STEVENSON, Robert Louis (1850-1894). The Anne Jenkin papers.
Comprising 33 autograph letters signed and two letters signed (‘Robert Louis Stevenson’, ‘R.L.S.’, ‘R.L. Stevenson’ and, once, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson (Tusitala)’) and one autograph letter unsigned, to Anne Jenkin, various places (Skerryvore, Bournemouth; Tahiti; Honolulu; Vailima, most often n.p.), [June 1885-May 1892: most often n.d.], approx. 77 pages in total, various sizes (150 x 100mm - 320 x 200mm), often on paper extracted from ruled notebooks. [With:] an autograph manuscript entitled ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, a critique of English politics, 5 pages, small 4to (200 x 160mm), (unfinished); one photograph signed of Robert Louis Stevenson; two telegrams; 15 letters from Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson, two on letters from Stevenson; two letters from Lloyd Stevenson; one letter from Austin Strong; and two photographs of Fleeming Jenkin. 58 items in total. Provenance: by descent from Anne Jenkin.
‘CALL ME LOUIS, AS HE HAS NOW DONE FOR SO MANY YEARS’. Many of the early letters from Robert Louis Stevenson to Anne, widow of Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), engineer and academic, Stevenson’s professor and friend, revolve around the memoir of Fleeming’s life that Stevenson agreed to write – on which he began professing ‘it will give me the greatest pleasure to do all that I can for the volume in every way’, but was remarking on nearing its completion in 1887 ‘I do not believe I would accept a similar task again’. Persistent writer’s block (‘My mind is quite arrested like a watch’; ‘Chapter VI is no joke; it is a mare magnum; I swim and drown and come up again’) is exacerbated by frequent bouts of illness (‘I may add to all this that my health is usually worst when my mind is in working order’), and a generally positive reception on its publication nevertheless gives him occasion to bemoan ‘the weakness of the reviewer, poor soul! and how he longs to find fault … the poor, small creature casting on all sides to find some opportunity … when he is a little older (if he be still young) he will be ashamed of himself’, as well as ‘the light-headed vanity of readers and the sublime indifference of printers’. He reveals much of himself in the questions and hypotheses he puts to Anne Jenkin (‘1st When did Fleeming first see you? 2nd was he immediately in love?’), as well as the wide-ranging thoughts he shares with his friend along the way; on hearing that Anne has suffered an ailment, he writes ‘there is nothing (bar dishonour) that I fear so much as pain; but yet it acts as a pitch-pipe and reminds us of the key of life ... if we had only faith like a grain of mustard seed, it is the best that any of us could do at any time: I mean of our conscious doings, but the best of us is unconscious and not us’; in response to Anne’s suggestion that he might act in conjunction with others to combat political injustice in Ireland rather than struggling alone he notes that ‘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?’. Throughout the letters appear references to the important events in the lives of Louis’ and Anne’s respective families: at her questioning her son, Austen’s, choice of fiancée, he counsels her (noting that ‘my marriage was largely in the teeth of what my parents wanted; they were deeply hurt … And now, as I look back, I think it was the best move I ever made in my life. Not only would I do it again; I cannot conceive the idea of not doing it’) and we find a damning indictment of W.E. Henley when Stevenson breaks off relations with his erstwhile friend. The later letters are full of Stevenson’s engaging descriptions of his life on the Samoan island of Vailima, much of this focused on the difficulties of running efficiently ‘this great household of seven whites’, with discussions also of his local friends and responsibilities as Tusitala (‘write-tale’) including court sessions where RLS must ‘judge my causes and discriminate between many different shades of falsehood’. Island life obviously allowed much time for reflection; in one of these long letters, Stevenson takes a longer view on the process of ageing: ‘I have been working very hard this last quarter of a year – the last of my fortieth, it seems ; and I am not sorry: it is a long fight this life, not much of it victory, cares come about us – I was going to say as we grow old – it is not so – they come about us as we let them…’. Taken together, this collection offers an insight not just into the writing process of Robert Louis Stevenson, but into his interior life. The letters from his wife, Fanny, complement his and add detail, but the most striking example is the letter she writes to Anne the day after her husband’s death, giving her often overlooked account of his collapse – as he steadily dropped oil into a mayonnaise they were making for supper – and funeral on Vailima. Published in E. Mehew and B. Booth, Letters, vols. V-VII.
Robert Louis Stevenson was a frequent visitor to the house that Anne Jenkin (d. 1921) shared with her husband, Fleeming: the latter had first come to know Louis as one of his engineering students, and they later became friends; Stevenson had been an enthusiastic performer in the amateur dramatic productions put on by the Jenkins in their Edinburgh home.