The optimistic Stevenson

As a young art student, Arthur Trevor Haddon (1864-1941), English portrait painter, had won a scholarship at the Slade School in 1883.

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 4, 1257.]

To A. Trevor Haddon [Colvin 1912, pp. 190-192]

[…] La Solitude, Hyères [23 or 24 April 1884]

Dear Mr. Haddon,

I am pleased to see your hand again, and, waiting my wife’s return, to guess at some of the contents. For various things have befallen me of late. First, as you see, I had to change my hand; lastly I have fallen into a kind of blindness, and cannot read. This more inclines me for something to do, to answer your letter before I have read it, a safe plan familiar to diplomatists.


RLS’s sloping hand is commonly found in MSS from 1883-88 []

I gather from half-shut eyes that you were a Skeltist; now seriously that is a good beginning; there is a deal of romance (cheap) in Skelt. Look at it well, and you will see much of Dickens.


Skelt was the last of the designers and etchers of cheap sheets for toy theatres illustrating popular dramas and melodramas []

And even Skelt is better than conscientious, grey back-gardens, and conscientious, dull still lives.


Adolph von Menzel, The Back Garden, 1860-1870 []


Adelaide Palmer (1851-1928), Still Life []

The great lack of art just now is a spice of life and interest; and I prefer galvanism to acquiescence in the grave. All do not;

Doctor Ure galvanizing the body of the assassin Clysdale

Andrew Ure galvanizing the body of the executed murderer Matthew Clydesdale, 19th century []

’t is an affair of tastes; and mine are young. Those who like death have their innings to-day with art that is like mahogany and horsehair furniture, solid, true, serious and as dead as Caesar.


Jean-Leon Gerome, The Dead Caesar, c. 1859 []


The place were they burnt Caesar’s body, Roman Forum []

I wish I could read Treasure Island; I believe I should like it.


Treasure Island, 1st American edition, 1883-1884[]

But work done, for the artist, is the Golden Goose killed; you sell its feathers and lament the eggs.


Simpleton finds The Golden Goose: illustration by L. Leslie Brooke, 1905 []

To-morrow the fresh woods!


Milton’s Lycidas, last line: “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new”, Vol. 3 of The Poetical Works of John Milton, 1866 []

I have been seriously ill, and do not pick up with that finality that I should like to see. I linger over and digest my convalescence like a favourite wine;



and what with blindness, green spectacles, and seclusion, cut but a poor figure in the world.



I made out at the end that you were asking some advice — but what, my failing eyes refuse to inform me. I must keep a sheet for the answer; and Mrs. Stevenson still delays, and still I have no resource against tedium but the waggling of this pen.

You seem to me to be a pretty lucky young man; keep your eyes open to your mercies. That part of piety is eternal; and the man who forgets to be grateful has fallen asleep in life. Please to recognise that you are unworthy of all that befalls you — unworthy, too, I hear you wail, of this terrible sermon; but indeed we are not worthy of our fortunes; love takes us in a counterfeit, success comes to us at play, health stays with us while we abuse her; and even when we gird at our fellow-men, we should remember that it is of their good will alone, that we still live and still have claims to honour. The sins of the most innocent, if they were exactly visited, would ruin them to the doer. And if you know any man who believes himself to be worthy of a wife’s love, a friend’s affection, a mistress’s caress, even if venal, you may rest assured he is worthy of nothing but a kicking. I fear men who have no open faults; what do they conceal? We are not meant to be good in this world, but to try to be, and fail, and keep on trying; and when we get a cake to say, “Thank God!”


Albert Roosenboon (1845-1873), The tempting cake []

and when we get a buffet, to say, “Just so: well hit!”


Peder Severin Krøyer, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, 1888 []

I have been getting some of the buffets of late; but have amply earned them — you need not pity me. Pity sick children and the individual poor man; not the mass.

nippers pages final2.indd



Photo by A. Folliero []

Don’t pity anybody else, and never pity fools. The optimistic Stevenson; but there is a sense in these wanderings.

Now I have heard your letter, and my sermon was not mal-à-propos. For you seem to be complaining. Everybody’s home is depressing, I believe; it is their difficult business to make it less so. There is an unpleasant saying, which would have pricked me sharply at your age.

[…] — Yours truly,

Robert Louis Stevenson



Arthur Trevor Haddon, Cornwall Black Pigs being watched by a figure smoking a pipe before a brick a tile cottage, Watercolour with gouache, 1884 []

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