“What will a man not do with a woman at his elbow…”

As already explained in previous posts, W.E. Henley’s letter of 9 March to RLS accusing Fanny of plagiarism in publishing under her own name a story based on an earlier one by RLS’s cousin, Katharine de Mattos, had precipitated the quarrel and estrangement between them. Baxter acted as mediator.

[For correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2072 and 2070.]

To Charles Baxter

[Baxter Letters, 1956, pp. 210-213, at www.hathitrust.org]

[Envelope marked ‘Private’]

[Hotel St Stephen, New York, 20 April 1888]

My dear Charles,

God bless you for your letter: it is impossible to write more kindly to both W.E. H[enley] and me;

W.H. Henley (Gloucester 1849- Woking 1903)

RLS in 1888, by Wyatt Eaton [www.hmdb.org]

and God knows I wish I could just write and say I have forgot it all. I will enclose to you a copy of Katharine’s letter.

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 moved to London with her two children and, with help from RLS and Henley, supported herself by journalism [www.cityofliterature.com]

You are to observe first that no shadow of blame was thrown on her; so far from that I sent Henley to her that he might learn the facts, and I fancied she would have told them. That is a smaller matter. Suppose that I am insane and have dreamed all that I seem to remember, and that my wife has shamefully stolen a story from my cousin,

Beginning of Fanny Stevenson’s short story in Scribner’s Magazine, March 1888 [https://babel.hathitrust.org]

was this the class of matter that a friend would write to me? God knows if I heard ill of Henley’s wife, I should bottle it up in my heart from him, not write it to him in the midst of fulsome protestations of love; and so, I think, would you.

Annah Johnson Boyle, Henley’s wife (1855-1925) [www.findagrave.com]

He has written me since another letter in which he tells me – what is perhaps very true – that I have cumbered him with my aid in the matter of the plays.

‘Three Plays’ by Henley and RLS, first edition 1892.

I fear it may be so: it is painful to think; and his writing that to me (though I think it indicates a festering spirit) I can readily forgive. But does one friend write to another accusations against his wife? And such an accusation – a theft of money and of reputation? Of two things, one: either my wife is innocent, and then I suppose even my enemy would hold his peace? or she is guilty, and then, O surely almost my enemy would try to hide it from me!

Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson (1840-1914) [www.ourpacificocean.com]

If this be friendship, I am not robust enough to bear it. If it be want of tact, it is strangely like want of heart. But the truth is, it is the old business; this is only one pebble (the plays was another) picked up to wound me with, in an access of concocted bitterness. A similar bitterness was concocted last year, and there will be another a year after.

G. Doré, The Martyrodom of St. Stephen [https://i.etsystatic.com]

I write it in all soberness; and any pebbles I could have received – and have received – but not this heartless cruelty. You speak of his verses: the thought of that has been heavy on me; if I know my soul at all, I would do anything to have delayed this trouble till his book was out.

W.E. Henley, A Book of Verses, 1st edition, 1893.

But friendship – which I am sure he has had from me in his hours, and most sincerely too – friendship has surely some obbligation of ordinary kindness; it is not a covert from behind which a man is to fill you with injuries and reproaches and escape safe himself. I do not know why I go on reasoning. He has sent me not a word. And whether this be good or evil, I know not. It gives me at least time (which I eagerly embrace) to delay. To Katharine’s letter I can return no answer. Her view of the facts is too radically different from mine; we have no common grounds, even if we seemed to have a common spirit;

RLS’s dedication of ‘Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ to his cousin Katharine, 1886.

and though there came along with this two subsequent notes in a somewhat different and not so pert a spirit, they still indicate a belief which argues hallucination either on her part or mine; and between 2 hallucinations what can be done? Accordingly I fold my hands and wait. Henley may so write that I shall feel able to pass it over, I do not know; but I shall insist at least that I am to be no longer a pin cushion for his outrageous arrows,

Alcide Joseph Lorentz (1813-1891), St. Sebastian [https://i.pinimg.com]

but shall be written to, if I am written to at all, with some ordinary consideration for my feelings. It is of course quite true that Katharine’s attitude absolves him of three parts of what I had against him, but the fourth part that remains – that willingness to seethe up against me and mine in my absence and that heartless willingness to wound me – was, it seems, the part that I most keenly felt.

I am just off a journey, in New York City, very tired and very bitterly welcomed by the enclosed;

Hotel St. Stephen, 46-52 East 11th Street, NY, c. 1880. RLS will be there in the second half of April 1888 [http://thehotelalbert.com]

but yours, dear fellow, was a consolation such as you can hardly fancy. I was shaking like a reed when I began to read it; before I was done I felt calm. O, a little kindness will go far – and yours was much, my beloved friend. And what you say of him is all true. I know his merits, damn him! The trouble is, he deceives himself: he does not love me any more. It is only a habit with him now to be my friend; it has long been divorced from any regard to my feelings. You would think he would have shrunk from wounding Gosse, as he stabbed me!

RLS’s friend, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928). It’s not clear how Henley ‘wounded’ him [https://cdn.britannica.com]

But not so. He sends his charge, and sandwiches it with protestations, and marks it private and confidential, and directs that I am to show it to no one (so that my wife was not to know!) and to burn it; and follows it up with another, equally marked private and confidential for no possible reason but to take the sting out of the former marking, and in this second epistle expresses his belief that there is nothing which should affect our friendship – all this to my mind clearly pointing to a guilty sense of what he had done. So far I accuse; and I find such treatment hard to swallow.

And now, in the strictest confidence, to defend him. This business of the story was (I thought, at the time) silly. Katharine even while she consented – as she did to me with her own lips – expressed unwillingness; I told my wife so, and I asked her to go no farther. But she had taken a fancy to the idea, and when Katharine had tried her version and failed and wrote to tell us so, nothing would serve her but to act on this unwilling consent and try hers. Hers succeeded, and this was trebly vexatious to Katharine, as I clearly see.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Undine, 1872 [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

Now frankly she can do what she will with Henley; I have long suspected this, and I fear – perhaps so have others. Her view of the case, passion suppressing many of the facts, she has handed on to him. And certainly the conduct, if it were as she seems to think, would have been abominably bad. So my poor Knight Errant put lance in rest and charged

Sir Frank Dicksee (1853-1928), Chivalry [www.christies.com]

– at me, though what I had to do with it I do not clearly know. But what will a man not do with a woman at his elbow.

RLS with his mother, wife and step-daughter at their temporary residence, Darlinghurst, Sidney, January 1893 [https://dictionaryofsydney.org]

So, if you think me harsh in my judgement of his conduct, say so, and pray God you may convince me; but if you agree with my judgement, make still the allowance, and remember that it was all packed into him by an angry woman he admires – and what an angry woman is, we all know; and what a man is when he admires.

W.E. Henley [https://upload.wikimedia.org]

In all this I have not mentioned my wife. Her feelings you may imagine; and since it was in Henley’s house and presence that she proposed to Katharine her version of the tale, and since no woman can make allowance for another woman’s influence, she sees treachery in his conduct, where I see only influence on the one hand and unkindness on the other. It is possible I judge harshly; I have spared no pains to try to be just, but the quarrel is mine and the pain mine, and it is not likely that I see things as they are.

My dear Charles, this is I think the fourth letter I have sent you on this matter; those I have written and destroyed to you, to him, or to Katharine, are not to be counted. I have never had so heavy a shake.


Yours ever affectionately,



Katharine de Mattos to RLS

[Baxter Letters, 1956, p. 213, at www.hathitrust.org]

Merton Place, Chiswick W., 11/4/88

Dear Louis,

As Mr. Henley’s very natural but infortunate letter was written without my wish or knowledge, I have refused to let him go further in the matter. He had a perfect right to be astonished, but his having said so has nothing to do with me. If Fanny thinks she had a right to the idea of the story, I am far from wishing to reclaim or to criticize her in any way. At any rate I cannot be said to have done any wrong or gained anything by the matter, and I therefore refuse to be questioned about it or to let any one else be troubled any further; I am sick to death of the matter and the notion of any quarrel has made me feel quite ill. It is of course very unfortunate that my story was written first and read by people, and if they express their astonishment, it is natural consequence and no fault of mine or any one else. I assume that you know me sufficiently to be sure that I have never alluded to the matter, even to friends who have spoken of The Nixie. I trust this matter is not making you feel as ill as all of us.

Yours affly,

Katharine De Mattos

[Annotated by RLS]

This seems pleasantly put!

R.L.S. The copist, for whose soul you are requested to pray.

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