- The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle ed. by Ian Campbell, Aileen Christianson and David Sorensen
"Essentially I have nothing to complain of except what belongs to the years I have come to," Carlyle wrote to John A. Carlyle on 31 December 1870. This grievance in its immediate context refers to a cold New Year's Eve in London, as Carlyle dispensed advice about keeping warm to his younger brother in Scotland. Inured by his own battle with "fierce weather," at 5 Cheyne Row, severe enough to forego washing for the last three days, "except of face & hands in tepid water," the prophet of Chelsea counselled: "You absolutely must provide yourself with a pair of new flannel Shirts. You have no idea of the increase of heat that will surprise you in them" (133–35). More broadly, the comment combined good sense with stoic resignation. Just 75 when he wrote, Carlyle hinted at intimations of mortality, overtly spelled out elsewhere in this present collection of 122 letters written between May 1870 and September 1871. "Great weakness, darkness, lonesomeness of mind," he admitted earlier in the year. These are the symptoms "of Advancing AGE, […] 'Not to do any work more, while thou livest!'" (26). Flashes of despair, intensified by his lame writing hand, punctuate this tranche of letters. But they don't set the overall tone. On balance, a spirited exchange of news with family, friends and public figures contradicts the fear Carlyle expressed that his work was "done." Sample the letters, including a significant intervention into public discourse about the Franco-Prussian War (see below) and you find someone determined to make the best of his circumstances. Take each day as it comes and carry on.
True, Carlylean "botherations" appear with unfailing regularity. From "railway whistles" to the sound of a nearby carpenter's axe, a host of "other infernalia" plague him, including indigestion, nausea and "a continual Fight for Sleep" (46). Add to these afflictions two other burdens: the remorse Carlyle felt at the unexpected death of his wife five years ago in April 1866 and the troublesome state of his "old right hand."
Jane's death, as his niece Mary Aitken memorably noted, was a loss "my [End Page 208] Uncle never seems to forget […] even for a day" (171). The ailment with Carlyle's lame right hand, however, had different consequences. The physical act of composition, he explained to John Carlyle on one occasion, made writing feel like "running races in a sack" (4). It also threatened to deprive him of the means of "working […] at my old trade" (11). Dictation, as an alternative, he tried sometimes, "but never with any success," doubting that he should ever learn it. In fact, he did, characteristically exhorting himself to have "Courage, nevertheless [… and] silence in regard" to self-doubt (11).
Signs of resolution manifest themselves throughout the volume. Several letters attest to an innate understanding of the need for fresh air, walking, and regular exercise. Unencumbered with the smart Apps and electronic devices currently available to chide us to mind our steps, Carlyle, like many of his contemporaries, grasped the need to offset indoor, sedentary activity with a desire to get outside. "I have […] just done my Six Proofsheets"; he wrote on 5 August 1870, "and go off direct for the walking due" (49). In cold weather and the streets once clear of snow, he would run out in his "comfortable French shoes & muffled to the eyes; getting a great deal of good of the 20 minutes sharp locomotion" he accomplished (129). On occasions, the lure of fresh air even prompts Carlyle to dream. "I sometime think I shd really like to possess a habitable cottage there [Colvend, a seaside hamlet 25 miles south of Dumfries]; & fly out of these inane noises; into the divine solitudes and the great Ocean's 'everlasting voice'" (12). But if he took flight in this instance, overall, he remained grounded, a man of...