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Great Victorian Era Authors & Thinkers: Dickens, Carlyle, and Mill

Interior of a Victorian parlour

Interior of a Victorian parlour

It is not unusual, even today, for writers to purposely or accidentally include overtones from their own lives and beliefs in their works. Moral messages, whether appearing in fiction or non-fiction, are often placed purposefully by authors, and these messages may grow out of the authors' own personal experiences. Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and John Stuart Mill were highly intelligent and in tune with the changes that were occurring in the ways of thinking and doing during the Victorian period. Because of this, their personal experiences were instrumental in their understanding of the time and their lives, and this understanding permeated their works, both fiction or non-fiction.

Charles Dickens' Birthplace

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Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England. He was the second surviving child of eight. When Dickens was twelve, his father was put into a debtors' prison. While the rest of the family went into prison, Dickens instead first went to work at a shoe blacking factory, then became a student at Wellington House Academy in London. From there, he became a solicitor's clerk, and went on to freelance reporting. His first story was published in 1833, beginning his career of fiction writing. In 1836, he married Catherine Hogarth, whom he divorced later in life. They had ten children in the next sixteen years, although one did not survive infancy. Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870. In his lifetime, he produced two volumes of sketches, fourteen novels, five novelettes, and various other short writings, both fiction and non-fiction.

Dickens sees "order, or rather, the potential for order" (Nelson 191). In fact, a common theme in many of Dickens's work was the necessity of self-conquest (Nelsen 191). Dickens believed that individuals were responsible to each other, and, in turn, responsible for the welfare of the entire community (Nelsen 191). Dickens also believed that "…money was degrading and alienating, turning people into things. Materialism made things more important than people" (Krasne WebCT).

However, while Dickens was interested in promoting this view, he did not promote any means to change it. In his novel Hard Times, which appears to have been based upon a real strike occurring in Preston, Dickens shows his interest in working conditions, but he offers no solution to the problem (Smiley 105). Dickens finds the root of the problem – materialism – but his radically conservative nature keeps him from providing a solution (Nelsen 203). Instead, Dickens used his fiction to illuminate the issues and show readers that sympathy, imagination, and understanding are the tools needed to survive. Another example of Dickens's personal experiences permeating his work also occurred in Hard Times in the character of Bounderby. Bounderby claims a similar experience to one Dickens really had – that of working in factories and living on his own at a young age – but unlike Dickens, Bounderby's history is fabricated. However, there are other experiences that tie the two together. Both treated their wives poorly, although Dickens seems to have been somewhat unaware of it himself, and both placed great emphasis on earning money and having fame.

Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Thomas Carlyle, another writer and thinker of the Victorian Era. While they thought similarly, they focused their work in different directions. Dickens wrote fiction that appealed to the common masses, while Carlyle wrote non-fiction, sometimes obviously as non-fiction, other times disguised as fiction.

Dickens On The Strand Celebration in Galveston, Texas, December 2 thru 4, 2011

Thomas Carlyle's Birthplace

Victorian Fashions

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was born on December 4, 1795, in Ecclefechan, Dumfries, Scotland. He was the first of eight children. Carlyle was raised in a Calvinist household and taught the "Gospel of Work" by his father, with religion, conduct, and work placed above all else. It was expected that as the oldest, Carlyle would become a priest. He was taught at home until he was old enough to attend the local school, which he attended until the age of fourteen, when he was sent to the University of Edinburgh to study. While there, he decided to not go into the priesthood and instead became a schoolmaster, then a private tutor. He was married at the age of thirty-one to another writer, Jane Baillie Welsh. Carlyle died on February 5, 1881, in London.

Carlyle was well known for his many translations from German, but he also had original works, both fiction and non-fiction that won his true accolades. His two "fictional" works were Past and Present and Sartor Resartus, and his non-fiction works were Heroes and Hero Worship, The Life of John Sterling, and The French Revolution.

Carlyle's personal beliefs were heavily influenced by his religious upbringing and a breakdown suffered at an early age.

Carlyle…had gone up from his native village to Edinburgh at the age of fourteen and there, reading Gibbon and Hume at the University, had lost his faith. He was poor, lonely, in ill health, unable to find meaningful work or spiritual sustenance; and all these rebuffs to his proud and suffering spirit seemed like a cosmic of Everlasting No (Culler 129).

Carlyle favored the theory that democracy was bad as people needed "a strong and ruthless ruler" (Victorian Web) and that "the universe is fundamentally not an inert automatism, but the expression or indeed incarnation of cosmic spiritual life" (Holloway 18). Carlyle believed that "concern for the self should disappear the will of God prevail" (Kranse).

Carlyle's fiction was meant to be didactic. He used it as a foil for his philosophy and his religious beliefs, especially those that came from his own experiences. Sartor Resartus told a semi-autobiographical story of Carlyle's breakdown and subsequent renewed faith in a personal God. Sartor Resartus was marketed and written as fiction, although it was based so closely in truth. "Many writers have noted that Carlyle used fictional characters for the expression of his most radical ideas in order to protect himself from the public disapproval he expected" (Levine 55). Other works by Carlyle was non-fiction. In those cases, he was able to express his own views and beliefs without needing a mask.

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Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill were contemporaries, sharing some of the same concerns; however, there was one large difference. While Carlyle was raised religious and came back to religion after his mental breakdown, "…Mill, the son of an agnostic, was one of the very few examples…of one who has, not thrown off religious belief, but never had it" (Culler 129).

John Stuart Mills' Birthplace

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill was born on May 20, 1806, in London, England. Mill was the oldest of nine children and was educated by his father, James Mill, and his father's associate with whom he founded utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. To make sure that Mill understood what he was learning, it was also his responsibility to teach his younger siblings. Mill was sent to school to learn more when his father decided he could teach him no more, and when Mill finished school, he worked with his father at the East Indian Company until is dissolved in 1858. The two largest influences on Mill were his mental breakdown in 1826 and 1827 and his soul mate (first platonic, and later his wife). Mill died on May 8, 1873. Over the course of his life, he wrote numerous non-fiction texts on logic, epistemology, economics, social and political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, religion, and current affairs (Heydt). Three of the most widely read are On Liberty, Autobiography, and The Subjection of Women.

Mill's beliefs changed over the course of his lifetime. At first, he was a firm believer in his father's and Bentham's utilitarian philosophy of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. After his breakdown, however, he deviated from that belief. He became a defender of individual liberty and supported socialism, women's rights, and political and social reforms aimed at unionizing and equality. Even with these changes, though, he maintained his belief that "higher minds should set the tone of society" (Lee). One idea that stayed with Mill throughout his life was that of empiricism – the concept that man learns from experience and will only believe in things that he sees or experiences himself.

Mill's personal beliefs played a vital role in all of his writing – the works which he produced were meant to explain his beliefs to the world, and to attempt to influence others to believe as he did. The Subjection of Women, for example, is his work on women's equality – a very controversial topic, even now. At the time, it was even more so. Unlike Carlyle, however, he did not find the need to couch his beliefs in a fictional persona.

Favorite Victorian Thinker

Works Cited

Culler, A. Dwight. "Mill, Carlyle, and the Spirit of the Age." Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 127-160.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Heydt, Colin. "John Stuart Mill: Overview." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. <>

Holloway, John. "The Life of Carlyle's Language." Ed. Harold Bloom. Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 17-32.

Lee, Eugene. "John Stuart Mill." Victorian Web. October 2000.


Levine, George. "Sartor Resartus and the Balance of Fiction." Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. Thomas Carlyle: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 55-75.

Nelson, Harland S. Charles Dickens. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Smiley, Jane. Charles Dickens. New York: Lipper/Viking Books, 2002.

"Thomas Carlyle: Biography" Victorian Web. 1996. <>

Trilling, Lionel and Bloom, Harold, comp and ed. Victorian Prose and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.


Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on October 24, 2014:

Very good review of the three great writers and thinkers of Victorian Era. I didn't hear of Thomas Carlyle until I read this.

Thanks for sharing it.

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