Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 15, No 1 (2010)

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All Shut Up: Carlyle and the Pursuit of Domestic Silence

David Ellison

Abstract


In this essay I want to examine how one Victorian family responded to the contradictory promise of domestic life. My test family is spectacularly unrepresentative, but in their extremity, they are – as I hope to demonstrate – instructive. They are the Carlyles of no. 5 Cheyne Row. My task here is not to reconstruct their lives with a biographer’s eye but rather to focus on one of Thomas Carlyle’s lesser known and certainly least appreciated works. This text – a collaborative effort undertaken with Jane Welsh Carlyle among several others – has entered literary history in the form of an anecdote. Its telling pools a number of resources: the Carlyles’s letters, reminiscences of their circle and the observations of several critics. The anecdote records Thomas Carlyle’s pursuit of total silence through the construction of a soundproof room made necessary by the activities of his chief tormentors – pianoforte-playing girls, crowing cocks and organ grinders. The room proved a complete and utter failure. As Jane Welsh ruefully observed, “the silent room is the noisiest in the house” (qtd in Holme, Carlyles, 98). Even as a failure, the construction of the room speaks to the idea of the Victorian dwelling being held to its promise to protect its occupants from the irritations of the world beyond its boundary.

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