“It is a far finer thing to be in love, or to risk a danger, than to paint the finest picture or write the noblest book”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1642.]

To Harriet Monroe [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 335-338]

[Skerryvore, Bournemouth, 30 June 1886]

My dear Miss Monroe,

I am ill in bed and stupid, incoherently stupid; yet I have to answer your letter, and if the answer is incomprehensible you must forgive me. You say my letter caused you pleasure; I am sure, as it fell out, not near so much as yours has brought to me.


Harriet Monroe (1860-1936), American poet and editor, founder in 1912 and editor of ‘Poetry: A Magazine of Poetry’. She lived in Chicago [https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com]


Harriet Monroe, dressed in costume for the Streets of Paris performance at the Coliseum, c. 1906 [http://3.bp.blogspot.com]

harriet Monroe, 1920 [http://3.bp.blogspot.com]


The interest taken in an author is fragile: his next book, or your next year of culture, might see the interest frosted or outgrown; and himself, in spite of all, you might probably find the most distasteful person upon earth. My case is different. I have bad health, am often condemned to silence for days together – was so once for six weeks, so that my voice was awful to hear when I first used it, like the whisper of a shadow – have outlived all my chief pleasures, which were active and adventurous, and ran in the open air:

Frontispiece of RLS’s travel book ‘An Inland Voyage’, 1878.


Frontispiece of RLS’s travel book ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’, 1879 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Portrait of RLS by Fanny, Fontainebleau, 1876 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


and being a person who prefers life to art, and who knows it is a far finer thing to be in love, or to risk a danger, than to paint the finest picture or write the noblest book, I begin to regard what remains to me of my life as very shadowy. From a variety of reasons, I am ashamed to confess I was much in this humour when your letter came. I had a good many troubles; was regretting a high average of sins; had been recently reminded that I had outlived some friends, and wondering if I had not outlived some friendships; and had just, while boasting of better health, been struck down again by my haunting enemy, an enemy who was exciting at first, but has now, by the iteration of his strokes, become merely annoying and inexpressibly irksome. Can you fancy that to a person drawing towards the elderly this sort of conjunction of circumstances brings a rather aching sense of the past and the future? Well, it was just then that your letter […] and your photograph […] were brought to me in bed;

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’ c.1887–93

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, ‘RLS’ c. 1887–93 [www.tate.org.uk]

and there came to me at once the most agreeable sense of triumph. My books were still young; my words had their good health and could go about the world and make themselves welcome; and even (in a shadowy and distant sense) make something in the nature of friends for the sheer hulk that stays at home and bites his pen over the manuscripts.

Robert Louis Stevenson at his desk

RLS, Bournemouth, 1885 [www.open.edu]

It amused me very much to remember that I had been in Chicago, not so many years ago, in my proper person; where I had failed to awaken much remark, except from the ticket collector;

RLS arrived in Chicago by train on 19 August 1879. R. F. Zogbaum. “The Modern Ship of the Plains”, Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 13, 1886 [www.philaprintshop.com]

and to think how much more gallant and persuasive were the fellows that I now send instead of me, and how these are welcome in that quarter to the sitter of Herr Platz,

Alexander Salvini, Max Platz photographer, Chicago [http://kdl.kyvl.org]

while their author was not very welcome even in the villainous restaurant where he tried to eat a meal and rather failed.

And this leads me directly to a confession. The photograph which shall accompany this is not chosen as the most like, but the best-looking.

RLS, Bournemouth, Dec 1885.


Put yourself in my place, and you will call this pardonable. Even as it is, even putting forth a flattered presentment, I am a little pained; and very glad it is a photograph and not myself that has to go; for in this case, if it please you, you can tell yourself it is my image – and if it displease you, you can lay the blame on the photographer; but in that, there were no hope, and the poor author might belie his labours.

Kidnapped should soon appear;

First edition of ‘Kidnapped’, Cassell & Company Ltd., 1886 [www.the-saleroom.com]

I am afraid you may not like it, as it is very unlike Prince Otto in every way;


First American edition of ‘Prince Otto’, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1886 [https://pictures.abebooks.com]

but I am myself a great admirer of the two chief characters, Alan and David.

The statue of Alan Breck & David Balfour, the heroes of RLS’s novel “Kidnapped”, by the sculptor Sandy Stoddart, stands on the N side of Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, nearthe place ‘Rest and Be Thankful’ where they parted at the end of the novel [https://en.wikipedia.org]

Virginibus Puerisque has never been issued in the States. I do not think it is a book that has much charm for publishers in any land;

‘Virginibus Puerisque’, first edition, 1881 [http://deriv.nls.uk/]

but I am to bring out a new edition in England shortly, a copy of which I must try to remember to send you. I say try to remember, because I have some superficial acquaintance with myself: and I have determined, after a galling discipline, to promise nothing more until the day of my death: at least, in this way, I shall no more break my word, and I must now try being churlish instead of being false.

I do not believe you to be the least like Seraphina.


Harriet Monroe [https://media.poetryfoundation.org]

Your photograph has no trace of her, which somewhat relieves me, as I am a good deal afraid of Seraphinas – they do not always go into the woods and see the sunrise, and some are so well-mailed that even that experience would leave them unaffected and unsoftened. The ‘hair and eyes of several complexions’ was a trait taken from myself; and I do not bind myself to the opinions of Sir John.

In his description of Otto, Sir John Crabtree writes the Prince has ‘the hair and eyes of several complexions’.

In his description of prince Otto, Sir John Crabtree writes: ‘he has hair of a ruddy gold… and his eyes are dark, a combination which I always regard as the mark of some congenital deficiency, physical or moral.’

In this case, perhaps – but no, if the peculiarity is shared by two such pleasant persons as you and I (as you and me – the grammatical nut is hard), it must be a very good thing indeed, and Sir John must be an ass.

The Book Reader notice was a strange jumble of fact and fancy. I wish you could have seen my father’s old assistant and present partner when he heard my father described as an ‘inspector of lighthouses,’

Sir George Reid, Thomas Stevenson, 1818 - 1887. Lighthouse and harbour engineer

Thomas Stevenson, lighthouse and harbour engineee. His assistant was probably was James Dick, for many years head clerk and confidential assistant in the Stevenson firm [www.nationalgalleries.org]

for we are all very proud of the family achievements, and the name of my house here in Bournemouth is stolen from one of the sea-towers of the Hebrides which are our pyramids and monuments.

The Skerryvore lighthouse lies off the west coast of Scotland, 12 miles south-west of the island of Tiree. It was built with some difficulty between 1838 and 1844 by RLS’s uncle Alan [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

The Skerryvore lighthouse,


I was never at Cambridge, again; but neglected a considerable succession of classes at Edinburgh. But to correct that friendly blunderer were to write an autobiography.

[…] And so now, with many thanks, believe me yours sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson

[Fanny continues]

















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