“The tales are like the fox, the goose, and the cabbage of the ferryman”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1732.]

To Lady Taylor [Colvin 1912, pp. 220-222]

Skerryvore, Bournemouth [23 December 1886]

My dear Lady Taylor,

This is to wish you all the salutations of the year, with some regret that I cannot offer them in person; yet less than I had supposed. For hitherto your flight to London seems to have worked well;

RLS’s neighbourghs, the Taylors, while retaining the house in Bournemouth, had moved to London in November, 53 Onslow Square.

Sir Henry Taylor (1800-86), civil servant in the Colonial Office and author of verse dramas, had married in 1839 Theodosia Alice Spring Rice (1817-91), daughter of the 1st Lord Monteagle. They had wo unmarried daughters: Ida Alice Ashworth (1850-1929) and Una Mary Ashworth (1857-1922) authors of a few minor novels; Ida was also a biographer [https://commons.wikimedia.org]

and time flies and will soon bring you back again. Though time is ironical, too; and it would be like his irony if the same tide that brought you back carried me away. That would not be, at least, without some meeting.

I feel very sorry to think the book to which I have put your name will be no better, and I can make it no better.

RLS’s volume of tales ‘The Merry Men’, so called from the story which heads the collection, was about to appear with a dedication to Lady Taylor.


The tales are of all dates and places; they are like the fox, the goose, and the cabbage of the ferryman;

Visualisation of the old old (9th century) poser of how a ferryman could get all three across the river without the fox eating the cabbage (here: beans) [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

and must go floating down time together as best they can. But I am after all a (superior) penny-a-liner; I must do, in the Scotch phrase, as it will do with me; and I cannot always choose what my books are to be, only seize the chance they offer to link my name to a friend’s. I hope the lot of them (the tales) will look fairly disciplined when they are clapped in binding; but I fear they will be but an awkward squad. I have a mild wish that you at least would read them no further than the dedication.

Contents of ‘The Merry Men’.


I suppose we have all been reading Dowden.

Dowden’s Shelley had lately come out, and had naturally been read with eager interest in a circle where Sir Percy (the poet’s son) and Lady Shelley were intimate friends and neighbours.


It seems to me a really first-rate book, full of justice, and humour without which there can be no justice; and of fine intelligence besides. Here and there, perhaps a trifle precious, but this is to spy flaws in a fine work. I was weary at my resemblances to Shelley; I seem but a Shelley with less oil, and no genius; though I have had the fortune to live longer and (partly) to grow up. He was growing up. There is a manlier note in the last days; in spite of such really sickening aberrations as the Emillia Viviani business […].

RLS in Bournemouth, 1886. The Bookman Extra Number, 1913, p. 57.

Miniature portrait of P.B. Shelley. The young countess Teresa Emilia Viviani was the young Italian girl with whom Shelley was infatuated [http://3.bp.blogspot.com]

I try to take a humorously-genial view of life; but Emillia Viviani, if I have her detested name aright, is too much for my philosophy. I cannot smile when I see all these grown folk waltzing and piping the eye about an insubordinate and perfectly abominable schoolgirl, as silly and patently as false as Blanche Amory.

Blanche Amory is the selfish little shrew in Thackeray’s ‘Pendennis’, 1848-1850.


I really think it is one of those episodes that make the angels weep.

With all kind regards and affectionate good wishes to and for you and yours, believe me, your affectionate friend,

Robert Louis Stevenson






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