I don’t want no such a parent… his gloom is gallows-worthy

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1205.]

To his mother [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 193-194]

[La Solitude, Hyères] Last Sunday of ’83 [30 December]

My dear Mother,

I give my father up. I give him a parable: that the Waverley novels are better reading for every day than the tragic Life.


Scott’s ‘Waverley Novels, 1863 illustrated edition, 48 vols [http://i.ebayimg.com]


Lockhart’s Life of Scott, 1839 ed. [https://ia700404.us.archive.org]


Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


And he takes it backside foremost, and shakes his head, and is gloomier than ever.


Thomas Stevenson, potrait by Sir george Reid [www.nationalgalleries.org]

Tell him that I give him up. I don’t want no such a parent. This is not the man for my money. I do not call that by the name of religion which fills a man with bile […]. I write him a whole letter, bidding him beware of extremes, and telling him that his gloom is gallows-worthy; and I get back an answer – Perish the thought of it.

Here am I on the threshold of another year, when, according to all human foresight, I should long ago have been resolved into my elements; here am I, who you were persuaded was born to disgrace you – and, I will do you the justice to add, on no such insufficient grounds – no very burning discredit when all is done; here am I married, and the marriage recognised to be a blessing of the first order, A1 at Lloyd’s.


John Singer Sargent, RLS and his wife, 1885 [www.jssgallery.org]


Lloyd Osbourne, RLS’s stepchild, 1880 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

There is he, at his not first youth, able to take more exercise than I at thirty-three, and gaining a stone’s weight, a thing of which I am incapable.


Thomas Stevenson [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

There are you; has the man no gratitude?


Margaret Isabella Stevenson [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

There is Smeoroch: is he blind?


RLS’s father was a great lover of dogs: Smeoroch was a favourite Skye terrier [https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com]

Tell him from me that all this is


I will think more of his prayers when I see in him a spirit of praise. Piety is a more childlike and happy attitude than he admits. Martha, Martha, do you hear the knocking at the door? But Mary was happy.


Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1654 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Even the Shorter Catechism, not the merriest epitome of religion, and a work exactly as pious although not quite so true as the multiplication table – even that dry-as-dust epitome begins with a heroic note. What is man’s chief end?


A. Whyte, A Commentary to the Shorter Catechism, 1856 ed. [https://ia801409.us.archive.org]




Let him study that; and ask himself if to refuse to enjoy God’s kindest gifts is in the spirit indicated. Up, Dullard! It is better service to enjoy a novel than to mump.

I have been most unjust to the Shorter Catechism, I perceive. I wish to say that I keenly admire its merits as a performance; and that all that was in my mind was its peculiarly unreligious and unmoral texture; from which defect it can never, of course, exercise the least influence on the minds of children.


The child’s book on the Westminster shorter catechism, 1855 [https://ia700802.us.archive.org]




But they learn fine style and some austere thinking unconsciously.


– Ever your loving son,





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