AMONG a number of intellectually influential writers of the 19th century, generally known as the Victorian Sages, JS Mill and John Ruskin both had important connections to Scotland, while beside them Matthew Arnold contributed to a burgeoning sense of British cultural identity. Central to this group was Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), whose essay, Signs of the Times (1829), is a major protest against Victorian utilitarianism: “The truth is, men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe, and hope, and work only in the Visible. .. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual, is important to us.” Virtue, Carlyle says, has become “finite, conditional...a calculation of the Profitable”: “Our true Deity is Mechanism.” Carlyle opposes the rules of “Profit and Loss” by asserting that greatness in mankind is never mechanical, always dynamic, and submission to the mechanical makes human beings inferior.

The moral authority of Carlyle’s stance, the clotted densities of his style, his advocacy of hard work, deep belief and commitment, were instilled from his upbringing in the small border market town of Ecclefechan. Local schools, church and Edinburgh University encouraged his conviction and he devoted himself to opposing the mechanistic preferences of his era. However, he equally opposed free-thinking atheists and sceptics like Voltaire and Rousseau. If their questioning had helped undermine corrupt authoritarian hierarchy in France, all well and good, but Carlyle didn’t believe that this had created a better society. By contrast, in Germany as it then was, before unification, Carlyle saw an extensive country of small, rural kingdoms and city-states, where independence of thought, self-sufficiency and neighbourliness were paramount.

His convictions were founded on extensive historical research. Through voluminous studies of the French Revolution, Oliver Cromwell and Frederick the Great, he built up a ground of knowledge upon which his speculative work was based. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) called for the recognition of qualities of greatness in individuals, and is evidently related to the idea of the elect in Presbyterian theology. Yet where church teaching might indoctrinate the idea that people are either among the few who are “saved” or the majority who are “damned”, Carlyle’s heroes are heroes because they offer imperishable examples of greatness to all people, and so might help others to live. So far, the idea may be described as democratic. But there is a liability here also, and in later years, Carlyle’s radicalism became increasingly authoritarian.

Perhaps his most endearing book remains Sartor Resartus (1836) — the Latin title meaning The Tailor Reclothed — an extended work beginning with the idea of metaphor, the relation between the Visible and the Invisible, things and signs, material goods and words in language. This strange, convoluted book introduces Herr Teufelsdrockh, Professor of Things in General at Weissnichtwo University (the German words mean, Professor Devil’s dung of the University of Nobody-Knows-Where). Carlyle’s endorsement of human sympathy in his description of poor women preparing the family meal in small cottages and his conviction that his work should somehow be for them, demonstrate humility and faith. Yet he would come to approve slavery, militarism and dictatorship. His depiction of Cromwell as a liberator, prompted perhaps by Ralph Waldo Emerson, led to American readings of Cromwell as an ancestor of the American revolutionary spirit, a violent republican, inspiring John Brown and leading to the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. Yet Carlyle himself wanted to justify slavery in the West Indies in 1850. George Orwell described him as sadistic. Maybe those terrifying components of his character in later life made him peculiarly insightful and prophetic of the worst tendencies in human nature that were still to find expression in the genocidal wars and mass destruction of the next century. According to Ian Brockie, in the entry for Hitler in The Carlyle Encyclopedia (2004) edited by Mark Cumming, Goebbels is recorded as having read Carlyle’s Frederick the Great aloud to Hitler, as the defeat of Nazism grew more imminent. Herbert Grierson, in Carlyle and Hitler (first published in 1933, from a lecture delivered at the University of Manchester in 1930), described Carlyle’s influence on Nietzsche and the adoption and distortions of the views of both philosophers by the Nazis.

But Carlyle’s virtues elude such associations. One was the recommendation of Christian Isobel Johnstone (1781-1857) as “the brave-hearted lady” whose epic novel Clan-Albin: A National Tale (1815) is one of those remarkable 19th-century works fallen from view until its republication by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, edited by Andrew Monnickendam (2003). Written before Walter Scott’s influence took hold, it follows the wanderings of the central character, orphan Norman Macalbin, through a deepening understanding of Scotland’s relations with Ireland, Spain and Europe. The novel is propelled by the voices of strong women. Lady Augusta, Monimia, Flora and others form a chorus for Johnstone’s lament for the destruction of Highland culture and her scorn for the priorities of money-makers. Written in the year of Waterloo, there is nothing triumphal and nothing to portend the later priorities of fascism in this humane, sympathetic, “national tale”.

Hugh Miller (1802-56) was born in Cromarty. His father, a ship’s captain, was lost at sea in 1807 and his mother was a major influence, telling him supernatural tales as he grew up, walking the shoreline and questioning authority, including his schoolmaster, with his own independent, tough-minded intellect. He became an apprentice stonemason and looking curiously around him, developed an interest in fossils and geology. As the heavy work affected his health, he became more devoted to writing, first poems then journalism in the Inverness Courier, and local lore collected in Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1835). Miller characteristically joins sharp observation of hard facts with fictional or mythic episodes and stories.

The central debate in church-going Scottish society in the late 1830s and 1840s was whether landowners should have the right to appoint ministers to churches, above the choice of local congregations. The power of ministers to sway public opinion had been tested in the 18th century, when many had endorsed landowners’ authority and complied with the Highland Clearances. Congregations saw it as their democratic right to choose their minister. Miller supported this right and moved to Edinburgh as editor of The Witness, a newspaper which opposed the landowners and the Patronage Act. The disruption of the church in 1843 saw Miller staunchly with the Free Church, opposing the landowners. Miller wrote hundreds of articles on social injustices and a major book of geology, The Old Red Sandstone (1841). His childhood and youth is described in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) and he became one of the most widely-read figures in Victorian Britain, highly praised by Dickens, among others.

Of the next generation is George MacDonald (1824-1905). After university at Aberdeen, he began training as a minister but he resigned from the church and lived as a man of letters largely from the charity of friends. The preoccupying theme of all his work, an extended series of novels, many written specifically for children, is an exploration of the relation between material reality and the constructions of the imagination (Carlyle’s “visible” and “invisible” worlds). His novels vividly depict characters in dramatic — sometimes melodramatic — stories. Unpredictable sequences of images and narrative twists and turns, present worlds packed with moral meaning and allegorical suggestion, which never yield too easily one-to-one symbolic significance. They always retain an edge of uncertainty, a feeling of proximate danger, a sense of otherness, of the sheer strangeness of existence, and of wonder. Concrete imagery and the interpenetration of immaterial realities are everywhere in evidence. In Phantastes (1858), the wandering hero seems hypersensitive to the inward sensibility of non-human living things such as a beech tree: “A trembling went through the leaves; a few of the last drops of the night’s rain fell from off them at my feet...” The particular materiality of the leaves and raindrops is matched by a sense of what the tree itself may be feeling. Libraries, tunnels, stars and strange landscapes are MacDonald’s endlessly alienating territory. He also wrote over twenty novels intended for a popular readership, but the theme of redemption in the susceptible universe of human relationships increasingly occupied him, from David Elginbrod (1863) through Malcolm (1875) to The Marquis of Lossie (1877) and on.

HIS children’s novels At the Back of the North Wind (1871) and The Princess and the Goblin (1872) are classics, perennially in print, but arguably his strongest work, along with Phantastes, is Lilith (1895). Vane, an heir to an English country manor, is troubled by visions of an elderly man in his library; following him, Vane finds a dusty mirror that becomes the entranceway to a journey through inexplicable scenes, beautiful and hideous, life-enhancing or horribly threatening, questioning the value of reason and the presence of sanity in a world beset by pressing manifestations of the unknown. Sexuality is at the heart of the book: the physical presence of sexual identity in the title-character, the meaning of children (The Little Ones), living creatures who require protection and respect for tenderness, vulnerability, the processes of initiation, whose existence has been brought about by the sheer animality of the act of procreation.

MacDonald’s contemporary Margaret Oliphant (1828-97) wrote over ninety novels, The Chronicles of Carlingford being a series similar in scope and design to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire stories. But Oliphant’s major achievements are much closer to MacDonald in her Tales of the Seen and Unseen and her novel Kirsteen (1890) is prophetic of Catherine Carswell.

Kirsteen is a powerful work of protest against the social structures that make women subservient to male-dominated conventions. The villainous patriarch Douglas of Drumcarro and the vain lover Lord John Campbell may border on stereotypes, but the character of Kirsteen herself is complex: victimised but independently-minded and ultimately convincing, sympathetic and attractive. If Kirsteen is a proto-feminist novel, Oliphant’s short stories are even more subtle and subversive in this respect. That three of her children died young and she wrote to earn a living, maintained her Christian faith and was hypersensitive to the rising authority of science and materialism may provide a biographical explanation for some of the themes in her fiction, but these facts do not account for its lasting, haunting power. Her critique of a world given to venality, false ideals of economic “progress” and technological expertise, might make her seem like Carlyle being weightily moralistic, but in her best fiction, the critique is poignant and memorable.

In the novella A Beleaguered City (1880), a small town in provincial France is overwhelmed by an inexplicable presence: “There was in the air, in the night, a sensation the most strange I have ever experienced... This was the sensation that overwhelmed me here — a crowd: yet nothing to be seen but the darkness... We could not move for them, so close were they around us. What do I say? There was nobody – nothing.” The women of the town sense this presence while the men want a reasonable explanation. These are the spirits of the dead, returned. Finally, when the townsfolk understand what is happening, the spirits retreat, and everything seems to return to normal, but the story tells us that this sense of normality will always require the corrective of fully sensitised and intuitive understanding. The scientific, mechanistic, materialist and factual, is and always will be inadequate to any fully human life.

The Land of Darkness is a representation of industrialisation, and the crude rewards and costs that come with it. In The Library Window an unnamed woman living in St Andrews sees a window in the wall of a house opposite her own, yet it is vague and indistinct. Looking at it over time, she makes out a man in the room behind it, seated at a desk, writing. Towards the end of the story he comes forward, waves, and acknowledges her. But when she visits the house, there is no window, no library and no man. A story that says so much by suggestion, that restrains itself from the obvious or blatant so carefully, and yet carries such a power of implication, is a major achievement. The Library Window is close to Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and predates it by two years. These stories (along with The Secret Chamber) are masterworks of supernatural suggestion, lasting reminders of demands the dead continue to visit upon us, immaterial realities that surround us all and permeate out lives. More than Victorian values are working here.