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Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction reading’

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Following a wonderful year of #readingmuriel2018 this seemed the perfect book to end 2018 with.

Alan Taylor first met Muriel Spark in Arezzo in 1990, she was already seventy-two and had been living in Italy with her companion Penelope Jardine since the 1970s. Taylor had gone to Arezzo especially to interview Muriel Spark. From this first meeting there blossomed a mutual, fond friendship which only ended with Spark’s death.

In Appointment in Arezzo, Alan Taylor tells the story of Muriel Spark, using his knowledge of the writer, as well as his conversations and friendship with Muriel and Penny. Taylor and his family became regular visitors at San Giovanni; Muriel Spark’s home in Italy, he tells of the family’s first holiday there, when Muriel and Penny were away travelling, and the Taylor family were left in charge of the house and the dogs. There were other times the family stayed with Muriel and Penny and their household is a charmingly chaotic, colourful one, a place of real warmth I felt.

“As we got out of the car, Muriel, dressed in an elegant trouser suit, emerged from a gnarled door, beaming broadly and greeting the children as if she’d known them all their lives. She had in her hands two notebooks, one of which she presented to each of the children. Jennifer’s was called ‘Confidential’ while Michael’s was ‘Underground.’ ‘Hide them from the customs officials,’ Muriel whispered.”

Alan Taylor was to accompany Muriel on several trips abroad – arranging for her to speak at the Edinburgh book festival – an event that had the whole of Edinburgh fighting for tickets – well you can hardly blame them. We witness Muriel in Manhattan, and Taylor recalls the years that Muriel Spark wrote for the New Yorker – and had her own office in their building. When the New Yorker celebrated its seventy fifth birthday, it invited Muriel Spark to take part in a festival, and due to Penny’s fear of flying, it was Alan Taylor who accompanied her.

“Throughout our stay in New York Muriel seemed carefree as I imagined she had been when she first arrived there in 1961, fascinated by everything and everyone. It was easy to forget that she was in her ninth decade and in constant pain. I couldn’t help but compare her with the elderly cast of Memento Mori. ‘How primitive life becomes in old age,’ thinks one of them, ‘when one may be surrounded by familiar comforts and yet more vulnerable to the action of nature than any young explorer at the pole.’ Muriel’s approach to ageing – and the infirmity that was its inevitable accompaniment – seemed to be to ignore it wherever possible.”

It is clear that the families became close, and Alan Taylor gained a deep understanding of Muriel Spark’s work, her character and personality. It seems to have been an understanding born of great respect for her work and affection for her as a person. It is obvious however that this book is in no way supposed to be a complete biography – it is the story of the Muriel Spark who was Alan Taylor’s friend.

“No life can be wholly recaptured in words. Something is always missing or unnecessarily included, or over-emphasised, or mis-recalled or made more of, or less of, than it merits. Scott Fitzgerald said that there never could be a good biography of a good novelist, because if he is any good he is too many people; Muriel would certainly have agreed with him.”

Taylor returns to those years before he knew Muriel Spark – and recounts briefly the years Muriel Spark herself covered in Curriculum Vitae. Her upbringing in Scotland, her brief disastrous marriage and the beginnings of her writing career.

However, Taylor certainly doesn’t shy away from those more controversial aspects of her life. He confronts the very difficult relationship with her son; Robin, relating aspects of their correspondence – which certainly shows another side to the story. He also confronts Muriel Spark’s attitude to her Jewish roots – one of the biggest arguments she and her son Robin had. He acknowledges Spark’s prior suspicion of biographers – especially following her experience with Derek Stanford – who had so betrayed her and whose unofficial biography had so infuriated her.

Taylor gives us Spark’s thoughts and feelings on all the key moments in her life, and her long career in writing. Taylor’s portrait is hugely affectionate, a warm, honest portrayal of a woman he quite obviously felt very in tune with. It is a wonderful portrait, and a wonderful book. It provides a fabulous companion to Curriculum Vitae – and for me really completed the picture of a writer I have come to admire so much.

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The name Michael Holroyd is very familiar to me, and yet I don’t really know why it should be. Checking the list of his published works (mainly biographies) I see I have read nothing else by him. Yet, when I asked for recommendations for a book published in 1999 for my A Century of Books, his name jumped out at me as one I recognised. So, Basil Street Blues was the book I picked for 1999, buying an old paperback second hand edition, knowing that I generally rather enjoy family memoirs.

Holroyd writes superbly, in Basil Street Blues we are treated to a parade of fascinating character studies, honestly and faithfully reproduced by a consummate biographer. These people, now long dead, and mostly forgotten I am sure, outside the Holroyd family – breathe again.

In the 1970s Michael Holroyd asked his parents to each write an account of their lives, their marriage, his childhood etc before they died. By this time his parents had been divorced and living separately for many years, but they had each come from different worlds – and their son wanted their stories. Holroyd used those accounts as the basis of this book – although he found there were some big inconsistences in their accounts, and so he had to become a bit of a detective into his own life.

Michael Holroyd’s father was Basil de Courcy Fraser Holroyd, descended from the 1st Earl of Sheffield, Michael’s grandfather had sold Lalique glass out of the Breves Galleries in Basil Street. His mother; Ulla, however, was originally from Sweden, where she had lived closely with her mother; Kaja– her parents having separated she barely knew her father.

“My grandmother (Kaja) is a snob. Snobbishness is her form of authority. It cows other people, and this suits her. That is why she looks so young in the photographs and my mother so ill-at-ease. My grandmother believes in appearances and living up to her beliefs, she appears splendidly superior.”

Unfortunately, the marriage was not a success, and when the couple separated during the war. Michael’s father took him to live with is family in their home Norhurst in Maidenhead – the family had relocated there during the war from the original family home of Brocket. It was not a harmonious household – though Michael was loved – he grew up under a barrage of spite and recrimination between the other occupants of the house.

“Norhurst was to be my intermittent home for twenty years. Everyone was very kind to me, but the atmosphere had become saturated with unhappiness. It was a ritualised unhappiness, repeated in the same formula of words through the awful succession of meals, housework, and more meals that was our routine, every day, all year. I can hear their voices still.”

Living in the house were, his grandparents, his father occasionally when home, his aunt Yolande and old Nan, who had been employed when his grandmother Adeline first became a mother. It seems the women of the house never stopped scrapping, snarling and spitting – and so boarding school first Scaitcliffe and later Eton, and visits to his mother must have been welcome distractions at times. Though despite chapters relating to Holroyd’s school days and later the beginnings of his writing career, this is a book which mainly concerns those we have never heard of – the members of his family.

The stories of his grandparents and his parents – I found truly fascinating – yet they are not happy stories. His grandfather remaining unhappily married to a woman of volatile temper – later had a long affair with a woman called Agnes in London. His own parents separating and re-marrying – more than once – happiness seemed to be mostly an elusive thing. By the time he came to ask his parents to write about their lives, they were both in ill health, Michael was now having to support his father financially. I am left with a sad image of these two people – for whom life was often difficult.

“My parents, who had long been divorced, and gone through a couple of subsequent marriages, each of them, as well as various additional liaisons, were by the late 1970s living alone in fragile health and meagre circumstances. They appeared bewildered by the rubble into which everything was collapsing. After all, it had started so promisingly.”

No doubt Holroyd trusted that his readers would find his family as interesting as he did. He doesn’t spend much time talking about himself and he is quite humble about his own writing. His own achievements come in for very little mention – though he does reveal that after having written an autobiographical novel ‘A Dog’s Life” his father threatened to sue if he published it in Britain. Despite his obvious fascination and understanding for his own family, this isn’t a very warm or happy book – Holroyd grew up surrounded by failing and unhappy marriages, conflict and changing fortunes. His account of these however is moving and surprisingly engrossing.

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I love Diana Athill’s writing and have now read several of her memoirs and a volume of short stories. However, the book that seems to be mentioned again and again by fans of her work is Stet – An Editor’s Life. I can now see why, it is a book full of bookish gossip, lifting the lid on almost fifty years of publishing.

Diana Athill was born into the kind of family, where young women would have grown up not necessarily expecting to have to work for a living. They primarily escaped this dire fate of course by marrying, but, by the time of Athill’s parents’ generation the family finances had changed a lot – and it had been impressed on Diana by her father, that she would need to make her own living. During the Second World War Diana worked for the BBC – and it was around this time that Diana met André Deutsch who was to become such a key figure in Athill’s life.

André Deutsch was a young Hungarian about to dip his toe into the world of publishing. Not long after meeting Deutsch at a party in the flat she shared with a friend, Diana was to leave her job at the BBC to join André Deutsch in the publishing firm of Allan Wingate, and later as a director when he started a new company under his own name.

Athill obviously had a lot of respect for Deutsch, the two were good friends, but she was well aware of his faults – and seems to have been one of the people best able to handle him. André Deutsch was clearly a very difficult man to work with, he definitely had his own little ways. He was given to terrible rages and was irritated by employees who he felt weren’t up to scratch, yet Diana continues to work well with Deutsch through business ups and downs across four decades. Athill is also wonderfully self-effacing about her own abilities, playing down rather the important role she played in bringing so many books to life. Her love of literature is obvious – and she shares many anecdotes of the vast amount of editing work she did.

“We must always remember that we are only midwives—if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.”

She was rigorous in her approach to work, she clearly took her work seriously, yet she had a sensible approach – to what we would now call work life balance.

“Generally office and home were far apart, and home was much more important than office. I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work; that, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”

In the second part of the book Athill talks about her relationship with six of the writers she worked with during her long career: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Alfred Chester, Jean Rhys, V.S.Naipul and Molly Keane. I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about Richler and Chester, and Brian Moore I have heard of but not (yet) read I recently bought The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which Athill references quite a lot in that chapter.

However, V.S Naipul, Jean Rhys and Molly Keane I have read quite a bit – and so I found these accounts particularly fascinating. I don’t think I was particularly surprised that V.S Naipul was – well quite frankly – pretty horrible – (his poor wife!). About Naipul, Athill says:

“I saw him as a man raised in, and frightened by, a somewhat disorderly, inefficient and self-deceiving society, who therefore longed for order, clarity and competence.”

Nor was I surprised to hear how fragile Jean Rhys was – though the extent of that fragility is completely at odds with the precise genius of her writing. What a fascinating woman, though a sad one – and hopelessly impractical.

“No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.”

Athill is very honest about these people – and there does seem to have been a culture of accommodating their every whim – valued writers (certainly of this kind of stature) were rather pandered to it seems.

I wonder if that was just how things were under Andre Deutsch? or whether it was common to other houses? My assumption is that things have changed hugely since those days. It makes for compelling reading.

It is incredible that a woman born in 1917 – who worked for the BBC during the war, is actually still with us, she will be 101 on Friday.

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Translated by Tina Nunnally

I have to admit to not having heard of Tove Ditlevsen until this book came into my life, which happened quite by chance. I was putting together a prize for the bookcrossing event I have just attended. It was a prize of translated works, and a friend passed on a copy of this book which had already been registered on bookcrossing. I decided I wanted to read it myself, and as I wasn’t sure I would finish it in time, I went in search of another copy. I was fortunate to find one, so my original edition went into the prize bundle as intended.

“In the morning there was hope. It sat like a fleeting gleam of light in my mother’s smooth black hair that I never dared touch; it lay on my tongue with the sugar and the lukewarm oatmeal I was slowly eating while I looked at my mother’s slender, folded hands that lay motionless on the newspaper, on top of the reports of Spanish flu and the Treaty of Versailles.”

Tove Ditlevsen was a prolific Danish poet and author, writing poetry, novels, short stories and works of memoir. Born in 1917, she grew up in a working-class neighbourhood of Copenhagen and her childhood became very important throughout her work. Early Spring is a memoir of her childhood, and in it we can see the touch of a poet. This volume contains the first two of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, Childhood and Youth, both published in 1967, the third volume Gift (not included here) came out in 1971.

“Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own. It’s there all the time and everyone can see it just as clearly as you can see Pretty Ludvig’s harelip.”

Written in a straight forward, no nonsense style, shot through with beautiful descriptive passages and humour – Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. Her community is a tough, conventional working class one where childhood ends with the confirmation ceremony. After which the adult world beckons, with many girls engaged or married in their late teens. The subject of childhood is a recurring one, Tove thinks about that thing that is her childhood constantly, speaking as if she were still in the midst of those turbulent years – it is easy to forget that she was writing from a distance of some years. Young Tove is confounded by her childhood years but she also treasures her childhood, knowing it to be a privilege and fearing the end of it, and the world which may lay beyond. Tove makes friends with the girl from downstairs, two years younger and with a nicer family, she is a little bit of relief in Tove’s loneliness. Life and death surround her – she witnesses the death of her aunt, begins to see the differences between her family and those of the other children at school. As we all do, Tove begins to understand the world around her.

“I always think that when I’m grown up my mother will finally like me the way she likes Edvin now. Because my childhood irritates her just as much as it irritates me, and we are only happy together whenever she suddenly forgets about its existence.”

Tove grew up in a home where she was a lonely, clumsy child. She had an elder brother – who was the more favoured of the two siblings. The family were poor, and there was little in the way of joy or excitement in Tove’s life. Yet, she had the soul of a poet, a rich imagination, and an unflagging determination to be who she knew she could be and achieve the things she wanted to. In the privacy of her room, young Tove began to write her poetry, scribbling them down in her private poetry album and hiding it away. For Tove, the idea of writing was her one chance to escape the narrow confines of her family and community.

Few of the people in Tove’s life appreciate or understand what she is trying to do, they dismiss or ridicule her poetry writing, but Tove is never swayed. In time, boyfriends begin to rear their heads, and Tove must face the traditional end of childhood. Her mother arranges for her to start work as a mother’s help straight away – but she only lasts a day. All the time she writes, showing her poems to just a trusted few, and hanging on to every word of their praise – clinging to each last bit of hope of future publication.

We watch Tove grow and develop into a young woman who never loses the hope that has slowly built up in her over her first eighteen years of life.

“Istedgade is my childhood street – it’s rhythm will always pound in my blood and its voice will always reach me and be the same as in those distant times when we swore to be true to each other. It’s always warm and light, festive and exciting, and it envelops me completely, as if it were created to satisfy my personal need for self-expression.”

Early Spring is a delightful little memoir full of hope and courage it is poignant and compelling at the same time. We know of course, that Tove Ditlevsen survived the poverty and isolation of her childhood and became the writer she dreamed of. To see where and how it began is quite lovely.

 

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dear austen

“…I cannot feel what I long to feel: the contentment of you being within reach.”

In May 2002 a passenger train crashed into the station at Potter’s Bar in Hertfordshire. Seven people were killed, and many, many more injured. One of those killed was Austen Kark, the husband of novelist Nina Bawden. The couple; in their seventies, had been on their way to Cambridge for an eightieth birthday party. Having treated themselves to the small indulgence of a first-class ticket, the train left London at 12.45, they were surrounded by newspapers, smiling at one another across the carriage, as the train came off the tracks at Potter’s Bar, Nina never saw Austen again. They had been married for forty-eight years.

“…someone spoke to me from a great distance, the far end of a dark, hollow tunnel. You have been in a train crash. Austen is dead. It was a bad dream. I thought, wake up, you fool, that’ll stop it.”

Dear Austen is the letter Nina wrote to her beloved husband, telling him of everything that happened at the time of the crash – and later. She talks about her painful, long recovery, although she doesn’t dwell for long on her physical problems, one of those stalwart women who don’t feel it necessary to bore others with her stories of ill health. After leaving hospital though, she finds things are changed – a bit nervous in the house, her daughter moves in for a while, and later a Canadian lodger – Nina likes to hear the sounds of another person in the house.

Nina Bawden reflects on her life with Austen, their happy retirement in their apartment in Greece. More than anything she misses him, has so much she wants to tell him, expects him at any moment to walk into the room. She finds herself wondering what he would think about things that had happened in the world since he had died.

“Would you have been part of the of the enormous crowd that marched against the war in Iraq as our middle daughter and your granddaughters were? As I would have had my ankle allowed me to walk that sort of distance. What would you have said, what would you have done? Would you have walked with them?”

She talks to him particularly of the fight the families of the dead and injured had to get Railtrack to accept liability for the crash. She talks about the chilling attitude of the corporate machine, the company chairmen and executives – Snakeheads she calls them – who stand up so calmly and make statements that mean so little. (*disclaimer* I may, from now on adopt the term Snakeheads for all executive/corporate types).

As always with these kinds of disasters there were obvious errors, chances missed to avert the disaster to come. Families, going through the worst moments of their lives are left wondering who is to blame, made to feel guilty if the word compensation is even mentioned – and some told that because a loved one had been elderly and no longer contributing to the economy, their lose is worth less in purely monetary terms. It takes too long for Railtrack to accept liability, and Nina ends her letter in 2005, she couldn’t have known what would come next or how long the legalities would drag on. I found a Telegraph article which sets out the events chronologically, and the list ends in 2011 when Network Rail are fined £3 million. I find that time scale an act of cruelty.

Nina talks movingly of the other families, the people who were killed, and the families they left behind – who she gets to know through various meetings and memorials. There is the mother of the Ph.D. student who was killed, the widow left with four children the families of the Taiwanese girls whose ashes had been returned to their country in an unmarked box.

Nina Bawden reveals the shocking unaccountability of the large corporation. She writes in a deceptively simple style, but quite touchingly beautiful, and her meaning is always clear. She doesn’t descend to shrieking outrage – she is subtler than that – and this book is better and more poignant for it.

“It seems like a dream now, our life together. I try to remember specific occasions: meeting you on Hungerford Bridge in the early days when we were still married to other people, seeing you waving to me from a distance, then breaking into a run.”

Nina Bawden’s sadness is palpable, her sense of wrong done – not just to her, but to all the families is strong. But through it all we see a woman living with her grief.

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the war on women

The War on Women was chosen by my very small book group, as our July read, we met last Wednesday to discuss it.

As one of Britain’s first video journalists Sue Lloyd-Roberts travelled the world telling stories of people from some of the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable locations. In this book she tells the uncompromising stories of many of the women she met. Sue Lloyd-Roberts was clearly a good, dedicated journalist, and this book was a labour of love for her, but sadly, Sue Lloyd-Roberts died of cancer before she could complete the book. Her daughter; Sarah Morris who also writes about her mother in a wonderful introduction – was able to complete the final chapter from notes she left behind.

The result is a searingly honest picture of the lives of women who have no say in their own destinies. It’s a pretty hopeless picture all in all and frequently horrifying. There are a couple of exceptions. The book is subtitled; and the brave ones who fight back – yet there seems few of those – I had expected more stories of women getting out, making a difference. What this book shows, is few women in the situations described, are in a position to fight back. Those that do are rather overwhelmed by the task, and unlikely to succeed in any meaningful way, though any victory however small is still a victory.

Early in the book we meet Maimouna from The Gambia, tradition dictates that she is the woman responsible for female circumcision in her village. The village rely on her for what, to them, is a vitally important ritual. However, having taken over the role from her mother, Maimouna becomes convinced that what she is doing is wrong. She leaves The Gambia for England, so she doesn’t have to perform the circumcisions any longer. She represents a small change – a change which might take generations, but it is a change.

In Argentina, Sue Lloyd-Roberts met the Grandmothers of the Plazo de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared. Women who lost their children to the regime, young men and women and their spouses rounded up by the authorities and never seen again. Many of these young women were pregnant, kept alive until their babies were born, later the babies sold to wealthy government officials. The grandmothers fight to find those missing grandchildren, they work together, celebrate every success and fully support one another. Some may never find their missing grandchildren – but while they have breath they continue. They were my unexpected heroines.

In other chapters the view is less hopeful, in fact it is generally downright depressing. Sue Lloyd-Roberts gives voice to the women swallowed up by the vile Irish laundries, their stories are of years of incarceration, slave labour and mistreatment, sexual abuse by priests, the resulting pregnancy, punished again. It is a horrific cycle – and one that was allowed to continue for generations. Of the nuns in these places she asks:

“What is it about such women who have apparently rejected close contact with men in their private lives but who are nonetheless desperate for their approval? They carry out the orders to obey religious rules laid down by men and to punish other women into submission with unquestioning zeal. Denied real power themselves, they abuse the women under their control in a desperate attempt to win praise from the men who in turn control them.”

She ventured into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where (at the time she was writing) women couldn’t drive or earn their living. She calls Saudi Arabia the world’s largest women’s prison, and it is easy to see why. Women have no right to be independent, they rely on the male members of their family for everything. Poor women trapped in their homes, wealthier women allowed to employ drivers (usually from abroad so they don’t count as men in the same way) they are driven to the huge malls, the only place outside their homes they can spend time.

In a chapter which is frequently hard to read Sue Lloyd-Roberts calls India the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Strong words. The instances of rape and murder against girls and women – most particularly in rural areas is unimaginable – the sheer scale took my breath away. Of course – I had been made aware of the problem through a couple of high profile cases, but I had, had no idea of the scale of it. In other chapters, highlighting the problem of forced marriage and honour killings, Sue Lloyd-Roberts reminds us how cultural traditions, so ingrained in some communities are still putting women’s lives at risk. The men who carry out these horrific murders, for instance, are unapologetic they are absolutely certain of their duty to carry out the unimaginable.

“Premeditated murder in Jordan carries the death penalty, except for men who kill female members of their family who have committed adultery or behaved in a way the male members of her family deem morally unacceptable.”

We meet the trafficked sex workers from Lithuania – a country whose separation from the old USSR has meant crippling poverty, with no state care, few jobs and young people desperate to get out and earn money to send home. Others are willing to manipulate that desperation, and young unworldly girls find themselves duped, enslaved and far from home. It is a desperate picture. So many things shocked me, but I really hadn’t considered how the UN peacekeeping forces in places like Bosnia had been largely responsible for the continuation of this horrendous trade.

“Where there are UN peacekeepers there are traffickers.”

Which left me wondering – who the hell are the good guys then?

This really isn’t an easy book to read. The stories are stories which really did need to be told, and here they are told with compassion and intelligence. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book, though I was compelled to read it – I was horrified much of the time I was reading.

I understand why Sue Lloyd-Roberts was so desperate to get this book written – to tell these stories and give voice to women with no voice. She has done them proud, so perhaps, the least we, who are so privileged can do, is read their stories and repeat them, but it’s tough going.

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The Persephone mini readathon seems a long time ago already, the second book I read during my own slightly longer Persephone readathon was The Carlyles at Home. This is an earlier Persephone book that I had managed to completely overlook until recently.

Written in the 1960s, it portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Of the two Carlyles, it is Jane we get to know best through this book, though even she remains a little enigmatic. The house in Cheyne Row where she and her husband lived emerges as the third character in this lovely little book and those with an interest in houses will love it. The endpapers for this Persephone edition shows a detail from a Chelsea interior by Robert Tait and depicts the largest room on the ground floor of the house with Thomas and Jane in situ.

It was in 1834 that Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved into the house on Cheyne Row in Chelsea, and it wasn’t until after his wife’s death in 1866 that Thomas Carlyle left. The Carlyles had originated from Scotland, and Chelsea, though not quite so fashionable then, as it was to become, had houses that Thomas had declared to be cheap and excellent. We first encounter the couple as they await the Pickfords van, accompanied by their maid Bessie, they are obliged to eat their first meal there off the top of a box lid covered with a towel.

“But after two days of picnicking, with carpenters and bell hangers finishing their work, and pieces of furniture broken on the journey from Scotland being mended, at last the house was cleared of workmen and the floors could be swept; the carpets were laid – nailed down by Jane herself – the heavy curtains from Craigenputtock, altered to fit the London windows, were hung on their brass rods; the books were sorted and housed, and Carlyle was settled into his library on the first floor with his writing table and one of the horsehair dining chairs to start work as soon as he pleased.”

We meet the succession of maids who come to Cheyne Row to work for the Carlyles, they are a colourful bunch, and Jane seemed to have had quite a close relationship with a couple of them. There’s the maid who gives birth in the china closet, the maid who is found passed out drunk on the floor, another becomes a trusted member of the household – almost part of the family. These domestic concerns were more Jane’s remit than Thomas’s, but it seems Jane also took a good deal of responsibility for matters of finance – which must have been a bit unusual during the Victorian period. Jane was also concerned with allowing Thomas the time, space and peace in which to work.

“A cock crowing in the small hours woke him instantly: he would thump his bed in wrath, then jump up and pace the room, waiting furiously for the next crow, which would sometimes drive him out of the house, to walk about the streets till morning.”

Noise was a constant battle – Thomas Carlyle had a mania for quiet and found himself easily disturbed. Cockerels seem to have been popular in Chelsea at this time, and Thomas Carlyle was driven to distraction by their early morning cries, what with them and neighbours’ daughters who practise piano – Jane is forced to write polite notes to their Chelsea neighbours which appear to have been received in good part.

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The constant search for quiet prompted at least some of the house renovations that took place during these years. Here too, Jane was generally left to superintend the dreadful upheaval while her husband would take himself off – often to Scotland – to escape the noise. One of the projects undertaken was an attic study – a room that should be completely cut off from all noise.

Aside from all these mini domestic dramas there are lots of period details about money, food and clothing. Jane is forced to go to a ball décolleté and is horrified at the thought of all that flesh on show – though finally she is rather charmed at how good she looks. Even the servants wear bustles which must be accommodated – all of which does get a bit difficult when moving around.

Jane it appears was an extremely good manager of money – she never wasted money on herself – and has to carefully instruct her husband on the mysteries of housekeeping money. Thomas Carlyle comes across as complaining and petty – a difficult man to live with I suspect. Whether this view of Jane Carlyle is a little romanticised or not I couldn’t tell as I knew nothing about her before reading this. She emerges as the stronger more capable of the two.

The Carlyles at Home is a social history of Victorian life in Chelsea but is also a wonderful introduction to an interesting and enigmatic couple, about whom people have long speculated.

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