That tells on my old gipsy nature; like a violin hung up, I begin to lose what music there was in me

Colvin went out to Davos in January 1881, and found RLS apparently little improved in health, and depressed by a sad turn of destiny which had brought out his old friend Mrs. Sitwell to the same place, at the same time, to watch beside the deathbed of her son, Francis Albert (Bertie, b. 1863, d. Apr. 3rd 1881) – the youth commemorated in the verses headed F.A.S., In Memoriam, afterwards published in Underwoods (1887).

This letter refers to a copy of Carlyle’s Reminiscences (just published) which Colvin had sent him some time after he came back to England. The 2nd volume contains Carlyle’s memoir of his wife, the publication of which caused controversy. Probably Colvin had asked RLS to send the book on to Mrs Sitwell.

RLS’s dog, Woggin, had bitten Colvin during his visit to Davos.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 779.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 27-29]

Davos, [c. 12 March 1881.]

My dear Colvin,

My health is not just what it should be; I have lost weight, pulse, respiration, etc., and gained nothing in the way of my old bellows. But these last few days, with tonic, cod-liver oil, better wine (there is some better now), and perpetual beef-tea, I think I have progressed.


Advert for Cod Liver Oil, c. 1890 []


‘Invalid cookery’, from ‘Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management’, 1861 []

To say truth, I have been here a little over long. I was reckoning up, and since I have known you, already quite a while, I have not, I believe, remained so long in any one place as here in Davos. That tells on my old gipsy nature; like a violin hung up, I begin to lose what music there was in me; and with the music, I do not know what besides, or do not know what to call it, but something radically part of life, a rhythm, perhaps, in one’s old and so brutally over-ridden nerves, or perhaps a kind of variety of blood that the heart has come to look for.

I purposely knocked myself off first. As to F[rancis] A[lbert] S[itwell], I believe I am no sound authority; I alternate between a stiff disregard and a kind of horror […]. In neither mood can a man judge at all. I know the thing to be terribly perilous, I fear it to be now altogether hopeless. Luck has failed; the weather has not been favourable; and in her true heart, the mother hopes no more.

RFrances “Fanny” Jane Fetherstonhaugh Sitwell (1839–1924) []

But – well, I feel a great deal, that I either cannot or will not say, as you well know. It has helped to make me more conscious of the wolverine on my own shoulders, and that also makes me a poor judge and poor adviser. Perhaps, if we were all marched out in a row, and a piece of platoon firing to the drums performed, it would be well for us; although, I suppose – and yet I wonder! – so ill for the poor mother and for the dear wife. But you can see this makes me morbid. Sufficit; explicit.

You are right about the Carlyle book; F[anny] and I are in a world not ours; but pardon me, as far as sending on goes, we take another view: the first volume, à la bonne heure!

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Scottish essayist, satirist, and historian []

Carlyle’s ‘Reminiscences’, vol. 1, 1881 []

But not – never – the second. Two hours of hysterics can be no good matter for a sick nurse, and the strange, hard, old being in so lamentable and yet human a desolation – crying out like a burnt child, and yet always wisely and beautifully – how can that end, as a piece of reading, even to the strong – but on the brink of the most cruel kind of weeping? I observe the old man’s style is stronger on me than ever it was, and by rights, too, since I have just laid down his most attaching book. God rest the baith o’ them! But even if they do not meet again, how we should all be strengthened to be kind, and not only in act, in speech also, that so much more important part. See what this apostle of silence most regrets, not speaking out his heart.

Carlyle’s ‘Reminiscences’, vol. 2, 1881 []

Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801-1866), well-known writer of letters []

I was struck as you were by the admirable, sudden, clear sunshine upon Southey – even on his works. Symonds, to whom I repeated it, remarked at once, a man who was thus respected by both Carlyle and Landor must have had more in him than we can trace. So I feel with true humility.

Robert Southey (1774-1843), English poet of the Romantic school, one of the so-called “Lake Poets” []

Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), English writer and poet, late 1850s []

It was to save my brain that Symonds proposed reviewing.

J.A. Symonds tobogganing in Davos []

He and, it appears, Leslie Stephen fear a little some eclipse; I am not quite without sharing the fear.

Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), editor of the Cornhill []

I know my own languor as no one else does; it is a dead down-draught, a heavy fardel. Yet if I could shake off the wolverine aforesaid, and his fangs are lighter, though perhaps I feel them more, I believe I could be myself again a while. I have not written any letter for a great time; none saying what I feel, since you were here, I fancy. Be duly obliged for it, and take my most earnest thanks not only for the books but for your letter. […] Your affectionate,


The effect of reading this on Fanny shows me I must tell you I am very happy, peaceful, and jolly, except for questions of work and the states of other people.

Woggin sends his love.

RLS with his black Skye terrier Wogg and (left to right) Fanny, Thomas Stevenson, Lloyd (Fanny’s son) and Margaret Stevenson, 1883.

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