My dear Henry James… the unpolished diamond is but a stone

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1346.]

To Henry James [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 254-256]

Bonallie Towers, Branksome Park, Bournemouth, December 8, 1884

My dear Henry James,

This is a very brave hearing from more points than one. The first point is that there is a hope of a sequel. For this I laboured.


Henry James (1843-1916). RLS’s essay, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, had just appeared in Longman’s Magazine. James had written holding out the prospect of a continuance of the friendly controversy which had thus been opened up between them on the aims and qualities of fiction []


Henry James, 1889 []


RLS’s essay in Longman’s Magazine []


Seriously, from the dearth of information and thoughtful interest in the art of literature, those who try to practise it with any deliberate purpose run the risk of finding no fit audience. People suppose it is ‘the stuff’ that interests them; they think, for instance, that the prodigious fine thoughts and sentiments in Shakespeare impress by their own weight, not understanding that the unpolished diamond is but a stone.






They think that striking situations, or good dialogue, are got by studying life; they will not rise to understand that they are prepared by deliberate artifice and set off by painful suppressions. Now, I want the whole thing well ventilated, for my own education and the public’s, and I beg you to look as quick as you can, to follow me up with every circumstance of defeat where we differ, and (to prevent the flouting of the laity) to emphasise the points where we agree. I trust your paper will show me the way to a rejoinder; and that rejoinder I shall hope to make with so much art as to woo or drive you from your threatened silence. I would not ask better than to pass my life in beating out this quarter of corn with such a seconder as yourself.

Point the second – I am rejoiced indeed to hear you speak so kindly of my work; rejoiced and surprised. I seem to myself a very rude, left-handed countryman; not fit to be read, far less complimented, by a man so accomplished, so adroit, so craftsmanlike as you. You will happily never have cause to understand the despair with which a writer like myself considers (say) the park scene in Lady Barberina. Every touch surprises me by its intangible precision; and the effect when done, as light as syllabub, as distinct as a picture, fills me with envy.


‘Lady Barberina’, a story by H. James, was serialised in the Century Magazine 28, 1884, and published in book form in ‘Tales of Three Cities’ in Nov 1884 []


Each man among us prefers his own aim, and I prefer mine; but when we come to speak of performance, I recognise myself, compared with you, to be a lout and slouch of the first water.

Where we differ, both as to the design of stories and the delineation of character, I begin to lament. Of course, I am not so dull as to ask you to desert your walk; but could you not, in one novel, to oblige a sincere admirer, and to enrich his shelves with a beloved volume, could you not, and might you not, cast your characters in a mould a little more abstract and academic (dear Mrs. Pennyman had already, among your other work, a taste of what I mean), and pitch the incidents, I do not say in any stronger, but in a slightly more emphatic key – as it were an episode from one of the old (so-called) novels of adventure? I fear you will not; and I suppose I must sighingly admit you to be right.


‘Washington Square’, American edition, 1881. It is a short novel originally published in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine; it is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, unemotional father. Her aunt Lavinia Penniman is a meddlesome woman with a weakness for romance and melodrama []




And yet, when I see, as it were, a book of Tom Jones handled with your exquisite precision and shot through with those sidelights of reflection in which you excel, I relinquish the dear vision with regret. Think upon it.



As you know, I belong to that besotted class of man, the invalid: this puts me to a stand in the way of visits. But it is possible that some day you may feel that a day near the sea and among pinewoods would be a pleasant change from town.


The pines of Bournemouth, c. 1960 []

If so, please let us know; and my wife and I will be elighted to put you up, and give you what we can to eat and drink (I have a fair bottle of claret).


Claret is a name primarily used in British English for red Bordeaux wine. It derives from the French clairet, a now uncommon dark rosé, which was the most common wine exported from Bordeaux until the 18th century. The name was anglicised to “claret” as a result of its widespread consumption in England during the period in the 12th–15th centuries that Aquitaine was part of the Angevin Empire []


– On the back of which, believe me, yours sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson

P.S. – I reopen this to say that I have re-read my paper, and cannot think I have at all succeeded in being either veracious or polite. I knew, of course, that I took your paper merely as a pin to hang my own remarks upon; but, alas! what a thing is any paper! What fine remarks can you not hang on mine! How I have sinned against proportion, and with every effort to the contrary, against the merest rudiments of courtesy to you! You are indeed a very acute reader to have divined the real attitude of my mind; and I can only conclude, not without closed eyes and shrinking shoulders, in the well-worn words,

Lay on, Macduff!


Macbeth, 5, 8. Macbeth speaks these words as he attacks his enemy Macduff at the end of the play; Macbeth is killed in the fight []

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1 Response to My dear Henry James… the unpolished diamond is but a stone

  1. rdury says:

    It was good to see the opening of _Lady Barbarina_, which is so different from any openings of Stevenson’s novels: the two characters looking on the scene that is then described is not very original and the set descriptions of the two characters is very different from Stevenson’s method of giving a few telling details only.

    Liked by 1 person

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