S’agit de la désenterrer. ‘Help!’ cries a buried masterpiece

The character of the Countess, in Prince Otto, was inspired by the Russian princess met in Mentone in 1874: “The Countess von Rosen, I have; I’ll never tell you who she is; it’s a secret; but I have known the countess; well, I will tell you; it’s my old Russian friend, Nadia Zassetsky.” See previous post, https://lettersofrobertlouisstevenson.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/you-know-i-was-a-story-teller-ingrain-did-not-that-reassure-you/

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1099.]

To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 141-143]

La Solitude, Hyères, May or June 1883

Dear lad,

Snatches in return for yours; for this little once, I’m well to windward of you.

Seventeen chapters of Otto are now drafted, and finding I was working through my voice and getting screechy, I have turned back again to rewrite the earlier part. It has, I do believe, some merit: of what order, of course, I am the last to know; and, triumph of triumphs, my wife – my wife who hates and loathes and slates my women – admits a great part of my Countess to be on the spot.

Introducing the Countess, in ‘Prince Otto’ [https://ia802308.us.archive.org/]




Yes, I could borrow, but it is the joy of being before the public, for once. Really, £100 is a sight more than Treasure Island is worth […].


The reason of my dèche? […] Well, if you begin one house, have to desert it, begin another, and are eight months without doing any work, you will be in a dèche too. I am not in a dèche, however; distinguo – I would fain distinguish; I am rather a swell, but not solvent. At a touch the edifice, ædificium, might collapse. If my creditors began to babble around me, I would sink with a slow strain of music into the crimson west.

The difficulty in my elegant villa is to find oil, oleum, for the dam axles.

La Solitude, Hyères [http://imageweb-cdn.magnoliasoft.net/]

But I’ve paid my rent until September; and beyond the chemist,


the grocer,


the baker,


the doctor,


the gardener,


Lloyd’s teacher,


and the great chief creditor Death,

A. Böcklin, Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, 1872 [http://31.media.tumblr.com/]

I can snap my fingers at all men.

Why will people spring bills on you? I try to make ’em charge me at the moment; they won’t, the money goes, the debt remains.

The Required Play is in the Merry Men.

Q[uod] E[rat] F[aciendum].


I thus render honour to your flair; it came on me of a clap; I do not see it yet beyond a kind of sunset glory. But it’s there: passion, romance, the picturesque, involved: startling, simple, horrid: a sea-pink in sea-froth!

Sea-pinkSea-pink (Armeria maritima) [www.nomadlens.com/]


 S’agit de la désenterrer. ‘Help!’ cries a buried masterpiece.



Once I see my way to the year’s end, clear, I turn to plays; till then I grind at letters; finish Otto; write, say, a couple of my Traveller’s Tales; and then, if all my ships come home, I will attack the drama in earnest. I cannot mix the skeins. Thus, though I’m morally sure there is a play in Otto, I dare not look for it: I shoot straight at the story.

As a story, a comedy, I think Otto very well constructed; the echoes are very good, all the sentiments change round, and the points of view are continually, and, I think (if you please), happily contrasted. None of it is exactly funny, but some of it is smiling.


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