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?
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.
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,
and God Almighty,
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.
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.
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.[…] – Ever yours,