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Thomas Carlyle Writer & Historian

  • Name  : Carlyle
  • Born  : 1795
  • Died  : 1881
  • Category  : Writers
  • Finest Moment : History of the French Revolution (3 vols., 1837)

Born in the Scottish village with that most delightful name, Ecclefechan, in Dumfriesshire, on 4 December 1795. His father was a mason by trade, later becoming a farmer, with strict Calvinist convictions. Perhaps due to this he initially went to Edinburgh University to study for the church, but growing doubts about the veracity of the bible changed his mind, and instead he became a tutor in mathematics.

After some time back in Ecclefechan, then Annan, he decided that he disliked teaching, much as he had disliked the church as a profession. He moved to Edinburgh, to study law. Meanwhile, he had discovered German literature, a love which he sustained all his life. He translated Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and other German writings, apparently well too. But in Edinburgh, studying, writing, reading, translating, suffering (he was a chronic sufferer), he heard voices in the pages, which forever impressed upon him a unique literary style.

This 'conversion' he described in Sartor Resartus (the Tailor Reclothed, 1835). This is an eccentric masterpiece, in which hero worship is intertwined with his search for God. His conclusion was that there probably was some cosmic force. All this agonising, searching, suffering, must have made Carlyle a real pain to live with, and his wife Jane Welsh, whom he married in 1826, had in fact declared that she would never marry him. She was highly intelligent, which makes this marriage all the more puzzling. Conversations at dinner were surely rarely dull and routine.

In 1834, the Carlyles moved to London, where he began his major work, a history of the French Revolution. The story of how that other eccentric but brilliant man, John Stuart Mill used the manuscript to light a fire (accidentally) has gone into history. Carlyle, being a professional sufferer, was actually fairly happy with this disaster. He set to rewrite the book with almost feverish energy, completing it in 1837, all three volumes of it. Between 1858 and 1865 he wrote a history of Frederick the Great, in six volumes.

Carlyle, though from a distance seemingly a crotchety old grouse, was in fact more of an idealist. He never lost his love for his parents and family, and Jane stayed with him until her sudden death in 1866. His faults included an intellectual difficulty with ordinary people. He did have a foul temper. After his wife's death, he lived on for 15 years, but he was weary, bored, and a partial recluse. He was a Victorian giant who believed in giants. Offered Westminster Abbey as a resting place, he declined, being buried at his request besides his parents in dear wee Ecclefechan. He had died on 5 February 1881, in London.

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