“We fell out my wife and I” (the Tragic Woman and the Flimsy Man)

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1733.]

To Henry James

[Colvin 1912, pp. 223-224]

Skerryvore, Bournemouth [c. 23 December 1886]

All the salutations!

My dear James,

I send you the first sheets of the new volume, all that has yet reached me, the rest shall follow in course.

This letter is written on the front page of a set of proofs of ‘The Merry Men’. The book was to be published as a collection of stories in 1887 [https://pictures.abebooks.com]

Henry James had written a letter about his preparation for an essay on RLS, asking RLS when ‘The Merry Men’ would be publshed [https://4.bp.blogspot.com]

Henry James’s essay on RLS was eventually published in the Century Magazine for April 1888.


I am really a very fair sort of a fellow all things considered, have done some work; a silly Xmas story (with some larks in it) which won’t be out till I don’t know when.

The “silly Xmas story” is ‘The Misadventures of John Nicholson’.


I am also considering a volume of verse, much of which will be cast in my native speech, that very dark oracular medium:

The “volume of verse” appeared later in the year as Underwoods.


I suppose this is a folly, but what then? As the nurse says in Marryat, “It was only a little one.”

Captain Frederick Marryat (1742-1848) was a British Royal Navy officer, a novelist, and an acquaintance of Charles Dickens [https://aquilaetinfans.files.wordpress.com]

The excuse “It was only a little one” refers to that made by the nurse for her illegitimate baby in ch. 3 of Marryat’s ‘Mr Midshipman Easy’.


[…] My wife is peepy and dowie:

Fanny Stevenson, Bournemouth. The Scottish expression stands for ‘sad, mournful, dismal’.


two Scotch expressions with which I will leave you to wrestle unaided, as a preparation for my poetical works. She is a woman (as you know) not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine; and she has recently laboured in this field not without success or (as we used to say) not without a blessing. It is strange: “we fell out my wife and I” the other night;

The quote is from Tennyson’s ‘The Princess’, a serio-comic blank verse narrative poem, 1847.


she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird;

Joseph Caraud (1821-1905), The Yellow Canaries [https://i.pinimg.com]

I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear; presently it was discovered that there were two dead combatants upon the field, each slain by an arrow of the truth, and we tenderly carried off each other’s corpses.

James Barry (1786–1788), King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death. Sidney Colvin asked for James’s advice before publihing this letter in 1911, see Mehew 5, p. 340 n. 6 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Here is a little comedy for Henry James to write! the beauty was each thought the other quite unscathed at first. But we had dealt shrewd stabs.

You say nothing of yourself, which I shall take to be good news. Archer’s note has gone.

William Archer (1856–1924), Scottish critic and writer. Henry James had asked RLS to forward a note from him to Archer asking for information about his article on RLS.

He is, in truth, a very clever fellow that Archer, and I believe a good one. It is a pleasant thing to see a man who can use a pen; he can: really says what he means, and says it with a manner; comes into print like one at his ease, not shame-faced and wrong-foot-foremost like’ the bulk of us. Well, here is luck, and here are the kindest recollections from the canary-bird and from King Lear, from the Tragic Woman and the Flimsy Man.

Robert Ramsay Fergusson Stevenson


Allan Ramsay (1686–1758), Scottish ‘makar’, playwright, publisher, librarian, and impresario of early Enlightenment Edinburgh [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Bronze statue of the Scottish poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), by David Annand, 2004, outside Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirk where the poet is buried [www.cityofliterature.com]









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