“We can do no more than try to do our best”

In December 1887, RLS had sent a copy of his ‘Memories and Portraits’ to one of the most intimate friends of his father, Rev. Archibald Charteris, asking if he could recall something memorable of Thomas Stevenson, to be used in a future written memory (Cf. previous letter:https://lettersofrobertlouisstevenson.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/i-know-too-well-how-difficult-it-is-to-put-even-two-sincere-lines-upon-paper/).

[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2054.]

To the Rev. Archibald Charteris [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 59-60]

Saranac Lake, Adirondacks,

New York, U.S.A. [9 or 10 April 1888]

My dear Dr. Charteris,

The funeral letter, your notes, and many other things, are reserved for a book, Memorials of a Scottish Family, if ever I can find time and opportunity. I wish I could throw off all else and sit down to it today.

Rev. Archibald Hamilton Charteris (1835-1908) was a Scottish theologian, a Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, professor of biblical criticism at the University of Edinburgh 1868-1898 and a leading voice in Church reforms. He had been one of the most intimate friends of RLS’s father [https://d3d00swyhr67nd.cloudfront.net]

Yes, my father was a ‘distinctly religious man’, but not a pious. The distinction painfully and pleasurably recalls old conflicts; it used to be my great gun – and you, who suffered for the whole Church, know how needful it was to have some reserve artillery! His sentiments were tragic; he was a tragic thinker.

Thomas Stevenson (1818-1887) [www.wikipedi.org

Now, granted that life is tragic to the marrow, it seems the proper function of religion to make us accept and serve in that tragedy, as officers in that other and comparable one of war. Service is the word, active service, in the military sense; and the religious man – I beg pardon, the pious man – is he who has a military joy in duty – not he who weeps over the wounded. We can do no more than try to do our best. Really, I am the grandson of the manse –


– I preach you a kind of sermon. Box the brat’s ears!

My mother – to pass to matters more within my competence – finely enjoys herself. The new country, some new friends we have made, the interesting experiment of the climate – which (at least) is tragic – all have done her good.

Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson (1829-1897) [www.wikimedia.org]

I have myself passed a better winter than for years, and now that it is nearly over have some diffident hopes of doing well in the summer and ‘eating a little more air’ than usual.

RLS at Saranac Lake (diorama) [http://s3.amazonaws.com]

I thank you for the trouble you are taking, and my mother joins with me in kindest regards to yourself and Mrs. Charteris.

Rev. Archibald Charteris and his wife Catherine Anderson [http://churchofscotland.org.uk]

– Yours very truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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“Lloyd and I have a mutiny novel on hand – a tremendous work”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2053.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 64-65]

[Saranac Lake] April 9!! 1888

My dear Colvin,

I have been long without writing to you, but am not to blame. I had some little annoyances quite for a private eye, but they ran me so hard that I could not write without lugging them in, which (for several reasons) I did not choose to do. Fanny is off to San Francisco,

San Francisco, 1880s [https://i.ebayimg.com]

and next week I myself flit to New York; address Scribner’s.

Scribner’s & Sons, 743-745 Broadway, New York [http://library.princeton.edu]

Where we shall go I know not, nor (I was going to say) care; so bald and bad is my frame of mind.

On June 27, 1888, RLS and his wife will leave on the yacht ‘Casco’ for a cruise of the Pacific islands, including the Marquesas, the Paumotus and Tahiti. They will arrive in Honolulu on January 24, 1889 [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

Do you know our – ahem! – fellow clubman, Colonel Majendie?

Colonel Vivian Dering Majendie (1836-1898) served in the Crimea and in the Indian Mutiny. From 1871 he was Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office, with the dangerous task of examining bombs discovered by the police during the Fenian outrages. His advice during the fenian dynamite campaign of 1881-1885 contributed to the saving of lives. In 1886 he visited the US to observe the petroleum industry there [www.wikimedia.org]

I had such an interesting letter from him. Did you see my sermon?

LS’s 4th essay for Scribner’s Magazine, ‘Pulvis et Umbra’, was issued in April 1888. The title is taken from Horace’s “Pulvis et umbra sumus” (“We are made of dust and shadow”). In the essay, RLS questions the nature of mankind and their place in the universe, also considering evolution and revolutions in science. RLS suggests that we should pity man, who cannot control his innate impulses, and in evolutionary terms does not stand apart from other species [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

It has evoked the worst feeling: I fear people don’t care for the truth, or else I don’t tell it. Suffer me to wander without purpose. I have sent off twenty letters today, and begun and stuck at a twenty-first, and taken a copy of one which was on business, and corrected several galleys of proof, and sorted about a bushel of old letters;

RLS at desk with quill pen, Bournemouth, late 1886 [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

so if any one has a right to be romantically stupid it is I – and I am. Really deeply stupid, and at that stage when in old days I used to pour out words without any meaning whatever and with my mind taking no part in the performance. I suspect that is now the case. I am reading with extraordinary pleasure the life of Lord Lawrence:

John Laird Mair Lawrence (1811-1879) 1st Baron Lawrence, Viceroy of India 1863-69. As Chief Comissioner for the Punjab he played a major part in securing the capture of Dheli from the mutineers, 1857 [https://collectionimages.npg.org.uk]
RLS was reading Baron Lawrence’s biography by Bosworth Smith.

Lloyd and I have a mutiny novel –

(Next morning, after twelve other letters) – mutiny novel on hand […] – a tremendous work – so we are all at Indian books. The idea of the novel is Lloyd’s: I call it a novel. ‘Tis a tragic romance, of the most tragic sort: I believe the end will be almost too much for human endurance – when the hero […] is thrown to the ground with one of his own (Sepoy) soldier’s knees upon his chest, and the cries begin in the Beebeeghar. O truly, you know it is a howler! The whole last part is – well the difficulty is that, short of resuscitating Shakespeare, I don’t know who is to write it.

Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947), RLS’s stepson. The project of a mutiny novel was abandoned. All that survives is a 3 pages typescript by Lloyd with a summary of a plot [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

I still keep wonderful. I am a great performer before the Lord on the penny whistle.

Metal penny whistle, 19th century [https://cdn0.rubylane.com]

– Dear sir, sincerely yours,

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 7th president of the US [www.wikipedia.org]


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“It is in such a world, that I am very glad to fight out my battle, and see some fine sunsets”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2051.]

To Adelaide Boodle [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 65-66]

Address, c/o Messrs. Scribner’s Sons,

743 Broadway, N. Y.

[c. 9 April 1888]


743 & 745 Broadway, New York, was the address of RLS’s editor, Scribner’s, 1875-1894 [http://library.princeton.edu]


My dear Gamekeeper,


Miss Adelaide Ann Boodle (1858-1934) was the 6th of the 7 daughters of Edward, a London barrister and his wife Julia Barrie. After her father’s death, they came to Bournemouth because Adelaide was threatened with lung trouble; they were neighbours of RLS. Adelaide became a devoted friend of the Stevensons: her book “RLS and his Sine Qua Non” (1926) will give an affectionate account of life at Skerryvore [https://babel.hathitrust.org]


Your p.c. (proving you a good student of Micawber) has just arrived, and it paves the way to something I am anxious to say.

Miss Boodle had presumably addressed her letter to RLS quoting Micawber’s letter in the Chapter LXIII of Dicken’s ‘David Copperfiel’, addressed to Copperfield as ‘The Eminent Author’.


I wrote a paper the other day – Pulvis et Umbra;


RLS’s 4th essay for Scribner’s Magazine, ‘Pulvis et Umbra’, was just issued in April 1888. The title is taken from Horace’s “Pulvis et umbra sumus” (“We are made of dust and shadow”). In the essay, RLS questions the nature of mankind and their place in the universe, also considering evolution and revolutions in science. RLS suggests that we should pity man, who cannot control his innate impulses, and in evolutionary terms does not stand apart from other species [https://babel.hathitrust.org]


I wrote it with great feeling and conviction: to me it seemed bracing and healthful, it is in such a world (so seen by me), that I am very glad to fight out my battle, and see some fine sunsets

Image result for sunset saranac lake

Sunset at Saranac Lake, NY [http://i.rentalo.com]

Image result for sunset upolu, samoa

Sunset at Upolu, Samoa [https://imgc.allpostersimages.com]


and hear some excellent jests between whiles round the camp fire.

RLS with family and friends at Vailima, Upolu, Samoa, 1893.


But I find that to some people this vision of mine is a nightmare, and extinguishes all ground of faith in God or pleasure in man. Truth I think not so much of; for I do not know it. And I could wish in my heart that I had not published this paper, if it troubles folk too much: all have not the same digestion, nor the same sight of things. And it came over me with special pain that perhaps this article (which I was at the pains to send to her) might give dismalness to my Gamekeeper at Home.

Miss Boodle had been trusted to keep an eye on RLS’s interests in connection with his house in Bournemouth, which had been let, and other matters, and to report thereon from time to time. In their correspondence RLS is generally referred to as the Squire and the lady as the Gamekeeper. The reference is also to ‘The Gamekeeper at Home: Sketches of Natural History and Rural Life’, by Richard Jefferies, 1878.


Well, I cannot take back what I have said; but yet I may add this. If my view be everything but the nonsense that it may be – to me it seems self-evident and blinding truth surely of all things it makes this world holier. There is nothing in it but the moral side – but the great battle and the breathing times with their refreshments. I see no more and no less. And if you look again, it is not ugly, and it is filled with promise.

Pray excuse a desponding author for this apology. My wife is away off to the uttermost parts of the States, all by herself. I shall be off, I hope, in a week; but where? Ah! that I know not.


Image result for fanny stevenson

Fanny had left for California on March 26th, 1888 [www.thetimes.co.uk]

Hotel St. Stephen, 46-52 East 11th Street, NY, c. 1880. RLS will be there in the second half of April 1888 [http://thehotelalbert.com]


I keep wonderful, and my wife a little better, and the lad flourishing. We now perform duets on two D tin whistles;

RLS playing the tin whistle with his family and friends, Honolulu, 1889 [http://s3.amazonaws.com]


it is no joke to make the bass; I think I must really send you one, which I wish you would correct. […]


I may be said to live for these instrumental labours now, but I have always some childishness on hand. – I am, dear Gamekeeper, your indulgent but intemperate Squire,

Robert Louis Stevenson







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“Accordingly, at about nine one night Lloyd and I began”

At the end of March 1888, RLS and his stepson Lloyd began to write a story for the New York Ledger, a weekly newspaper. The story was called ‘Fighting the Ring’, and never published. Some pages of it, typewritten, are still preserved at Yale: they tell about a fight against a syndicate which was cornering the copper market.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by G. Balfour. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2050.]

To his Wife [Balfour, The life of RLS, II, 1901, pp. 32-3, 35]

[Saranac Lake, c. 6 April 1888]

[…] Study of the Ledger convinced me that ‘Fighting the Ring’ would not do.


The New York Ledger was a weekly story paper, established in 1855 by Robert E. Bonner. In 1898 it was changed to The Ledger Monthly, which disappeared by 1903 [https://thumbs.worthpoint.com]



Robert E. Bonner (1824-1899), proprietor of the New York Ledger, had met RLS at saranac lake in March 1888 [https://iiif.library.villanova.edu]


Accordingly, at about nine one night Lloyd and I began, and next day before lunch we had finished the design of a new and more sensational tale, ‘The Gaol Bird’. ’Tis the correct Ledger subject of a noble criminal, who returns to prove his innocence; but it seems picturesquely designed, and we flatter ourselves that the relations between the criminal and the man whom he suspects (Donald, first Baron Drummond of Drummond and Karacaroom, late Governor-General of India) are essentially original, and should quite blind all but the most experienced. […] ’Tis true my whistle explodes with sharp noises, and has to be patched with court-plaster like a broken nose; but its notes are beginning to seem pretty sweet to the player – The Penny Piper. […]

RLS playing the penny whistle at Manuia Lanai, Honolulu, 1889 [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]



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“You alone will possess that publication without sin”

Minna Caroline Smith (1860-1929) was a contributor to the Boston Daily Advertiser, translator and author of children’s books. In 1900 she told she had written to profess penitence for having bought a pirated copy of Jekyll & Hyde for 25 cents.

[Words between square brackets are interpolated, cf. Mehew 6, 2046.]

To Minna Caroline Smith [Stevensoniana, 1900, p. 33]

[Saranac Lake, March 1888]

Dear Madam,

It is impossible to be more gracefully penitent: I give you leave to buy [Harper]’s triple piracy in the [Franklin Square] library;

The Harper Establishment, Pearl Street, New York [http://visualizingnyc.org]


and this permission is withheld from all other living creatures, so that you alone will possess that publication without sin. — I am, dear Madam, yours truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson



Since 1994 Minna Caroline Smith was to become an author of children’s books. Red Top Ranch, 1907.



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“It was a project I went into with horrid diffidence; and lucre was my only motive”

[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2043.]

To Edmund Gosse [Colvin 1912, pp. 236-237]

[Saranac Lake, 31 March 1888.]

My dear Gosse,

Why so plaintive? Either the post-office has played us false, or you were in my debt. In case it should be my letter that has failed to come to post, I must tell again the fate of Mrs. Gosse’s thermometer. It hangs in our sitting-room, where it has often marked freezing point and below; “See what Gosse says”, is a common word of command.


Edmund Gosse with his wife and children [http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com]


But the point is this: in the verandah hangs another thermometer, condemned to register minus 40° and the class of temperatures; and to him, we have given the name of the Quarterly Reviewer.


From left to right, on the veranda at Baker’s Cottage, Saranac Lake: Valentine Roch with another servant, Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny and RLS. Top right: the thermometer on the verandah, aka “the Quarterly Reviewer” [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]


I hope the jape likes you.


RLS refers to the notorious attack by John Churton Collins in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for October 1886 on the inaccuracies in Gosse’s essay ‘From Shakespeare to Pope’, 1885.


Please tell the Fortnightly man that I am sorry but I can do nothing of that sort this year, as I am under a pledge to Scribner’s; and indeed my monthly articles take the best of my time.

Frank Harris.

Frank Harris ( 1855–1931), Irish-born American journalist and man of letters, editor of the Fortnightly Review 1886-1894 [https://cdn.britannica.com]


It was a project I went into with horrid diffidence; and lucre was my only motive. I get on better than I expected, but it is difficult to find an article of the sort required for each date, and to vary the matter and keep up (if possible) the merit. I do not know if you think I have at all succeeded; it seemed to me this really worked paper was more money’s worth (as well as probably better within my means) than the Lang business at the Sign of the Ship.

Andrew Lang, by Elliott & Fry, 1901 - NPG x82452 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was running a monthly causerie in Longman’s Magazine, called ‘At the Sign of the Ship’, “pages of Gossip on Men and Books”, 1886-1905 [https://collectionimages.npg.org.uk]


Indeed I feel convinced I could never have managed that; it takes a gift to do it. Here is lunch. – Yours afftly.,






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“Hasty reading is the fit precursor of hasty writing”

In his review in Nature Illustrated Journal of Science of 8 March 1888, P.G. T[ait] criticised RLS’s Memoir of Fleemin Jenkin saying that ‘the weird imagination of the writer has proved too much for him, and some of his “situations” are altogether overcharged’. He also criticised RLS’s story of how as a student he obtained his Class Certicate in Engineering from Jenkin. RLS had related how Jenkin had at first refused him a certificate because he had failed to attend the class; but then found a compromise following RLS’s plea that it was for his father’s eye only and not for any official use.

[For critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2040.]

To the Editor of Nature [Nature,12 Apr 1888, 559]

[Saranac Lake,] March 28 [1888]

I have read with singular pain a paragraph in your notice (signed with the initials of one whom I admire and respect) of my Life of Fleeming Jenkin.


File:Tait Peter Guthrie.jpg

Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), Scottish physicist and early pioneer in thermodynamics. He is best known for the Treatise on Natural Philosophy, which he co-wrote with Kelvin, and his early investigations into knot theory [https://upload.wikimedia.org]





To accuse a man of falsehood in private life is a strong step. But I must explain to your reviewer, I might lie to him all day long and not be so disgraced as if I put one single falsehood in a book. For the making of books is my trade by which I live; I supply them on honour, and the public gives me bread for them in confidence. Your reviewer will perhaps more readily understand what he has done (I am sure in ignorance) if I supply him with a parallel. To say that a man of science was a liar would be highly disagreeable; but if I were to say he had falsified an experiment, and to say so publicly in print, I should be curious to see the expression of his face.

RLS’s friend, H.C. Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), and W. Thomson Lord Kelvin became consulting engineers to most of the international cable-laying ventures of the time [http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk]


I dwell upon this because it is plain your reviewer scarcely understands what literature is, and I fear others may be equally at sea. On the merely personal matter, that I am supposed to tell a deliberate falsehood on my own authority and about my dead friend, I will make but one remark. Hastly reading is the fit precursor of hasty writing; in no word have I indicated that the certificate in question was “worthy the name”; and the terms of the document are at the reviewer’s service to-morrow, if he be curious.

Robert Louis Stevenson


RLS’s letter to the Editor, published in Nature, April 12, 1888 [https://ia802700.us.archive.org]

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