex sentences accompanied by a huge number of made up words which have subsequently became inexplicably popular. Mama says that nobody reads them now. Perhaps the Internet generation cannot handle seven hundred volumes just to get through the childhood of some foreign king from back in the day.
Mama says it also has something to do with the fact that he is on the wrong side of most of the major political and moral debates of the Victorian age, and also that he was very popular with an unpleasant sounding little boy called Hitler.
Papa says he should have known it was all a Brit’s fault. Mama then points out that Thomas is a Scot, and that 45% of Scots agree he is officially not her problem.
So now he is more famous for the large number of letters he and his wife have written. And for the fact that they apparently have a spectacularly bad marriage, although Mama is hoping that is mere Internet gossip. It isn’t much in evidence in the house itself, unless you count a particularly exasperated sentence by Jane about the difficulties of living with a dyspeptic man of genius, which Mama doesn’t, mainly because she found herself nodding emphatically in recognition.
The letters are great. Mama says Jane is a frustrated blogger whose trenchant wit, descriptions of domestic disasters and ruthless dissection of all those who came into her circle would have made her a definite hit. Thomas turns out to be an excellent source of inspirational quotes and pithy one liners for Internet memes. She also thinks he would have very much enjoyed being the inspiration for this cartoon:
All in all, it’s a shame they seem to eschew computers.
Luckily, Carlyle’s unappealing views do not seem to have stopped him having a lot of visitors for him to argue with, or rather at, in person, many of whom are quite famous in a middle class intellectual kind of way, Mama says. Charles Darwin comes to tea! Shame he wasn’t there when we were.
Thomas wrote a few sharp but very vivid lines about him and his works, including ‘I have no patience whatever with these gorilla damifications of humanity’. Also on display. In fact, Thomas’ short, sharp but vivid little pen portraits of lots of well-known Victorians both near and far litter the house, along with their views about him. Which mostly boil down to ranty, bad tempered and very very wordy, but you’d guessed that already. Another thing I’m not sure I’d leave lying around if it were me, but it certainly amused Mama a lot.
Once we’d searched all over the house, in the bedrooms and the kitchen and the upstairs living room and so on, we went out into the little garden. Nice spot, and there’s a little bench where you can sit and eat your sandwiches if you get really hungry waiting for your hosts to turn up and serve coffee, or if you have doubts about Jane’s housekeeping skills. Kings Road with its million coffee shops and restaurants is just round the corner if you didn’t plan ahead in this way.
Mama and Papa used the opportunity to have a brief ponder about why it is that the English used to build tall, thin but not, in the end, very sizable houses, and then leave a whole plot out back untouched. No real conclusions were reached. I smelled the flowers. Mmmmmmm.
All in all, it was definitely a visit the adults enjoyed more, mainly because they can read. Mama in particular has found herself absolutely fascinated by the couple and has been digitally stalking them ever since. But it isn’t a huge property and so there wasn’t time to actually get bored.
Plus, as I said, staircases! You can’t go wrong with staircases.
Address: 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, London, SW3 5HL
Opening: March – November, Wednesday – Sunday, 11am – 4.30pm.
Price: Adults £5.10, Children £2.60. Free to National Trust members.
By bus: The 170 bus from Victoria stops right next to Thomas’ statue on the banks of the river Thames. Cheyne Walk is just behind.
By tube: Sloane Square and South Kensington (Circle and District lines) are about a 15 minute walk away. Or there’s Victoria (Circle, District and Victoria lines, and railway station) and the 170 bus above.
By car: “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom,” says Thomas. Go by car and you can do both!