“I do not write possibly with all the really somewhat sickened gravity I feel”

[As usual, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 5, 1798.]

To Anne Jenkin [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 375-377]

[Skerryvore, Bournemouth, Late April 1887]

My dear Mrs. Jenkin,

The Book. It is all drafted:

Anne Austin had married Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin in 1859.

The ‘Book’ is RLS’s ‘Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin, published in 1887 with jenkin’s Papers.


I hope soon to send you for comments Chapters III, IV, and V.


Chapter VII is roughly but satisfactorily drafted: a very little work should put that to rights.


But Chapter VI is no joke;


it is a mare magnum: I swim and drown and come up again; and it is all broken ends and mystification: moreover, I perceive I am in want of more matter. I must have, first of all, a little letter from Mr. Ewing about the phonograph work:


James Alfred Ewing (1855-1935), Scottish engineer; pupil and friend of Fleeming Jenkin and co-editor (with Sidney Colvin) of the Papers to which RLS’s Memoir was prefixed [http://2.bp.blogspot.com]


James Alfred Ewing, third from left [http://3.bp.blogdpot.com]

In Ch. VI of his Memoir, RLS quotes Ewing’s description of how he and Jenkin constructed (from a description of Edison’s invention) the first phonograph to be seen in Britain and exhibited it at a Bazaar in Edinburgh in 1878.



Fleeming Jenkin and Ewing. “The Phonograph and Vowel Sounds”, in Nature 1878 [http://longstreet.typepad.com]




If you think he would understand it is quite a matter of chance whether I use a word or a fact out of it. If you think he would not: I will go without. Also, could I have a look at Ewing’s précis? And lastly, I perceive I must interview you again about a few points; they are very few, and might come to little; and I propose to go on getting things as well together as I can in the meanwhile, and rather have a final time when all is ready and only to be criticised. I do still think it will be good. I wonder if Trélat would let me cut? But no, I think I wouldn’t after all; ’tis so quaint and pretty and clever and simple and French, and gives such a good sight of Fleeming: the plum of the book, I think.

At the end of Ch. VI of his Memoir, RLS prints a long letter from Emile Trélat, whose friendship with Jenkin began when they were fellow-members of the jury of the International Exhibition at Paris in 1878.



You misunderstood me in one point: I always hoped to found such a society; that was the outside of my dream, and would mean entire success. But − I cannot play Peter the Hermit.


Peter the Hermit preaching the first crusade, by J. Archer, 1897.RLA refers to a remark of Mrs Jenkin that a task such as he had proposed to himself in Ireland (his scheme of going to make a stand in his own person against agrarian outrage there) should be undertaken by a society rather than an individual [www.artnet.com]


In these days of the Fleet Street journalist,

Fleet Street, London, c. 1890. It became known for printing and publishing at the start of the 16th century and it became the dominant trade. The term Fleet Street remains a metonym for the British national press [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


Fleet Street, London, late 19th century [http://lowres-picturecabinet.com.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com]

Fleet Street, London [https://upload.wikimedia.org]


I cannot send out better men than myself, with wives or mothers just as good as mine, and sisters (I may at least say) better, to a danger and a long-drawn dreariness that I do not share. My wife says it’s cowardice; what brave men are the leader-writers! Call it cowardice; it is mine. Mind you, I may end by trying to do it by the pen only: I shall not love myself if I do; and is it ever a good thing to do a thing for which you despise yourself? − even in the doing? And if the thing you do is to call upon others to do the thing you neglect? I have never dared to say what I feel about men’s lives, because my own was in the wrong: shall I dare to send them to death? The physician must heal himself; he must honestly try the path he recommends: if he does not even try, should he not be silent?

Actor Richard Mansfield in his dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in New York in 1887 and London in 1888 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

I thank you very heartily for your letter, and for the seriousness you brought to it. You know, I think when a serious thing is your own, you keep a saner man by laughing at it and yourself as you go. So I do not write possibly with all the really somewhat sickened gravity I feel. And indeed, what with the book, and this business to which I referred, and Ireland, I am scarcely in an enviable state. Well, I ought to be glad, after ten years of the worse training on earth − valetudinarianism − that I can still be troubled by a duty. You shall hear more in time; so far, I am at least decided: I will go and see Balfour when I get to London.


Eustace James Anthony Balfour (1854-1911), architect and surveyor to the Duke of Westminster, was a member of the Savile Club, London. His brother Arthur, the Conservative politician, was then Chief Secretary for Ireland [www.emmasekhon.com]

We have all had a great pleasure: a Mrs. Rawlinson came and brought with her a nineteen-year-old daughter, simple, human, as beautiful as − herself; I never admired a girl before, you know it was my weakness: we are all three dead in love with her.

Mary Margherita Cridland had married in 1867 William George Rawlinson, art collector and writer on Turner. After their visit RLS sent their eldest daughter Mary (May) the poem: ‘Of the many flowers you brought me’ [https://images.findagrave.com]


How nice to be able to do so much good to harassed people by − yourself! Ever yours,













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