“All that mankind has done, thought or been: it is lying as if in magic preservation in the pages of books” – Thomas Carlyle
This writer, historian and essayist was born on 4th December 1795, in the village of Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire. His parents were strict Calvinists. Although he lost his Christian faith, he always remained true to Calvinist values.
After attending Annan Academy and Edinburgh University, from where he failed to graduate, he became a mathematics teacher. He was unfortunate in suffering from gastric problems, which led to irascibility, the somewhat rough basis of his philosophy and searing prose style.
In 1819 he returned to Edinburgh University, where reflecting deeply on religion he wrote ‘Sartor Resartus’ (The Tailor Retailored), which brought him to public attention. It was an interesting period in which to be writing as the Victorians were dealing with many political and scientific changes.
The time that he devoted to studying German Literature and their idealism influenced him, particularly the works of Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In a series of essays for Fraser’s Magazine, he established himself as an authority on German Literature. Works of Goethe were translated by him; he also wrote a life of
Schiller in 1825.
Most of his early life was spent on a farm in Craigenputtock, moving to Chelsea in 1834, when he became known as ‘Sage of Chelsea’ and joined a literary circle frequented by Leigh Hunt and John Stewart Mill. He also entertained Tennyson and Ruskin at his home, which was a hub of Victorian literary society.
In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, daughter of surgeon John Welsh, a descendent of John Knox.
‘The French Revolution’, one of his best-known works, was published in 1837, which Dickens used as a primary source for the events in his book ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’
A strong belief in the importance of heroic leadership alienated some of his friends. He crystallised this thinking in ‘On Heroes, Hero-worship and the Heroic in History’, in which several heroes are compared – among them Shakespeare, Mohammed and Oliver Cromwell.
‘The Life of Frederick the Great’ was his last major work. For Carlyle, Frederick clarified the transition from the liberal enlightenment ideals of the 18th century to a new, modern culture of spiritual dynamism, which Germany adopted in its thinking and politics. It portrays overwhelming chaos mastered by leadership of genius. This book was demanding and later works tended to be short essays.
Jane, Thomas Carlyle’s wife, died in 1866 and he became depressed and retired from active society. His last years were spent at Cheyne Row. He died on 5th February 1881 and was greatly honoured with offer for his remains to be
interred in Westminster Abbey; however, his wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechlan was respected.
He was a contradictory character and it is difficult to summarise his philosophy and follow his teachings. He was critical of others, including Darwin.
To quote Hector Macpherson:
“No writer has done more to elevate and purify our ideas of life and make us conscious that the things of the spirit are real, and that in the last resort there is no other reality.”
The Queen Anne town house at 24 Cheyne Row, Chelsea SW3 (it was originally number 5) was Thomas Carlyle’s home. It is now a National Trust property and well worth a visit. Beyond the wrought iron railings, the brown panelled door with a Victorian lamp overhanging it sets the scene. To the side is a marble plaque (not a blue one!), denoting Carlyle’s residency, which was designed by Charles Francis Annersley Voysey.
The original Victorian interior remains intact, with books, furniture, portraits and several personal items. Details like the patchwork quilt on the four-poster bed lent the house a homely atmosphere; so too did the screen prints from
decoupage, designed by his wife. The parlour with the Robert Tait design looked cosy. There are strong reminders of Victorian times, for example, the hip bath, washing bowl, open fires, a chaise longue and potted plants set against a sombre background. Do not miss the secluded study in the attic.
The walled garden is a delight – part gravel, part grass – and is very green, with real flower pots and beds edged with that curly looking dark stone.
Do visit and think of the great minds who exchanged their ideas at this house, no doubt in learned and brilliant conversation.
“A man lives by believing something: not by debating and arguing about many things.” – Thomas Carlyle
For opening times and entry fees, please ring: 0207 352 7087