For any man who takes an interest in the problems of the two sexes, that book is a perfect mine of documents

In September 1876 RLS met at Grez-sur-Loing Mrs Fanny Osbourne, a 36 year old American, who was accompanied by her children, Isobel (aged 18) and Lloyd (8). She will became his wife in 1880. In January 1877 RLS spent some time in Paris, joining Fanny there.

The ‘Review’ undermentioned is the Melbourne Review, edited by Arthur Patchett Martin. His article on the American author and poet, Bret Harte, was in the July 1877 issue. The article on George Eliot was not by Martin but by Catherine Spencer, in the April 1876 issue.

Martin’s poem Noll and Nell was collected in his Lays of Today 1878.

The Frenchman discovering Habakkuk is possibly Voltaire, who wrote: ‘Habakkuk, avec un nom comme ça, est capable de tout’.

The MS of RLS’s unpublished essay, A Dialogue on Man, and ‘Clarissa Harlowe’, is at Yale.

[As usual, for correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 492.]

To Arthur Patchett Martin [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 254-257]

17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh [December 1877].

My dear Sir,

I am afraid you must already have condemned me for a very idle fellow truly. Here it is more than two months since I received your letter; I had no fewer than three journals to acknowledge; and never a sign upon my part. If you have seen a Cornhill paper of mine upon idling, you will be inclined to set it all down to that.

RLS, Sept 1876-1877, portrait by Fanny Osbourne

RLS’s ‘An Apology for Idlers’, Cornhill Magazine Dec. 1877 []

But you will not be doing me justice. Indeed, I have had a summer so troubled that I have had little leisure and still less inclination to write letters. I was keeping the devil at bay with all my disposable activities; and more than once I thought he had me by the throat. The odd conditions of our acquaintance enable me to say more to you than I would to a person who lived at my elbow. And besides, I am too much pleased and flattered at our correspondence not to go as far as I can to set myself right in your eyes.

In this damnable confusion (I beg pardon) I have lost all my possessions, or near about, and quite lost all my wits. I wish I could lay my hands on the numbers of the Review, for I know I wished to say something on that head more particularly than I can from memory; but where they have escaped to, only time or chance can show. However, I can tell you so far, that I was very much pleased with the article on Bret Harte; it seemed to me just, clear, and to the point.

Francis Bret Harte (1836–1902), American poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush, 1872 []

I agreed pretty well with all you said about George Eliot: a high, but, may we not add? – a rather dry lady.

Mary Ann Evans, pen name George Eliot (1819-1880) []

Did you – I forget – did you have a kick at the stern works of that melancholy puppy and humbug Daniel Deronda himself? – the Prince of Prigs; the literary abomination of desolation in the way of manhood; a type which is enough to make a man forswear the love of women, if that is how it must be gained… Hats off all the same, you understand: a woman of genius.

George Eliot’s 8 volumes ‘Daniel Deronda, first edition William Blackwood & Sons Edinburgh and London, 1876 []

Of your poems I have myself a kindness for Noll and Nell, although I don’t think you have made it as good as you ought: verse five is surely not quite melodious. I confess I like the Sonnet in the last number of the Review – the Sonnet to England.

Please, if you have not, and I don’t suppose you have, already read it, institute a search in all Melbourne for one of the rarest and certainly one of the best of books – Clarissa Harlowe.

S. Richardson, ‘Clarissa Harlowe’, 1748 []

For any man who takes an interest in the problems of the two sexes, that book is a perfect mine of documents. And it is written, sir, with the pen of an angel. Miss Howe and Lovelace, words cannot tell how good they are! And the scene where Clarissa beards her family, with her fan going all the while; and some of the quarrel scenes between her and Lovelace; and the scene where Colonel Marden goes to Mr. Hall, with Lord M. trying to compose matters, and the Colonel with his eternal ‘finest woman in the world,’ and the inimitable affirmation of Mowbray – nothing, nothing could be better!

Francis Hayman (1708-1776), Robert Lovelace preparing to abduct Clarissa Harlowe []

E.L. Dubufe, Lovelace abducting Clarissa Harlowe, 1867 []

You will bless me when you read it for this recommendation; but, indeed, I can do nothing but recommend Clarissa. I am like that Frenchman of the eighteenth century who discovered Habakkuk, and would give no one peace about that respectable Hebrew. For my part, I never was able to get over his eminently respectable name; Isaiah is the boy, if you must have a prophet, no less.

An 18th-century Russian icon of the prophet Habakkuk []

About Clarissa, I meditate a choice work: A Dialogue on Man, and ‘Clarissa Harlowe’. It is to be so clever that no array of terms can give you any idea; and very likely that particular array in which I shall finally embody it, less than any other.

Do you know, my dear sir, what I like best in your letter? The egotism for which you thought necessary to apologise. I am a rogue at egotism myself; and to be plain, I have rarely or never liked any man who was not. The first step to discovering the beauties of God’s universe is usually a (perhaps partial) apprehension of such of them as adorn our own characters. When I see a man who does not think pretty well of himself, I always suspect him of being in the right. And besides, if he does not like himself, whom he has seen, how is he ever to like one whom he never can see but in dim and artificial presentments?

I cordially reciprocate your offer of a welcome; it shall be at least a warm one. Are you not my first, my only, admirer – a dear tie? Besides, you are a man of sense, and you treat me as one by writing to me as you do, and that gives me pleasure also. Please continue to let me see your work. I have one or two things coming out in the Cornhill: a story called The Sire de Maletroit’s Door in Temple Bar; and a series of articles on Edinburgh in the Portfolio; but I don’t know if these last fly all the way to Melbourne. – Yours very truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson


A Dialogue on Men, Women and Clarissa Harlowe

 A Husband and Wife; to whom enter a Bachelor Friend with an armful of books.


The Lady. At last—You have finished it.

The Friend. I am once more thrown upon the world. With the aid of a paper cutter and a pocket handkerchief, I have finished Clarissa Harlowe.

The Lady. Calumniator! Do you mean to say it was uncut.

The Friend. ‘I was the first that ever burst’. And yet this poor copy has been going about the world, with bell and clap dish soliciting readers, since 1811! Alas! how times change! But console yourself: your omissions were happily inspired.

The Lady. It is not a book to read through.

The Husband. And yet your grandmother—

The Lady. No, I will not hear it, I will not hear of her. I have lost some of my self respect by reading the book at all; more, by reading it more than I intended; more still, by confessing I had read it; but if you wish to leave me destitute, remind me of my grandmother! And I remember her in a cap! She kept the place in her bible with her spectacles! No—no; she never could, she shall not have read it.

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