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Thomas Carlyle's Birthplace, Ecclefechan
Thomas Carlyle's Birthplace, Ecclefechan

Thomas Carlyle lived from 4 December 1795 to 5 February 1881. He was an essayist, satirist, and historian whose work was hugely influential during the Victorian era (his entry in the the Victorian Dictionary of National Biography covered 20 pages) and his collected works, published in 1974, ran to 30 volumes: yet he is also a man who by modern standards is very difficult to categorise. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Portrait of a Young Carlyle
Portrait of a Young Carlyle
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Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, a village five miles north of Annan, in Dumfries and Galloway, which today lies close to the M74. The house in which he was born is preserved as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland. His father was a stonemason and farmer, and the household in which Carlyle grew up was strictly Calvinistic. As a 15 year old, Carlyle went to Edinburgh University, obtaining his degree in 1813.

Carlyle's parents wanted him to enter the Church, but while at Edinburgh he abandoned his belief in Christianity: though not his Calvinist work-ethic nor his great respect for his parents. Instead he became a mathematics teacher, at Annan Academy from 1814 to 1816, and at Kirkcaldy Grammar School from 1816 to 1818. He then took up private tuition in Edinburgh until 1822. Meanwhile he had become deeply immersed in German literature. His Life of Schiller was first published by the London Magazine in 1823 and 1824, and he contributed to a wide variety of journals and magazines. He became a full time writer in 1824 and went on to produce masterly translations of a number of the giants of German literature including Hoffman, Tieck and Goethe.

In 1826 Thomas Carlyle married Jane Welsh, a highly intelligent lady from Haddington with an unrealised potential to pursue a literary career herself. Virginia Woolf described her as "the most caustic... the most clear-sighted of women". Thomas and Jane's published letters reveal a very odd marriage, and one that some have suggested was never consummated. Alfred Lord Tennyson argued against those who claimed the marriage was a mistake, saying: "By any other arrangement, four people would have been unhappy instead of two."

After several years living on an isolated Dumfriesshire farmhouse, the Carlyles moved to London in 1834, shortly after the publication of Thomas's first major work, Sartor Resartus (which translates as 'The tailor re-tailored"). This was "intended to be a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical". Partly autobiographical, partly philosophical, it used a flowing, complex and difficult language, strongly influenced by Carlyle's deep understanding of German: readers at the time came to call it Carlylese. His next major work, the three volume The French Revolution, A History was published in 1837. He undertook the work when his friend, John Stuart Mill, found he was too committed on other projects to deliver on a contract he had signed with publishers and write it himself. Having completed the manuscript, Carlyle sent the only copy to Mill to read: whose maid then promptly burned it as kindling, apparently by mistake. Carlyle had to rewrite the entire book from scratch, and the resulting second version was written in a passionate, flowing style that had never before been seen in historical writing. Other historical works included Oliver Cromwell's letters and speeches published in 1845, and his last major book, a biography of Frederick the Great, published in 1865.

Never a man to hold back his views, some of Carlyle's themes look decidedly odd, or worse, to modern eyes. He was opposed to democracy and believed strongly in the concept of heroic leadership, with heroism defined more in terms of energy and activity than moral perfection. The result was his 1841 book On Heroes And Hero Worship And The Heroic In History. A few generations later, such ideas were to help underpin Fascism. And in 1849 Carlyle produced an essay suggesting that slavery should not have been abolished: whose very title is deeply offensive to modern eyes.

Although Thomas and Jane had become increasingly distant from one another, her death in 1866 affected him badly, leading to his writing the highly self-critical "Reminiscences of Jane Welsh Carlyle", published after his death. From 1865 to 1868, Carlyle was Rector of Edinburgh University, but thereafter increasingly withdrew from public life. In 1874 he received the Prussian Order of Merit, but he declined an offer of a Baronetcy in Britain. He also declined the offer of a final resting place in Westminster Abbey, and after his death in 1881, was buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan.

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