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A Trio of London Clubmen: Edmund Gosse, W. Robertson Smith and R. L. Stevenson

Gordon Booth


Gosse at Bay

<1>On the 22nd of October, 1886, William Robertson Smith wrote to Edmund William Gosse:

… the [Saturday] Standard article was enough to show the whole charge was a trumped up one. Anything more barefaced than that about blank verse I don’t remember to have seen. The man who did it is either capable of anything or incapable of anything. I have never known a writer on such a subject as yours who did not make some slips –- E.B. experience has shewn me how many slips the best men make. You no doubt had your share of them; but they don’t touch the substance of your book. … I have not read the Quarterly & I don’t mean to do so. What was in the Standard was enough for me. Yours ever, W. R. Smith.[1]

As co-editor of the prestigious ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica since 1881, Smith was by this time thoroughly accustomed to correcting the slips of numerous eminent yet lax contributors – a task he invariably performed with meticulous care and patience. By this time, Gosse had already contributed several major articles on Danish, Dutch and Norwegian literature for the E.B. and, in an earlier letter of July 1884,[2] Smith had congratulated him on his latest article on the topic of pastoral literature.[3] If there were any major inaccuracies or slips, these remained predictably unmentioned – but WRS tactfully offered one or two suggestions as to additions which Gosse clearly adopted, since those were subsequently incorporated in the printed text.[4]

<2>Robertson Smith was to be only one of many correspondents and friends from whom Gosse sought consolation and support following a remarkable incident which served to undermine his self-esteem for virtually the rest of his life, despite the numerous academic and civil honours (a knighthood included) that were later to be bestowed on him. Until 1886, Gosse had achieved a remarkable degree of success in his early career as a writer, after overcoming the severe disadvantages of an intensely constricting and cloistered upbringing, the details of which he was later to describe so memorably in the pages of Father and Son.[5] Lacking the benefits of a university education, Gosse skilfully used his youthful employment as a humble cataloguer in the British Museum[6] to gain the acquaintance of an ever-widening circle of literary and artistic figures of the day, amongst whom were Robert Browning, John Addington Symonds, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Algernon Swinburne and numerous members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

<3>Gosse was highly ambitious and his assiduous social networking rapidly gained him entry to the fashionable salons of London and helped greatly to publicise his early volumes of poetry.[7] A natural aptitude for acquiring languages led in 1876 to his appointment as translator with the Board of Trade, and his knowledge of the Scandinavian tongues eventually enabled him to bring the plays of Ibsen to a fascinated English-speaking public. By that time, Gosse had published further volumes of poetry together with a variety of literary works, including Studies in the Literature of Northern Europe (1879) and his monograph Gray (1882) in John Morley’s series, English Men of Letters. Those undoubted evidences of literary and critical talent speedily elicited an invitation from Johns Hopkins University to present a short series of lectures in America, duly delivered to great acclaim at the turn of 1884 – a year which also saw Gosse elected (at his second attempt) to the post of Clark Lecturer on English Literature at Cambridge University in succession to Leslie Stephen.

<4>The American lectures, presented at Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Boston and New York, were subsequently hurried into publication in May 1885 by Cambridge University Press under the title From Shakespeare to Pope: an inquiry into the causes and phenomena of the rise of Classical Poetry in England. Initial reviews in the Academy and the Athenaeum praised the writer’s mature and confident style, while drawing some passing attention to certain faults or inaccuracies in the factual detail. Always hypersensitive to criticism, Gosse was stung by such relatively mild animadversions; but these were to prove nugatory in comparison with the effects of a thirty-page article published in the Quarterly Review more than a year later.[8]

<5>The initially unnamed author, John Churton Collins, had been a close friend of Gosse until then and was a man no less ambitious for academic recognition despite a decidedly indifferent undergraduate career. Collins had suffered a severe blow in 1885, however, on failing to secure the Merton chair of English Literature at Oxford and his exceedingly well-planned attack on Gosse was unquestionably inspired by scholastic rancour and envy. The Quarterly Review remains an almost unparalleled specimen of critical diatribe, its tone being set unmistakably in the opening sentences:

That such a book as this should have been permitted to go forth into the world with the imprimatur of the University of Cambridge, affords matter for very grave reflection. But it is a confirmation of what we have long suspected. It is one more proof that those rapid and reckless innovations, which have during the last few years completely changed the faces of our Universities, have not been made with impunity.[9]

Vituperation of that nature must instantly have recalled to Robertson Smith the virulent onslaught made in the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 15 April 1876 upon his own article “Bible” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an attack which was to lead gradually but inexorably to his lengthy trial for heresy at the hands of the Free Church of Scotland and to his eventual deposition in 1881 from the chair of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Aberdeen Free Church College:[10]

This article which we are discussing is objectionable in itself; but our chief objection is that it is to be sent far and wide over English-speaking countries as an impartial account of the present state of our knowledge of the Bible. We regret that a publication which will be admitted without suspicion into many a religious household, and many a carefully guarded public library, should, upon so all-important a matter as the records of our faith, take a stand — a decided stand — on the wrong side.[11]

Collins’ equally impassioned deprecation of what he regarded as the fatally declining standards of university education formed only the backcloth to his ad hominem onslaught on Gosse, whose work, according to the reviewer, encapsulated a deplorable trahison des clercs whereby the “perpetual craving for novelty” on the part of “a herd of scribblers” offered a sure guarantee of “reputation and emolument” at the expense of true literary excellence:

Meanwhile all those vile arts which were formerly confined to the circulators of bad novels and bad poems are practised without shame. It is shocking, it is disgusting to contemplate the devices to which many men of letters will stoop for the sake of exalting themselves into a factitious reputation. Indeed, things have come to such a pass, that persons of real merit, if they have the misfortune to depend on their pens for a livelihood, must either submit to be elbowed and jostled out of the field, or take part in the same scramble for notoriety, and the same detestable scramble for puffery.[12]

As to the volume under scrutiny, its “most mischievous characteristic” was “the skill with which its worthlessness is disguised”. With wholly undisguised irony, Collins conceded that From Shakespeare to Pope was well-produced in terms of its external features — it had, for example, “an excellent index” — but its factual and chronological blunders were “detestable”; and Collins proceeded at great length to itemise these, so taking the opportunity to parade his own superior knowledge of the finer points of prosody, style and classical sources used by the seventeenth century English poets.

<6>Gosse had indeed been guilty of numerous inaccuracies, although the bulk of these were slips in chronology and entirely consonant with a typical yet rather attractive “broad brush” approach to the theme, which afforded liveliness to his treatment of a somewhat dry subject and also imparted a felicitous unity to the whole topic of how and why the literature of the Augustan Age had developed in England. Collins, however, was quick to counter any such arguable defence:

And the peculiarity of Mr Gosse’s errors is, that they cannot be classed among those to which even well-informed men are liable. They are not mere slips of the pen, they are not clerical and superficial, not such as, casually arising, may be easily excused, but are, to borrow a metaphor from medicine, local manifestations of constitutional mischief. The ignorance which Mr Gosse displays of the simplest facts of Literature and History is sufficiently extraordinary, but the recklessness with which he exposes that ignorance transcends belief.[13]

As one of Gosse’s earliest biographers was to write of the Churton Collins review: “Never were ‘conscientious criticism’ and ‘a painful duty’ so obviously combined with enjoyment”.[14] If Gosse’s disposition to inaccuracy were indeed symptomatic of a “constitutional mischief” — as indeed may legitimately be argued — the same diagnosis might equally well be used of Collins’ innate disposition to jealousy. But the personal consequences for Gosse were unquestionably serious. Always a prey to self-doubt, this public humiliation was far more than he could ever shrug off or entirely forget. His desperate need for comfort and reassurance is plainly betrayed in the many letters he wrote to his friends, and Robertson Smith’s response was wholly representative of that expressed by most close allies: the substance of the book, they urged, was what mattered; the whole affair would in effect be a nine days’ wonder; and true friends would not lower themselves even to read the Quarterly’s review of the book. And yet Gosse’s inaccuracies were to be evident in all that he wrote, except where corrected silently by such scrupulous and longsuffering editors as John Morley, Leslie Stephen and Robertson Smith.

A Meeting of Minds: Gosse and Stevenson

Gosse’s personal letters reveal frequent slips over the dates of recollected incidents and events, yet one conspicuous and indelible memory – his very first encounter with Robert Louis Stevenson – is dated with complete accuracy to “the autumn of 1870” and, a generation later, came to be memorably described in Gosse’s Critical Kit-Kats.[15] Having been touring the Outer Hebrides, EWG was returning by steamer to Portree in Skye. There, the passengers on board the Clansman were joined by a number of relatively eminent figures, including Sam Bough, the Cumbrian artist, and John Stuart Blackie, the lovable but somewhat eccentric professor of apologetics and pastoral theology at Edinburgh’s New College. One particular member of the embarking group, however, mesmerised Gosse:

At the tail of this chatty, jesting little crowd of invaders came a youth of about my own age, whose appearance, for some mysterious reason, instantly attracted me. He was tall, preternaturally lean, with longish hair, and as restless and questing as a spaniel. The party from Portree fairly took possession of us; at meals they crowded around the captain, and we common tourists sat silent, below the salt. The stories of Blackie and Sam Bough were resonant. Meanwhile, I knew not why, I watched the plain, pale lad who took the lowest place in this privileged company.[16]

As it happened, those passengers on the Clansman were to witness a particularly poignant scene as they sighted a group of Highland emigrants setting out irrevocably upon their voyage to America. Not only was the event to be recalled many years later by Gosse but it was graphically utilised by RLS within the pages of his novel, Kidnapped:

In the mouth of Loch Aline we found a great sea-going ship at anchor … As we got a little nearer, it became plain she was a ship of merchandise; and what still more puzzled me, not only her decks, but the sea-beach also, were quite black with people, and skiffs were continually plying to and from between then. Yet nearer, and there began to come to our ears a great sound of mourning, the people on board and those on the shore crying and lamenting one to another so as to pierce the heart.
Then I understood this was an emigrant ship bound for the American colonies.[17]

Until his death at Samoa in 1894, Stevenson was to remain, for the most part, a firm and loyal supporter of Gosse, whom he jocularly addresses in their early correspondence as “Dear W.E.G.” or “Dear Weg”.[18] Sponsored by his early patron, Sidney Colvin, and seconded by a family friend, Professor Fleeming Jenkin, RLS was elected to the Savile Club in 1874, while Robertson Smith became a member in January 1875, having been appointed to the Old Testament Revision Company which met regularly at the Jerusalem Chamber in nearby Westminster.[19] For both men the Savile Club offered a most convenient and comfortable base for their frequent visits to London and each remained a member until his death. Edmund Gosse was elected a year later, in 1876.

<8>Formed in 1868, the Savile Club, with its apt motto of soldalitas convivium, rapidly acquired a longstanding and well-merited reputation as a meeting-point for up-and-coming writers, artists and musicians, as well as professional men from a relatively wide social spectrum.[20] In his two essays on “Talk and Talkers”, Stevenson was to give colourful and only lightly disguised descriptions of several of the more celebrated Savile Club conversationalists, of whom Edmund Gosse, under the sobriquet “Purcel”, was one:

Purcel is in another class from any I have mentioned. He is no debater, but appears in conversation, as occasion rises, in two distinct characters, one of which I admire and fear, and the other love. In the first, he is radiantly civil and rather silent, sits on a high, courtly hilltop, and from that vantage-ground drops you his remarks like favours. He seems not to share in our sublunary contentions; he wears no sign of interest; when on a sudden there falls in a crystal of wit, so polished that the dull do not perceive it, but so right that the sensitive are silenced. True talk should have more body and blood, should be louder, vainer and more declamatory of the man; the true talker should not hold so steady an advantage over whom he speaks with; and that is one reason why I prefer my Purcel in his second character, when he unbends onto a strain of graceful gossip, singing like the fireside kettle. In these moods he has an elegant homeliness that rings of the true Queen Anne.[21]

The Idle Student: Stevenson and Robertson Smith

<9>It is a conspicuous feature that Robertson Smith nowhere figures openly in Stevenson’s essays, either amongst the “talkers” or indeed elsewhere — with two very slight yet notable exceptions. One passing reference is contained in a letter written by RLS to his mother in July 1879, where there is a brief postscript: “N.B. Robertson Smith is great fun”.[22] Just conceivably that might be construed as an ironic allusion to the notorious controversy still raging within the Free Church of Scotland over Smith’s alleged heresy, yet it is much more likely to be a genuine tribute to the man’s sense of humour, since he was soon to become renowned in Cambridge circles for his brilliant conversational repartee as his original biographers describe:

His talk had all the characteristics of his mind, for, as all good talk should be, it was the frank, almost irrepressible expression of his train of thought at the moment; consequently it was many-coloured, wide-ranging, well-nourished with facts, unexpectedly illuminated with striking touches of erudition. The number of subjects which he could handle with real mastery and knowledge has become almost legendary; it is said that on one occasion, after some conversation, a jute merchant of Dundee accepted him as a follower of his own trade, and that on another, a feminine acquaintance was surprised to find that he possessed an exact knowledge of the amount of material necessary to make a skirt in the fashion of the day. The intense interest he took in everything, however trivial, on which he bent his mind expressed itself in a somewhat masterful conversational manner, but he never spoke with ostentation of learning, and in his most sustained flights he was never dogmatic or overbearing.[23]

The other allusion to Robertson Smith is to be found in that well-known poem by RLS, The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad, written in 1880 at the very height of the heresy trial, in which Stevenson satirises the characteristically Scottish love-hate attitude towards its own Presbyterian religion:

The gangrel Scot uplifts his hands
At lack of a’ sectarian fush’n
An cauld religious destitution.
He rins, puir man, frae place to place,
Tries a’ their graceless means o’ grace,
Preacher on preacher, kirk on kirk –
This yin’s a stot, an’ thon a stirk –
A bletherin’ clan, no warth a preen,
As bad as Smith o’ Aiberdeen![24]

In fact the two men had already crossed paths as early as 1869, when Smith was appointed Assistant to Professor Peter Guthrie Tait in the Natural Philosophy [Physics] department of Edinburgh University. Tait had already become familiar with Smith’s mathematical and scientific prowess, having recommended him in 1866 for the prestigious Ferguson award just prior to his entry as a theological student at the Free Church of Scotland’s New College. Despite the many demands of his formal studies, WRS found little difficulty in assuming this additional responsibility, out of which developed a mutually profitable and lasting relationship. Tait immediately placed Smith in charge of his newly-established physics laboratory housed in the Old Quad of the nearby university, where Stevenson chanced to be one of the class members having been urged by his father to follow in the family tradition by becoming an engineer. As a self-confessed student “idler”, RLS not only displayed negligible interest in the practical research expected of him but took a characteristically perverse pleasure in plaguing Robertson Smith with irrelevant metaphysical questions.[25]

<10>At the close of that academic session (April 1870), Smith was indisposed but wrote to Tait from his home address with precise details of each student’s laboratory performance and the proposed order of merit for the whole group. Whether for reasons of security or (more probably) for his personal amusement, the lengthy letter[26] is entirely written in Latin, wherein Smith’s sole reference to Stevenson takes the form of a comment on his distracting influence on the other students and sums him up as “an incitement to idleness”.[27] Tait’s biographer, Cargill G. Knott, writing in 1911, provides a more detailed account:

Among the students who passed through the Laboratory during the first and second years of its existence were Sir John Murray, Sir John Jackson, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was paired off to work with D. H. Marshall, who succeeded Smith as assistant in 1870 and is now Emeritus Professor of Physics of Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. Marshall of course was keen on all things physical, while Stevenson’s preference was for a lively interchange of thought on every thing of human interest except science. When, as frequently happened, Stevenson got weary of reading thermometers or watching the galvanometer light-spot, he easily found some excuse to bring Robertson Smith within hearing and set him and John Murray arguing on the age of the earth and the foundation of Christianity.[28]

Though Stevenson makes several laudatory references to Professor Tait in his writings, indirect hints as to his personal disaffection with the lectures he attended both in Physics and (later) in Law are to be found in his essay, “An Apology for Idlers”:[29]

If you look back on your own education, I am sure it will not be the full, vivid, instructive hours of truantry that you regret; you would rather cancel some lack-lustre periods between sleep and waking in the class. For my own part, I have attended a good many lectures in my time. I still remember that the spinning top is a case of Kinetic Stability. I still remember that Emphyteusis is not a disease, nor Stillicide a crime.

The Burns Article

<11>That the relationship between WRS and RLS failed to ripen into any deep friendship may in part be explained by an occurrence which plainly hurt Stevenson at the time, even if it was to prove far less traumatic than the Churton Collins attack on Gosse. In 1875, Stevenson was invited by Thomas Spencer Baynes — very possibly at Sidney Colvin’s prompting — to submit articles for the EB on both Robert Burns and the French poet and songwriter Pierre Jean de Béranger[30] — an offer which led to the triumphant announcement in a letter from RLS to Colvin: “Hoop-la! Can’t write. I’ve got Burns and seemingly Béranger.”[31] Indeed, Stevenson clearly anticipated further commissions for the Britannica to be forthcoming, his projected essay on Charles d’Orleans being mentioned to Colvin in the same context. While “Béranger” duly appeared (after considerable revision) in volume III [ATH–BOL] of the Encyclopaedia, published in December 1875, Stevenson’s subsequent article on Robert Burns was summarily rejected by the E.B.’s editorial staff. Stevenson sent a terse and rather cryptic rejoinder:

I beg to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript Burns. I am sorry to learn (this evening) you found means to communicate with others rather than myself. You will excuse me if I express myself frankly. I regard this as bad usage. Whether or not my article was fitted for your enterprise, was a matter of interest to you and me — not to third parties.[32]

Stevenson vented his considerable annoyance to Colvin, who indeed may have been the third party alluded to, and his expression of indignation perhaps explains an apologetic communication that same month from Baynes, eliciting in turn an illuminating response from the budding author:

I have to thank you for your kind letter; I perfectly understand your silence and was sorry indeed for the cause. I hope you will now continue to gain strength. I suppose you are right in saying there was a want of enthusiasm about the article. I had, I fancy, an exaggerated idea of the gravity of an Encyclopaedia, and wished to give mere bones, and to make no statement that should appear even warm. And perhaps also, I may have a little latent cynicism, which comes out when I am at work. I believe you are right in saying I had not said enough of what is highest and best in him [Burns]. Such a topic is disheartening: the clay feet are easier dealt with than the golden head.[33]

“Some Aspects of Robert Burns” was eventually published in The Cornhill Magazine of October 1879, immediately following publication of a prestigious monograph on the poet’s life and work by John Campbell Shairp,[34] and Stevenson’s essay very clearly betrays his marked ambivalence towards the poet’s character as well as his deprecation of Shairp’s assessment.[35] There is abundant evidence of his youthful identification with the wild side of Burns, but equally a surprisingly strong disapproval of the poet’s Don Juan persona:

Robert steps before us, almost from the first, in his complete character — a proud, headstrong, impetuous lad, greedy of pleasure, greedy of notice; in his own phrase, “panting after distinction,” and in his brother’s “cherishing a particular jealousy of people who were richer or of more consequence than himself:” with all this, he was emphatically of the artist nature.[36]

And in an only half-playful outburst to Gosse, he writes:

Talking I say of Burns, Robert, the inspired P. is a very gay subject for study. I made a kind of chronological table of his various loves and lusts, and have been comparatively speechless ever since. I am sorry to say it, but there was something in him of the vulgar, bagmanlike, professional seducer. I could kick his bottom for it: that I could (this for greater confirmation). Oblige me by taking down and reading, for the hundredth time I hope, his “Twa Dogs” and his “Address to the Unco’ Guid”. I am only a Scotchman after all, you see, and when I have beaten Burns I am driven at once, by my parental feelings, to console him with a sugar plum.[37]

It is certain that Robertson Smith could have played no part whatsoever in the rejection of the original Burns article, having only begun his editorial work for Messrs Adam and Charles Black, the Encyclopaedia’s publishers, in 1881, following his deposition by the Free Church General Assembly in May 1881 from the Aberdeen chair; nevertheless, Stevenson’s general attitude towards the Encyclopaedia and all those associated with its publication must inevitably have remained more than mildly jaundiced and could scarcely have failed to hinder the development of a harmonious relationship with Robertson Smith. On the other hand the bond forged between Gosse and Stevenson at the Savile Club grew steadily stronger with the passage of time.

Swordsmen of the Pen

<12>In a curious and fragmentary piece of humorous prose written in collaboration with W. E. Henley, RLS penned a brief but fascinatingly perceptive account of the Savile Club:

This is the place known by fame to many; to few by sight. Now and again, Gladstone or Hugo, the Primate of England or the Prince of Galles, may tread, not without awe, its hallowed flooring. But these, great though they are, are not the true inhabitants. Here gather daily those young eaglets of glory, the swordsmen of the pen, who are the pride and wonder of the world, and the terror and envy of the effete pensionnaires of the Athenaeum. They are all young; and youth is a great gift. They are all clever authors; and some of them, with that last refinement of talent, old as Job but rare as modesty, have hitherto refrained from writing. They are old friends, though they may slate each other in anonymous prints. And they are all Rising.[38]

From the outset, Stevenson had treated the Churton Collins affair with his customary light-hearted charm and, writing from America in 1888, could even risk alluding humorously to the incident which so preyed upon Gosse:

… I must tell again the fate of Mrs Gosse’s thermometer. It hangs in our sitting room, where it has often marked freezing point and below; “See what Gosse says” is a common word of command. But the point is this: in the verandah hangs another thermometer, condemned to register minus 40° and that class of temperatures; and to him, we have given the name of the Quarterly Reviewer. I hope the jape like you.[39]

It says much for the enduring bond between the two men that Gosse could tolerate such a sally, since Evan Charteris notes that “to make a Gosse” of oneself had by then become an established item of Oxford university slang.[40] At Cambridge, EWG remained a popular and respected lecturer until his tenure of what was in effect a time-limited professorial chair came to an end in 1889.

<13>Gosse and Robertson Smith continued to correspond on literary topics and it is of interest that both RLS and WRS were among those rare individuals who could safely offer criticism to Gosse without fear of causing instant offence. In 1891, for example, Stevenson gently chides Gosse for “one or two carelessnesses” in the latter’s biography of his father Philip,[41] while Smith, in November 1890 delicately offers the correction of numerous errors in Gosse’s translation of Greek words and phrases in a work by Tolstoy which his friend had rendered into English.[42] And it is telling evidence of Smith’s determination to work on to the very end (as did Stevenson) that one of his last letters, penned within three weeks of his death in March 1894, was a recommendation that Gosse should edit and publish the translation of some short stories by an obscure Belgian writer. Ruefully he observes: “That I write so long & incoherent a letter with my own hand, which I can’t and oughtn’t to do, will prove that I am very much in earnest”.[43]

<14>It was to be Edmund Gosse, however, who penned the finest valedictory tribute to Stevenson. Writing his “personal recollections of Louis Stevenson” in Critical Kit-Kats, he begins:

And now, pen in hand, I pause to think how I can render in words a faint impression of the most inspiring, the most fascinating human being that I have known. [44]

And he ends the memoir thus:

“One should strain,” he said, “and then play, strain again, and play again. The strain is for us, it educates; the play is for the reader, and pleases. In moments of effort one learns to do the easy things that people like.”
He learned that which he desired, and he gained more than he hoped for. He became the most exquisite English writer of his generation; yet those who lived close to him are apt to think less of this than of the fact that he was the most unselfish and the most lovable of human beings.[45]

Shortly before his death, Stevenson had seen the dedicatory ode prefacing Gosse’s latest volume of poetry, In Russet and Silver. Addressed, in September 1894, “To Tusitala in Vailima” it hauntingly recalls that first meeting between the two men:

When the good ship “Clansman” bore us
Round the spits of Tobermory,
Glens of Voulin like a vision,
Crags of Knoidart, huge and hoary, —
We had laughed in light derision,
Had they told us, told the daring
What the years’ pale hands were bearing, —
Years in stately, dim division.

And the ode goes on to mourn that long separation:

Vanish’d? ay, that’s still the trouble.
Though your tropic isle rejoices,
’Tis to us an isle of Voices
Hollow like the elfin double
Cry of disembodied echoes,
Or an owlet’s wicked laughter,
Or the cold and horned gecko’s
Croaking from a ruined rafter, —
Voices those of things existing,
Yet incessantly resisting
Eyes and hands that follow after;
You are circled, as by magic,
In a surf-built palmy bubble,
Fate hath chosen, but the choice is
Half delectable, half tragic,
For we hear you speak, like Moses,
And we greet you back. Enchanted,
But reply’s no sooner granted,
Than the rifted cloud-land closes.[46]


<15>All three men — Stevenson, Gosse, and Robertson Smith — were close contemporaries in age[47] but led vastly divergent lives: the first a fervid wanderer and romanticist; the second a highly productive and widely-esteemed littérateur; the third a polymathic and scholarly pioneer in both biblical criticism and social anthropology. Gosse alone of the trio was to live to a ripe old age, dying in his eightieth year. The other two, having each fought their life-long battles with tuberculosis, were to die of that all too prevalent Victorian scourge within months of one another — Smith at the end of March 1894 in Cambridge; and Stevenson in far-off Samoa at the start of December in that same year,. Both were to be deeply mourned by friends and colleagues alike, despite having had their detractors — of whom W. E. Henley was one of the most uncharitable, describing Stevenson as that “seraph in chocolate”,[48] and pillorying Smith in a pseudonymous article for his “tedious, but very evangelical” sermons and asking, “How could he be so desperately wicked (it was urged) when he was so desperately dull.”[49] Yet both men remain jewels in the crown of Scottish intellectual and literary achievement.

<16>Edmund Gosse is remembered today primarily for his compelling autobiography, Father and Son, but his wide-ranging critical talent remains of high value, not least for the delicate yet evocative picture which his writings afford of a sexually ambiguous era when the masculine exclusiveness of club life in London was so marked a feature of daily life and society. Both he and Stevenson suffered greatly during childhood and adolescence from the intense pressures placed upon them by obtuse and domineering fathers. Alone of the three, Robertson Smith had no need to rebel against paternal authority. Brilliantly educated at home (as were all the Smith children) within an almost ideal pedagogic setting,[50] he freely chose his own pathway to fame, despite the emotional torments of his five year long trial for heresy. Savilians all, this trio of London clubmen collectively epitomise the spirit and infinite variety of late Victorian life and literature.


[1] MSS collection, Brotherton Library, Leeds.

[2] MSS collection, Brotherton Library, Leeds.

[3] Cf. Encyclopaedic Britannica (9th edn.) vol. xviii (1885) 345-348, s.v. “Pastoral”.

[4] For example, WRS wrote, “But when you speak of Auerbach & Immermann why not name the far greater genius of Fritz Reuter with his beautiful “Ut mine Stromtid”? The article duly describes Reuter as “best of all” [the German Romantic writers].

[5] First published (anonymously) by Heinemann in 1907.

[6] A post gained for him through the intensive efforts of Charles Kingsley, a friend of Gosse’s father, Philip Henry Gosse. See Thwaite (2007) 62-67 for a detailed account of Kingsley’s lobbying.

[7] E.g. Madrigals, Songs and Sonnets (1870) and On Viol and Flute (1873).

[8] Quarterly Review, vol. 186 (October, 1886) 289–329.

[9] Quarterly Review, vol.186: 289.

[10] The classic account of that affair is given in Black and Chrystal (1912); but see also Maier (2009) for a most comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of Robertson Smith’s life and work.

[11] Though published anonymously, the review article is acknowledged to have been written by A.H. Charteris, Professor of Biblical Criticism at Edinburgh University.

[12] Quarterly Review, vol. 186: 293.

[13] Quarterly Review, vol. 186: 300.

[14] Charteris, Evan, The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, London, Wm Heinemann, Ltd., 1931: 193.

[15] Critical Kit-Kats was first published by Heineman in 1896, two years after Stevenson’s death.

[16] Ibid. 276.

[17] Works (Skerryvore edn.) vol. v. 119-120. Kidnapped was first published by Heinemann in 1886.

[18] The transposition of Gosse’s initials was of course a deliberately facetious allusion to W.E.G. –- William Ewart Gladstone –- and was not wholly pleasing to Gosse on that account.

[19] I am grateful to the Savile Club for providing me with these dates. Colvin may well have recommended Smith’s admission also, having been involved in advising Baynes on the format, content and style of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s ninth edition.

[20] See Garrett Anderson, “Hang Your Halo in the Hall!” (Savile Club, 1993) for an entertaining and highly informative account of the Club’s history.

[21] “Talk and Talkers” was first published in The Cornhill Magazine (April and August, 1882).

[22] Booth B. & Mehew. E (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: vol. 2 327.

[23] John S. Black and George W. Chrystal (1912) 562. In 1882 Smith was appointed Lord Almoner’s Reader in Arabic at Cambridge and was subsequently University Librarian there before being elected to the Thomas Adams chair of Arabic in 1889.

[24] Robert Louis Stevenson: Collected Poems. Ed. Janet Adam Smith, 2nd edn 1971, 167–170. In a letter to his cousin Bob, RLS writes: “it is a bleeding attack on beastly elders, clergymen and others”. See Booth B. & Mehew E. (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 3 101.

[25] See also Donald Carswell (1927) in Brother Scots: 67–68, for an admirable and succinct account of this encounter.

[26] Edinburgh University MSS Gen. 2169.

[27] The whole phrase is written by Smith in parenthesis and reads, “missoque ignaviae irritamente Stevenson”, indicating perhaps that RLS had been moved to a less susceptible group in the laboratory.

[28] Knott (1911) Life and Scientific Work of Peter Guthrie Tait 72.

[29] First published in The Cornhill Magazine, 1877 and subsequently in Virginibus Puerisque (Skerryvore edn., vol. xxii, 61–71. The terms emphyteusis [the right to a piece of land] and stillicide [legitimate eavesdropping] are technical terms from Roman law, on which Scots law is founded.

[30] The short three-column article “Béranger” appeared in Vol. III of the Encyclopaedia ( 581–2). The same volume contained the fateful article, “Bible” by Robertson Smith., extending to twenty-eight columns.

[31] Booth B. & Mehew. E (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson: vol. 2 149.

[32] Booth B. & Mehew E. (eds.), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2 173.

[33] Booth B. & Mehew E. (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2 175.

[34] Published in Morley’s English Men of Letters series.

[35] J.C. Shairp had been Principal of the United College at St Andrews University but became Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1877.

[36] Familiar Studies of Men and Book. Works (Skerryvore edn.) vol. xxiii 29 – 65.

[37] Booth B. & Mehew E. (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2 328.

[38] Diogenes at the Savile Club. Some Unfinished Stories: Works, vol. xiv 347–350.

[39] Booth B. A. & Mehew E. (eds.), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. vol. 6 141. The “Gosse” thermometer had been a gift from Gosse’s wife, Ellen, and was a token of RLS’s lifelong susceptibility to low temperatures. Ann Thwaite erroneously describes both instruments as “barometers” in her biography of Gosse [308].

[40] Charteris, Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse: 196.

[41] Booth & Mehew, Letters, 6 104–5.

[42] MSS Collection, Brotherton Library, Leeds. WRS to Gosse, 09.11.1890 and 15.11.1890.

[43] MSS Collection, Brotherton Library, Leeds. WRS to Gosse, 07.03.94.

[44] Critical Kit-Kats: 275.

[45] Critical Kit-Kats: 302.

[46] In Russet and Silver, ix–x; xii–xiii. Gosse also dedicated one of the poems “To W.R.S.”: The Garden of Christ’s (118).

[47] Smith was born in 1846, Gosse in 1849 and Stevenson in 1850.

[48] The awkward relationship between Henley and RLS, and the final break in 1888, are well described by Claire Harman (2005) in her biography of Stevenson.

[49] The Free Review, May 1894. The writer’s pseudonym is “Scotulus” but there seems little doubt as to Henley’s authorship. See Black & Chrystal (500-502) for a similar but earlier example of what the authors describe as “the literary hooliganism which was his favourite affectation”, contained in the Scots Observer, May 25, 1889.

[50] In addition to the accounts given by Black and Chrystal (1912) and Maier (2009), see also Children of the Manse: Growing up in Victorian Aberdeenshire (2004) by Alice Thiele Smith, for a fascinating account by his sister of Smith’s upbringing and education..


Works Cited

Anderson, Garrett. Hang Your Halo in the Hall: The Savile Club from 1868. Savile Club, London, 1993.

Black, J.S. and Chrystal G.W. The Life of William Robertson Smith, Adam & Charles Black, 1912.

Booth, Bradford A. and Mehew, Edward. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, (8 vols.) Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.

Carswell, Donald. Brother Scots. Constable & Co. Ltd., 1927.

Charteris. Evan. Life and Letters of Edmund Gosse. Wm. Heinemann Ltd., 1931.

Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences and General Literature. 9th ed. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1875–88.

Gosse, Edmund W. Father and Son. Wm. Heinemann, 1907.

_______________ Critical Kit-Kats. Wm. Heinemann, 1896.

_______________ In Russet and Silver. Wm. Heinemann, 1896.

Harman, Claire. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. HarperCollins, 2005.

Knott, Cargill G. Life and Scientific Work of Peter Guthrie Tait. Cambridge University Press, 1911.

Maier, Bernhard. William Robertson Smith: His Life, his Work and his Times. [Forschungen zum Alten Testament 67] Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2009.

Smith, Alice Theile. Children of The Manse: Growing up in Victorian Aberdeenshire. Edinburgh, The Bellfield Press, 2004.

Stevenson, Robert L. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (ed. Sidney Colvin) Skerryvore Edition, 30 vols. Wm. Heinemann Ltd., 1927.

Thwaite, Ann. Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape. Tempus Books, 2007.

To Cite This Article:

Gordon Booth, ‘A Trio of London Clubmen: Edmund Gosse, W. Robertson Smith and R. L. Stevenson ’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].