‘A person in whom you must believe, like a person of the Trinity’: Sidney Colvin and the making of an author

In the third of an ongoing series of posts, Harriet Gordon, a first-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, discusses the early steps of her project: a book historical study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s global literary networks. Harriet’s project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP).

In the summer of 1873 Robert Louis Stevenson paid what he later described as a ‘very fortunate visit’ to Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk, where first met Slade Professor of Fine Art Sidney Colvin. Just how fortunate a visit this was we will never know for sure; it is feasible that Stevenson could have gone on to attain the same level of literary success without Colvin’s early assistance. Yet it is also entirely possible that without the jump-start Colvin’s connections and advice provided, Stevenson would have never caught the attention of the literary elite, would never have been propelled into the public eye, and would not have become the subject of a PhD thesis in 2015.

We cannot know for certain the debt Stevenson (and his admirers) owe to Sidney Colvin, but it is not an exaggeration to say this slightly senior man of Letters was instrumental in the earliest phases of the young author’s career. Within a couple of months of their meeting, with Colvin’s enthusiastic if somewhat stern encouragement, Stevenson had produced his first paid piece of writing: an essay, ‘Roads’, rejected at first by the Saturday Review before being published in the Portfolio. Initially unsure of quite what role Colvin was to play in his literary career, Stevenson tested the waters before asking for feedback on this first piece of writing:

I do not know if it would be quite fair to ask you to look over it first, and tell me whether, by sending it in, I should merely compromise the future.

He needn’t have worried: Colvin replied with six pages of advice and emendations, before sending it off to be judged by his contacts in the literary magazines of the day.

Colvin’s mediation between Stevenson and the literary environment of London continued as his career progressed. Writing what was to become his second published text, ‘Ordered South’, in the French town Riviera town Menton, Stevenson writes to Colvin telling him a draft is almost finished, but that he will wait for his arrival before transcribing it, ‘lest perhaps it should be unfit for human food’. Months earlier, Stevenson mentioned that Alexander Macmillan, founder of the publishing firm, had told him to send in a manuscript, and proceeded to ask Colvin whether he should do so. Clearly the answer was no: once Colvin had arrived in Menton and had given his approval of ‘Ordered South’, he himself sent the essay to Macmillan’s Magazine, where it was published in May 1874. Stevenson himself acknowledged the immense influence Colvin exerted over his career, writing in a letter:

[I]t is odd how soon he takes a sort of adviser-position in my mind; I feel as if I should never be able to take another step all my life without his advice.

Sir Sidney Colvin, circa 1916

Sir Sidney Colvin, circa 1916

This reverential expression towards Colvin is not an isolated occurrence in Stevenson’s letters. He writes to Frances Sitwell that he does ‘not know how [he] shall find the words to thank [Colvin]’, and tells his cousin Bob that he ‘is one of the best of human beings’. He even calls Colvin ‘a person of the Trinity’, ‘a person in whom you must believe’. In all of his letters Stevenson addresses him as ‘my dear Colvin’ and writes with an air of respect, markedly different to the playful, rakish tone we find in letters to his peers Charles Baxter or William Ernest Henley. Stevenson’s gratitude to and veneration of the Cambridge professor is hardly surprising. When tracing the author’s expanding literary network at this early stage of his career, it soon becomes clear that at the root of every new strand, every connection, is Sidney Colvin. It is Colvin who introduces Stevenson to Andrew Lang, when staying with him in Menton. It is through Colvin that Stevenson connects with editors such as John Morely (of the Fortnightly) and George Grove (of Macmillan’s Magazine). Colvin proposes Stevenson for membership of the Savile Club, of which he was a founding member, through which Stevenson goes on to meet a variety of literary figures, including Henry James. Even Stevenson’s friendship with Henley, whom he met before Colvin did, can be traced back to the professor: Stevenson was introduced to Henley by Leslie Stephen (editor of Cornhill Magazine), who had in turn been put in touch with Stevenson by Colvin.

As these networks begin to spread, there are glimmers of evidence that Stevenson is gaining confidence in the literary environment of London. In May 1874 he sends a review directly to Morely, bypassing Colvin’s mediating eye. Stevenson’s friendship with Henley, beginning in February 1885, furnishes him a new role, as the facilitator, rather than solely the beneficiary, of literary networks: he uses his new contacts to recommend Henley’s poetry to various publications. He even implies he may have had the same inspiring influence on Henley as Colvin had on him, proclaiming that ‘if I cannot do good work myself, at least, it seems, I can help others better inspired; I am at least a skilful accoucheur’ (a male midwife). Yet despite this growing confidence and understanding of the literary market, Stevenson still retains a reliance on Colvin, regularly asking for his advice in matters of custom or etiquette, as well as sending him manuscripts to be approved before publication. Even the great distance that comes between the two men later in life cannot sever this relationship: Colvin retains his ‘adviser-position’ throughout Stevenson’s career, going on to play a vital role in the author’s literary affairs even after his death.

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