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You’ve Got Mail: “I have the honour to report further explorations”

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Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson. HEW 10.11.9Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), best known for his novels Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, spent the final four years of his life on his estate near the village of Vailima in Samoa. Over the course of these years, he wrote 45 letters to his dear friend Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), the English curator and critic. Colvin published the letters soon after Stevenson’s death, tipping the originals into a unique, oversized and gilt-edged, multi-volume set.

Vailima letters : being correspondence addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, November, 1890-October, 1894. HEW 10.13.21

Many of the letters describe Stevenson’s relationships with “the natives” including his respectful fascination with their politics and traditions. We also hear a great deal about his forays into farming; the building of his plantation home, Villa Vailima; his family’s doings; and of course, his progress on various writing projects.

In this particular letter “Tuesday, Dec. 1891” Stevenson gives a wonderfully amusing description of his expedition to map the course of the nearby river Vaea, accompanied, at least initially, by his horse, Jack: “The party under my command consisted of one horse, and was extremely insubordinate and mutinous, owing to not being used to go into the bush, and being half-broken anyway – and that the wrong half.”

Robert Louis Stevenson on his horse, Jack. HEW 10.11.9

During the course of his travels, Stevenson describes, among other things, experiencing an earthquake

…a sound of a mill-wheeI thundering, I thought, close by, yet below me, a huge mill-wheel, yet not going steadily but with a schottische movement, and at each fresh impetus shaking the mountain…. I just put down the sound to the mystery of the bush; where no sound now surprises me—and any sound alarms; …The good folks at home identified it; it was a sharp earthquake;

a near-miss encounter with potentially dangerous cattle

…on my right hand I heard a bull low. I think it was a bull from the quality of the low, which was singularly songful and beautiful; the bulls belong to me, but how did I know that the bull was aware of that? And my advance guard not being at all properly armed, we advanced with great precaution until I was satisfied that I was passing eastward of the enemy;

and “the delightful discovery” of a wondrous tree

…a huge banyan growing here in the bush, with flying-buttressed flying buttresses, and huge arcs of trunk hanging high overhead and trailing down new complications of root.

Stevenson carefully records his geographical findings in a “sketch plan” at the end of the letter:

Robert Louis Stevenson. Sketched map. HEW 10.13.21

The first published edition of the letters included a printed version of this same map:

Robert Louis Stevenson. Printed map from Vailima letters. HEW 10.13.21

He shows the waterways, the plateau, and various landmarks including Mount Vaea, all in relation to his home on Vailima plantation. When Stevenson died at age 44 on the 3rd of December, 1894 he was buried on Mount Vaea in a tomb overlooking Vailima Village.
All of these letters are now part of the Harry Elkins Widener Collection at Harvard. Harry’s grandfather, industrialist P.A.B. Widener, requested them from Sidney Colvin after Harry’s death aboard the Titanic. Colvin writes: “Dear Mr. Widener ….I knew your late grandson well, and held him in high regard not only as an ardent and discriminating book collector but as a true lover of reading and a n interesting and lovable character….I think these letters could find no better resting-place than in an institution founded to bear his name…” (22 August 1913)

Robert Louis Stevenson. Letter to Sidney Colvin, 1891. p. 1. HEW 10.13.21Robert Louis Stevenson. Letter to Sidney Colvin, 1891. p. 2. HEW 10.13.21Robert Louis Stevenson. Letter to Sidney Colvin, 1891. p. 3. HEW 10.13.21Robert Louis Stevenson. Letter to Sidney Colvin, 1891. p. 4. HEW 10.13.21

All images of RLS, and the printed map, come from this first edition of the published letters.
The work is also available in full from the Hathi Trust website.
The entirety of this particular letter can be read here.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Rachel Howarth, Associate Librarian for Public Services and Curator of the Harry Elkins Widener Collection, for contributing this post.]

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