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Swellboy on… a remarkable London museum

Playstation? We’d rather be exploring the home of a Victorian essayist, dad

Swellboy on… a remarkable London museum

Image: Brijesh Patel

November 06 2010
Nick Foulkes

I have been trying to interest my children in the 19th century and so far it does not seem to be going badly. My younger son has a detailed knowledge of the Napoleonic, Zulu and Sudan wars and is contemplating taking on the Crimea – next stop the Schleswig-Holstein affair. Anyway, as part of the ongoing familiarisation with the century that their father seems to spend a bit of time in, I occasionally drag them around the odd 19th-century house, and in the case of the John Soane Museum, the odder the better.

Of course, they clamoured to be taken to Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row. Wouldn’t you rather be playing on the Playstation 23, or out skateboarding, or just frittering the day away at that glittering palace of arts and abode of the muses, the Westfield shopping centre? No, came the adamant response, we demand to be taken to Carlyle’s house. And so, eventually, indulgent parent that I am, I gave in to their request and I found myself yanking the bell-pull outside the craquelure-coated front door of a rather smart house that today would be the thick end of a few million quid but back in the early 19th century was about one step up from sleeping rough.

Of course Carlyle is almost completely forgotten these days. The Victorian essayist, moralist, frugalist, curmudgeon and thinker par excellence, of whom George Eliot was able to write “there is hardly a superior or active mind of this generation that has not been modified by Carlyle’s writings”, only remains alive in the minds of a select few, mostly my teen and pre-teen children, and the National Trust people who crew the place. And yet such was his eminence that when he lay dying in Cheyne Row in 1881, Queen Victoria had a watch placed on his house so that she might receive bulletins about the eminent man’s health.

Sic transit gloria mundi and all that – particularly ironic considering that Carlyle made a point of rejecting the gloria mundi, revelling instead in self-inflicted parsimony. I must admit that I got a bit carried away. Just think, I told my children: we are touching door furniture that Dickens or Thackeray may have handled and looking at chairs on which Count d’Orsay may have lounged. As we went round the house they got into the spirit, and when at one point we came across a walking stick, reverentially displayed, it was with whip-fast wit that my elder son turned to me with a mischievous smile and, quoting from one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons, said: “And look, it is the cane from Citizen Kane.”