An odd incident precipitated the result. A friend of Irving’s, Mrs Basil Montague, wrote to Miss Welsh, to exhort her to suppress her love for Irving, who had married Miss Martin in 1823. Miss Welsh replied by announcing her intention to marry Carlyle; and then told him the whole story, of which he had previously been ignorant. He properly begged her not to yield to the impulse without due consideration. She answered by coming at once to his father’s house, where he was staying; and the marriage was finally settled. It took place on the 17th of October 1826.
Carlyle had now to arrange the mode of life which should enable him to fulfil his aspiration. His wife had made over her income to her mother, but he had saved a small sum upon which to begin housekeeping. A passing suggestion from Mrs Carlyle that they might live with her mother was judiciously abandoned. Carlyle had thought of occupying Craigenputtock, a remote and dreary farm belonging to Mrs Welsh. His wife objected his utter incapacity as a farmer; and they finally took a small house at Comely Bank, Edinburgh, where they could live on a humble scale. The brilliant conversation of both attracted some notice in the literary society of Edinburgh. The most important connexion was with Francis, Lord Jeffrey, still editor of the Edinburgh Review. Though Jeffrey had no intellectual sympathy with Carlyle, he accepted some articles for the Review and became warmly attached to Mrs Carlyle. Carlyle began to be known as leader of a new “mystic” school, and his earnings enabled him to send his brother John to study in Germany. The public appetite, however, for “mysticism” was not keen. In spite of support from Jeffrey and other friends, Carlyle failed in a candidature for a professorship at St Andrews. His brother, Alexander, had now taken the farm at Craigenputtock, and the Carlyles decided to settle at the separate dwelling-house there, which would bring them nearer to Mrs Welsh. They went there in 1828, and began a hard struggle. Carlyle, indomitably determined to make no concessions for immediate profit, wrote slowly and carefully, and turned out some of his most finished work. He laboured “passionately” at Sartor Resartus, and made articles out of fragments originally intended for the history of German literature. The money difficulty soon became more pressing. John, whom he was still helping, was trying unsuccessfully to set up as a doctor in London; and Alexander’s farming failed. In spite of such drawbacks, Carlyle in later years looked back upon the life at Craigenputtock as on the whole a comparatively healthy and even happy period, as it was certainly one of most strenuous and courageous endeavour. Though often absorbed in his work and made both gloomy and irritable by his anxieties, he found relief in rides with his wife, and occasionally visiting their relations. Their letters during temporary separations are most affectionate. The bleak climate, however, the solitude, and the necessity of managing a household with a single servant, were excessively trying to a delicate woman, though Mrs Carlyle concealed from her husband the extent of her sacrifices. The position was gradually becoming untenable. In the autumn of 1831 Carlyle was forced to accept a loan of £50 from Jeffrey, and went in search of work to London, whither his wife followed him. He made some engagements with publishers, though no one would take Sartor Resartus, and returned to Craigenputtock in the spring of 1832. Jeffrey, stimulated perhaps by his sympathy for Mrs Carlyle, was characteristically generous. Besides pressing loans upon both Thomas and John Carlyle, he offered to settle an annuity of £100 upon Thomas, and finally enabled John to support himself by recommending him to a medical position. Carlyle’s proud spirit of independence made him reject Jeffrey’s help as long as possible; and even his acknowledgment of the generosity (in the Reminiscences) is tinged with something disagreeably like resentment. In 1834 he applied to Jeffrey for a post at the Edinburgh Observatory. Jeffrey naturally declined to appoint a man who, in spite of some mathematical knowledge, had no special qualification, and administered a general lecture upon Carlyle’s arrogance and eccentricity which left a permanent sense of injury.
In the beginning of 1833 the Carlyles made another trial of Edinburgh. There Carlyle found materials in the Advocates’ Library for the article on the Diamond Necklace, one of his most perfect writings, which led him to study the history of the French Revolution. Sartor Resartus was at last appearing in Fraser’s Magazine, though the rate of payment was cut down, and the publisher reported that it was received with “unqualified dissatisfaction.” Edinburgh society did not attract him, and he retreated once more to Craigenputtock. After another winter the necessity of some change became obvious. The Carlyles resolved to “burn their ships.” They went to London in the summer of 1834, and took a house at 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row, Chelsea, which Carlyle inhabited till his death; the house has since been bought for the public. Irving, who had welcomed him on former occasions, was just dying,—a victim, as Carlyle thought, to fashionable cajoleries. A few young men were beginning to show appreciation. J. S. Mill had made Carlyle’s acquaintance in the previous visit to London, and had corresponded with him. Mill had introduced Ralph Waldo Emerson, who visited Craigenputtock in 1833. Carlyle was charmed with Emerson, and their letters published by Professor Norton show that his regard never cooled. Emerson’s interest showed that Carlyle’s fame was already spreading in America. Carlyle’s connexion with Charles Buller, a zealous utilitarian, introduced him to the circle of “philosophical radicals.”
Carlyle called himself in some sense a radical; and J. S. Mill, though not an intellectual disciple, was a very warm admirer of his friend’s genius. Carlyle had some expectation of the editorship of the London Review, started by Sir W. Molesworth at this time as an organ of philosophical radicalism. The combination would clearly have been explosive. Meanwhile Mill, who had collected many books upon the French Revolution, was eager to help Carlyle in the history which he was now beginning. He set to work at once and finished the first volume in five months. The manuscript, while entrusted to Mill for annotation, was burnt by an accident. Mill induced Carlyle to accept in compensation £100, which was urgently needed. Carlyle took up the task again and finished the whole on the 12th of January 1837. “I can tell the world,” he said to his wife, “you have not had for a hundred years any book that comes more direct and flamingly from the heart of a living man. Do what you like with it, you ——”
The publication, six months later, of the French Revolution marks the turning-point of Carlyle’s career. Many readers hold it to be the best, as it is certainly the most characteristic, of Carlyle’s books. The failure of Sartor Resartus to attract average readers is quite intelligible. It contains, indeed, some of the most impressive expositions of his philosophical position, and some of his most beautiful and perfectly written passages. But there is something forced and clumsy, in spite of the flashes of grim humour, in the machinery of the Clothes Philosophy. The mannerism, which has been attributed to an imitation of Jean Paul, appeared to Carlyle himself to be derived rather from the phrases current in his father’s house, and in any case gave an appropriate dialect for the expression of his peculiar idiosyncrasy. But it could not be appreciated by readers who would not take the trouble to learn a new language. In the French Revolution Carlyle had discovered his real strength. He was always at his best when his imagination was set to work upon a solid framework of fact. The book shows a unique combination: on the one hand is the singularly shrewd insight into character and the vivid realization of the picturesque; on the other is the “mysticism” or poetical philosophy which relieves the events against a background of mystery. The contrast is marked by the humour which seems to combine a cynical view of human folly with a deeply pathetic sense of the sadness and suffering of life. The convictions, whatever their value, came, as he said, “flamingly from the heart.” It was, of course, impossible for Carlyle to satisfy modern requirements of matter-of-fact accuracy.
- John Aitken Carlyle (1801–1879) finally settled near the Carlyles in Chelsea. He began an English prose version of Dante’s Divine Comedy—which has earned him the name of “Dante Carlyle”—but only completed the translation of the Inferno (1849). The work included a critical edition of the text and a valuable introduction and notes.