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