- The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle eds. by Ian Campbell, Aileen Christianson, David Sorensen
The 170 letters Carlyle wrote between July 1867 and December 1868 cover a difficult period of his life. Widowed at 70 after 44 years of marriage and alone in Cheyne Walk, Carlyle felt bereft, his life hollowed out by the unexpected death of his wife on 21 April 1865. "I am very sad of soul," he confessed to Charles Gavan Duffy. Duffy, an Irish friend and politician who emigrated to Australia two decades before, had recently sent Carlyle "various bits of intelligence" from the Antipodes, to which he gladly replied on 19 December 1868. News of the progress of a young student making his way with success in Australia agreed very well with him, Carlyle responded, noting that he and Duffy had done what they could to help "an Oxford youth of fair faculty." He then passed on to other matters, fusing gossip about political intrigues at home and abroad with commentary on his own mental state. While "sad of soul," he continued, "[I am] not therefore to be called miserable; nor am I quite idle, working rather what I can, in ways that you would not disapprove of" (211–12). [End Page 167]
Attentive to nuance and etymology, Carlyle's refusal to characterize himself as "wretched" or "pitiful" after Jane's death is telling. Sadness of soul points to something more profound, perhaps reflective of discomfort, the unease of a man aware of his own shortcomings as a husband but blind to any pain failings of his may have inflicted on his wife. Almost certainly some trace of culpability surfaces in the letter, to be more explicitly expressed in a journal entry written shortly before replying to Duffy. Considering his wife's epistolary talents, Carlyle had confided to himself: "One thing you cd do, write some record of Her, make some selectn of her Letters" (71n4). This sense that he owed Jane something reappears in Reminiscences (1881), a collection of miscellaneous papers and letters of Jane to Carlyle edited by James Anthony Froude. Evidently written around the same time, Carlyle returned to the question again: "Ought all this [a consideration of Jane's epistolary talents] to be lost, or kept to myself, and the brief time that belongs to me? Can nothing of it be saved, then, for the worthy that still remain among these roaring myriads of profound unworthy?" (Reminiscences, 72n4).
Other letters in the volume under review amplify Carlyle's continuing use of correspondence as an outlet for the expression of personal grief. While the sight of handwriting from old friends proves "welcome and cheering" at all times, he concedes (85), hearing from others opened a channel for mourning. "I am very idle here, very solitary," he replied to Thomas Erskine on 23 January 1868, whose spiritual counsel had served him well in the past. "Excepting Froude almost alone, whom I see once a week, there is hardly anybody whose talk, always polite, clear, sharp, and sincere, does me any considerable good." Bothered by winter darkness, the cold, often unable to sleep, plagued by noise and afflicted with bouts of dyspepsia, Carlyle's lot during this period remains stubbornly unenviable. "It is a great evil to me that now I have no work," he continues in this same letter. To lack work worth "calling by the name;" to not care "sufficiently for any object left me in the world, to think of grappling round it and coercing it by work," that absence lay at the heart of Carlyle's dreary struggle to make sense of his life (86). Yet earlier the same month, in a letter to his sister, Carlyle confronts what he knew to be the solution. Neither worse nor better with respect to "my old state of health," he wrote on 1 January, and for the most part "with other than a joyful heart," one must do the best one can...