The Carlyles at Home

Thea Holme writes the most engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.

The chapters detail the life of the house, a glimpse into life in 1840s/50s, with several chapters dedicated to the problem of retaining and training servants (and including an appendix of all the servants who worked at the house during Jane’s lifetime). They had to deal with insufficient plumbing, installing gas lighting in a few locations, suffering through bed bugs (and other bugs) and mice. Jane was thrifty, making due with the small allowance that Thomas gave her for household expenses, even going so far as to detail out exactly why she needed £30 more per year due to food price inflation, increased tax, and larger wages for a better maid. One chapter is given over to describing the neighbors and nuisances that Carlyle had to put up with as he’s working on his great books—parrots, pianos, cocks crowing. They even went so far as to rent the neighboring house to leave it empty for a year for peace and quiet. A very readable book that leaves me much more interested in reading Carlyle, another great man bolstered by the efforts of his brilliant wife.