It Happened
in History!
(Go to It Happened in History Archives) 


Thomas Carlyle

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.

In 1826, 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."

Indeed, Carlyle 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 (1882-84). 

Thomas Carlyle died on February 5, 1881, in London.  He is interred in Ecclefechan.

Discover Thomas Carlyle

Search Now:

Indulge Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling
Fiction - Nonfiction - DVDs

- HOME -

NOTE: All material on this site is copyright protected.  No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically,  mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author.  Contact the editors for right to reprint.  All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers.  Copyright 2006 by the American Society of Authors and Writers.







Hit Counter