He has written the most delightful letters in the world

Under Fanny Sitwell’s influence RLS begins to believe hopefully and manfully in his own powers and future. It has been agreed that while still reading for the bar, as his parents desire, he shall try to get ready for publication some essays. The paper on Roads, planned during walks at Cockfield, will be published in the Portfolio, RLS’s first paid contribution to a periodical.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 136-137].

To Mrs. Sitwell [Colvin 1911, pp. 68-71]

Fanny Sitwell (1839-1924) [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]

17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh, Saturday, September 6, 1873.

[…] I have been to-day a very long walk with my father through some of the most beautiful ways hereabouts; the day was cold with an iron, windy sky, and only glorified now and then with autumn sunlight. For it is fully autumn with us, with a blight already over the greens, and a keen wind in the morning that makes one rather timid of one’s tub when it finds its way indoors. […]

I was out this evening to call on a friend, and, coming back through the wet, crowded, lamp-lit streets, was singing after my own fashion, ‘Du hast Diamanten und Perlen,’ when I heard a poor cripple man in the gutter wailing over a pitiful Scotch air, his club-foot supported on the other knee, and his whole woebegone body propped sideways against a crutch.

Heine’s Lied ‘Du hast Diamanten und Perlen’,
English translation

Heine’s ‘Du hast Diamanten und Perlen’, music by S. Thalberg, op. 8

The nearest lamp threw a strong light on his worn, sordid face and the three boxes of lucifer matches that he held for sale.

Arthur melville, Old Edinburgh at Night, 1883 [www.victorianweb.org]
‘Lucifer matches’
Matchseller, Greenwich 1884

My own false notes stuck in my chest. How well off I am! is the burthen of my songs all day long – ‘Drum ist so wohl mir in der Welt!’ and the ugly reality of the cripple man was an intrusion on the beautiful world in which I was walking.

Goethe’s poem ‘Vanitatum vanitas’, music by L. Spohr, 1815.

Goethe’s poem ‘Vanitatum vanitas’,
English translation
(click to zoom)

He could no more sing than I could; and his voice was cracked and rusty, and altogether perished. To think that that wreck may have walked the streets some night years ago, as glad at heart as I was, and promising himself a future as golden and honourable!


Sunday, 11.20 a.m. – I wonder what you are doing now? – in church likely, at the Te Deum. Everything here is utterly silent. I can hear men’s footfalls streets away; the whole life of Edinburgh has been sucked into sundry pious edifices; the gardens below my windows are steeped in a diffused sunlight, and every tree seems standing on tiptoes, strained and silent, as though to get its head above its neighbour’s and listen. You know what I mean, don’t you? How trees do seem silently to assert themselves on an occasion!

I have been trying to write Roads until I feel as if I were standing on my head; but I mean Roads, and shall do something to them.


I wish I could make you feel the hush that is over everything, only made the more perfect by rare interruptions; and the rich, placid light, and the still, autumnal foliage. Houses, you know, stand all about our gardens: solid, steady blocks of houses; all look empty and asleep. […]

17 Heriot Row and Queen Street Gardens, Edinburgh

Monday night. – […] The drums and fifes up in the castle are sounding the guard-call through the dark, and there is a great rattle of carriages without.

Edinburgh Castle [www.thoughtco.com]

I have had (I must tell you) my bed taken out of this room, so that I am alone in it with my books and two tables, and two chairs, and a coal-skuttle (or scuttle) (?) and a débris of broken pipes in a corner, and my old school play-box, so full of papers and books that the lid will not shut down, standing reproachfully in the midst. There is something in it that is still a little gaunt and vacant; it needs a little populous disorder over it to give it the feel of homeliness, and perhaps a bit more furniture, just to take the edge off the sense of illimitable space, eternity, and a future state, and the like, that is brought home to one, even in this small attic, by the wide, empty floor. […]

RLS’s house, 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh [https://it.tripadvisor.ch

You would require to know, what only I can ever know, many grim and many maudlin passages out of my past life to feel how great a change has been made for me by this past summer. […] Let me be ever so poor and thread-paper a soul, I am going to try for the best […].

[…] These good booksellers of mine have at last got a Werther without illustrations. I want you to like Charlotte […]. Werther himself has every feebleness and vice that could tend to make his suicide a most virtuous and commendable action; and yet I like Werther too – I don’t know why, except that he has written the most delightful letters in the world. Note, by the way, the passage under date June 21st not far from the beginning; it finds a voice for a great deal of dumb, uneasy, pleasurable longing that we have all had, times without number. I looked that up the other day for Roads, so I know the reference; but you will find it a garden of flowers from beginning to end. All through the passion keeps steadily rising, from the thunderstorm at the country-house – there was thunder in that story too – up to the last wild delirious interview; either Lotte was no good at all, or else Werther should have remained alive after that; either he knew his woman too well, or else he was precipitate. But an idiot like that is hopeless; and yet, he wasn’t an idiot – I make reparation, and will offer eighteen pounds of best wax at his tomb. Poor devil! he was only the weakest – or, at least, a very weak strong man […].

[…]                                                                                                                                               R.L.S.

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