Thomas Carlyle: A Forgotten Giant?

The Works of Thomas Carlyle, edited by Henry Duff TraillWe have just published the Centenary Edition of the complete works of Thomas Carlyle. Will anyone want to read him?

Someone (it’s been ascribed to Samuel Butler and Tennyson) said: ‘It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.’ It’s likely that, in the twenty-first century, this unkind witticism is what Carlyle’s name will evoke – or perhaps the nightmare story of J.S. Mill’s maid, who used the loaned manuscript of the first volume of Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution to kindle a fire; Mill went straight round to confess, and Carlyle stoically began again.

Another remarkable intellectual from a modest, lowland Scots background (see also James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary, Alexander Somerville, George Combe, Hugh Miller . . .) Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in 1795. His father was a stonemason who after a riotous youth sought salvation in a rigid Calvinism: the scheme of education into which he propelled his son was intended to culminate in the ministry. Unhappy at school and an awkward outsider at the University of Edinburgh, Carlyle deliberately adopted the most long-drawn-out course of training for the church, while making ends meet as a school teacher, another role which he realised was not going to be his vocation.

Drifting, plagued by digestive problems which would affect his entire life – and which it’s difficult not to see as psychosomatic – Carlyle taught himself German, and began to read Goethe – in whom he recognised a kindred soul. His first published substantial work was a translation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (first published in 1795–6), a founding text of German Romanticism and thus a work of immense significance in European culture. On its publication in 1824, Carlyle went to London and was quickly drawn, after meeting Henry Crabb Robinson, into the intellectual circle around Coleridge, but a meeting with the great man himself was a disappointment, and Carlyle soon after returned to Scotland. In 1826 he married Jane Welsh, a pretty, intelligent, educated and (by Carlyle’s standards) wealthy young woman who he had been courting in an on-and-off, hesitant, doubt-ridden fashion since 1821. The hesitations and doubts were on both sides, but nevertheless the alliance making ‘only two people miserable’ lasted for almost forty years, and Jane’s sudden death in 1866 seems to have left Thomas devastated.

Carlyle’s major works – the History of the French Revolution, the biography of Frederick the Great – would categorise him as a historian; but his essays and journalism cover a wide range from literary criticism to political economy. His writing style was famously convoluted, and was one of the reasons (another being his apparent rejection of democracy as the best form of government) why he was not much studied for most of the twentieth century. His reputation went into decline soon after his death in 1881, not least – ironically – because of the revelation of the unhappy state of his marriage in the two-part, four-volume biography by his disciple J.A. Froude published between 1882 and 1884 (which we have also reissued). But he was a giant figure in the intellectual history of the mid-Victorian period; he knew everybody, corresponded with everybody, and was admired by almost everybody. The salon in Cheyne Row, Chelsea, presided over by Jane, was the place to meet the outstanding literary and political figures of the period, and numbers of exiled European revolutionaries as well. His significance is perhaps emblematised by his appearance in Ford Madox Brown’s famous painting – standing, hatted and bearded, with F.D. Maurice on the right-hand side of the picture, he is the chosen representative of intellectual effort as Work.


This entry was posted in History, Literary Studies, Philosophy, Printing and Publishing History, Slavery and Abolition and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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