“Always cutting the flesh off the bones”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2011.]

To William Archer [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 50-51]

Saranac, [c. 12] February 1888

My dear Archer,

Pretty sick in bed; but necessary to protest and continue your education.


RLS memorial by A. Saint-Gaudens, St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh [https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com]

William Archer (1856-1924) Scottish writer and theatre critic, based, for most of his career, in London. He translated the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and was an early friend and supporter of Bernard Shaw [www.mr-oscar-wilde.de]


Why was Jenkin an amateur in my eyes?


H.C. Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), famous electrical engineer working on submarine telegraph cables, and RLS’s professor of Engineering at Edinburgh University in 1868.



You think because not amusing (I think he often was amusing). The reason is this: I never, or almost never, saw two pages of his work that I could not have put in one without the smallest loss of material. That is the only test I know of writing. If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been as clearly and as engagingly and as forcibly said in one, then it’s amateur work. Then you will bring me up with old Dumas.


Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870) [https://biografieonline.it]

Nay, the object of a story is to be long, to fill up hours; the story-teller’s art of writing is to water out by continual invention, historical and technical, and yet not seem to water; seem on the other hand to practise that same wit of conspicuous and declaratory condensation which is the proper art of writing. That is one thing in which my stories fail: I am always cutting the flesh off the bones.


The Scottish Storytelling Centre, near John Knox’s House, Edinburgh.


I would rise from the dead to preach!

Hope all well. I think my wife better, but she’s not allowed to write;

Risultati immagini per fanny stevenson 1888

Fanny Stevenson in the early 1880s [www.thinglink.com]

and this (only wrung from me by desire to Boss and Parsonise and Dominate, strong in sickness) is my first letter for days, and will likely be my last for many more. Not blame my wife for her silence: doctor’s orders. All much interested by your last, and fragment from brother, and anecdotes of Tomarcher.


William Archer (1856-1924). His brother Charles (1861–1941) was an administrator in British India, served as the Chief Commissioner of Baluchistan province. They collaborated in translating three of Ibsen’s plays: Rosmersholm, Lady Inger of Ostrat, and Peer Gynt. “Tomarcher”, William’s only child, Tom (1885–1918), was to be killed in action in the First World War [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


– The sick but still Moral





Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“This harsh, grey, glum, doleful climate has done me good”

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2009.]

To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 54-55]

[Saranac Lake, 6 or 7 February 1888]

My dear Colvin,

Fanny has been very unwell […]. She is not long home, has been ill again since her return, but is now better again to a degree. You must not blame her for not writing, as she is not allowed to write at all, not even a letter. To add to our misfortunes, Valentine is quite ill and in bed. Lloyd and I get breakfast;


From left to right, on the veranda at Baker’s Cottage, saranac Lake: Valentine Roch with another servant, Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny and RLS. Fanny did not enjoy Saranac and went to visit her family in Indianapolis [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]

I have now, 10.15, just got the dishes washed and the kitchen all clear, and sit down to give you as much news as I have spirit for, after such an engagement. Glass is a thing that really breaks my spirit: I do not like to fail, and with glass I cannot reach the work of my high calling – the artist’s.


Baker’s cottage, now (since 1915) RLS Museum at Saranac Lake. The kitchen is on the left [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The kitchen of Baker’s cottage, Saranac Lake [www.nymews.com]


I am, as you may gather from this, wonderfully better: this harsh, grey, glum, doleful climate has done me good.

RLS in a diorama on Baker’s veranda with a cigarette and skates [www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com]

You cannot fancy how sad a climate it is. When the thermometer stays all day below -10°, it is really cold;

The thermometer at Baker’s Cottage, Saranac Lake [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]

and when the wind blows, O commend me to the result. Pleasure in life is all delete; there is no red spot left, fires do not radiate, you burn your hands all the time on what seem to be cold stones. It is odd, zero is like summer heat to us now; and we like, when the thermometer outside is really low, a room at about 48°; 60° we find oppressive. Yet the natives keep their holes at 90° or even 100°.

Saranac Lake, NY: Adirondack Scenic Railroad in the winter

Saranac lake, winter [http://pics4.city-data.com]




[c. 12 February 1888]

This was interrupted days ago by household labours. Since then I have had and (I tremble to write it, but it does seem as if I had) beaten off an influenza. The cold is exquisite. Valentine still in bed. The proofs of the first part of The Master of Ballantrae begin to come in; soon you shall have it in the pamphlet form; and I hope you will like it.



The second part will not be near so good; but there – we can but do as it’ll do with us. I have every reason to believe this winter has done me real good, so far as it has gone; and if I carry out my scheme for next winter, and succeeding years, I should end by being a tower of strength. I want you to save a good holiday for next winter; I hope we shall be able to help you to some larks.

File:Portrait of Sidney Colvin.jpg

Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) was keeper of prints and drawings in the British Museum [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Is there any Greek Isle you would like to explore?

Ionian Isles and Greece, by John Tallis & co. / J. Rapkin c. 1851 [www.wellandantiquemaps.co.uk]

or any creek in Asia Minor?


– Yours ever affectionately,










Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Lloyd and I have got breakfast, and my hand somewhat shakes after washing dishes”

[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2006.]

To Edward L. Burlingame [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 52-53]

[Saranac Lake, 6 February 1888]

Dear Mr Burlingame,

1. Of course then don’t use it. Dear Man, I write these to please you, not myself, and you know a main sight better than I do what is good.

The editor of Scribner’s Magazine, Burlingame, had expressed doubts about publishing RLS’s essay, ‘Confessions of a Unionist’, because it criticised the American attitude to the violence in Ireland. The paper was to be privately printed only in 1921 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

Edward L. Burlingame 001.jpg

Edward Livermore Burlingame (1848-1922), founding editor-in-chief of Scribner’s Magazine [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


In that case, however, I enclose another paper,

RLS’s essay, ‘Gentlemen’ was to be published in Scribner’s Magazine for May 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

and return the corrected proof of Pulvis et Umbra, so that we may be afloat.

RLS’s essay, ‘Pulvis et Umbra’ was to be published in Scribner’s Magazine for April 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

2. I want to say a word as to the Master. (The Master of Ballantrae shall be the name by all means.)

Author’s Edition of ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, 1888.


If you like and want it, I leave it to you to make an offer. You may remember I thought the offer you made when I was still in England too small; by which I did not at all mean, I thought it less than it was worth, but too little to tempt me to undergo the disagreeables of serial publication. This tale (if you want it) you are to have; for it is the least I can do for you; and you are to observe that the sum you pay me for my articles going far to meet my wants, I am quite open to be satisfied with less than formerly. I tell you I do dislike this battle of the dollars.

pioggia di dollari


I feel sure you all pay too much here in America; and I beg you not to spoil me any more. For I am getting spoiled: I do not want wealth, and I feel these big sums demoralise me.



My wife came here pretty ill; she had a dreadful bad night; to-day she is better. But now Valentine is ill; and Lloyd and I have got breakfast,


Valentine Roch with another maid, Lloyd Osbourne, Fanny and RLS at Baker’s Cottage, Saranac Lake [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]

and my hand somewhat shakes after washing dishes.

Plate used by RLS and family at Vailima, Samoa, now at the Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh.


– Yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson


Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The remainder of a joint of mutton”

At this time, there was no railway right into the village, and the freshness of supplies could not always be guaranteed. Thirty years later the recipient of the note presented it to the Stevenson Society: it is still kept in the RLS Memorial Cottage, Saranac Lake.

[For critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2004.]

To Harry Oldfield [Steuart, RLS, Man and Writer, 1924, II, 102]

[Saranac Lake, 3 February 1888]

Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson presents his compliments to Mr. Oldfield, and begs to return him the remainder of a joint of mutton which he refuses either to eat or pay for.



Fillet of beef had been ordered as far back as Monday.

Free Range Whole Beef Fillet


Mr. Stevenson can readily understand there might arise some difficulty in supplying that; but at least Mr. Oldfield knew that Mr. S. would want something on Thursday; and Mr. S. prefers to hope it was in error that Mr. O. sent him anything so perfectly uneatable as the joint of which he now has the pleasure to return him part.


Early village of Saranac Lake, 1800’s [www.bunksplace.com]


Saranac Lake, late 1800s [https://localwiki.org]


Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“That was how the tale came to me however… I joined the two ends in a day or two of constant feverish thought, and began to write”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2001.]

To Henry James [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 57-59]

[Saranac Lake, Late January 1888]

My dear delightful James.

To quote your heading to my wife, I think no man writes so elegant a letter, I am sure none so kind, unless it be Colvin, and there is more of the stern parent about him.


Henry James (1843-1916) [https://laculturadelbloggo.files.wordpress.com]

I was vexed at your account of my admired Meredith: […] I wish I could go and see him; as it is I will try to write; and yet (do you understand me?) there is something in that potent, genialisch affection that puts one on the strain even to address him in a letter. He is not an easy man to be yourself with; there is so much of him, and the veracity and the high athletic intellectual humbug are so intermixed.


George Meredith ( 1828-1909), English novelist and poet, c. 1890 [www.oxforddnb.com]

I read with indescribable admiration your Emerson.

Henry James’s essay, “The Life of Emerson”, was first printed in Macmillan’s Magazine for December 1887.


I begin to long for the day when these portraits of yours shall be collected: do put me in. But Emerson is a higher flight. Have you a Tourgueneff? You have told me many interesting things of him, and I seem to see them written, and forming a graceful and bildende sketch. (I wonder whence comes this flood of German – I haven’t opened a German book since I teethed.)


‘The Life of Emerson by H. James was to be reprinted in ‘Partial Portraits’, 1888, together with the essays on RLS and Turgenieff [https://cdn.shopify.com]


R.W. Emerson (1803-82), American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet [https://naqyr37xcg93tizq734pqsx1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com]

H. James, ‘Emerson’, Partial Portraits, 1888.


RLS by Wyatt Eaton, January-March 1888 [www.hmdb.org]

H. James, ‘RLS’, Partial Portraits, 1888.


Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) [http://skotkacy.com]

H. James, ‘Ivan Turgénieff’, Partial Portraits, 1888.


My novel is a tragedy;

The Master of Ballantrae was to become a book in 1889.


four parts out of six or seven are written, and gone to Burlingame.


Edward Livermore Burlingame (1848-1922), founding editor-in-chief of Scribner’s Magazine [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Five parts of it are bound, human tragedy; […] the last one or two, I regret to say, not so soundly designed; I almost hesitate to write them; they are very picturesque, but they are fantastic; they shame, perhaps, degrade, the beginning. I wish I knew; that was how the tale came to me however. I got the situation; it was an old taste of mine: The older brother goes out in the ’45, the younger stays; the younger, of course, gets title and estate and marries the bride designate of the elder – a family match, but he (the younger) had always loved her, and she had really loved the elder. Do you see the situation? Then the devil and Saranac suggested this dénouement, and I joined the two ends in a day or two of constant feverish thought, and began to write. And now – I wonder if I have not gone too far with the fantastic? The elder brother is an INCUBUS: supposed to be killed at Culloden, he turns up again and bleeds the family of money; on that stopping he comes and lives with them, whence flows the real tragedy, the nocturnal duel of the brothers (very naturally, and indeed, I think, inevitably arising), and second supposed death of the elder.

Husband and wife now really make up, and then the cloven hoof appears. For the third supposed death and the manner of the third reappearance is steep; steep, sir. It is even very steep, and I fear it shames the honest stuff so far; but then it is highly pictorial, and it leads up to the death of the elder brother at the hands of the younger in a perfectly cold-blooded murder, of which I wish (and mean) the reader to approve. You see how daring is the design. There are really but six characters, and one of these episodic, and yet it covers eighteen years, and will be, I imagine, the longest of my works.


Yours ever,


Read Gosse’s Raleigh. First-rate.




Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Prince Otto was originally a tragedy, and, by my sooth! in blank verse”

Gerald Gurney and T.B. Thalberg were adapting on the stage RLS’s novel, Prince Otto.

[For critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2000.]

To Gerald Gurney [The Academy, 19 May 1900, p. 419]

Saranac Lake [? January 1888]

Dear Sir,

It will be time (pardon my pessimism) to think of that when your piece is produced.


‘Prince Otto’, a comedy in 3 acts, was being dramatised by T.B. Thalberg and Gerald Gurney [http://robert-louis-stevenson.org]

But I am sure that whatever you and Mr Thalberg shall think right will gratify me;


The English actor T.B. Thalberg (here withLena Ashwell), 1899 [www.mediastorehouse.com]

and, indeed, I am already gratified by your proposal.


The comedy ‘Prince Otto, dramatised by T.B. Thalberg and Gerald Gurney, was prouced at the Spa Concert Room, Harrogate, North Yorkshire, on 24 March 1888 [www.arthurlloyd.co.uk]


Site of the Royal Spa Concert Rooms, Harrogate, in 2002 [www.arthurlloyd.co.uk]


Stephen Phillips (1864-1915), English poet and dramatist, took the part of Fritz at the Harrogate production of ‘Prince Otto’. In 1885 Phillips had joined his cousin F.R.Benson’s dramatic company, playing various small parts for six years [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


‘Prince Otto’ was to be played again at the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street, Glasgow, on 4 June 1900, with Marion Terry as the heroine [www.arthurlloyd.co.uk]


Marion Bessie Terry (1853 –1930) was to play the heroine in the 1900 production of ‘Prince Otto’ [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Marion Bessie Terry (1853 –1930), as Mrs Erlynne in a production of ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ by Oscar Wilde , 1892 [https://media.gettyimages.com]

– With every wish for your success, I am, yours and Mr Thalberg’s

Robert Louis Stevenson

It may interest you to know that Prince Otto was originally a tragedy, and, by my sooth! in blank verse. I still think it has much that is very suitable to the boards.R.L.S.

Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The scene of that romance… it jumps like a flea”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 1994.]

To Edward L. Burlingame [Colvin 1911, 3, pp. 46-48]

Saranac Lake, [6 January 1888]

Dear Mr. Burlingame,

[…] I am keeping the sermon to see if I can’t add another. Meanwhile, I will send you very soon a different paper which may take its place. Possibly some of these days soon I may get together a talk on things current, which should go in (if possible) earlier than either.


The ‘talk on things current’ of which RLS wrote to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine was to become the essay ‘Confessions of a Unionist’, privately printed only in 1921 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

I am now less nervous about these papers; I believe I can do the trick without great strain, though the terror that breathed on my back in the beginning is not yet forgotten.

The Master of Ballantrae I have had to leave aside, as I was quite worked out. But in about a week I hope to try back and send you the first four numbers: these are all drafted, it is only the revision that has broken me down, as it is often the hardest work. These four I propose you should set up for me at once, and we’ll copyright ’em in a pamphlet. I will tell you the names of the bona fide purchasers in England. The numbers will run from twenty to thirty pages of my manuscript. You can give me that much, can you not ? It is a howling good tale − at least these first four numbers are; the end is a trifle more fantastic, but ’tis all picturesque.


Scribner’s Magazine issued ‘The Master of Ballantrae” from November 1888 to October 1889 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

Don’t trouble about any more French books; I am on another scent, you see, just now. Only the French in Hindustan I await with impatience, as that is for Ballantrae.


The scene of that romance is Scotland − the States − Scotland − India − Scotland − and the States again; so it jumps like a flea.


I have enough about the States now, and very much obliged I am; yet if Drake’s Tragedies of the Wilderness is (as I gather) a collection of originals, I should like to purchase it. If it is a picturesque vulgarisation, I do not wish to look it in the face.


Burlingame replied that he was unable to trace a copy of Drake’s ‘Tragedies of the Wilderness; or, true and Authentic Narratives of Captives who have been Carried Away by the Indians… Illustrating the Manners and Customs, Barbarous Rites and Ceremonies of the North American Indians, and their various Methods of Torture”, Boston 1841 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

Purchase, I say; for I think it would be well to have some such collection by me with a view to fresh works. − Yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson

P.S. − If you think of having the Master illustrated, I suggest that Hole would be very well up to the Scottish, which is the larger, part. If you have it done here, tell your artist to look at the hall of Craigievar in Billing’s Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities, and he will get a broad hint for the hall at Durrisdeer;


Robert William Billings, Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (1845-52): one of the books RLS read as a child.


it is, I think, the chimney of Craigievar and the roof of Pinkie, and perhaps a little more of Pinkie altogether; but I should have to see the book myself to be sure.


R.W. Billings, Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, I: Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire.






R.W. Billings, Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, IV: Pinkie House in Musselburgh, Midlothian.


Hole would be invaluable for this.


William Brassey Hole (1846-1917), Edinburgh-based artist specialised in history painting and etching. He provided illustrations for The Master of Ballantrae in Scribner’s Magazine Nov 1888 – Oct 1889, and in the Scribner book-edition too  [https://collectionimages.npg.org.uk]


William Brassey Hole, illustration for The Master of Ballantrae, November 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]


William Brassey Hole, illustration for The Master of Ballantrae, December 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]


William Brassey Hole, illustration for The Master of Ballantrae, February 1889 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]


I dare say if you had it illustrated, you could let me have one or two for the English edition.



Posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment