I have been to sea, but I never crossed the threshold of a court; and the courts shall be the way I want ’em

By this time Treasure Island was out in book form, and the following is in reply to some reflections on its seamanship which had been conveyed to RLS through Henley.

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.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1196.]

To W.E. Henley [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 179-181]

[La Solitude, Hyères, Mid-December 1883]

My dear lad,

[…] Of course, my seamanship is jimmy: did I not beseech you I know not how often to find me an ancient mariner – and you, whose own wife’s own brother is one of the ancientest, did nothing for me?


Anna Johnson Boyle (1855-1925), Henley’s wife.


Wood-engraved illustration by Gustave Doré for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1870 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

As for my seamen, did Runciman ever know eighteenth century Buccaneers? No? Well, no more did I. But I have known and sailed with seamen too, and lived and eaten with them; and I made my put-up shot in no great ignorance, but as a put-up thing has to be made, i.e. to be coherent and picturesque, and damn the expense. Are they fairly lively on the wires? Then, favour me with your tongues. Are they wooden, and dim, and no sport? Then it is I that am silent, otherwise not. The work, strange as it may sound in the ear, is not a work of realism.


Jim Hawkins hiding in the apple-barrel, listening to the pirates, Cassell’s edition of Treasure Island, 1885 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The next thing I shall hear is that the etiquette is wrong in Otto’s Court!



With a warrant, and I mean it to be so, and the whole matter never cost me half a thought. I make these paper people to please myself,

1883 - portrait

RLS in 1883.


and Skelt,


A sheet from Skelt’s Toy Theater [https://toytheatres.wordpress.com]

and God Almighty,


The Ancient of Days, watercolor etching by William Blake, 1794 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

and with no ulterior purpose. Yet am I mortal myself; for, as I remind you, I begged for a supervising mariner. However, my heart is in the right place. I have been to sea, but I never crossed the threshold of a court; and the courts shall be the way I want ’em.

I’m […] glad to think I owe you the review that pleased me best of all the reviews I ever had; the one I liked best before that was Pollock’s on the Arabians.


Walter Herries Pollock (1850-1926) wrote a favourable review of RLS’s New Arabian Nights in the Saturday Review of 19 Aug 1882 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Pollocks’s review on RLS’s New Arabian Nights, 1882 [https://ia601600.us.archive.org]


These two are the flowers of the collection, according to me. To live reading such reviews and die eating ortolans – sich is my aspiration.


Whenever you come you will be equally welcome.


Henley’s portrait, by August Rodin [www.victorianweb.org]

I am trying to finish Otto ere you shall arrive, so as to take and be able to enjoy a well-earned – O yes, a well-earned – holiday. Longman fetched by Otto: is it a spoon or a spoilt horn? Momentous, if the latter; if the former, a spoon to dip much praise and pudding, and to give, I do think, much pleasure. The last part, now in hand, much smiles upon me.


Victorian Scottish horn spoon [https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com]

[…] – Ever yours,



This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to I have been to sea, but I never crossed the threshold of a court; and the courts shall be the way I want ’em

  1. rdury says:

    I liked the German promo-film for Prince Otto.


  2. mafalda says:

    The only thing I could find!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.