Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle, 1795 - 1881. Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan on 4th December 1795, the son of James Carlyle and his second wife, Margaret Aitken Carlyle. James's first wife, Janet, had died in childbirth in 1791. James Carlyle was a stonemason and a strict Calvinist who was well respected for his integrity and independence. The family were very close, and both parents were to have a lifelong influence on their son.

At the age of five Thomas was sent to the village school, and when he was nine he went to Annan Grammar School, now Annan Academy. In November 1809, aged 14, he began studying at Edinburgh University, intending to become a minister in the Church of Scotland. Over the next few years his beliefs changed; he abandoned the idea of entering the ministry, and began to study mathematics and German instead. 

In 1814 he left university without graduating, returning to Annan as a mathematics tutor. A couple of years later he moved to a school in Kirkcaldy, where he became friends with fellow schoolmaster Edward Irving. Irving had also attended Annan Grammar School and Edinburgh University, becoming a master at Haddington Academy. Here he had tutored Jane Welsh, whom he introduced to Thomas Carlyle. 

Jane was the daughter of a surgeon, John Welsh, who was born at Craigenputtoch near Dunscore. Her mother was Grace Baillie Welsh, who came from Thornhill and liked to boast of an ancestry which included gypsies, William Wallace and John Knox. 

Jane was well-educated, talented, and a brilliant mistress of cynical satire. Her wit made her an excellent letter writer and her circle of correspondents included many eminent Victorians. Virginia Woolf called her "the most caustic, the most concrete, the most clear-sighted of women". Carlyle began a literary correspondence with her, and on October 17, 1826 the pair were married at Templand near Thornhill. 

For the first two years the couple lived at Comely Bank, Edinburgh. Financial difficulties made them move to the remote farmhouse of Craigenputtock near Dunscore, which Jane had inherited on the death on her farther. Carlyle concentrated on writing, thriving as a recluse and scholar. He later claimed "it is certain that for living and thinking in I have never since found in the world a place so favourable....". However, the isolation was a shock for Jane who was used to a more cultured life. 

It was at Craigenputtock that Carlyle wrote his major work "Sartor Resartus", which translates as The Tailor Re-tailored. On the surface "Sartor Resartus" is an introduction to a strange history of clothing by the German Professor of Things in General, Diogenes Teufelsdrockh. Its deeper concerns are social injustice, the right way of living in the world, and the questions of faith and understanding. Carlyle was among the first to see the dangers of relying too much on the mechanical marvels of his age. 

With the manuscript of his book he sailed from Glencaple (the railway had not yet reached Dumfries) en route to London. The book brought financial success and helped to establish him as one of the most famous writers of the 19th century. 

In 1834 the couple moved to London, to live at No 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, and Thomas spent much time working at the British Museum. The Carlyles soon built up a network of friends and admirers in London, and Jane particularly enjoyed the wit and conversation of a lively social life. In 1837 Carlyle published his "History of the French Revolution". His other works include "Heroes and Hero Worship", "Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell", "Frederick the Great" and "Past and Present". He became known as the "Sage of Chelsea" - the most influential and original thinker of Victorian Britain. 

Jane had never had good health and by the 1860s it had begun to deteriorate seriously. She died in 1866 and was buried alongside her father in St Mary's Parish Church, Haddington. Carlyle wrote that the light of his life had gone out. 

Despite this rise to fame and a busy literary life, Carlyle remained close to his family and often returned to Dumfriesshire. He frequently visited his sister, Jean Aitkin, and his brother, Dr John Carlyle, who lived at The Hill on St Mary's Street. 

In the 1870s this was close to the boyhood home of the author and playwright J M Barrie in Victoria Terrace. Barrie later recalled "When I was at school in Dumfries I often saw Carlyle in cloak, sombrero and staff, mooning along our country roads, a tortured mind painfully alone even to the eyes of a boy. I often passed him on my way to school. McMillan and I used to saunter up and down on the other side, lifting our hats every time he looked our way. I always took off my cap to him. I daresay I paid this homage fifty times, but never was there any response. He may have thought me one of the tribe who tried to get a word from him for storage by asking, for instance, if this was the road to Lochmaben, when he would undo them by pointing out the way with his staff and silently wander on." 

By this time Carlyle was almost 80 years old and a living legend - as famous for who he was as for his work. 

Carlyle died in 1881 and although it was proposed that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, he was interred according to his wishes in his birthplace of Ecclefechan, near Dumfries.

You must enable javascript to view this website