About Carlyle

In the mid-1880s, during his time at South Kensington, when he was supposed to be studying for his science examinations, H.G. Wells was instead educating himself. In his autobiography, he noted Thomas Carlyle as part of his self-required reading:

I was reading not only a voluminous literature of propaganda but discursively in history, sociology and economics. I was doing my best to find out what such exalted names as Goethe and Carlyle, Shelley and Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope—or again Buddha, Mahomet and Confucius—had had to say about the world and what they mattered to me. I was learning the use of English prose and sharpening my mind against anyone’s with whom I could start a discussion.

Wells considered it a treat to read Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution, a break from his other reading. He also noted that England as a whole was influenced by Carlyle in a nationalism that was “consciously Teutonic”. Later on in the 1890s, Wells claimed, every writer was considered to be a “second” someone, and that at one time Wells himself was called a second Carlyle.

Although Wells was about twenty then and I am, shall we say, at least twice as old, I am also educating myself, in Victorian culture and literature as well as education. I cannot read all the things Wells read, but I did want to take a look at Carlyle, since I had only read Signs of the Times (then, in a move I have regretted more than once,  I assigned it to students). I bought a copy of Past and Present a couple of years ago, and tried to read it. I say “tried” because I never made it through – the prose seemed awful, like a combination of Wordsworth on drugs and Kipling on a very bad day (one more exclamation point and I would have crawled under the sofa).

So shopping at Skoob on my last trip to the UK, I picked up a short biography on Ruskin (for obvious reasons – readers know how much I both dislike him and am trying to understand his influence). Next to it, in the same paperbound series (Past Masters, by Oxford University Press), was one on Carlyle, by A.L. LeQuesne. I read the whole thing in one day (I won’t say “in one sitting” because I had to get up for tea and chocolate…ok, more than once).

It was brilliantly written. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that. Biography can be quite dull, and Carlyle himself was hardly exciting. LeQuesne’s thesis (I didn’t expect a clear thesis either) was that Carlyle’s best work took place in only a few years of his very long career: 1837-1848. Before this, Carlyle wrote poorly (I am apparently not the only one to notice this), and afterward he was behind in worldview and no longer speaking to the current generation.

I do not like biographies that explain in detail the personal lives and clinical ailments of their subjects. Some things seem relevant to me (like Holmes’ noting in his biography of Wellington that the Duke put bars on the windows of Apsley House because he feared the rabble) and others do not (like the many biographies detailing Wells’ sexual proclivities, either known or imagined). LeQuesne had just the right amount of personal detail. It was important to know how witty and endearing Carlyle’s wife was, and how charming their marriage (at least to outsiders), to help explain why their house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea was appealing to many intellectuals as a place to meet and converse.  His dyspepsia and sensitivity to noise was mentioned a few times, mostly as a distraction to his writing that needed to be overcome, but not, thank goodness, in detail. Similarly, his religion was discussed only as it influenced his work.

Robert Tait, A Chelsea Interior (The Carlyles at Home with their Dog Nero at 5/24 Great Cheyne Row, London), 1857-58


Carlyle had roots in an agricultural family in Scotland, and lost some of his youthful religious beliefs when he left. As a young man, he wrote many reviews of books, and since Wells did some of this too it helped me understand the culture that had writers enter the market by writing such reviews. Rebelling against the Enlightenment emphasis, philosophically and intellectually, at university in Edinburgh, Carlyle began studying German romanticism. His Sartor Resartus is described as “a weird Romantic masterpiece which defies either classification or summary” (p19). His style was sometimes “rambling, turbulent, ejaculatory, vastly self-indulgent and metaphorical” (p21). In this work, he apparently developed a theme of the material expression of life requiring a spiritual or super-natural foundation. Earnest work, he thought, made possible the glimpsing of the spiritual beneath the material (Ruskin would have understood this, I think). The book apparently fit the Romantic idea, common among people like Wordsworth (duh) of the superiority of the imagination over the dullness of cold rationality.

Reading this sort of thing now, when rationality is so sorely missing in our culture, and imagination has gone awry into nightmares of duplicity and cruelty, is difficult. But as he continued, Carlyle turned himself into a historian, using that imagination to enliven deep primary research into the past, particularly the French Revolution and the English Civil War. LeQuesne claims he replaced a faith in religion with a faith in history (p33). This was not a faith in materialism, like that of Karl Marx, but of providential judgement. The horrors of the French Revolution seemed to be divine punishment of some sort, revealing God’s purpose. Carlyle thus opposed previous historians of the 1830s, who looked back on the revolution as a horrible deviation from the natural order and a warning about a possible uprising. Carlyle’s analysis instead provided a “cause of hope rather than fear; for it was a sentence of divine justice on a corrupt society” (p35, a page dog-eared by a previous reader of my copy).

Of even more interest to me was the analysis of Carlyle as a historian in professional terms. According to LeQuesne:

Carlyle did not believe that the historian’s function was to provide a smoothly flowing narrative for the entertainment of his readers, nor that history could be treated as an experimental science from which inductive laws of human behaviour could be derived, nor that rigid objectivity and detachment were either possible or desirable qualities in a historian.

This seems similar to the re-emergence in recent years of imaginative historical writing. Under what circumstances, I wonder, do historians appear who value the imaginative over the rational? Despite the rejection of narrative noted by LeQuesne, the passages quoted from Carlyle’s books show, as with Dickens, a deep-seated sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. And he showed it in such a way as to condemn beourgeois complacency, often in stirring prose (and prose that I could actually read). In one passage he makes the reader grieve for the dying Dauphin in prison, then jabs at a conscience which can lament this but ignore the conditions of “poor Factory Children” that perish while no one cares (p43).

The difference between mid-19th century social reformers and Carlyle was that as Carlyle’s career continued, he saw the answer to social inequities to be the rise of heroes, and sometimes a heroic nation-state. LeQuesne says several times in the book that Carlyle was “no democrat”. He claims that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution won the “ears of a generation”, but that his work after 1850 lost it (p55). LeQuesne calls him a “prophet” (and spends a chapter or two attempting to prove that this title is appropriate) but his work became preachy and grumpy. By then people were actively involved in reform acts of many kinds, and Carlyle’s vision of providentially-guided history and heroic leadership seemed out of place. Moreover, his work began treating the downtrodden soldiers, colonials, and workers with derision rather than understanding. LeQuesne claims this transition is masked by his focus on hero-worship (p85), but the hero is needed to guide people precisely because people are so inadequate to the task.

Thus Carlyle lost his readership, and certainly my interest — it was this sort of writing I encountered in Past and Present. LeQuesne sees his later approach as a rejection of humanity and an increase in impatience with slow progress, but it also seems to me a good foundation for dictatorship and all sorts of other nasty mechanisms that don’t trust people even with a republican system, much less a democratic one.

So in this biography, if not in Carlyle’s own works, I have gotten an idea of what Carlyle had to say and why it mattered — the goals of H.G. Wells’ own reading of him. Unfortunately, I have found myself with little sympathy for any of his ideas except those designed to help readers understand the lives of those less fortunate. Much of the rest (including anti-rationalism, imaginative historical writing, and hero-worship) I find to be at the foundation of much that is wrong with society now, as well as then.


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