To work two months, and rest the third

This correspondent was for many years head clerk and confidential assistant in the family firm at Edinburgh. The anecdote about Murdie’s uniform (first paragraph) could not be traced.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1231.]

To James Dick [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 202-203]

La Solitude, Hyères, 12th March 1884

My dear Mr. Dick,

I have been a great while owing you a letter; but I am not without excuses, as you have heard. I overworked to get a piece of work finished before I had my holiday, thinking to enjoy it more; and instead of that, the machinery near hand came sundry in my hands! like Murdie’s uniform. However, I am now, I think, in a fair way of recovery; I think I was made, what there is of me, of whipcord and thorn-switches; surely I am tough!



But I fancy I shall not overdrive again, or not so long. It is my theory that work is highly beneficial, but that it should, if possible, and certainly for such partially broken-down instruments as the thing I call my body, be taken in batches, with a clear break and breathing space between. I always do vary my work, laying one thing aside to take up another, not merely because I believe it rests the brain, but because I have found it most beneficial to the result. Reading, Bacon says, makes a full man, but what makes me full on any subject is to banish it for a time from all my thoughts.


Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) []


Sir Francis Bacon’s Essays, 1706 ed. []


“Reading maketh a full Man”: Bacon’s essay ‘Of Studies’ []




However, what I now propose is, out of every quarter, to work two months, and rest the third. I believe I shall get more done, as I generally manage, on my present scheme, to have four months’ impotent illness and two of imperfect health — one before, one after, I break down. This, at least, is not an economical division of the year.

[…] I re-read the other day that heartbreaking book, the Life of Scott […].


Lockgart’s ‘Life of Scott’, 1845 []




One should read such works now and then, but O, not often. As I live, I feel more and more that literature should be cheerful and brave-spirited, even if it cannot be made beautiful and pious and heroic. We wish it to be a green place; the Waverley Novels are better to re-read than the over-true Life, fine as dear Sir Walter was.


Scott’s ‘Waverly Novels’, 1814-1828 []

The Bible, in most parts, is a cheerful book; it is our little piping theologies, tracts, and sermons that are dull and dowie; and even the Shorter Catechism, which is scarcely a work of consolation, opens with the best and shortest and completest sermon ever written — upon Man’s chief end.


A. Whyte, A Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, 1883 []




[…] — Believe me, my dear Mr. Dick, very sincerely yours,

Robert Louis Stevenson

P.S. — You see I have changed my hand. I was threatened apparently with scrivener’s cramp, and at any rate had got to write so small, that the revisal of my MS tried my eyes, hence my signature alone remains upon the old model; for it appears that if I changed that, I should be cut off from my ‘vivers.’



R.A. Vance, ‘Writers’ Cramp, or Scriveners’ Palsy’, 1873 []

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