December 4 marks the birthday of
one of the most complex, most puzzling, and most unlikely of famous authors,
the nineteenth-century Scottish
writer Thomas Carlyle. Born in the village of Ecclefechan, Scotland, in
1795, the son of a God-fearing stonemason, he was brought up
in a strict Calvinist household. At the age of 15, he entered
the University of Edinburgh, receiving his B.A. in 1813. From 1813 to
1818, he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland before
abandoning that to study the law.
Carlyle taught at
Annan Academy (1814-16), at Kircaldy Grammar School (1816-18), and privately
in Edinburgh (1818-22). During this time he worked on his Life of
Schiller, which was first published by London Magazine in
1823-24. He also wrote contributions for Brewster's Edinburgh
Encyclopedia and contributed to journals such as
Edinburgh Review and Fraser's Magazine.
From 1824, he was a full-time writer and undertook a thorough study of
German literature, concentrating on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Carlyle's essays on German philosophy introduced many new ideas to the
British public. He also produced a translation of a work by Goethe
that was highly acclaimed.
he married Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he had met when he was
still far from famous. Theirs was not an easy courtship. In 1823,
she wrote to him: "Your Friend I will be, your truest most devoted friend,
while I breath[e] the breath of life; but your wife! never never! Not
though you were as rich as Croesus, as honoured and renowned as you yet
shall be - "
Carlyle replied two days later: "You love me as a sister, and will not
wed: I love you in all possible senses of the world, and will not wed, any
more than you. Does this reassure you?" Alfred Lord Tennyson once
defended their marriage, saying that "By any other arrangement, four people
would have been unhappy instead of two."
Jane was a doctor's daughter, well-educated and attractive. She was
a witty letter writer with an acid tongue, and her circle of correspondents included many
eminent Victorians. Virginia Woolf once called her "the most caustic,
the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women." However
disagreeable she might be, Jane
never tried to outshine her more famous husband.
The Carlyles lived the first years of their marriage on a remote farm in
Dumfriesshire, which proved to be a shock for Jane, who was used to a more cultured
life. Suffering beneath financial difficulties, the couple returned to
Jane's farm at Craigenputtock, where Carlyle concentrated on writing. While
staying in London in 1831, he came to know socialist John Stuart Mill, who
later introduced him to American philosopher and essayist Ralph Raldo
Emerson. Jane called their meeting with Emerson the visit of an angel.
Carlyle began a correspondence with Emerson that would last for decades.
Emerson once wrote about his new friend, "He talks like a very unhappy man,
profoundly solitary, displeased & hindered by all men and things about him."
was an unhappy man, suffering from dyspepsia and concerned
about pleasing his parents. He wanted to write something of value but abandoned
all of his projects almost as soon as he started them. He once
confided in a friend, "I must do something-or die, whichever I like better."
Finally, in 1834, Carlyle and his wife moved to London, where he published
his breakthrough work, Sartor Resartus. Part autobiography,
part philosophy, it was written using an energetic, complex language that
came to be called 'Carlylese.'
Carlyle finished writing a three-volume history of the French Revolution
in 1835. He lent the manuscript to his Mill, but Mill's housekeeper mistook the pile of paper for waste and threw
it in the fire. Mill was furious with her and offered Carlyle two
hundred pounds in compensation. Carlyle said that he felt like a man
who "has nearly killed himself accomplishing zero."
But he went right
back to work and rewrote the entire book in less than two years. The
French Revolution was published in 1837, and it was a great success.
George Eliot said, "No novelist has made his creations live for us more
thoroughly than Carlyle has made Mirabeau and the men of the French
Revolution...What depth of appreciation, what reverence for the great and
godlike under every sort of earthy mummery!"
From 1837 to 1840, Carlyle undertook several series of lectures, of which
the most significant was On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in
History. Although he acknowledged the achievements of
Cromwell and Napoleon, he saw that in his own time the hero was more of a thinker
and a writer than a conqueror. He said, "No sadder proof can be
given by a man of his own littleness than disbelief in great men."
After his wife's death in 1866, from which he never completely recovered,
Carlyle retired from public life and wrote relatively little. Jane had
recorded her most bitter thoughts in a secret journal, which Carlyle found.
In a letter to Emerson, he defended his wife. "Bright, heroic,
tender, true and noble was that lost treasure of my heart, who faithfully
accompanied me in all the rocky ways and climbings; and I am forever poor
without her." Carlyle gave her papers and letters to his friend J. A.
Froude, who published them after the author's death. Froude also
published Carlyle's Reminiscences (1881) and a four-volume biography
Thomas Carlyle died on February 5, 1881, in London. He is interred
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