We believe in nothing: you don’t, and I don’t

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1398.]

To John Addington Symonds [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 267-269]

Bonallie Towers, Bournemouth, 30 [sic!] February 1885

My dear Symonds,

Yes we have both been very neglectful.


John Addington Symonds (1840-93), English poet and art critic, at that time living at Davos [http://www.bristol.ac.uk]

I had horrid luck, catching […] two thundering influenzas in August and November. I recovered from the last with difficulty […], but have come through this blustering winter with some general success; in the house, up and down. My wife, however, has been painfully upset by my health. Last year, of course, was cruelly trying to her nerves; Nice and Hyères are bad experiences; and though she is not ill, the doctor tells me that prolonged anxiety may do her a real mischief. […]


RLS and Fanny at Bournemouth in August 1885, by J. S. Sargent [https://singbookswithemily.files.wordpress.com]


Fanny at Barnemouth in August 1885, by J.S. Sargent (part.) [https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com]


I feel a little old and fagged, and chary of speech, and not very sure of spirit in my work; but considering what a year I have passed, and how I have twice sat on Charon’s pierhead, I am surprising. […]


A. Litovchenko, Charon carries souls across the river Styx, 1889 [http://youtech.it]

My father has presented us with a very pretty home in this place, into which we hope to move by May.


In the spring of 1885 Thomas Stevenson purchased a house at Bournemouth, as a present for his daughter-in-law [www.nationalgalleries.org]


RLS and Fanny named the cottage “Skerryvore,” after the famous lighthouse built by the Stevenson family, and it was their home for the next three years [www.awesomestories.com]


My Child’s Verses come out next week.



‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ was published by Longmans on 6 March 1885 [http://i.ebayimg.com]



Otto begins to appear in April;


RLS’s story, ‘Prince Otto’ began serialisation in the April Longman’s Magazine [https://ia902305.us.archive.org]


More New Arabian Nights as soon as possible.



Moreover, I am neck deep in Wellington;


The Duke of Wellington, by F. Goya, 1812-14 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

also a story on the stocks, The Great North Road.

Illustration for The Great North Road, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Great North Road (unfinished, 8 chap.) was published posthumous in the Illustrated London News, Christmas Supplement 1895 [http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com]


O, I am busy! Lloyd is at college in Edinburgh.


Lloyd Osbourne, RLS’s stepson, in 1880, aged 12 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

That is, I think, all that can be said by way of news.

Have you read Huckleberry Finn? It contains many excellent things; above all, the whole story of a healthy boy’s dealings with his conscience, incredibly well done.



‘Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain, 1st edition, 1884[https://ia600301.us.archive.org]

My own conscience is badly seared; a want of piety; yet I pray for it, tacitly, every day; believing it, after courage, the only gift worth having; and its want, in a man of any claims to honour, quite unpardonable. The tone of your letter seemed to me very sound. In these dark days of public dishonour, I do not know that one can do better than carry our private trials piously. What a picture is this of a nation! No man that I can see, on any side or party, seems to have the least sense of our ineffable shame: the desertion of the garrisons.


G.W. Joy, Gordon’s death at the fall of Khartum in 1885, the conquest of Egyptian held Khartoum by the Mahdist forces led by Muhammad Ahmad. There was a great public outcry and much bitter criticism of Gladstone and his government. Votes of censure were moved in both Houses of Parliament. For hours the best part of the town was the scene of a merciless massacre. Even the women and children were not spared. After a ten-month siege, when the Mahdists finally broke into the city, the entire garrison of Egyptian soldiers was killed along with 4,000 Sudanese civilians [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I tell my little parable that Germany took England, and then there was an Indian Mutiny, and Bismarck said: ‘Quite right: let Delhi and Calcutta and Bombay fall; and let the women and children be treated Sepoy fashion,’ and people say, ‘O, but that is very different!’ And then I wish I were dead.


Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, by Franz von Lenbach

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck (1815-1898) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


The Sepoy revolt at Meerut, from the Illustrated London News, 1857. A sepoy was formerly the designation given to an Indian soldier [https://upload.wikimedia.org]



Assault of Delhi and capture of the Cashmere Gate, 14 September 1857 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Sepoy Mutini execution [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Millais (I hear) was painting Gladstone when the news came of Gordon’s death; Millais was much affected, and Gladstone said, ‘Why? It is the man’s own temerity!’



Millais’ second portrait of Gladstone was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in May [www.gac.culture.gov.uk]


Major General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


An illustration from 1885 depicting the death of General Charles Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan [https://i.guim.co.uk]


Sir John Everett Millais, English painter and illustrator, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Voilà le Bourgeois! le voilà nu! but why should I blame Gladstone, when I too am a Bourgeois? when I have held my peace? Why did I hold my peace? Because I am a sceptic: i.e. a Bourgeois. We believe in nothing, Symonds: you don’t, and I don’t; and these are two reasons, out of a handful of millions, why England stands before the world dripping with blood and daubed with dishonour.


The hanging of two participants in the Indian Rebellion, Sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry. Albumen silver print by Felice Beato, 1857 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I will first try to take the beam out of my own eye, trusting that even private effort somehow betters and braces the general atmosphere. See, for example, if England has shown (I put it hypothetically) one spark of manly sensibility, they have been shamed into it by the spectacle of Gordon. […] Police-Officer Cole is the only man that I see to admire. I dedicate my New Arabs to him and Cox, in default of other great public characters.


There were two dynamite explosions in the House of Commons on 24 Jan 1885, by members of Sinn Fein. Police Constable William Cole (c. 1840-1900) was seriously injured when a burning charge of dynamite he was carrying away exploded in Westminster Hall.


The Queen awarded him the Albert Madal for bravery and both Cole and Sergeant Thomas Cox (who was also injured) were commended and given various money testimonials. RLS duly dedicated ‘The Dynamiter’ to them. Symonds replied to this letter ‘Why is Cole a hero? I am charmed to hear that you dedicate your next book to him. Probably you have learned to respect his excellent qualities in private life. But a man who has been wounded on duty is hardly a hero.’ (Mehew 5, p. 81) [http://assets3.parliament.uk]


Police Constable William Cole (c. 1840-1900) [www.historybytheyard.co.uk]

– Yours ever most affectionately,

Robert Louis Stevenson

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