A LETTER TO HENRY JAMES
VAILIMA PLANTATION, SAMOAN ISLANDS,
June 17th, 1893
MY DEAR HENRY JAMES, -- I believe I have neglected
a mail in answering yours. You will be very
sorry to hear that my wife was exceedingly ill,
and very glad to hear that she is better. I
cannot say that I feel any more anxiety about
her. We shall send you a photograph of her
taken in Sydney in her customary island habit
as she walks and gardens and shrilly drills her
brown assistants. She was very ill when she
sat for it, which may a little explain the
appearance of the photograph. It reminds me
of a friend of my grandmother's who used to
say when talking to younger women, "Aweel,
when I was young, I wasnae just exactly what
ye wad call bonny, but I was pale, penetratin',
and interestin'." I would not venture to hint
that Fanny is "no bonny," but there is no doubt
but that in this presentment she is "pale,
penetratin', and interesting."
As you are aware, I have been wading deep
waters and contending with the great ones of
the earth, not wholly without success. It
is, you may be interested to hear, a dreary
and infuriating business. If you can get
the fools to admit one thing, they will always
save their face by denying another. If you
can induce them to take a step to the right
hand, they generally indemnify themselves by
cutting a caper to the left. I always held
(upon no evidence whatever, from a mere
sentiment or intuition) that politics was
the dirtiest, the most foolish, and the most
random of human employments. I always held,
but now I know it! Fortunately, you have
nothing to do with anything of the kind,
and I may spare you the horror of further
I received from you a book by a man by the
name of Anatole France. Why should I
disguise it? I have no use for Anatole.
He writes very prettily, and then afterwards?
Baron Marbot was a different pair of shoes.
So likewise is the Baron de Vitrolles, whom
I am now perusing with delight. His escape
in 1814 is one of the best pages I remember
anywhere to have read. But Marbot and Vitrolles
are dead, and what has become of the living?
It seems as if literature were coming to a
stand. I am sure it is with me; and I am
sure everybody will say so when they have
the privilege of reading "The Ebb Tide." My
dear man, the grimness of that story is not
to be depicted in words. There are only four
characters, to be sure, but they are such a
troop of swine! And their behaviour is really
so deeply beneath any possible standard, that
on a retrospect I wonder I have been able to
endure them myself until the yarn was finished.
Well, there is always one thing; it will serve
as a touchstone. If the admirers of Zola
admire him for his pertinent ugliness and
pessimism, I think they should admire this;
but if, as I have long suspected, they neither
admire nor understand the man's art, and only
wallow in his rancidness like a hound in offal,
then they will certainly be disappointed in
"The Ebb Tide." Alas! poor little tale, it is
not even rancid.
By way of an antidote or febrifuge, I am going
on at a great rate with my "History of the
Stevensons," which I hope may prove rather
amusing in some parts at least. The excess
of materials weighs upon me. My grandfather
is a delightful comedy part; and I have to
treat him besides as a serious and (in his
way) a heroic figure, and at times I lose my
way, and I fear in the end will blur the
effect. However, a la grace de Dieu! I'll
make a spoon or spoil a horn. You see, I
have to do the Building of the Bell Rock by
cutting down and packing my grandsire's book,
which I rather hope I have done, but do not
know. And it makes a huge chunk of a very
different style and quality between Chapters II.
and IV. And it can't be helped! It is just
a delightful and exasperating necessity. You
know, the stuff is really excellent narrative:
only, perhaps there's too much of it! There
is the rub. Well, well, it will be plain to
you that my mind is affected; it might be
with less. "The Ebb Tide" and "Northern Lights"
are a full meal for any plain man.
I have written and ordered your last book,
"The Real Thing," so be sure and don't send it.
What else are you doing or thinking of doing?
News I have none, and don't want any. I have
had to stop all strong drink and all tobacco,
and am now in a transition state between the
two, which seems to be near madness. You
never smoked, I think, so you can never taste
the joys of stopping it. But at least you
have drunk, and you can enter perhaps into
my annoyance when I suddenly find a glass of
claret or a brandy-and-water give me a
splitting headache the next morning. No
mistake about it; drink anything, and there's
your headache. Tobacco just as bad for me.
If I live through this breach of habit, I
shall be a white-livered puppy indeed.
Actually I am so made, or so twisted, that I
do not like to think of a life without the
red wine on the table and the tobacco with
its lovely little coal of fire. It doesn't
amuse me from a distance. I may find it
the Garden of Eden when I go in, but I don't
like the colour of the gate-posts. Suppose
somebody said to you, you are to leave your
home, and your books, and your clubs, and
go out and camp in mid-Africa, and command
an expedition, you would howl, and kick,
and flee. I think the same of a life without
wine and tobacco; and if this goes on, I've
got to go and do it, sir, in the living
I thought Bourget was a friend of yours?
And I thought the French were a polite race?
He has taken my dedication with a stately
silence that has surprised me into apoplexy.
Did I go and dedicate my book* to the nasty
alien, and the 'norrid Frenchman, and the
Bloody Furrineer? Well, I wouldn't do it
again; and unless his case is susceptible
of explanation, you might perhaps tell him
so over the walnuts and the wine, by way
of speeding the gay hours. Sincerely, I
thought my dedication worth a letter.
If anything be worth anything here below!
Do you know the story of the man who found
a button in his hash, and called the waiter?
"What do you call that?" says he. "Well,"
said the waiter, "what d' you expect? Expect
to find a gold watch and chain?" Heavenly
apologue, is it not? I expected (rather)
to find a gold watch and chain; I expected
to be able to smoke to excess and drink to
comfort all the days of my life; and I am
still indignantly staring on this button!
It's not even a button; it's a teetotal
badge! -- Ever yours,
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.
* "Across the Plains."