“I do not so far deceive myself as to think I should change my character by changing my epoch”

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1693.]

To Theodor Watts-Dunton [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 347-348]

Skerryvore, Bournemouth [Early September 1886]

Dear Mr. Watts,

The sight of the last Athenaeum reminds me of you, and of my debt, now too long due. I wish to thank you for your notice of Kidnapped; and that not because it was kind, though for that also I valued it, but in the same sense as I have thanked you before now for a hundred articles on a hundred different writers.

The Athenaeum was a literary magazine published in London from 1828 to 1921.


A critic like you is one who fights the good fight, contending with stupidity, and I would fain hope not all in vain; in my own case, for instance, surely not in vain.

Theodore Watts (1832–1914) contributed regularly to The Athenaeum from 1875 until 1898, being its principal critic of poetry. He added his mother’s name of Dunton to his surname only in 1897 [http://1.bp.blogspot.com]

Theodoro Watts-Dunton (left) is remembered as the friend of Swinburne (right), whom he rescued from alcoholism [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti reading proofs of Sonnets and Ballads to Theodore Watts-Dunton in the drawing room at 16 Cheyne Walk, London, by H.T. Dunn, 1882 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Theodore Watts-Dunton by Sir Henry Maximilian (‘Max’) Beerbohm [http://1.bp.blogspot.com]


What you say of the two parts in Kidnapped was felt by no one more painfully than by myself.

RLS’s ‘Kidnapped’, first book edition, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1886 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I began it partly as a lark, partly as a pot-boiler; and suddenly it moved, David and Alan stepped out from the canvas, and I found I was in another world.

David Balfour and Alan Breck statues by Alexander Stoddart (Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, 2004) depict the two characters’ final parting on Corstorphine hill [www.scotiana.com]


But there was the cursed beginning, and a cursed end must be appended;

The beginning of ‘Kidnapped’, 1930 ed., illustrated by Louis Rhead.

The last chapter of ‘Kidnapped’, 1930 ed., illustrated by Louis Rhead.


and our old friend Byles the butcher was plainly audible tapping at the back door.

In George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, Mrs Dollop, landlady of the pub, gossiping about Lydgate’s possible involvement in the sudden death of Raffles, comments that the previously very poor doctor is ‘so flushed o’ money as he can pay off Mr Byles the butcher as his bill has been running on for the best o’ joints since last Michaelmas was a twelvemonth.’


So it had to go into the world, one part (as it does seem to me) alive, one part merely galvanised: no work, only an essay. For a man of tentative method, and weak health, and a scarcity of private means, and not too much of that frugality which is the artist’s proper virtue, the days of sinecures and patrons look very golden: the days of professional literature very hard.

RLS in July 1886, by J.W. Alexander.


Yet I do not so far deceive myself as to think I should change my character by changing my epoch; the sum of virtue in our books is in a relation of equality to the sum of virtues in ourselves; and my Kidnapped was doomed, while still in the womb and while I was yet in the cradle, to be the thing it is.

And now to the more genial business of defence. You attack my fight on board the Covenant: I think it literal.

Watts-Dunton argued that stories written for boys could contain scenes of action ‘free from the restrains of imaginative logic’ necessary in fiction for adults. An illustration of this was the fight in the roundhouse.


David and Alan had every advantage on their side – position, arms, training, a good conscience; a handful of merchant sailors, not well led in the first attack, not led at all in the second, could only by an accident have taken the round-house by attack; and since the defenders had firearms and food, it is even doubtful if they could have been starved out. The only doubtful point with me is whether the seamen would have ever ventured on the second onslaught; I half believe they would not; still the illusion of numbers and the authority of Hoseason would perhaps stretch far enough to justify the extremity. – I am, dear Mr. Watts, your very sincere admirer,

Robert Louis Stevenson








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