Thursday, June 21, 2012

Robert Louis Stevenson's Letters to Doyle 1893-4. Sargent, 1887.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson -

Ships in the night. 

To read the last letters of R.L.S is to regret the premature death of a great writer and an opportunity lost for a meeting with another great literary son of Edinburgh. Both Doyle and Stevenson knew Joseph Bell; both declared their debt to each other's work and shared friends in common. But they would never meet.

As the letters below indicate, definite plans were made for Doyle to extend his September 1894 tour of America to take in Samoa, which Stevenson had made his permanent home since 1890. 
The best laid plans of mice and men...Stevenson died on the 3rd of December. Forty chiefs cleared a path overnight and carried his body to its resting place on Mount Vaea.

I leave the letters to speak for themselves.


DEAR SIR, - You have taken many occasions to make yourself very agreeable to me, for which I might in decency have thanked you earlier. It is now my turn; and I hope you will allow me to offer you my compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That is the class of literature that I like when I have the toothache. As a matter of fact, it was a pleurisy I was enjoying when I took the volume up; and it will interest you as a medical man to know that the cure was for the moment effectual. Only the one thing troubles me: can this be my old friend Joe Bell? - I am, yours very truly,
P.S. - And lo, here is your address supplied me here in Samoa! But do not take mine, O frolic fellow Spookist, from the same source; mine is wrong.
R. L. S.


VAILIMA, JULY 12, 1893.
MY DEAR DR. CONAN DOYLE, - The WHITE COMPANY has not yet turned up; but when it does - which I suppose will be next mail - you shall hear news of me. I have a great talent for compliment, accompanied by a hateful, even a diabolic frankness.
Delighted to hear I have a chance of seeing you and Mrs. Doyle; Mrs. Stevenson bids me say (what is too true) that our rations are often spare. Are you Great Eaters? Please reply.
As to ways and means, here is what you will have to do. Leave San Francisco by the down mail, get off at Samoa, and twelve days or a fortnight later, you can continue your journey to Auckland per Upolu, which will give you a look at Tonga and possibly Fiji by the way. Make this a FIRST PART OF YOUR PLANS. A fortnight, even of Vailima diet, could kill nobody.
We are in the midst of war here; rather a nasty business, with the head-taking; and there seem signs of other trouble. But I believe you need make no change in your design to visit us. All should be well over; and if it were not, why! you need not leave the steamer. - Yours very truly,


MY DEAR DR. CONAN DOYLE, - I am reposing after a somewhat severe experience upon which I think it my duty to report to you. Immediately after dinner this evening it occurred to me to re- narrate to my native overseer Simele your story of THE ENGINEER'S THUMB. And, sir, I have done it. It was necessary, I need hardly say, to go somewhat farther afield than you have done. To explain (for instance) what a railway is, what a steam hammer, what a coach and horse, what coining, what a criminal, and what the police. I pass over other and no less necessary explanations. But I did actually succeed; and if you could have seen the drawn, anxious features and the bright, feverish eyes of Simele, you would have (for the moment at least) tasted glory. You might perhaps think that, were you to come to Samoa, you might be introduced as the Author of THE ENGINEER'S THUMB. Disabuse yourself. They do not know what it is to make up a story. THE ENGINEER'S THUMB (God forgive me) was narrated as a piece of actual and factual history. Nay, and more, I who write to you have had the indiscretion to perpetrate a trifling piece of fiction entitled THE BOTTLE IMP. Parties who come up to visit my unpretentious mansion, after having admired the ceilings by Vanderputty and the tapestry by Gobbling, manifest towards the end a certain uneasiness which proves them to be fellows of an infinite delicacy. They may be seen to shrug a brown shoulder, to roll up a speaking eye, and at last secret bursts from them: 'Where is the bottle?' Alas, my friends (I feel tempted to say), you will find it by the Engineer's Thumb! Talofa- soifuia.
Oa'u, O lau no moni, O Tusitala.
More commonly known as,
Have read the REFUGEES; Conde and old P. Murat very good; Louis XIV. and Louvois with the letter bag very rich. You have reached a trifle wide perhaps; too MANY celebrities? Though I was delighted to re-encounter my old friend Du Chaylu. Old Murat is perhaps your high water mark; 'tis excellently human, cheerful and real. Do it again. Madame de Maintenon struck me as quite good. Have you any document for the decapitation? It sounds steepish. The devil of all that first part is that you see old Dumas; yet your Louis XIV. is DISTINCTLY GOOD. I am much interested with this book, which fulfils a good deal, and promises more. Question: How far a Historical Novel should be wholly episodic? I incline to that view, with trembling. I shake hands with you on old Murat.
R. L. S.


MY DEAR CONAN DOYLE, - If you found anything to entertain you in my TREASURE ISLAND article, it may amuse you to know that you owe it entirely to yourself. YOUR 'First Book' was by some accident read aloud one night in my Baronial 'All. I was consumedly amused by it, so was the whole family, and we proceeded to hunt up back IDLERS and read the whole series. It is a rattling good series, even people whom you would not expect came in quite the proper tone - Miss Braddon, for instance, who was really one of the best where all are good - or all but one! ... In short, I fell in love with 'The First Book' series, and determined that it should be all our first books, and that I could not hold back where the white plume of Conan Doyle waved gallantly in the front. I hope they will republish them, though it's a grievous thought to me that that effigy in the German cap - likewise the other effigy of the noisome old man with the long hair, telling indelicate stories to a couple of deformed negresses in a rancid shanty full of wreckage - should be perpetuated. I may seem to speak in pleasantry - it is only a seeming - that German cap, sir, would be found, when I come to die, imprinted on my heart. Enough - my heart is too full. Adieu. - Yours very truly,

To the letter of 5 April, 1893, Conan Doyle responded:

I'm so glad Sherlock Holmes helped to pass an hour for you. He's a bastard between Joe Bell [a famous Edinburgh surgeon] and Poe's Monsieur Dupin (much diluted). I trust that I may never write a word about him again. I had rather that you knew me by my White Company. I'm sending it on the chance that you have not seen it".

R.L.S. at the Royal Laua in 1889.


  1. Among other points of interest, that photograph of RLS and friends is fantastic. As always, thanks for sharing!

  2. Isn't it! All seems so recent. Thank you for your always supportive comments!