The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

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New Edinburgh Amateur Emigrant published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, The Amateur Emigrant ed. by Julia Reid, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Published May 2018. £80 (and for around £65 from booksellers associated with Amazon).

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Written by rdury

17/06/2018 at 8:36 am

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley Quarrel

with 2 comments

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was one of those essays by Stevenson that were very popular and much quoted in the twenty-odd years after his death but since then have disappeared from view, rarely mentioned, not included in collections and anthologies.

The reason is obvious: it’s one of his ethical essays which appealed to early readers as a guide to how to live well but for some reason seemed less interesting to later readers—with the notable exception of Borges and C. S. Lewis, of course. Yet it is still an interesting essay: Stevenson always writes well and some of the essay’s brief ethical guidelines, simply and elegantly formulated, stimulate thought—in fact, I copied some of them into my commonplace book when I first read the essay:

To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation – above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.

Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect

But the essay is also interesting biographically: it is inextricably intertwined with a traumatic event in Stevenson’s life, his quarrel with his former close friend and collaborator, W. E. Henley in the spring of 1888.

Composition and publication

It was written in the spring of 1888. On 21 May he wrote to his friend Charles Baxter: ‘I still have two articles [of the monthly Scribner’s Magazine series] which must be done in eight days [before leaving for San Francisco and his first Pacific cruise], a feat I know not how to accomplish’ (Letters 6: 192). Assuming he wrote the twelve Scribner’s essays in their published order, these ‘two articles’ were those for November and December: ‘The Education of an Engineer’ and ‘A Christmas Sermon’.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was published in Scribner’s Magazine in December 1888 and then collected in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays in 1892.

What it’s about

The essay, in four sections, basically debates how to live a good and moral life.

I. It starts by saying we can be satisfied at the end of life if we are undishonoured and  have ‘served’ (probably: endured and contributed to the well-being of others). People nowadays have unrealistic ideals and then impose them on others. Morality shouldn’t be centred on not committing sins. We should just try to be kind and honest—not an easy task and with failure inevitable.

II. We should be child-like, easy to please, gentle and cheerful and give pleasure to others. People condemn pleasures enjoyed by others, especially natural appetites (not wrong in themselves),  and overlook really evil things. We should make ourselves good and our neighbours happy.

III. But when should we correct our neighbour and resist evil? —When our neighbour injures another person. (Though patience and sympathy will solve many cases.)

IV. We have many rewards and pleasures in life but all things pass—a process of detachment from life. Our epitaph will be that we have tried a little and failed much. As a parting word, here is a fine poem [identified as by Henley in a footnote] about a peaceful evening and a wish to die in such peace.


In his Preface to Across the Plains, Colvin warned readers that the essays at the end of the volume (i.e. including ‘A Christmas Sermon’, the last in the volume) were ‘less inspiriting’ because ‘written under circumstances of especial gloom and sickness’.  Reviews of Across the Plains in 1892 either ignored the  essay or briefly agreed or disagreed with Colvin’s judgment.

Richard Le Gallienne in the Star (14 April 1892) admired its fine stoicism.  The Piccadilly Magazine (28 April) commented on its ‘out-of-door philosophy’, ‘instinctive morality’ and ‘kindly pessimism’. In contrast the critic of the Saturday Review (possibly Gosse; see Letters 7: 326n) calls it ‘the one mistake in this stimulating volume’ and found ‘highly distasteful’ its ‘chapel-round-the-corner Christianity’. The most negative comments came from the critic of the National Observer—but, as this was probably Henley, we will quote that below.

Stevenson’s ethics of kindness, gentleness and cheerfulness clearly appealed to those in the years after his death who saw him as a guide on how to live well. Unsurprisingly, it is much referred to by John Franklin Genung in Stevenson’s Attitude to Life (1901) and by John Kelman in The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson (1903), both quoting mainly from sections I and II against negative morality and in favour of a simple positive morality.  George E. Brown, in A Book of R.L.S.: Works, Travels, Friends, and Commentators (1919), says that ‘No other paper perhaps so well represents Stevenson’s broad and positive conception of goodness’ (p. 58).

The important given to the essay is shown by the fact that, unusually, it was printed as a separate slim volume, in 1901 and 1906

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and again in a limited edition in the style of William Morris—with gilded title, rules and  initial capitals—by John Henry Nash in San Francisco in 1928;

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and then along with Prayers at Vailima in 1948:

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It was also included in collections of Stevenson’s essays by Francisco José Castellanos  (Robert Louis Stevenson, Ensayos, 1917), Hugh George Rawlinson (Selected Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1923) and Malcolm Elwin (The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1950).

But since 1950 it has not been included in any other essay anthology or collection of Stevenson’s essays.


One reason for the decline in interest in this essay is probably connected with a modern embarrassment about kindness: our ideal is for self-sufficiency and autonomy, forgetting our basic dependence on others, and our psychology has little place for compassion and altruism:

[W]e have come to suspect that the whole notion of kindness is a cover story—for ingeniously ruthless self-interest. […]  Religious people may still attach great significance to it, but among the secular-minded the case for kindness tends to be made only skeptically, with a knowing wink about the realities of human egoism. (p. 52)

And the apparent realism of all the self-interest stories—the accounts of human nature as essentially self-seeking and self-satisfying—have made the kindness stories sound soppy, or wishful, or simply the province of the religious. (p. 54)

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (2009).

Another reason might be that the essay as a whole does not share the serene wisdom of the sentences I copied into my commonplace book. Indeed, the essayist seems to be wrangling with a sense of personal failure:

we have been a long time dying, and what else?

dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness

A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness

To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose

In the third section in particular the writer seems in two minds about right conduct, and this is the section that seems to reflect most on his violent quarrel with his old friend Henley.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley quarrel

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was written during the terrible epistolary quarrel with Henley, which had begun in the March and still continued to obsess Stevenson in May (Letters 6: 129, 190–1). Several years of resentment and frustration on both sides mixed with friction between old friend and new wife came to a head with Henley’s suggestion that Stevenson’s wife Fanny might be guilty of plagiarism; Stevenson violently defended his wife, yet was doubtless aware that his own over-reaction might owe something to his own frustration and annoyance with an overbearing friend.

Echoes of the quarrel are visible in the essay: the dissatisfaction with conduct over the past year in sections I and IV (‘how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness’); the unhappiness felt because we ‘feel a sneer or an aspersion with unusual keenness’ in section III; and in the same section the justification for causing unhappiness when reacting to a wrong done to another (‘in the quarrel of our neighbour, let us be more bold […]: the defence of B is our only ground of action against A’). At the same time he realizes that ‘[i]ll-temper and envy and revenge’ can assume ‘pious disguises’ and that ‘the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel scene […] might yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy’, something he has been unable to do in the case of Henley. The praise and insertion of the complete poem by Henley at the conclusion of the essay can be seen as a private message of understanding.

The poem (as the footnote states) is from Henley’s A Book of Verses, which was published in May 1888, so Stevenson writing in that month must have had an advance copy. With the quarrel still at its height, it must have been poignant reading for Stevenson, as it contains Henley’s sketch of Stevenson in ‘Apparition’ and the Envoy to the ‘In Hospital’ sequence dedicated to Baxter and celebrating the friendship of ‘You, I, and LEWIS’ (dated March 1888).

Stevenson’s quoting of a whole poem from the volume was a private message of appreciation, of the poem if nothing else. It seems that in the late nineteenth century  it became a custom for writers to include playful allusions to fellow writers (often rivals) in their essays and magazine articles: Stevenson refers to ‘another novelist’ in the last paragraph of ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ and goes on to tease W. D. Howells: Lang and Howells duelled over the romance in contemporary literature in their monthly columns in Longman’s Magazine and Harper’s Magazine. Henley used his review of Across the Plains for no playful joust but to to reject Stevenson’s concluding olive branch.

Henley’s reaction

The most negative comments on the essay in the 1892 reviews of Across the Plains came from the critic of the National Observer (23 April), and this must surely be its editor W. E. Henley:

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Monterey, Stevenson House, Scrapbook III, p. 114

He judges the essay as the worst in the book and the confidence of its ethical pronouncements as ‘unseemly’ and questions their validity; says that ‘Mr. Stevenson makes some confusion between living by a hard law and imposing hard law upon others’; and ends by saying ‘We may not thrust a law upon our brother; but our own relation to our brother—shall not this be ordered by delicate negatives? Shall not Beatrice be mistress of her gravity? Beatrice refused her smile to Dante when he had been bowed to by a courtesan’.

Here he apparently says that we are free to behave how we think towards another. And then, is he really suggesting that he refuses to smile to Stevenson because of the latter’s sign of solidarity with an inferior woman? The opinion of other readers of this blog would be welcomed here: can he possibly be saying that he is like Beatrice offended by the courtesan’s attentions to Dante? Is it possible he is calling Fanny Stevenson a courtesan?

This was clearly some quarrel.


Written by rdury

11/06/2018 at 9:52 am

Posted in News