In 1875, Frances (Fanny) Van de Grift Osbourne (1840-1914), estranged from her American husband, had taken her children to France, where she and her daughter Belle would be pursuing their art studies. RLS met Fanny at Grez-sur-Loing in 1876, and stayed in Paris with her in January 1877 and in early 1878 again.
[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 2, 511.]
To his father [Colvin 1912, pp. 118-120]
Café de la Source, Bd. St. Michel, Paris, Friday 15 February 1878.
My dear father,
A thought has come into my head which I think would interest you.
Christianity is, among other things, a very wise, noble, and strange doctrine of life. Nothing is so difficult to specify as the position it occupies with regard to asceticism. It is not ascetic. Christ was of all doctors (if you will let me use the word) one of the least ascetic. And yet there is a theory of living in the Gospels which is curiously indefinable, and leans towards asceticism on one side, although it leans away from it on the other. In fact, asceticism is used therein as a means, not as an end. The wisdom of this world consists in making oneself very little in order to avoid many knocks; in preferring others, in order that, even when we lose, we shall find some pleasure in the event; in putting our desires outside of ourselves, in another ship, so to speak, so that, when the worst happens, there will be something left. You see, I speak of it as a doctrine of life, and as a wisdom for this world. People must be themselves, I suppose. I feel every day as if religion had a greater interest for me; but that interest is still centred on the little rough-and-tumble world in which our fortunes are cast for the moment. I cannot transfer my interests, not even my religious interest, to any different sphere. […]
[…] I have had some sharp lessons and some very acute sufferings in these last seven-and-twenty years – more even than you would guess. I begin to grow an old man; a little sharp, I fear, and a little close and unfriendly; but still I have a good heart, and believe in myself and my fellow-men and the God who made us all. […] There are not many sadder people in this world, perhaps, than I. I have my eye on a sickbed; I have written letters today that it hurt me to write, and I fear will hurt others to receive; I am lonely and sick and out of heart.
Well, I still hope; I still believe; I still see the good in the inch, and cling to it. It is not much, perhaps, but it is always something. […]
I find I have wandered a thousand miles from what I meant. It was this: of all passages bearing on Christianity in that form of a worldly wisdom, the most Christian, and so to speak, the key of the whole position, is the Christian doctrine of revenge. And it appears that this came into the world through Paul! There is a fact for you. It was to speak of this that I began this letter; but I have got into deep seas and must go on.
There is a fine text in the Bible, I don’t know where, to the effect that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord. […]
Strange as it may seem to you, everything has been, in one way or the other, bringing me a little nearer to what I think you would like me to be. ‘T is a strange world, indeed, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him.
This is a very solemn letter for my surroundings in this busy café; but I had it on my heart to write it; and, indeed, I was out of the humour for anything lighter.
Ever your affectionate son,
Robert Louis Stevenson
P.S. – While I am writing gravely, let me say one word more. […] I have taken a step towards more intimate relations with you. But don’t expect too much of me. […] Try to take me as I am. This is a rare moment, and I have profited by it; but take it as a rare moment. Usually I hate to speak of what I really feel, to that extent that when I find myself cornered, I have a tendency to say the reverse.