Four removes from Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson has been on my mind lately for various reasons, not least because we have a cataloguing project currently underway to sort and describe the extensive papers of Ernest Mehew , the outstanding Stevenson expert of his (or any other) day. We were given the archive of Ernest and Joyce Mehew, and Edinburgh Napier University have the couple’s comprehensive library of Stevenson and Stevensoniana.  We’ve had a couple of good and interesting meetings with the Napier folk who really know about Stevenson, whereas myself and Graham (our Mehew Project Cataloguer) are just beginning to become obsessed …

We’re lucky to have a good wide collection of RLS manuscripts here in the National Library of Scotland, probably second only in importance to the famous collection of the Beinecke Library at Yale. Over the years one comes to have favourites, and I am particularly fond of ‘The History of  Moses’  (, our collection of his letters to W E Henley and thirdly, a strange little book – evidently the result of some fun at Vailima, the Stevensons’ Samoan home – titled ‘An Object of Pity’.

Aged 6, Stevenson provided the illustrations for his first story, 'The History of Moses'
Aged 6, Stevenson provided the illustrations for his first story, ‘The History of Moses’

I didn’t start writing this with the intention of going on about ‘An Object of Pity’, but we’re here now and I’ll get round to the Four Removes shortly. I promise.

 Many visitors made the lengthy and arduous trip to Vailima and this volume commemorates one particular gathering. Each member of the party wrote a chapter of a spoof in the style of Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée, prolific author of melodramatic novels). One of the guests, Lady Jersey, had the book published privately and the Library is in the happy position of owning two copies of the very limited original edition.

Contents page of 'An Object of Pity', identifying the authors
Contents page of ‘An Object of Pity’, identifying the authors

Better still, our copy is bound in with a little book of verses by Stevenson and caricatures by Belle Strong (his stepdaughter) commemorating the visit to the ‘rebel king’ Mataafa.

Lady Jersey and RLS do Don Quixote ...
Lady Jersey and RLS do Don Quixote …

Finally, the Four Removes. I have been reading, spellbound, ‘The Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson’ edited by Ernest Mehew. What better way to get to know Stevenson than through his own letters? I can’t recommend this book highly enough – you’ll be besotted by 1874 at the latest. And you’ll be lost in admiration of a great editor at work in Ernest Mehew.

1st remove: a Stevenson letter of 1886 begins ‘My dear Archer, What am I to say? I have read your friend’s book with singular relish. If he has written any other, I beg you will let me see it; and if he has not, I beg him to lose no time in supplying the deficiency.’ The writer under discussion is George Bernard Shaw. 2nd remove: This brought to mind another favourite item in our literary manuscript collections, this one in the papers of James Kennaway (novelist and scriptwriter, 1928-1968). In 1947 Kennaway wrote an eight line poem on a postcard to George Bernard Shaw, inviting himself round to tea. Shaw returned the same card to Kennaway with his reply, an eight line poem in red ink, ending ‘I have not tea enough for you/Nor tea cakes in my larder/And so send this rebuff to you/Dear lad from Auchterarder’. 3rd remove: James Kennaway’s wife Susan is alive and well and has been a generous donor to the Library of her husband’s papers. 4th remove: I have the pleasure of being in fairly regular contact with Susie, who recently published a book – ‘The Yellow Duster Sisters’ – with Bloomsbury:

All of which makes me feel that bit closer to Stevenson, and pleases me greatly!

A detail from the Kennaway-Shaw-Kennaway postcard.
A detail from the Kennaway-Shaw-Kennaway postcard.