I wrote about books that rapture us before, specifically about Misery. I don't think much of the term 'un-put-down-able' and even less do I think of its bandied over-use from rags to supposedly reputable broadsheets but, on occasion, one can think of nothing better to describe a gripping read. Yet, it may come as a slight surprise that I may be thinking of such a description for a book that isn't a thriller, nor a horror, nor one of those fast-paced children's novels whose chapters always end with a cliffhanger, like an episode of The Bold and The Beautiful. Said book is The Carlyles at Home which I picked up at Sandoe Books (which I love, more on it another time) following a visit to the Carlyles' own home in Chelsea.
But I should really make time for a digression at this point. It would be disingenuous and not a little bit arrogant of me to expect to slide back into a writing routine on here without at least acknowledging that my life changed drastically over the past year. When I last wrote in August 2012 I was, in some inadequate form, 'preparing myself for grief', except I soon discovered one cannot prepare for grief at all, not even when you've grieved many times before. Oddly, each grief is different and yet so much of it is instantaneously recognisable. In my desperate googling of 'coping with grief' I was doubly-hurt and stricken to find that grief and its phases are described very well indeed all over the place but nobody, and I mean Nobody At All Anywhere, has written the Overcoming Grief Plan In 10 Easy Steps.
Gosh, imagine what a squillionaire that author would become. A recipe to overcome grief… I'm certain it would sell more than Dan Brown, Stephen King and JK Rowling’s stuff combined, and I mean it without a dash of irony. And so it goes that over the past year or so, I've discovered that one does not 'get over grief'. I even think that my first few searches were a bit off the mark too. I now don't even think that one 'copes with grief', not unless we consider coping to mean an explosive combination of ignoring, dwelling on, sharing, embracing, stifling, rejecting and resigning oneself to and back again in endless loops.
I have found that one lives around grief and that once grief has invited itself to share life with you, it's always with you. It stays forever. I can liken the experience to what I imagine walking across a minefield to be like... you proceed tentatively, one, two, three steps, to the point whereby you tell yourself that, hey, that notice was a bogus one, there ain't no mines in this old field, and then you know what happens. Something as inconsequential as a blade of grass activates a mine and it all blows up in your face. Then you start again to proceed tentatively and so on, minus a leg maybe.
Yet I find that grief, very much like anger, doesn't really point the finger, but rather, it points the way. Fast-forward to present day my gentle readers, and I live in Chelsea, London, thanks to a move that, in a sense, had been 18 years in the making but that only grief, in all of its disconcerting immediacy, truly made happen.
The amusing thing, in a roundabout sense, was my certainty that running away from a house and from all connected places would have made me ‘feel better’. Well, not really, or rather, not exactly. Being here now has allowed me to create brand new memories, disconnected from places and things that were once deemed happy and now feel hollow and distressing. But memories follow us around. All I can say is that not knowing what awaits us in life and what it will feel like is a great, great blessing.
Throughout all of this, and it did not surprise me one bit, I turned into a machine only wired for work, and the bare minimum work at that. There was no writing, no painting, no drawing, barely any reading for months on end. This is the first piece of writing bar emails that I’ve put my mind to in one year. But what better way to re-start than by telling you a little bit about visiting the Carlyles’ home in Chelsea, a mere ten minutes’ walk from my own place?
I went on a non-descript Saturday, a few weeks back, when the temperature had thankfully dipped a bit and the sky had turned a shade of porridge. 5 Cheyne Row (then known as 24) is managed by the National Trust and I cannot even begin to tell you how wonderful it is to arrive, pull the bell, and see that door opening to be greeted by a volunteer. Imagine, just imagine, what it must have been like to be the maid there, greeting anyone from Mazzini to Darwin to Dickens.
By the time Carlyle had become a literary celebrity, anyone who was anyone rocked up at the house in Chelsea to be entertained and, no doubt, to entertain as well. The National Trust has done, as is often the case, a magnificent job in maintaining the property in the exact condition, give or take a couple of details, that saw the Carlyles in it. The well-known painting, A Chelsea Interior by Robert Tait, hangs in the front room and allows us to compare its details to what we can observe in person. I can tell you that in the year 2013 the two rooms in the painting match real life on an almost like-for-like basis, except for the absence of Thomas and Jane.
I encourage you to visit this house if you’re ever in London. Even though I was charmed by the place, charming as an adjective does not really cut it, for I feel that, at least on occasion, its subtext is twee, and there is nothing twee about this place. In fact, it’s positively no-nonsense covered as it is in dark wood panelling, its creaking doors opening up onto wonderful treasures such as ancient quilts and throws on Jane’s bed, signed letters and postcards, an empty canary cage and the remains of Nero’s lead. It doesn’t feel nor look twee, my friends, but rather epitomises a household that used to run like clockwork, despite the countless number of maids that Jane had to deal with over the years. One full chapter of the book is dedicated to this problem, but it resurfaces in many places right down to the end.
After some contemplation in the garden, wondering where exactly beloved Nero was buried, I zig-zagged across Chelsea until I found myself at Sandoe, which sells pretty much the entire Persephone Books catalogue (more on Peserphone Books another time). Lo and behold, there was The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, the actress who, for several years, lived at 5 Cheyne Row as guardian of the property.
Reading the book just after I visited the house made for an exceedingly evocative experience; I think that we love books often more than movies because they allow our imagination to thrive unbound, but when we read about something that we have experienced first-hand, especially something that is so tangible, both experiences become forever intertwined and etched in our memory, as if we ourselves had lived in the house and known its inhabitants intimately. Certainly this is how I feel now that I’ve turned the last page of the book.
So strong was my response to the house and the reading about the house that I felt an indignant gush of, ‘What? Is that it? What’s next?’. Well, I know perfectly well what’s next. While the book relates in minute detail about Thomas and Jane’s time at the house in Chelsea, it winds up with her death first and with a rapid summarising of what happened to him after she passed away until his own death.
I felt a little bit bereft in that familiar way known to all of us avid readers (I remember walking in daze for days after I finished Lolita). I had rapidly grown to care deeply about the Carlyles, even if this book isn’t romanticised in any shape or form, but is rather a stark account of their years in Chelsea pieced together by letters and diaries. I guess that, in a slightly paradoxical response, I wanted them to spring back to life in the appendix, with yet another extract from a letter, perhaps saying that, actually, we got it wrong and that they did not die in the end.
Yet, I guess that this lovely book, in combination with such a well maintained monument to their life, suggests that they are, in a sense, very much alive. The spirit of Jane lives in the objects so well looked after, in her well-used sofa, in the collar of beloved Nero, in her perfectly made bed, just as Thomas’s own spirit lives, not merely in his writing, but in the silent room (which turned out not so silent after all) they had built atop the house, in the perfectly and accurately catalogued books and in the contraptions he used to use to shower in the morning.
I know that Thea Holme died quite some years back and this greatly disappoints me. I would have so loved to have asked her a few questions about her personal experience of living in a house so significant for so many people and so important for literature at large. But thank you anyway Thea; I loved your reporting style, your accuracy and your economic sense of storytelling, to the point whereby I felt there was no story as such but only Thomas and Jane (and the maids, and Chico, and Nero).
So my gentle reader, come to Chelsea to visit the house and then read the book (or indeed vice-versa). I know you’ll love it.
And, by the way, I've just noticed that my very last post on here was precisely one year ago today. I guess the time really is right to return to the keyboard.