“Angry with Henley I am not”

The friendship between RLS and W.E. Henley had grown strained for many reasons. Henley disliked RLS’s wife, and felt that she interfered with their friendship. Furthermore, he was more convinced than RLS about the viability of the plays that the writers had been collaborating on: Henley, who was often worried about money, thought the plays would be lucrative, while RLS felt that the plays were not a literary success. The two men had already quarreled, but their biggest quarrel came in March 1888. Henley accused Fanny Stevenson of plagiarism when she published the short story “The Nixie” in Scribner’s Magazine. He argued that it had actually been taken from one of Katharine De Mattos’s own stories.  RLS’s cousin, Bob Stevenson, took his sister Katharine’s and Henley’s view of the event, while RLS took Fanny’s side. The quarrel damaged his relationship not only with Henley, but also with both of his cousins. Even after all of their difficulties, RLS still missed his friend, though they never fully recovered their friendship.

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2056.]

To Charles Baxter [Baxter Letters, 1956, p. 209, at www.hathitrust.org]

 [Saranac Lake, 10 April 1888]

My dear Charles,

Herewith a codicil to my will. The idea having occurred to me that, if this job goes on, there may be war among my heirs, I thought it well to tighten up the screws in every particular. My mind has always troubled me a good deal that Henley is not mentioned; yet I could only leave him a legacy,  which he would throw into the sea at once;

William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) [http://broughttolife.sciencemuseum.org.uk]
Fanny Stevenson’s short story in Scribner’s Magazine, March 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

And I hoped there would be peace among my heirs and friends, so that he would be helped in tight places.

Katharine Elizabeth Alan Stevenson (1851-1939), RLS’s cousin and Bob’s sister. They played together when they were children. RLS dedicated ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ to her. In June 1874 she married, against the wishes of her family, William Sydney de Mattos, known as a “Cambridge atheist”. His constant infidelities led to their separation in 1881. At the age of 30, Katharine had moved to London with her two children, supporting herself by journalism, with help from RLS and Henley [www.cityofliterature.com]
Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (1847–1900), a Scottish art critic, was RLS’s cousin and Katharine’s brother [https://alchetron.com]

All this we must consider in time. I feel sometimes (when I do not think upon the circumstances) returns of hope. Angry with Henley I am not, for I think I follow all that passed; but I own I desire my life to be fortified from more of these assaults. And the trouble is (now that I have some hint of his principal’s attitude) I fear the facts have all got rearranged in their heads, and they now probably believe devoutly the most wonderful legend of infamy on our side. Against this (if it be so) it is hard to see what to do. In my first letter to Henley I simply sent him to Katharine for the facts; I fear it was to a troubled source. But the truth is people go wrong continually — I own my blunder in this: they expect too much, and they grant and take too great freedoms from their friends; and when the frailty declares itself or the freedom is abused or resented, they forget their own share. I have made this trouble — in all innocence, which is a very poor plea—but I see if I had taken a better attitude, no word of it would have happened.

Yours affectionately,


I got codeia and managed to sleep,


but I have not yet been able to get back to work, and feel run down. Fanny safely arrived in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, c. 1888 [www.flickr.com]

My mother has written you about the business, for our trouble about which all thanks.

Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson (1829-1897) [www.robert-louis-stevenson.org]


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