LONDON'S CHELSEA in the mid-19th century was one of those districts where every other house contained an artist or writer. Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle live in Cheyne Row, the Rossettis and Swinburne were just round the corner, Turner's house was down by Battersea Bridge, with Jimmy Whistler a few doors away . . . Messrs. Disch and Naylor have linked events in these neighboring lives in a piece of fiction firmly based on fact. Several spot checks confirmed their accuracy. Sometimes what seems unbelievable was true, like the occasion when the Carlyle's servant Mary gave birth to a child in the breakfast room while Carlyle sat talking to a friend over tea in the dining room next door, oblivious of what was happening. Unbelievable? The incident is recounted in one of Jane Welsh Carlyle's letters.
It is the Carlyles who dominate the book, which begins with their arrival in London from Scotland in 1834 and effectively ends with Jane's death while being driven through Hyde Park more than 30 years later. To portray irascible, humorous Thomas and nervy, witty Jane, two people who as she once said had a skin too few for ordinary living, the authors have cunningly elaborated on events recounted in Jane's letters, and reminscences by or about Carlyle. So we have impoverished Leigh Hunt wangling an invitation to supper, and then being horrified to find that he is only offered porridge. An excellent and frugal repast, Hunt says hollowly, telling his wife afterwards that Carlyle claims to consume a pound of the stuff every day. w
The tone of Carlyle's heavyweight conversation is beautifully caught, and so is the witty gossip of Jane who, as Dickens said after her death, could make the trivial events she saw from her Chelsea window as dramatic and amusing as a novel. The Victorian tone and language are well-managed and "funded," terms mercifully unknown in the mid-19th century. Excellent also are the famous set pieces like the burning of Carlyle's French Revolution manuscript by the servant of John Stuart Mill's mistress Harriet Tayloe -- although here, with a rare straying from fact, it is suggested that Ms. Taylor burned the manuscript herself from jealousy of Carlyle.
Move away from the Carlyles, although we are never far away from this couple who provide the narrative's backbone, and we are with the Pre-Raphaelites, trying to find a name for their "little magazine," the first in the English language. "Truth to Nature," "The Progressist," "The Chelsea Review"? In the end it is named "The Germ," and we see the Pre-Raphaelites struggling for recognition, reeling from the attacks on the painting they showed at the Royal Academy. Mary Magdalen as depicted by Millais was, Dickens said, "a woman so horrible in her ugliness that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin shop in England." But still, Millais sells the picture for a handsome sum. Other pictures sell, too, and the artists move from experimental youth to the success of middle age. They also acquire the "stunners," those lovely although vulgar ladies who served them as models and mistresses.
Most of these minor figures are sketched rather than painted. Here is Turner working on the river, "shaping a world from the void" in terms of pure color, with Walker Greaves as boatman, Greaves who with Turner and Whistler as examples becomes a painter himself. There are glimpses of Whistler, and even of his mother; Swinburne takes George Meredith's young son Arthur down to look at the boats and eat Chelsea buns; Lewis Carroll indulges his passion for photography in a tableau of the Rossetti family, but the plate is ruined in bringing his Ottewill camera out of the rain.
All this is pleasant enough, but we have the sense that art history, or straight biography, might be better. The narrative comes to full life only when this artistic society interacts with the Carlyles. Janes goes to look at Rossetti's paintings and objects, when he praises the quality of mystery in painting, that "the most mysterious canvas would be like the night, or the grave -- uniformly black." Holman Hunt unveils to Carlyle his monumental painting "The Light of the World," and is met with a storm of indignation. "Do you call this phosphorescence and putrescence a representation of Jesus Christ?" Carlyle asks, and goes on to excoriate almost all other images of Christ, including Da Vinci's. The book lives vividly in the drama of the Carlyles, who were far from happy together but much more miserable apart, whose marriage may have been sexless but certainly did not lack passion. This was the most astonishing marriage in literary history, and the authors do justice to it.