Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Author, biographer and historian

Thomas Carlyle was born on 4 December 1795 in Ecclefechan in south-west Scotland. His father was a stone mason and a strict Calvinist. He was educated at the village school then Annan Academy and the University of Edinburgh. After graduating he started to train as a minister, but turned to teaching before returning to Edinburgh to study law. He did not complete his studies, deciding to tutor to make ends meet. It was at this time that he started contributing essays and articles to 'The New Edinburgh Review' and the 'Encyclopedia of Edinburgh'. He became fascinated with European literature, especially that of Germany and began to work on criticism and translations. His 'Life of Schiller' was published in installments in 'The London Magazine' in 1825.

Thomas Carlyle married a fellow intellectual, Jane Baillie Welsh, on 17 October 1826. They set up home in Edinburgh, then on her family's farm of Craigenputtoch in Dumfries. He continued to contribute to literary journals such as 'The Edinburgh Review' and work on his 'History of German Literature', but the couple suffered from financial difficulties. The death of his mother-in-law provided an annuity and they removed to 24 Cheyne Row in Chelsea where they would spend the rest of their lives. After the publication of an immense history of the French Revolution Carlyle earned his place as one of the great intellectuals and literary figures of the era. He gave a series of public lectures on heroes and hero-worship which reinforced his reputation as an intellectual and moral heavyweight. The death of his wife in 1866 was a severe blow and his literary output almost came to a standstill. He died in Chelsea on 5 February 1881.

Testament of Thomas Carlyle

National Records of Scotland, SC70/6/21 pp 461-487

In his will Thomas Carlyle writes with tenderness about the memory of his spouse and makes provision for his brothers, whom he had worked hard to educate and support all his life. He includes detailed instructions as to the fate of his unpublished manuscripts and expresses a desire that there should be no biography of his life. Of the many such works produced, one of the first was by an executor and trusted friend. Disenchanted with the government of the time he refused to be honoured by the Prime Minister and, instead of an elaborate tomb in Westminster Abbey, he opted to be buried in the village of his birth.

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