A Friendship in Letters

Robert Louis Stevenson

& JM Barrie

Edited by Michael Shaw

Sandstone Press, £11.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Superficially, it is hard to think of two more different writers than Robert Louis Stevenson and JM Barrie. One was a louche bohemian, ending his days in the South Seas, the other the douce writer of Peter Pan, who kept one foot in childhood, the other in his hometown of Kirriemuir. Yet as a short but intense correspondence between them shows, they had a great deal more in common that their nationality. In outlook and artistic beliefs they were most simpatico. In some respects, they could be called soul mates.

The full correspondence between the pair has never been published like this before. Michael Shaw, an English lecturer at Stirling University, has gathered all their letters to each other over the period February 1892 to October 1894, while RLS was in Samoa.

To these he has added an introduction that outlines their careers and personal affairs, along with an appendix of Barrie’s public tributes after his death to the man the Samoans called Tusitala, the Teller of Tales. Although Shaw’s tone is academic, this is a useful guide to the background to this unique correspondence, made all the most interesting because, while the pair frequently professed the hope to one day meet, they never did. Also helpful – indeed essential in places – are Shaw’s concise footnotes.

After his death, in December 1894, Stevenson’s widow, Fanny Van de Grift, said that his letters to Barrie were among the gayest he ever wrote. This slim volume bears out that vivacity. Beginning with RLS writing to Barrie to applaud his work, and answer speculation over a possible sequel to Kidnapped, it quickly moved from the friendly formality of admiring strangers to frank and even confessional exchanges that illuminate many private corners of their lives. Among them, though hard to interpret at this distance, is the comment from Barrie that: “To be blunt I have discovered (have suspected it for some time) that I love you, and if you had been a

woman –”.

In his opening letter, RLS writes that he believes they are both probably “rather Scotty Scots”, adding: “No place so brands a man.” On a later occasion he reflects: “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 inhabit that cold old huddle of grey hills from which we come.”

Part of his eagerness to embrace Barrie might have been homesickness. Yet the immediate bond they made, leaping so swiftly into the teasing mockery, outspoken criticism and openly expressed affection that is the mark of true friendship, suggests a deeper connection.

Initially, RLS is the more renowned of the two; Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, was not staged until 1904. But while Stevenson is by this time famous for Treasure Island and Kidnapped, Barrie’s most acclaimed works include Auld Licht Idylls and A Window on Thrums. Yet Stevenson soon drops his faintly mentorish tone: “I am a capable artist; but it begins to look to me as if you were a man of genius.”

The pictures each paints of their home life are valuable. Stevenson’s noisy menage at Vailima on the Pacific island of Vanuatu included his wife, stepchildren and mother. As he conjures up the household, its occupants feel vividly present. Where he describes what they eat – eels frequently– and how they dress (barefooted), Barrie responds with images from the family home in Kirriemuir, immortalised in his novels as Thrums. His devotion to his sister and to his elderly mother is touching. When Barrie was mortally ill, it was kept from his mother: “She has an idea that where I am there she is perfectly safe. She is like a child in the matter.

“That is the only reason I have for not coming to Vailima just yet.” When he married the actress Mary Ansell, they were eager to spend their honeymoon in Vanuatu, but it was not to be.

There are flights of fancy, when Barrie launches into comic imaginary conversations and scenarios. There is gossip, showing the barbed tongues of men of letters when they believe they won’t be overheard. In this respect, RLS positively pumped the playwright for information: “breathe your secrets to me fearlessly; even if the Trade Wind caught and carried them away, there are none to catch them nearer than Australia unless it were the Tropic Birds.”

As a result, we learn how irritating the pushy young novelist Samuel Crockett could be. Barrie writes: “Do you know Crockett personally? If you have met him once (or less frequently) you are his bosom friend for ever, whether you want to be or not.”

And both relish tearing apart Thomas Hardy’s latest novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, despite him being a great friend of Barrie’s. One of Barrie’s anecdotes is notable for its edge: “Am told Hardy’s new novel now in serial is about a man who falls in love first with one woman, then twenty years afterwards with her daughter, then twenty years afterwards with the granddaughter, whom he marries. I put my hand on his shoulder the other night, and he started, as if he thought it was the policeman at last.”

Part of what makes their rapport so memorable is that while it takes place only on paper, it fires their imaginations. Particularly evident is the influence of the “Wizard of Samoa” on Barrie’s work. His imprint, says Michael Shaw, is especially evident in Peter Pan.

Telling Barrie how easy it is to reach Vanuatu, RLS writes: “You take the boat at San Francisco, and then my place is the second to the left.” Years later, when Peter Pan is asked where he lives, he points to the stars, saying, “second to the right and then straight on till morning”. The chime is crystal clear, as is the enduring significance of this friendship.