- Henley's Letters to Stevenson:The Decline of a Friendship
"To many W. E. Henley has long been consigned to the literary backwater of the late nineteenth century as a minor poet" states the publisher's notice on Damian Atkinson's new compilation The Letters of William Ernest Henley to Robert Louis Stevenson. Atkinson's impressive [End Page 365] volume challenges that view not only by tracing the Henley–Stevenson friendship from 1875 to 1894, but also by reminding us of Henley's association with (and often encouragement of) writers such as Rudyard Kipling, J. M. Barrie, Alice Meynell, H. G. Wells, W. B. Yeats, William Archer, and Kenneth Grahame, among others.
Part I of Atkinson's collection, "A New Friendship and the London," covers Henley and Stevenson's personal and literary relationship from March 1875 to April 1879. Henley was introduced to Stevenson by Leslie Stephen in 1875 at the Edinburgh Infirmary where Henley was receiving treatment to try to save his right leg from amputation, his left leg having met that fate earlier because of a tubercular disease. Stevenson said that the absence of that leg—Henley's "maimed strength"—plus his "masterfulness" were traits he incorporated into the character of Long John Silver in Treasure Island. Henley was instrumental in helping bring that novel to publication, acting as Stevenson's unpaid agent in this instance and in future publications. Stevenson mentions the missing leg soon after his initial meeting with Henley in a letter of mixed admiration: "I have a poor poet in stock here, a poor ass in the infirmary with one leg off and the other more than shaky—scrofula you know—but bougrement intelligent, and he writes straight enough verses, I think. He's learning, you know. But he makes good songs and here and there has a good idea. His hospital sonnets are very true and boldly real—not realistic, a word I have now learned to hate." Stevenson's dubbing Henley as "poor" became unwittingly accurate as far as Henley's finances were concerned. For most of Henley's life, he was continually protesting his lack of "coins." Stevenson helped him with monetary support even in the years when their friendship was waning, although cynically so when he arranged for Henley to be paid "(when necessary) five pounds a month," lamenting that "if I gave him more, it would lead to his starting a gig and a Pomeranian dog." This lack of coins prompted Henley to collaborate with Stevenson on writing a series of plays that at least Henley thought would insure their financial future. Unfortunately, none of the four—Deacon Brodie (1880), Beau Austin (1884), Admiral Guinea (1884) and Macaire (1885)—had any enduring success.
Part II of The Letters, "Hackwork, Play Writing and The Amateur Emigrant, July 1879–July 1881," chronicles some of the years of their collaboration. The Amateur Emigrant, Stevenson's account of traveling to America, was another work that Henley tried to get published for his friend. Stevenson journeyed to the United States to marry the American [End Page 366] Fanny Van de Grift (Fanny Osbourne), a trip and a marriage that Henley disapproved of, wanting only for Louis to return: "I want you back bitterly. So do we all." Atkinson believes that even though Henley was happily married himself, he "could not countenance a married Stevenson, whether to Fanny or anyone else. It would be an interference in the friendship."
Letters in Part III ("The Magazine of Art, Hyères and Deacon Brodie, October 1881–June 1884") and Part IV ("The Magazine of Art and Play Writing, July 1884–November 1887") document Henley's various editorships of periodicals in which he championed many writers and other artists, including introducing his readers to the work of Whistler, Rodin, and Stevenson's cousin Robert Alan Mowberry Stevenson. In 1884, Stevenson became seriously ill at Hyères and Henley rallied to Fanny's request for help by having his own doctor attend his friend. However after Fanny and Louis returned to...