'A Friendship in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson & J M Barrie', edited by Michael Shaw (published by Sandstone Press, Inverness)
Researching in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Yale University, Michael Shaw, lecturer in Scottish literature at the University of Stirling, came upon a collection of manuscript letters between Stevenson and Barrie. Initially, he assumed this correspondence had been published, but further investigation proved otherwise.
Stevenson's side of the exchange had indeed been published, but not that of Barrie. At the time of Stevenson's death, it was well-known that the two writers had been corresponding with each other, but it is not clear what happened to Barrie's letters. Soon it was assumed by many – including Barrie himself – that they had been lost. In fact, they were acquired in the 1950s by Edwin J Beinecke, Stevenson's most devoted American collector. However, they remained, as Shaw puts it, 'under the radar', so the myth of their loss endured. That is until now, with the appearance of this book. And what a delightful book it is.
The correspondence consists of 16 letters, nine written by Stevenson, seven by Barrie. The opening letter is from Stevenson and is dated February 1892, and the final one from Barrie was written on 11 October 1894. Stevenson died on 3 December of that year in his Vailima Plantation home on the Pacific island of Samoa where he had arrived in 1889 in the hope that the climate would be good for his troublesome health.
Through the Samoan years his writing career remained as active as ever. Catriona
, the hugely successful follow-up to Kidnapped
, appeared in 1893. In collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, he produced three books – The Wrong Box
, The Ebb-Tide
, and The Wrecker
. At the time of his death, he was hard at work on Weir of Hermiston
– widely seen as promising to be the finest of all his novels – and other tales were also mooted and begun. In all, he wrote some 700,000 words in Samoa.
Ten years younger than Stevenson, Barrie's literary career was at a relatively early stage. However, his Kailyard early fiction: Auld Licht Idylls
(1883), A Window in Thrums
(1889), and The Little Minister
(1891) had already brought him recognition and success. Peter Pan
, in its different forms, and his many popular plays, lay some years ahead in a career that would last until 1937.
But the extraordinary and defining fact about this correspondence is that these two writers never met. Stevenson's letters are all headed Vailima, Samoa, whereas Barrie's are sent from Kirriemuir, his home town in Angus, or the Garrick Club in London. A good 10,000 miles and two oceans separate these addresses. And the age of airmail was still to come.
In the first seven letters, the two writers address each other as Dear Mr Barrie and Dear Mr Stevenson. Subsequently, they go so far as to write My dear Barrie, and Dear RLS, but first names never appear. Yet if this gives the modern reader the impression the correspondence remains a rather formal one, nothing could be further from the truth. What is truly remarkable is the speed with which the two begin to write as though they were the oldest of friends.
These are the letters of two men who admire and respect each other, who know and love each other's work, and who are increasingly ready to share the most intimate of feelings. At the same time, they refuse to take each other too seriously, joke and make fun of themselves – over, for example, the Samoan language names of the Stevenson family – share opinions (they are both less than enthusiastic about Hardy's new novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles)
and seem just to enjoy being in each other's company. The result is that these letters become increasingly moving.
Certain themes recur so let me mention some of them. Stevenson is very conscious of their Scottishness. In his first letter, he writes: 'We are both Scots besides, and I suspect both rather Scotty Scots'. A few months later, he tells Barrie of how important Scotland remains for him imaginatively: 'It is a singular thing that I should live here in the South Seas under conditions so new and so striking, and yet my imagination so continually inhabits that cold old huddle of grey hills from which we come'.
Later, he tells Barrie about his boyhood reading: 'When I was a child and indeed until I was nearly a man I consistently read Covenanting books'. And Scottish history he reveals is still providing him with stories to work on in Samoa. Praising A Window in Thrums
, he tells Barrie his work 'is to me a source of living pleasure and heartfelt national pride'.
More significant because it runs through the entire correspondence is the issue Barrie raises in his very first letter. It ends with this: 'I wish I was this letter now that I might see you in the flesh. That I hope may be managed some day'. It never was, but for both men the possibility remains real. Stevenson's mother did join him in Samoa for over a year and his cousin Graham Balfour also joined the Stevenson family at Vailima, and the author apparently joked it was easy to get there: 'You take the boat at San Francisco, and then my place is the second to the left'.
In January 1893, Barrie is still saying 'I am coming some day,' and in July that year he jokes that 'I have found out where Samoa is on the map, which is a first step to coming'. In February 1894, he tells Stevenson he is still attempting Samoa: 'My secret plan is in the autumn to go to America, get to San Francisco, and then sneak into a boat'. In July of that year, however, Barrie married the actress Mary Ansell and apparently planned on spending his honeymoon in Samoa.
So why did it not happen? Because of the depth of his attachment to another person which proved greater than that to his new wife or even Stevenson. That person was his mother in Kirriemuir, to whom he was devoted. In 1894, he sent Stevenson a photograph of her sitting at a table having breakfast or afternoon tea. Stevenson wrote back wittily expressing his 'extreme satisfaction' at seeing it, saying, 'I declare I can hear her speak'. The same photograph would become the frontispiece of Margaret Ogilvy
, the book about his mother Barrie would publish in 1896. However, given the fact that she had never been happy even about her son's trips to London, Barrie in Samoa was never much of a reality.
What Barrie could do was imagine arriving in Samoa. Responding to the letter in which Stevenson had expressed his national pride in Barrie (who is 'a man of genius'), he describes it as 'about the most generous any man ever wrote to another', and goes on to describe himself to Stevenson in the most unflattering way imaginable, while writing a short playlet about a hapless visit to Samoa which ends with RLS commenting on the departing Barrie: 'Now that the gangway is between us I feel as if we could be friends again'. A few months later, after it emerges that both men have been quite ill, it is Stevenson's turn to imagine Barrie's arrival in Samoa, perhaps for the benefit of his health: 'The fatted bottle should be immediately slain in the halls of Vailima'.
What is never in doubt beneath the good-natured wit and fun of all these exchanges is the remarkable emotional depth of the kind of love that has developed between the two men over the barely three years of their letter-writing. In January 1893, Barrie writes to RLS explaining that he'd heard his friend was seriously ill. He'd written to America to find out the truth. Now he has heard that all is well. 'It is good news to many and to me.' What follows is this: 'To be blunt I have discovered (have suspected it for some time) that I love you, and if you had been a woman...'. In response, Stevenson thanks Barrie for his last letter, and says he has been 'infinitely touched' by his concern. 'I am quite sure that I know you and quite sure that you know me. People mayn't be like their books, they are their books.'
And in October, 1894 – three months before Stevenson's untimely death – Barrie ends the 16th letter in their exchange thus: 'I never write to you nowadays without feeling that you are the only family in the world, outside my own relations, with whom I have a close tie'. To my mind, a fitting end to a remarkable friendship.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow