Robert Louis Stevenson & J.M. Barrie, A Friendship in Letters, by Michael Shaw, Sandstone Press, 2020
“Write to me again in my infinite distance”
So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in the year 1893 from his home in Samoa to fellow writer J. M. Barrie who was in, or near, his native town of Kirriemuir in Angus. I don’t think I’ll ever make it to Samoa but I do know Kirriemuir, which is close to where my mother was born, and the distance does indeed feel infinite in both geography and imagination. How that friendship played out is recorded in a new book edited by Michael Shaw (my mini-review is here) which has in turn given rise to another correspondence involving me. Here’s how it happened!
On 13th November last year – RLS day in fact – I attended the online launch of AFIL and sat in blissful invisibility while keeping an eye on the ‘chatbox’ where another audience member’s question caught my eye. It was exactly what was going through my own head at the time. I ticked a ‘like’ box or made a comment. Possibly both.
From such minute actions can distant friendships grow. Before I had logged off from the meeting, the questioner had made contact and asked politely if we could adjourn to Twitter messaging for an exchange of views, where we speedily established we were both ex-librarians and writers with an appetite for the letters of RLS.
Before the weekend was over, J. A. Jablonski (see below) of Milwaukee had provided me with a useful link to some archival materials and (holy moly!) bought In the Blink of an Eye – (possibly to test my skills/sanity/bona fides, I did a little checking of my own) but also because Jude, as J.A. is more usually known, was already a Hill and Adamson fan. Clearly things couldn’t get much better than this!
It’s a commonplace to say how easy it is to maintain contact with friends and family around the world in the digital age, maybe less often reported that new friendships can happen pretty quickly too. So what does this friendship consist of? We began by sharing links, quotations and references, which we still do. This is the bedrock of our joint existence, and as Jude’s personal library puts mine to shame, she can often provide images or screenshots of things I’d like to see. Or sometimes we find ourselves reading the same things at the same time, which makes for quick-fire repartee. Did you see this?
We began to extend into general writing matters; our good days and our bad days, our light-bulb moments and groans of frustration. I am writing historical fiction with an RLS angle; Jude is writing, amongst other things, a modern academic literary mystery. We have begun a cautious exchange of work so that each can inhabit and comment on the writing world of the other. Alongside the rat-a-tat of messaging there are more thoughtful or thought-out letters. All of these, with bundles of research notes and online finds, are expertly organised by Jude and stored in shared folders on the cloud.
If this sounds more like a working partnership than friendship, in many ways it is, but we can hardly avoid local and world events (we must have been one of the first households round our way to hear of the storming of the White House) as well as more ordinary woes (snowdrifts or hailstorms) and reports of rare expeditions to our respective outside worlds.
Unlike RLS in his Vailima estate, we occupy small households so don’t need to resort to lively detailing of our menages (see right) but along the way we have become attuned to the general tenor of each other’s ways.
Of course the way we interact is very different from our predecessors and it’s not just a matter of style: I don’t normally begin letters My Dear Jablonski although I suppose I could! Not only is our messaging in real time, we have the added luxury of occasional video calls. But in other ways we are in the same situation, looking for the stimulation of someone new cropping up in a world of isolation.
How many new people have you ‘met’ during the pandemic? How many new friends could RLS make within his restricted island community? (And no wonder they looked forward so much to the arrival of packet boats and passenger ships.) Even acknowledged introverts (that’s not me by the way!) need outside stimulation, interaction with a view of life or of literature or of the world which is sympathetic but still resolutely other.
Should I be thanking the pandemic for this new interest? (which for me is also a chance to remember the lost practice – I’m still a long way from art – of letter-writing). Theoretically in the online world we can make new connections any time, but here there was a particular point of contact. In ‘normal’ times the launch of A Friendship in Letters would have attracted an audience from a fairly narrow band of the Scottish reading public. As it was the audience was drawn from around the world. So I’ll hold back on thanking Mr Corona Virus for anything, but I think some bouquet should go to Sandstone Press for organising an online book launch. You can even still see it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_juewe05g
Best of all, even if the pandemic was responsible for bringing us together, its ebbing (devoutly to be wished) needn’t keep us apart. Barrie did plan to visit Samoa. Maybe there will be too many obstacles even in a covid-free world for Milwaukee to come to a corner of South Gloucestershire or vice-versa. But just as Stevenson and Barrie would have continued their correspondence, in our infinite distance and in our many ways of writing, so shall we.
Since this may not be the last post or project involving two of us, here is more about my new and distant friend.
Introducing J. A. Jablonski
J.A. Jablonski has been a university professor and researcher, academic and special librarian, information technology consultant, writing instructor, technical writer, book and database indexer as well as a graphic designer, award-winning display window and exhibits designer, seamstress, and poet.
Jude’s WIPs include a character-driven, modern academic literary mystery series set on a college campus located in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin; a collection of short stories, poems, and illustrations on the nature of “the muse;” an SF novel about competing factions of socio-anthropologists; and a fantasy/realism book about a synesthesic young person who meets a one-eyed peer with
Jude is in the process of setting up a new website. Her artist blog can be found at https://danteswardrobe.blogspot.com/
Robert Louis Stevenson
Hopefully RLS needs no introduction but to refresh your memory or add to your knowledge the definitive online resource (with links to many others) is the RLS Website developed by Edinburgh Napier University’s Centre for Literature & Writing http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/