Who was Thomas Carlyle?

A painting by James Archer at Carlyles House

When Thomas Carlyle (1795 - 1881) turned eighty in 1875, he received a birthday tribute from over one hundred eminent Victorians. Philosopher, historian, biographer, translator, novelist and essayist, he was hailed as the voice of the age.

Sage of Chelsea

Carlyle was born in 1795 to Scottish Calvinists and educated at Edinburgh University. His parents hoped he would be a clergyman but instead he became a teacher. His true vocation was writing.

Carlyle succeeded through talent, networking and granite self-belief. An early project was a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. He sent Goethe a copy and the two became correspondents.

Literary ambition took Carlyle from Scotland to London. In 1834 he and his wife Jane settled in Chelsea, where their circle included J.S. Mill, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin.

Novelist

Sartor Resartus (1833-4) is now one of Carlyle’s better-known works. It spoofs scholarship through a fictionalised introduction to a German philosopher’s history of clothing.

Humorous but deeply serious, the novel promoted rational faith in an age of religious crisis and its inventive narration still feels fresh today.

Historian

Carlyle’s masterpiece was The French Revolution: A History (1837).

Carlyle entrusted Mill with the manuscript and Mill’s maid accidentally burned the first volume. Devastated but determined, Carlyle rewrote it from memory.

At a time when the Revolution’s tremors were still felt, Carlyle’s account had instant appeal. Its arresting style proved that history could be entertaining.

Speaker

In 1840, Carlyle gave a series of lectures on heroes and heroism. In one lecture, he argued that the man of letters was ‘the soul of the age’. He could have been describing himself.

Carlyle’s lectures sparked the Great Man Theory that individuals, not social forces, shape history. Always challenged, it was particularly unfashionable after World War Two.

Political thinker

Carlyle’s essays range across social and political issues.

He railed against the oppression of workers in industrial society but was sceptical of democracy and nostalgic about feudalism. This may seem problematic but had some appeal in an age of rapid change.

Carlyle and Dickens

Charles Dickens’s works are infused with Carlyle’s ideas.

In David Copperfield (1850), the narrator wonders whether he will be the hero of his story. Hard Times (1854), a diatribe against the factory system, is dedicated to Carlyle. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was inspired by Carlyle’s French Revolution.

Reading Carlyle today

Carlyle’s prose has always had admirers and critics. Influenced by German and Latin, teeming with wordplay and coinages, it can seem elaborate and strident.

Despite this, it is closer to the language of our political discourse than we might think. Carlyle coined now familiar terms, such as ‘environment’ and ‘the cash-nexus’.

Our places and collections with Carlyle connections