Thomas Carlyle, the eldest son of James Carlyle (1757–1832), a stonemason, and Margaret Aitken (1771–1853), the daughter of a bankrupt Dumfriesshire farmer, was born in Ecclefechan in Scotland, on 4th December, 1795. His mother gave birth to eight children after Thomas: Alexander (1797–1876), Janet (1799–1801), John Aitken Carlyle (1801–1879), Margaret (1803–1830), James (1805–1890), Mary (1808–1888), Jane (1810–1888), and a second Janet (1813–1897).
Carlyle was brought up as a strict Calvinist and was educated at the village school. According to his biographer, Fred Kaplan: "As a boy he learned reading from his mother, arithmetic from his father; he attended a private school in Ecclefechan and then, at the age of six, the nearby Hoddam parish school. He immediately became the pride of the schoolmaster, the young person on whom approving adults and jealous schoolmates place the burden of differentness. For his parents that quality had its rightful place in the circle of tradition. If their son was to be a man of learning, he would be a minister of the Lord; within their society the alternative was either madness or apostasy." Carlyle later wrote: "A man's religion consists not of the many things he is in doubt of and tries to believe, but of the few he is assured of, and has no need of effort for believing".
In 1806 he entered Annan Academy, a school that specialized in training large classes, at low cost, for university entrance at the age of fourteen. At this time his best subject was mathematics but he also excelled in foreign languages. He received training in French and Latin but over the next few years taught himself Spanish, Italian, and German. Carlyle also took a keen interest in literature and read the work of Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Laurence Sterne and William Congreve. He told Henry Fielding Dickens that he was a "gawky youth with a shock of red hair, and explained how he used to be bullied by other boys."
Carlyle was an excellent student and he won his place at the University of Edinburgh. In November 1809 he walked the 80 mile journey to Edinburgh. It took him three days and he later commented that by the beginning of the second day he had travelled further from Ecclefechan than his father was ever to do in his life. Carlyle was very unhappy in first year at university. His religious upbringing made it impossible for "him to participate" in the "amusements, too often riotous and libertine" of the other students.
Carlyle's father expected him to attend divinity school after completing his university studies. However, he rejected this idea and in 1814 became a mathematics teacher at Annan Academy at £70 per annum. In 1816 he obtained a teaching position at Kirkcaldy where he taught Latin, French, arithmetic, bookkeeping, geometry, navigation and geography. In November 1818, suffering from depression, Carlyle resigned and returned to Edinburgh.
In late May 1821 met the recently widowed Grace Welsh (1782–1842) and her nineteen-year-old daughter Jane Baillie Welsh. Carlyle was immediately impressed with Jane and described her as a "tall aquiline figure, of elegant carriage and air". According to Fred Kaplan, the author of Thomas Carlyle: A Biography (1983): "Carlyle spoke that evening of his own reading, writing, and literary ambitions. Jane listened intently, impressed by his learning and amused by his Annandale accent and country awkwardness.... Frightened of marriage because, among other reasons, she was frightened of sex, Jane Welsh could not imagine that such a man could become her husband." However, she was willing to read the articles he was writing and came to the conclusion that he was a "genius".
Although he disliked teaching, Carlyle agreed to tutor the two sons of Isabella and Charles Buller, on the rather generous sum of £200 per annum, about twice as much as his father had ever earned as a stonemason. In the spring of 1823 Carlyle was commissioned to write a short biographical sketch of Friedrich Schiller for The London Magazine. He was also an expert on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and in 1824 he completed a translation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Later that year he moved to London where he associated with Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Henry Crabb Robinson.
After much prevarication Jane Welsh agreed to marry Thomas Carlyle. The wedding took place on 17th October 1826. Fred Kaplan has argued: "Clearly, puritanical inhibitions and romantic idealizations were in the 7 foot-wide bed with two sexual innocents. Fragile evidence suggests that though they were able to express affection with whispers and embraces their sexual relationship did not provide physical satisfaction to either of them, despite their efforts during the first half-dozen or so years of the marriage." Carlyle's biographer James Anthony Froude has argued that the marriage was unconsummated.
The couple settled in Craigenputtock. He told his friend, Thomas Story Spedding: "It is one of the most unoccupied, loneliest, far from one of the joyfullest of men. From time to time I feel it absolutely necessary to get into entire solitude; to beg all the world, with passion if they will not grant it otherwise, to be so kind as to leave me altogether alone. One needs to unravel and bring into some articulation the villainous chaos that gathers round heart and head in that loud-roaring Babel; to repent of one's many sins, to be right miserable, humiliated, and do penance for them - with hope of absolution, of new activity and better obedience!"
Carlyle appeared to hold his wife in great esteem. He later wrote: "She could do anything well to which she chose to give herself.... She had a keen clear incisive faculty of seeing through things, and hating all that was make-believe or pretentious. She had good sense that amounted to genius. She loved to learn and she cultivated all her faculties to the utmost of her power. She was always witty … in a word she was fascinating and everybody fell in love with her."
Thomas Carlyle's reputation as an expert on literature and philosophy resulted in him receiving commissions from The Edinburgh Review and The Foreign Review. He also started work on his first book, Sartor Resartus. However, he had great difficulty finding someone willing to publish this philosophical work. It eventually was serialized in Fraser's Magazine (1833-34).
Thomas and Jane Carlyle moved to London. He developed a close friendship with John Stuart Mill and he had several articles published in his Westminster Review. Mill was very close to Harriet Taylor, who was married to Henry Taylor. In 1833 Harriet negotiated a trial separation from her husband. She then spent six weeks with Mill in Paris. On their return Harriet moved to a house at Walton-on-Thames where John Stuart Mill visited her at weekends. Although Harriet Taylor and Mill claimed they were not having a sexual relationship, their behaviour scandalized their friends. As a result, the couple became socially isolated. However, Carlyle stood by Mill.
It was Mill who suggested that Carlyle should write a book about the French Revolution. He agreed and started the book in September 1834. After completing the first volume he sent it to Mill for his comments. On the night of 6th March 1835, Mill arrived at Carlyle's house with the news that the manuscript had been burnt by mistake at the home of Harriet Taylor. The following day he decided to rewrite volume one again. The three volume book was not finished until 12th January, 1837. Ralph Waldo Emerson arranged for it to be published in America.
John Stuart Mill was active in the campaign for parliamentary reform, and was one of the first to suggest that women should have the same political rights as men. He introduced Carlyle to other political radicals such as Frederick Denison Maurice, Harriet Martineau, James Leigh Hunt, Robert Southey and William Wordsworth.
Mill urged Carlyle to write a pamphlet about parliamentary reform. In March 1838 he wrote: "Unluckily or luckily this notion of writing on the Working Classes has in the interim died away in me; and I have altogether lost it for the present. I have got upon Thuycidides, Johannes Müller, the Crusades, and a whole course of objects connected with my Lectures; sufficient to occupy me abundantly till that fatal time come. We will commit my Discourse on the Working Classes once more to the chapter of chances. I do not know that my train of argument would have specially led me to insist on the question you allude to: but if it had - ! In fact it were a right cheerful thing for me could I get to see that general improvement were going on there; and I think I should in that case wash my hands of Radicalism forever and a day." Carlyle was disturbed by the fact that working-class leaders such as Francis Place disagreed with his approach to the subject. Carlyle wrote: "Francis Place is against me, a man entitled to be heard."
Carlyle was opposed to Physical Force Chartism. In 1839 he wrote to his friend, Thomas Story Spedding: "What you say of Chartism is the very truth: revenge begotten of ignorance and hunger! We have enough of it here too; the material of it exists I believe in the hearts of all our working population, and would right gladly body itself in any promising shape; but Chartism begins to seem unpromising. What to do with it? Yes, there is the question. Europe has been struggling to give some answer, very audibly since the year 1789! The gallows and the bayonet will do what they can; these altogether failing, we may hope a quite other sort of exorcism will be tried.... Unless gentry, clergy and all manner of washed articulate-speaking men will learn that their position towards the unwashed is contrary to the Law of God, and change it soon, the Law of Man, one has reason to discern, will change it before long, and that in no soft manner.... The fever-fit of Chartism will pass, and other fever-fits; but the thing it means will not pass, till whatsoever of truth and justice lies in the heart of it has been fulfilled; it cannot pass till then, a long date, I fear."
Carlyle met Charles Dickens for the first time in 1840. Carlyle described Dickens as "a fine little fellow... a face of most extreme mobility, which he shuttles about - eyebrows, eyes, mouth and all - in a very singular manner while speaking... a quiet, shrewd-looking, little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is and what others are." The two men became close friends. Dickens told one of his sons that Carlyle was the man "who had influenced him most" and his sister-in-law, that "there was no one for whom he had a higher reverence and admiration".
Carlyle published Chartism in 1841. He argued the immediate answers to poverty and overpopulation was improved education and an expansion of emigration. This position angered many of his radical friends. Other books by Carlyle during this period included On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843).
Carlyle highly disapproved of the industrial revolution. Something he called the "Mechanical Age". In 1842 he described his first journey on a steam locomotive: "I was dreadfully frightened before the train started; in the nervous state I was in, it seemed to me certain that I should faint, from the impossibility of getting the horrid thing stopped."
The literary critic, Richard Hengist Horne, was one of the first people to champion the writing of Carlyle. He argued in A New Spirit of the Age (1844): "Mr. Carlyle... has knocked out his window from the blind wall of his century... We may say, too, that it is a window to the east; and that some men complain of a certain bleakness in the wind which enters in at it; when they should rather congratulate themselves with him on the aspect of the new sun beheld through it, the orient of hope of which he has discovered to their eyes." James Fitzjames Stephen was another supporter of Carlyle: "Regarded as works of art, we should put the best of Mr. Carlyle's writings at the very head of contemporary literature… If he is the most indignant and least cheerful of living writers, he is also one of the wittiest and the most humane." Peter Ackroyd has argued that "there is a strong case to be made for Carlyle being the single most important writer in England during the 1840s"
Andrew Sanders has argued: "What the early Victorians most admired in Carlyle was his ability to disturb them. It was he who seemed to have identified the nature of their restlessness and who had put his finger on the racing pulse of the age.... Carlyle was, and remains, an uncomfortable and disconcerting writer: edgy, prickly, experimental, challenging. He seems, by turns, to be persuasively sophisticated and provocatively direct. He was an outsider to mainstream early Victorian culture in two ways: he had been born in the same year as John Keats and was approaching 40 when he moved to London; he was also, by origin, a poor Scot who had been educated at the University in Edinburgh which still basked in the afterglow of the Scottish Enlightenment."
Carlyle was always concerned about his health but it was Jane who was constantly unwell. She wrote to a friend that she was "suffering from a bad nervous system, keeping me in a state of greater or less physical suffering". Thomas Carlyle, wrote to Catherine Dickens on 24th April, 1843: "We are such a pair of poor sickly creatures here, we have to deny ourselves the pleasure of dining out anywhere at present; and, I may well say with very great reluctance, even that of dining at your house on Saturday, one of the agreeablest dinners that human ingenuity could propose for us!"
Carlyle became a friend of Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian revolutionary, and they had long discussions on parliamentary reform. Jane Carlyle and Mazzini developed an increasing intimate relationship. In 1846 Jane considered leaving her husband over his platonic relationship with Lady Harriet Baring, the wife of Bingham Baring, 2nd Baron Ashburton, but Mazzini strongly advised her not to.
After the Revolutions of 1848, Carlyle developed reactionary views. In 1850 he wrote a series of twelve pamphlets to be published in monthly installments over the next year. In Latter-Day Pamphlets he attacked democracy as an absurd social ideal and commented that it was absurd that "truth could be discovered by totting up votes". However, at the same time Carlyle criticized hereditary aristocratic leadership as "deadening". Carlyle suggested that people should be ruled by "those most able". Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels agreed with Carlyle about aristocratic leadership, they completely rejected his ideas on democracy.
In 1854 Charles Dickens dedicated his book, Hard Times to Carlyle. He also helped Dickens with his book, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Peter Ackroyd, the author of Dickens (1990), has pointed out: "He (Dickens) had always admired Carlyle's History of the French Revolution, and asked him to recommend suitable books from which he could research the period; in reply Carlyle sent him a cartload of volumes from the London Library. Apparently Dickens read, or at least looked through, them all; it was his aim during the period of composition only to read books of the period itself."
On 21st April 1866, Jane Carlyle went for her regular afternoon carriage ride in Hyde Park. Thomas Carlyle's biographer, Fred Kaplan, argues that "after several circuits of the park the driver, alarmed by Mrs Carlyle's lack of response to his request for further instructions, asked a woman to look into the carriage." According to the witness she "was leaning back in one corner of the carriage, rugs spread over her knees; her eyes were closed, and her upper lip slightly, slightly opened".
Henry Fielding Dickens visited him during this period: "It was my privilege to pay him two or three visits at his house in Cheyne Row after my father's death. I went there for the first time with feelings of awe and some trepidation. This was but natural in the case of a very young man paying a visit to an old man of Carlyle's rare gifts and immense reputation, and one who could be very dour at times. But I found that such feeling was quite uncalled for and he at once put me entirely at my ease. He was gifted with a high sense of humour, and when he laughed he did so heartily, throwing his head back and letting himself go."
Carlyle's early articles inspired social reformers such as John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, John Burns, Tom Mann and William Morris. However, in later life he turned against all political reform and argued against the 1867 Reform Act. He also expressed his admiration for strong leaders. This is illustrated by his six volume History of Frederick the Great (1858-1865) and The Early Kings of Norway (1875). In the last few years of his life, Carlyle's writing was confined to letters to The Times.