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Seasons Readings: A Friendship in Letters

On day three of our bookish advent blog series, we're back in Scotland. Read on for an extract from Michael Shaw's introduction to A Friendship in Letters.

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On Monday 13 August 1894, residents in Muskegon, Michigan opened their local newspaper, the Muskegon Chronicle, to discover that two of the most popular and critically acclaimed writers of the day—Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie—were engaged in correspondence. Adorned with illustrations of both writers, the paper’s gossip column ran an article on their rumoured friendship, which noted that they had become the ‘warmest friends’, with Barrie known to write ‘reams of letters to Stevenson’ . The Muskegon Chronicle wasn’t alone. From Dundee to Massachusetts, from Illinois to Alabama, newspapers were carrying the story that a friendship between Stevenson and Barrie had blossomed through correspondence.1

Many famous writers wrote to each other on a regular basis in the late-Victorian era— correspondences that wouldn’t necessarily be considered newsworthy. What drew the press to the Stevenson-Barrie correspondence was its peculiarity. Despite both attending Edinburgh University in the 1870s and having several friends in common, the two authors had never met in person and were now living at opposite ends of the earth: Stevenson had settled in Samoa by the time their friendship began in 1892, while Barrie was living between Kirriemuir in Angus and London. As a result, the letters took a distinctive form: in attempting to showcase their personality to one another, they were often revealing, open and gossipy, which the press had picked up on. ‘[They] know all each other’s secrets and affairs, yet they have never seen one another’, reported the Muskegon Chronicle. Stevenson’s wife (Fanny Van de Grift) later expressed her view that the letter-based friendship gave the correspondence a particular charm. Commenting on Stevenson’s body of letters after he died, she said: ‘perhaps the gayest of them all are directed to Mr. Barrie, of whom Louis was very fond, although they had never met. Their friendship was carried on entirely by correspondence, and so Louis’s letters were, in a way, autobiographical’.2 This autobiographical element (which was equally evident in Barrie’s letters) excited prospective readers, and it was hoped that the correspondence would soon be published. The author of the article that appeared in Boston’s The Sunday Herald licked their lips over this ‘strange intimacy’: ‘what they write in these lengthy epistles no one has yet found out, but should the correspondence ever be published the Emerson-Carlyle correspondence may have to
take a back seat’.3

Despite the evident anticipation to read the Stevenson-Barrie correspondence in the 1890s, it has only ever been partially published. While many of Stevenson’s letters to Barrie appeared shortly after his death in 1894, and several more were gradually published over the course of the twentieth century, Barrie’s letters to Stevenson have remained in the dark. Indeed, since the 1940s, some critics have suspected that Barrie’s letters to Stevenson were lost. One of Barrie’s closest friends, Denis Mackail, who wrote an early biography of Barrie in 1941, wished that ‘more of the correspondence had survived’ and lamented that Barrie’s letters to Samoa ‘have never been seen or heard of ’.4 The editor of the only collection of Barrie’s letters, Viola Meynell, similarly wrote that the letters to Stevenson are ‘lost or destroyed’ in 1942.5 More recently, Lisa Chaney—author of the latest life of Barrie, Hideand- Seek with Angels (2005)—notes that ‘his letters to Stevenson appear to have been lost […] we are thus left to guess at their content through Stevenson’s replies’.6 Like Mackail, Meynell and Chaney, Barrie himself feared that his letters to Samoa were lost; in her book, Chaney reproduces one of Barrie’s 1922 notebook entries, where he states: ‘odd that with so much of R. L. S. none of the letters to him published. Perhaps not kept’.7

The letters were kept. While it is still unclear where Barrie’s letters went directly after Stevenson’s death (they did not feature in the Anderson Galleries auctions between 1914 and 1916, where the bulk of Stevenson’s possessions were sold),8 it is clear that Edwin J. Beinecke—Stevenson’s most devoted collector in the U.S.— had acquired them by the late 1950s. Each of the letters is referenced in George L. McKay’s magnificent six-volume catalogue of Beinecke’s collection that was presented to Yale University, The Stevenson Library of Edwin J. Beinecke (1951–64). A facsimile of Barrie’s first letter to Stevenson is even included in the fourth volume.9 Nevertheless, these letters have remained under the radar, unpublished since they were penned over 125 years ago, and the myth of their apparent loss has endured.

1. ‘Barrie and Stevenson’, Muskegon Chronicle, 13 August 1894, p. 4. The correspondence was reported in The Dundee Courier, The Sunday Herald (Boston), Birmingham Age-Herald (Alabama), and The Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois), among other newspapers.

2. Gelett Burgess, ‘Mrs R. L. Stevenson Interviewed’, The Bookman, August (1898): 122–4 (122–3).

3. ‘Barrie and Stevenson’, The Sunday Herald (Boston), 12 August 1894, p. 27.

4. Denis Mackail, The Story of J. M. B. (London: Peter Davies, 1941), p. 200.

5. Viola Meynell, ‘Introduction’, in Letters of J. M. Barrie, ed. by Viola Meynell (London: Peter Davies, 1942), pp. v–vii (p. vii).

6. Lisa Chaney, Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie (London: Hutchinson, 2005), p. 123.

7. (cited in) Chaney, p. 123.

8. Some clues as to the journey of Barrie’s letters after Stevenson’s death may be buried in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s vast trove of Edwin J. Beinecke’s research notes [GEN MSS 664 Series IV].

9. Photostat copies of Barrie’s letters to Stevenson are held in the National Library of Scotland [Acc. 13917/216]. Short quotations from Barrie’s letters also feature in Frank McLynn’s 1993 biography, Robert
Louis Stevenson
, as well as in Booth and Mehew’s footnotes for The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Michael Shaw

Michael Shaw