Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Scottish historian, essayist, man of letters and social critic, for a while a close friend of Francis Jeffrey and later one of the pivotal figures on the Victorian literary scene.

BORN in modest circumstances in rural Scotland, Carlyle was educated at Edinburgh University and, after school teaching, earned his living by private tutoring and freelance writing.  An early intention for the ministry was soon abandoned, and though Carlyle was to be revered as a force for good and for the value of a personal religious life, his own religious position remained ambivalent.  Passing through interests in science and mathematics, he found his first literary inspiration in German literature (he was a close correspondent with Goethe) and then in the social and political history of his own country.  His substantial histories of the French Revolution (1837) and of Frederick the Great (1858-65) established his international reputation as historian, yet his wide interests and prolific output defy simple summary.

Early journey work produced translations of both parts of Wilhelm Meister (1824-7) and a Life of Schiller (1825), but a more authentic voice emerged in two seminal essays, known as ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829) and ‘Characteristics’ (1831), both of them first published in the Edinburgh Review.  With these, Carlyle brought into a focus a penetrating analysis of the effects of the industrial revolution of his own lifetime on society and on the lives of those who worked in the new factories.  ‘Mechanical’ forces impinging on lives which for centuries had been lived according to essentially rural and traditional patterns brought about the changes highlighted in these essays, a theme he further developed in the wonderfully experimental Sartor Resartus (1834), which explores the possibilities of fiction to represent a consciousness caught by these mechanical forces, struggling with religious doubt, and energised by the transcendental forces Carlyle read about in the romantic writers of Germany.  With an incisive and memorable style, Carlyle made many converts (he was widely translated) and his conversational powers were rightly celebrated.

After he stopped writing for the Edinburgh, a steady output of essays continued while Carlyle wrote (always slowly and with difficulty) Chartism (1840), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) (originally given as lectures), Past and Present (1843), Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845) and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850).  His political views, always idiosyncratic and often unpredictable, were initially seen as radical by cautious contemporaries like Jeffrey. (Later they would shift steadily to the right, as Carlyle saw in Victorian society an erosion of personal and public values, and in ‘Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question’ (1853) and ‘Shooting Niagara’ (1867) he became openly anti-abolitionist and racist, alienating many of his earlier admirers.)  Carlyle never lost sight of the world-view of his parents and his early years in Scotland, longing for the certainties of a God-centred Universe even while raging at the decline of his own society.

Jeffrey befriended both Carlyle and his wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-66) – the two of them produced the nineteenth century’s most distinguished and voluminous collection of letters – in the closing years of Jeffrey’s editorship, when the couple were living in Edinburgh and before they moved to Craigenputtoch and thence to London, where they eventually settled. Carlyle was soon conscripted to review German literature (for which Jeffrey expressed a contempt), which gave the Edinburgh its first German specialist and Carlyle the opportunity to reach the wide audience enjoyed by the Review.

Ian Campbell, University of Edinburgh

To Robert Morehead (24 May 1802)

Edinburgh, 24th May 1802


My dear Bob — Worse and worse you see, in the way of regularity. This marriage, you think, will interfere with our correspondence; but I cannot think that yet, and would rather have you lay the blame upon circuits and sessions, and, above all, upon new houses and furniture for rooms. We came here, to Queen Street I mean, about ten days ago, and have ever since been in such an uproar with painters, and chimney-sweeps, and packages of old books, and broken china, that I have scarcely had time to eat my dinner, or to find out where my pens and paper were laid till yesterday. Then, you know, this is the beginning of our session; and, moreover, it is the time of the General Assembly of the Scotch National Church; (you apostate dog! where will you find anything so high sounding as that in your new religion?) And we have parsons and elders by the dozen, with their families, from St. Andrews, to entertain; and I have a cause to plead in the said venerable Assembly, and am to declaim, in the name of a Presbytery, against a poor sinner whom they have accused of profane swearing, and a habit of scoffing at religion, and great levity of behaviour; but I declare to you that I will plead it fairly.

But you are as great a delinquent as I am nearly, — not only to me (for I deserve nothing), but to all your other friends, as I understand, and you cannot have half my apologies. I hope you are quite well, however, and can only suppose that you are busy making your entré into the Church. Are you reverend yet, or not? or is there any chance of your being rejected, or of your changing your mind and drawing back? I do not much like the threat in your last, about not coming to Scotland for this summer, and hope the election will force you for a while among us whether you will or not. If you do not get a curacy immediately, I do not see what you can debate; for I am afraid, after you are once beneficed, you will practise the virtue of residence in a very exemplary manner; and that we shall see each other no oftener than you visit your metropolitan. There is something dolorous in the breaking up of long intimacies, and the permanent separation of those who have spent so much of their life together. We have spent too much of it together though, I am persuaded, ever to fall off from an intimacy, and shall speak to each other with familiarity, although we should not meet for twenty years to come. I can answer for myself at least, in spite of all the change that marriage is to make upon me. What the Church may work on you, I cannot so positively determine. I met with an old sonnet of yours this morning, on the first fall of snow in December 1794, which brought back to my mind many very pleasing recollections. Indeed, there is no part of my life that I look back upon with so much delight as the summer days we loitered at Herbertshire, in the first year of our acquaintance. I date the beginning of it from the time of your father’s death, and often call to mind the serene and innocent seclusion in which we then lived from the world. I should be sorry if I could not live so again, and am sure that I could be as pure, and as careless, and as romantic, if I had only as much leisure, and as pliant a companion.

I have nothing new to tell you of. Our Review has been postponed till September, and I am afraid will not go on with much spirit even then. Perhaps we have omitted the tide that was in our favour. We are bound for a year to the booksellers, and shall drag through that, I suppose, for our own indemnification; but I foresee the likelihood of our being all scattered before another year shall be over, and, of course, the impossibility of going on on the footing upon which we have begun. Indeed, few things have given me more vexation of late than the prospect of the dissolution of that very pleasant and animated society in which I have spent so much of my time for these last four years, and I am really inclined to be very sad when I look forward to the time when I shall be deserted by all the friends and companions who possessed much of my confidence and esteem. You are translated into England already. Horner goes to the English bar in a year. S. Smith leaves this country for ever about the same time. Hamilton spends his life abroad as soon as his father’s death sets him at liberty. Brougham will most probably push into public life, even before a similar event gives him a favourable opportunity. Reddie is lost, and absolutely swallowed up in law. Lord Webb leaves us before winter. Jo. Allen goes abroad with Lord Holland immediately. Adam is gone already, and, except Brown and Jo. Murray, I do not think that one of the associates with whom I have speculated and amused myself, will be left with me in the course of eighteen months. It is not easy to form new intimacies, and I know enough of the people among whom I must look for them, to be positive that they will never be worthy of their predecessors. Comfort me, then, my dear Bobby, in this real affliction, and prove to me, by your example, that separation is not always followed by forgetfulness, and that we may still improve and gladden each other at a distance. My Kitty is quite well, and very rational and amiable. If it were not for her I should run after my friends, and indulge my inherent spirit of adventure by a new course of exertion. But she is my brother and sister, my father and mother, my Sanscrit, my Sydney, and my right venerable cousin, as old Homer says in Andromache.

I dined at Murrayfield the other day. Write me very soon and tell me what you are doing and meditating, and especially when I am to see you again, and how. It is the sweetest weather in the world, and all are in ecstacy with our prospect, and our evening walks. Remember our number is 62. I see no new books of any consequence, and am sadly behind with my task for the Review. I have been more impeded by the law than I had reckoned upon. Cath. sends her love to you, and hopes you will bring her a pair of gloves when you come down. She is going to Herbertshire, she says, some time this autumn. — Believe me always, my dear Bob, yours most affectionately.

Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), or Lord Jeffrey


FRANCIS JEFFREY was born in Edinburgh on 23 October 1773 to the humourless and conservative George Jeffrey, Depute Clerk in the Court of Session (Scotland’s highest court), and his more lively and affectionate wife, Henrietta (née Louden), of a Lanarkshire farming family, who would die when Jeffrey was only twelve. Of small stature and with little interest in sports, Jeffrey excelled academically, first at the Edinburgh High School, then (from age 14 to 17) at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. After an unhappy year at Oxford in 1791-2, Jeffrey completed his legal studies in Edinburgh before being admitted advocate at the Scottish bar in December 1794. His friend and biographer, Henry Cockburn, writes eloquently and at length of the bias and obstruction facing liberal Whigs in the increasingly conservative 1790s under the ‘reign’ of the Tory Henry Dundas, Scotland’s political manager. Like many of his Whig friends, Jeffrey was refused official positions in Edinburgh’s legal institutions and found briefs difficult to come by, and began to establish a reputation as an advocate only by occasional pleading in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

In November 1801, Jeffrey would add to his responsibilities by marrying his second cousin, Catherine Wilson, daughter of the Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of St Andrew’s. Jeffrey and Catherine lost a son at only one month in September 1802, and Catherine herself died in August 1805 – events which, with the early loss of his beloved mother and sudden loss of her equally beloved surrogate, his sister Mary, in 1804, exacerbated a natural pessimism and induced in him a markedly fatalistic attitude to life that sometimes colours his social and political thinking. At the very least it explains why, when Jeffrey crossed the Atlantic in 1813 to marry his second wife, Charlotte Wilkes (another second cousin and great niece of the notorious John Wilkes) and they had a daughter (another Charlotte), the three became inseparable, with Charlotte and Charly accompanying him wherever he went – and this in defiance of Jeffrey’s reputation in society for harmless gallantry.

Jeffrey was eventually able to overcome political resistance to his advancement in the legal profession and would go on to become one of Scotland’s leading advocates, at the height of his powers in the years following the Battle of Waterloo when economic hardship led to industrial unrest and he became the (often successful) council to activists who fell foul of the state’s repression of political dissidence. Until his voice gave out in the mid to late 1820s, and in spite of a hybrid accent adopted as an eighteen-year-old living in England, Jeffrey was one of the greatest speakers of his age, his court pleading an Edinburgh tourist attraction. In July 1829, he was elected Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, giving the conflict of interest that would be created by his accepting this non-political legal appointment as his reason for handing over the editorship of the Edinburgh. From that moment, his life became a public and political one. Created Lord Advocate of Scotland when the Whigs won power late in 1830, Jeffrey was obliged to seek election to a seat in parliament and from there would be responsible for the Scottish Reform Bill, which in 1832 increased the franchise to fourteen times its original size (from 4,500 to 65,000). In 1834, having been elected MP for Edinburgh in the newly reformed parliament, he resigned his seat to take up a position on the bench in the Court of Session, held until his death on 26 January 1850.


Edinburgh Reviewer and Editor

Disappointed in his profession, Jeffrey’s thoughts had turned to writing – to creative writing (poetry) and to critical commentary. Throughout the 1790s, though with no specific end or vocation in mind, he continued the self-improvement mandated by his Enlightened teachers by attending university lectures in a variety of disciplines, becoming a regular and vocal member of Edinburgh’s Speculative Society (an agonistic intellectual debating society over which he presided for four years), reading extensively, and writing exhaustive critical notes on everything he read. In retrospect, it proved the perfect apprenticeship for the reviewing that would occupy his out-of-court moments for nearly thirty years. On initiating the Edinburgh Review in October 1802 with Sydney Smith and fellow lawyers Francis Horner and John Archibald Murray, Jeffrey immediately became (with Henry Brougham) its most prolific contributor, with the bulk of his substantial contribution (230 articles which amounted to 15% to 40% of each number) in original literature and literary history, travel writing, biography, cultural history and geography, philosophy, education, politics, and politics.

As an editor, when he took over from the third number, he was disorganized: always generous but never careful in his accounting, and sometimes forced to rely on contributors to tell him how much he owed them; often scrambling around for contributors and obliged to fill the vacuum with writings of his own; rarely meeting his own deadlines (though only occasionally seriously delinquent). But Jeffrey read, corrected, thought, and wrote scrupulously and well at an incredibly high speed, often writing and editing into the early hours. Though Brougham (on whom he was reliant) seems to have been allowed to impose on him, the Edinburgh remained very much his own throughout the years of his editorship, when the Edinburgh’s popularity and influence remained impressively consistent. The policies generally true of the Review were all specifically true of its editor, and the sheer quantity of his and Brougham’s contributions had a centripetal effect. On top of this, not only did Jeffrey often more or less subtly let a contributor know what approach and summary judgment he had in mind when commissioning a review, but most reviews were modified editorially after their composition. Sometimes these modifications were extensive, sometimes only slight, but nothing escaped Jeffrey’s surveillance. When in May of 1807 it looked like the Review would have to begin again under another name to circumvent a legal battle between Longman and Murray over the London publication rights, Horner reminded Jeffrey of something the other contributors had also repeatedly confirmed: ‘it is the stamp of your own hand that gives the work all its character’. The title Edinburgh Review remained, but by 1815 Horner was calling it ‘Jeffrey’s Review’.