There's something very attractive about a book that is both ground-breaking and definitive. It adds so much to the experience to know that what you are reading will have to be referred to by anyone else who ever wishes to write about the subject.
"A Friendship in Letters: Robert Louis Stevenson & J.M. Barrie" by Michael Shaw is one of those books. Robert Louis Stevenson and J.M. Barrie were just ten years apart in age and both attended Edinburgh University in the 1870s. They also both lived in Edinburgh in early 1879 and had several friends in common. Despite that, they never actually met; and by the time they began their correspondence, Stevenson was living on the other side of the world in Samoa. Their letters to one another tend to be quite autobiographical and taken together this correspondence casts a fascinating light not just on the two men who wrote the letters but also on the wider world - or worlds - they inhabited. This book is an important addition to Scotland's literary history and is eminently readable. It is also, fittingly given the enduring nature of its appeal, beautifully produced as a hardback with a built-in bookmark.
Many of Stevenson's letters to Barrie were published shortly after his death in 1894 and others have appeared since. But Barrie's letters to Stevenson have not previously been published and there was speculation, starting in the 1940s, that they were lost. The two sets of letters are published together for the first time in this book.
The letters themselves are enjoyable to read as the men's friendship steadily grows. Despite never having met they discuss the things they have in common, including their experiences at Edinburgh University and in Edinburgh, and Stevenson has much to say about Samoa, where he was living in the final years before his untimely death. In 1894 the two discussed the idea of Barrie travelling to Samoa on honeymoon with his wife Mary. In the end the idea was shelved because of Barrie's concern not to be away from his ailing mother. One wonders what Mary made of that. It is rather poignant that two men who clearly had such high regard for one another never did meet; though fascinating to speculate how a friendship entirely developed through letters would have worked had they come face-to-face.
The book begins with a 60 page introduction which sets the correspondence in perspective and then gives the texts of the letters themselves, with copious footnotes. The appendices include a poem Barrie wrote on hearing of Stevenson's death and other talks he gave and letters he wrote about Stevenson.