“Happiness is a question of morality – or of immorality, there is no difference – and conviction”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1571.]

To John Addington Symonds [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 322-325]

Skerryvore, Bournemouth [Early March 1886]

My dear Symonds,

If we have lost touch, it is (I think) only in a material sense; a question of letters, not hearts.

RLS’s friend, John Addington Symonds (1840-93), English poet and literary critic, was at that time living at Davos, Switzerland. He had wtitten to RLS after reading ‘Jekyll & Hyde’: ‘It makes me wonder whether a man has the right so to scrutinise “the abysmal deeps of personality”. It is indeed a dreadful book, most dreadful because of a certain moral callousness, a want of sympathy, a shutting out of hope… As a piece of literary work, this seems to me the finest you have done’ [http://rictornorton.co.uk]

You will find a warm welcome at Skerryvore from both the lightkeepers;

The name Skerryvore, given to RLS’s house in Bournemouth, came from the lighthouse built by RLS’s uncle Alan: its scale reproduction was erected in RLS’s garden at Bournemouth [www.dorsetlife.co.uk]

The outline of Skerryvore in a public garden is all that remains in Bournemouth [www.dorsetlife.co.uk]


The true lighthouse of Skerryvore, built by RLS’s uncle Alan in 1844: situated 40 km West of Mull, South of the island of Tiree and the sea of Hebrides [www.jean-guichard.com]


and, indeed, we never tell ourselves one of our financial fairy tales, but a run to Davos is a prime feature.

Sketch of Am Hof, Symonds’s house in Davos, by Catherine Symonds. [http://padraigrooney.com]

I am not changeable in friendship; and I think I can promise you you have a pair of trusty well-wishers and friends in Bournemouth: whether they write or not is but a small thing; the flag may not be waved, but it is there.

Jekyll is a dreadful thing, I own; but the only thing I feel dreadful about is that damned old business of the war in the members.

Jekyll characterizes his inner conflict as one informed by the “perennial war among my members”.


This time it came out; I hope it will stay in, in future.

Raskolnikoff is easily the greatest book I have read in ten years; I am glad you took to it.

Symonds had twice written asking if RLS had read Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. RLS got the French translation of the novel in 1885.


Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it:

Henry James (1843-1916), in 1889 [http://thevillager.com]

all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikoff was not objective;

Embed from Getty Images

Raskolnikov und Marmeladov, illustration for the novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ by F. Dostoevsky, 1874.


and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and, on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of today, which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show.


To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are tortured and purified. The Juge d’Instruction I thought a wonderful, weird, touching, ingenious creation: the drunken father, and Sonia, and the student friend, and the uncircumscribed, protoplasmic humanity of Raskolnikoff, all upon a level that filled me with wonder: the execution also, superb in places. Another has been translated – Humiliés et Offensés.

It is even more incoherent than Le Crime et le Châtiment, but breathes much of the same lovely goodness, and has passages of power. Dostoieffsky is a devil of a swell, to be sure. Have you heard that he became a stout, imperialist conservative? It is interesting to know.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) [www.artspecialday.com]

To something of that side, the balance leans with me also in view of the incoherency and incapacity of all. The old boyish idea of the march on Paradise being now out of season, and all plans and ideas that I hear debated being built on a superb indifference to the first principles of human character, a helpless desire to acquiesce in anything of which I know the worst assails me. Fundamental errors in human nature of two sorts stand on the skyline of all this modern world of aspirations. First, that it is happiness that men want; and second, that happiness consists of anything but an internal harmony. Men do not want, and I do not think they would accept, happiness; what they live for is rivalry, effort, success – the elements our friends wish to eliminate. And, on the other hand, happiness is a question of morality – or of immorality, there is no difference – and conviction. Gordon was happy in Khartoum, in his worst hours of danger and fatigue;

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]

Marat was happy, I suppose, in his ugliest frenzy;

Luc Etienne Melingue, Marat, 1879 [www.storiain.net]


Marcus Aurelius was happy in the detested camp;


Pepys was pretty happy,

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) [www.magd.cam.ac.uk]

and I am pretty happy on the whole,

Charcoal portrait of RLS by John Singer Sargent, 1885. Beinecke Collection, Yale University [http://rogers99.users.sonic.net]

because we both somewhat crowingly accepted a via media, both liked to attend to our affairs, and both had some success in managing the same. It is quite an open question whether Pepys and I ought to be happy; on the other hand, there is no doubt that Marat had better be unhappy. He was right (if he said it) that he was la misère humaine, cureless misery – unless perhaps by the gallows. Death is a great and gentle solvent; it has never had justice done it, no, not by Whitman.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), in 1887 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

As for those crockery chimney-piece ornaments, the bourgeois (quorum pars), and their cowardly dislike of dying and killing, it is merely one symptom of a thousand how utterly they have got out of touch of life. Their dislike of capital punishment and their treatment of their domestic servants are for me the two flaunting emblems of their hollowness.

God knows where I am driving to. But here comes my lunch.

Which interruption, happily for you, seems to have stayed the issue. I have now nothing to say, that had formerly such a pressure of twaddle. Pray don’t fail to come this summer. It will be a great disappointment, now it has been spoken of, if you do. Yours ever,

Robert Louis Stevenson











This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.