Friday, October 10, 2008

A Date at Thomas Carlyle's

Friday, October 10, 2008

Gorgeous, glorious, grand--no adjectives can quite do justice to the kind of weather we had today. The perfect autumnal day. I caught up quickly with some pending chores, then rushed out to meet the morning. Headed straight for the Senate House where the Conference on "Things Fall Apart at 50" is on. Ran straight into Elleke Boehmer while attempting to find Annalisa Oboe, my friend from the University of Padua in Italy. She is here for the conference and we have plans to meet.

When I cannot find her, I adjourn to my office at Bedford Square to get some photocopying done, only to find that the machine is on the blink. The errand takes longer than I expect and by 1 pm, I am back at Senate House trying to find Annalisa again. This time we do hook up and have an affectionate reunion. It is always so great to see her and over the years we have run into each other in various parts of the world--her home in Vicenza, in Oxford a few years ago, in Venice this past March and now here in London. I take her off to my office at the NYU campus and get the keys from Mimi, our security guard, to the private Bedford Gardens where I munch a sandwich and catch up with Annalisa. Time flies and she has to return to the conference for a meeting. We are meeting again tomorrow at a session that includes a conversation between Chinua Achebe and Simon Akandi presiding. She will then come over to my Holborn flat for dinner.

Then, I head off to Chelsea enjoying the warmth of the October sunshine on my back. I love my new leather backpack that allows me to stash a load of stuff without creating a burden. I walk to Trafalgar Square, hop into the No 11 bus going to Sloan Square, but, on impulse, I hop off at Elizabeth Street which my English Home magazine had informed me was a great place to shop.

They were right. I find the little street quite delightful. Offering a range of luxury goods (chocolate at The Chocolate Society Shop from where I buy nut-studded dark chocolate to munch on; Poilane, the French bakery, where I nibble on tiny round biscuit samples; Les Senteurs, a parfumerie where the salesgirl, Natalie, is a wonder who sends me home with three samples of fragrances that are so delicious they have me swooning with pleasure). I have not allowed myself this kind of indulgence--the sheer joy of window shopping and sampling wares in the speciality stores--and I am revelling in it.

Then, I crack on quickly towards Sloan Square and the King's Road where I am determined to visit the home of Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle before it closes for the day. I love this part of Chelsea--the shoppers rushing by with their bulging bags, the enticements of the shops, the buses lumbering along at leisure. When I arrive at Cheyne Row, I find that Carlyle's home looks very plain from the outside. But for his bust set into the wall outside his door, there is little indication that this Romantic writer lived here for almost 50 years.

The door is opened by a volunteer named David who checks the date on my National Trust membership card, finds it in order, realizes that since I have a Royal Oak Membership I am from America and launches into an introduction into the life and work of Carlyle. I am taken back to my graduate course at St. John's University under Dr. Gregory Maertz who was passionate about Carlyle and had us read his Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Repatched), probably one of the most obscure books ever written.

For me, the pilgrimage to Carlyle's house has more recent relevance. I have just finished reading William Dalrymple's White Moghuls which I am also teaching in my course on Anglo-Indians. Dalrymple mentions Blumine, a female character in the book, who was said to have been inspired by Carlyle's fascination for Kitty Kirkpatrick, the daughter of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, Resident of Hyderabad and Khair-u-Nissa, a Hyderabadi Muslim of Moghul descent. Dalrymple mentions that a portrait of Kitty hangs in Carlyle's Chelsea home and I am keen to see it. I find it eventually on the third floor of the house where another volunteer named Lynne point it out and spends about a half hour discussing White Moghuls with me. She takes the pains to point out all kinds of interesting things to me such as the 80th birthday citation to the writer which contains the signatures of some of the leading intellectual lights of the time such as Tennyson, Browning, Leslie Stevens, John Morley (of India's Morley-Minto Reforms), Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus, Dickens, etc. I am enthralled.

The house is very dark but furnished in the way it was when Carlyle presided over it with his wife Jane. Their's was a dysfunctional marriage, David informs me, but the couple stayed together nevertheless, remaining childless. In a part of Chelsea in which a house today would cost no less than 3 million pounds, the Carlyles lived in quiet modesty, the fields surrounding the home then making it seem almost rural and, therefore, undesirable. The fact that the Thames flows only a few feet away would have been considered a negative factor in those days(remember the Thames stank awfully at that time) and I daresay that sellers would not have boasted river views as they would do today. After 50 years of living in the home and becoming one of the most celebrated writers of his time, Carlyle never owned the house, renting it until his death. Funds were raised after his death to buy it and retain it as a memorial. Doors first opened to the public in 1895 and to date Carlyle fans troop in reverentially to pay their respects to a writer whose work is a challenge to read.

The most interesting item on display in the house is the only surviving scrap of the original manuscript of Volume One of The French Revolution, which Carlyle had given to John Stewart Mill to read. Mill's maid found the manuscript lying in the grate and assumed it was meant to be used for kindling. When Mill came downstairs the next morning he found the charred remains of his friend's tour de force--one which was written in long hand with no copies retained nor any notes preserved. A mortified Mill offered Carlyle 200 pounds for the manuscript he had destroyed. Carlyle accepted 100 pounds and set to work again, re-writing the entire thing in three months! A few months later, the book was published to wide acclaim and sealed his reputation as a sterling historian of the Romantic school. A fragment of the original manuscript is to be found in a small vitrine in a home that is filled with portraits, paintings, pictures, etchings, the original furniture including the piano that Chopin once played in the house (his mistress George Sand being a good friend of Carlyle's Welsh wife, Jane Carlyle).

Poking around this home was a revelation to me and I enjoyed the visit as I do all visits to the homes of the famous dear departed. However, it was the garden that I found most enchanting--perhaps a part of the home that is rarely visited. A typical Chelsea garden--one of those long narrow affairs with high brick walls, it is perfectly landscaped with stone steps, gravel pathways, a small strip of lawn, two wrought iron benches placed strategically under the shade of trees--charmingly one bore pears, the other figs. Within this serene spot in the midst of the city of London, the man poured out his great works becoming one of the most prominent figures of his time.

Then, I was on the bus again making my way to the top and sitting on the front seats. These rides never fail to take me back to my girlhood in Bombay when I rode similar double decker red buses in the company of my parents and brothers on long outings into Mahim from Bombay Central where we'd attend the weekly Novena at St. Michael's Church on Wednesday evenings. On the way back, in the bus on the top deck, my mother would fish out her home made sandwiches (sometimes ham, sometimes cheese) from a bag and we'd have our dinner as the driver trundled through the dimly-lit streets past traffic lights and late night revellers. I loved those rides and eagerly anticipated those late Wednesday outings,. Time stands frozen for me on these London bus journeys which might explain why I grab a bus whenever I can and make for the upper deck.

I returned home to cook myself a small dinner--cauliflower mash and Cumberland sausages and a salad. My neighbor Tim rang my doorbell at 8. 30pm to suggest an outing to Wapping tomorrow morning. I am delighted. The day promises to be just as splendid and I will make the acquaintance of my neighbors while getting to know a part of London to which I have never been.

I am very excited indeed.

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