The end of life? Yes… I can tell you what that is

You can read RLS’s Story of a Lie at; andTravels with a donkey in the Cévennes at

The Burns is RLS’s essay Some Aspects of Robert Burns, published on Cornhill Magazine 40 (October 1879). You can read it at

James Runciman (1852-91) was a journalist and school teacher, sub-editor of Vanity Fair; he and Henley were close friends. His best literary work in the following years described the life of the fishermen of the North Sea.

The Emigrant is of course The Amateur Emigrant, the account of his journey to California which RLS was still drafting.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 670.]

To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1912, pp. 127-129]

Monterey, December 11th, 1879.

My dear Henley,

Many, many thanks for your long letter. And now to rectifications:

1 . You are wrong about the Lie, from choosing a wrong standard. Compare it with my former stories, not with Scott, or Fielding, or Balzac, or Charles Reade, or even Wilkie Collins; and where will you find anything half or a tenth part as good as the Admiral, or even Dick, or even the Squire, or even Esther? If you had thought of that, you would have complimented me for advance. But you were not quite sincere with yourself; you were seeking arguments to make me devote myself to plays, unbeknown, of course, to yourself.


W. Scott, Waverley Novels, 1847 ed. []

H. Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, 1749 []

H. de Balzac, Scènes de la vie privée, 1855 []

Ch. Reade, The Cloister and the Hearth, 1861 []

W. Collins, The Moonstone, 1868 []

 2. Plays, dear boy, are madness for me just now. The best play is hopeless before six months, and more likely eighteen for outsiders like you and me.

And understand me, I have to get money soon, or it has no further interest for me; I am nearly through my capital; with what pluck I can muster against great anxieties and in a very shattered state of health, I am trying to do things that will bring in money soon; and I could not, if I were not mad, step out of my way to work at what might perhaps bring me in more, but months ahead. Journalism, you know well, is not my forte; yet if I could only get a roving commission from a paper, I should leap at it and send them goodish (no more than that) goodish stuff.

[…] As for my poor literature, dear Henley, you must expect for a time to find it worse and worse. Perhaps, if God favours me a little at last, it will pick up again. Now I am fighting with both hands, a hard battle, and my work, while it will be as good as I can make it, will probably be worth twopence. If you despised the Donkey, dear boy, you should have told me so at the time, not reserved it for a sudden revelation just now when I am down in health, wealth, and fortune. But I am glad you have said so at last. Never, please, delay such confidences any more. If they come quickly, they are a help; if they come after long silence, they feel almost like a taunt.

Now, to read all this, any one would think you had written unkindly, which is not so, as God who made us knows. But I wished to put myself right ere I went on to state myself. Nothing has come but the volume of Labiche; the Burns I have now given up;

Beginning of RLS’s essay for Cornhill Magazine 40, October 1879 []

the P.O. authorities plainly regard it as contraband; make no further efforts in that direction. But, please, if anything else of mine appears, see that my people have a copy. I hoped and supposed my own copy would go as usual to the old address, and, let me use Scotch, I was fair affrontit when I found this had not been done.

Monterey Post Office []

You have not told me how you are and I heard you had not been well. Please remedy this. […] The end of life? Yes, Henley, I can tell you what that is. How old are all truths, and yet how far from commonplace; old, strange, and inexplicable, like the Sphinx.

G. Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864 []

So I learn day by day the value and high doctrinality of suffering. […] Let me suffer always; not more […] than I am able to bear, for that makes a man mad, as hunger drives the wolf to sally from the forest; but still to suffer some, and never to sink up to my eyes in comfort and grow dead in virtues and respectability. I am a bad man by nature, I suppose; but I cannot be good without suffering a little. And the end of life, you will ask? The pleasurable death of self: a thing not to be attained, because it is a thing belonging to Heaven. All this apropos of that good, weak, feverish, fine spirit, James Runciman. We have traits in common; we have almost the same strength and weakness intermingled; and if I had not come through a very hot crucible, I should be just as feverish. My sufferings have been healthier than his; mine have been always a choice, where a man could be manly: his have been so too, if he knew it, but were not so upon the face; hence a morbid strain, which his wounded vanity has helped to embitter. […]

I wonder why I scratch every one today. And I believe it is because I am conscious of so much truth in your strictures on my damned stuff. I don’t care; there is something in me worth saying, though I can’t find what it is just yet; and ere I die, if I do not die too fast, I shall write something worth the boards, which with scarce an exception I have not yet done. At the same time, dear boy, in a matter of vastly more importance than Opera Omnia Ludovici Stevenson, I mean my life, I have not been a perfect cad; God help me to be less and less so as the days go on.

The Emigrant is not good, and will never do for P[all] M[all] G[azette], though it must have a kind of rude interest.


I am now quite an American – yellow envelopes.

A U.S. stamped envelope of 1876 []

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