Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

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Island 5: Stevenson and Henley


William Ernest Henley
A Book of Verses
London, David Nutt, 1888.

The poem Apparition records Stevenson's first visit to Henley on February 13, 1875; Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the leg and was in the old Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh, under the treatment of Joseph Lister from 1873-1875. His sequence of poems In Hospital had just been accepted for the Cornhill magazine by Leslie Stephen, who introduced Stevenson to him and so began their collaboration.

The old Royal Infirmary, Edinburgh

This image of the Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary served as the title vignette of Henley's 1888 A Book of Verses. The picturesque old hospital, replaced soon after Henley's stay, was less comfortable for patients; in Henley's phrase from In Hospital, its "corridors and stairs of stone and iron" seemed "half-workhouse and half-jail."

William Ernest Henley

Henley was influential in Stevenson's career not only as the inspiration for Long John Silver but also as an editor of several periodicals. Some of Stevenson's earliest fiction appeared in the short-lived journalLondon, essays on aesthetics and city life (in Edinburgh and San Francisco) were first published in The Magazine of Art, and depictions of life in the South Pacific first circulated in theScots (later NationalObserver.

Autograph letter, Stevenson to W. E. Henley, ca.1880

This short letter illustrates the tone of Stevenson's and Henley's early collaboration, as they co-authored stage-plays with mixed success. Fanny thought Henley pushed Louis too much, and in this letter Stevenson protests in mock-French that he is working as hard as his weak health allowed: "je workerai comme un trump."

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, 1885

This painting, perhaps the most famous of Stevenson, was executed by the "American" portait painter John Singer Sargent. It shows Louis pacing in the drawing-room at Skerryvore, the Stevensons' Bournemouth home, while Fanny, in an Indian dress, reclines on the right-hand margin in a chair that Henry James took during his visits. (Though it has been claimed that Sargent introduced the two writers in 1884, they had in fact met one another earlier.) Sargent had first painted Stevenson in December of the previous year, but the earlier painting was not to the artist's or the subject's liking. Stevenson thought it depicted him as "a weird, very pretty, large-eyed, chicken-boned, slightly contorted poet." This earlier portrait seems to have been destroyed by Fanny.

Three Plays by W. E. Henley and R. L. Stevenson
London, David Nutt, 1892. One of 100 large paper copies.

Though published years after the two writers quarrelled over Henley's slur against Fanny Stevenson as a plagiarist, this volume, significantly from Henley's publisher, represents the most substantial outcome of their collaboration in writing for the stage. The lead play, their first, Deacon Brodie, or the Double Life, about the respectable Edinburgh cabinetmaker who moonlighted as a housebreaker, anticipates the dualism of Stevenson's own, much more successful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was first performed in Bradford on December 28, 1882, and again in Aberdeen in April of the following year before appearing at the Prince's Theatre, London, in July 1884.


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