A strange case

In the early summer of 1886, Charles Baxter WS received a sudden influx of letters regarding his client, one Byron McGuinness. But things were not as they appeared. The client was a work of fiction created by Baxter’s best friend, none other than the celebrated author Robert Louis Stevenson. ROBERT PIRRIE WS reveals how brilliantly the Writer to the Signet took on the challenge of Stevenson’s practical joke.

On the 18th June 1886, the great Victorian novelist Robert Louis Stevenson was house bound in Bournemouth due to his recurring ill-health. Out of sheer mischief, he answered at least four advertisements in that day’s Daily News in the adopted persona of the splendidly named “Byron McGuinness”. The correspondents were instructed to “communicate with my lawyer, Mr. Charles Baxter, Writer to the Signet, 11 S. Charlotte Street, Edinburgh”. Baxter and Stevenson were by this time in their late thirties, respectable married men, and well established in their respective careers. The McGuinness affair saw them returning to the escapades of their undergraduate days when they first met as law students. Little of that earlier material survives, so the letters of 1886 provide a priceless example of the sense of humour that helped forge the most important and enduring friendship of both men’s lives.

 Portrait or Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 – shortly after the Byron McGuinness affair (picture courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, photograph by Tony Walsh, Cincinnati, Ohio).

Portrait or Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 – shortly after the Byron McGuinness affair (picture courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio, photograph by Tony Walsh, Cincinnati, Ohio).

Although Baxter was a busy lawyer with plenty of real clients (the most celebrated being Stevenson himself), he answered these communications the very day he received them. It is evident that the Writer to the Signet had no prior warning of the letters before they arrived. Throughout the ruse, neither he nor Stevenson directly referred to the other’s involvement. This was part of an unspoken agreement. It was never Stevenson’s intention to fool Baxter into thinking there was a real Byron McGuinness – apart from anything else, he knew Baxter was much too sharp for that. Rather, he wanted to see what Baxter would do with the cue he had given him. The novelist was not to be disappointed. As Marshall Waingrow observes in Stevenson’s Letters to Charles Baxter, “the two made a perfect team. To this role of dead-pan collaborator Baxter brought genuine brilliance. When Stevenson gave him a lead, he played up to it”.

Stevenson took great delight in his friend’s status as a Writer to the Signet and respectable Victorian lawyer: he took an equal delight in tweaking the noses of the more humourless characters who moved in Baxter’s circles. This must at times have been inconvenient for the WS, however he seems to have borne it with a good grace – perhaps he enjoyed every moment of it. The younger Stevenson, when still living in Edinburgh, took particular pleasure in making pointless trouble at Baxter’s office. As “CB” recalled: “RLS had an engaging habit of calling promiscuously and – not finding me within – of leaving epistles, not always complimentary, lying open on my desk; often to the scandal of my staid senior partner (privately christened by Stevenson the “Godkin” or “Godlet”) and sometimes even, to that of my more open-minded clerks”.

The first of the Byron McGuinness letters that Baxter answered was one of the more straightforward. Stevenson had written to London House agents Messrs Wilde and Venables, 69 Moorgate Street, London concerning the advertisement they had placed for a house to let. “Mr McGuinness” asked that they send his lawyer a full description of the property, which the unsuspecting agents duly did. Baxter replied by return of post:

“Dear Sirs,
Pray pay no attention to anything that comes from that man McGuinness. He is simply a monomaniac who knowing I have recently succeeded to some money pesters my life with what he considers eligible investments. I don’t as it happens usually live in houses at £30.
May I ask if McG. has mooted any question of commission?
Yours truly
Charles Baxter”

The bewildered agents forwarded Baxter the original letter they had received. Baxter returned it with a covering letter:

“I did not know that it was in the capacity of his adviser that you had been requested to write to me. Some years ago I did some business for him, but my bill has never been paid. What I would willingly submit to if I could only never hear his accursed name again!”

The other advertisements Stevenson had answered were from sources seeking persons with investment capital to become directors of newly formed stock companies. The first was from an A. Douglas Noll, detailing the virtues of his cheap portable sewing machine. “A more bona fide business,” Mr Noll declared, “has never been put forward. I am satisfied that an enormous fortune will be realised through the invention”.

Baxter again answered by return, this time cheerfully blackening his own name further to improve the joke:

“Dear Sir,
May I ask (1) on what grounds you wish Mr McGuinness to become a director of the proposed company and (2) why you write to me about it? Business is business: what good is it to be to me?
Yours truly,
Charles Baxter”.

Noll took Baxter’s bait completely, replying immediately and concluding:

“Should our correspondence result in business, I shall be most happy to place you on a proper footing and will meet any reasonable suggestions you may make”.

Gleefully, Baxter underscored this sentence, wrote in the margin “I thought as much!” and forwarded the letter to Stevenson with a copy of his freshly composed reply to Mr Noll:

“Confidential
Mr McGuinness is a very shrewd man, and any arrangements as to my own look-out must be strictly confidential… Who are the other directors? This essential, from circumstances of a delicate nature occurring some years ago.
Yours truly,
Charles Baxter
P.S. I need not say that the circumstances were entirely unfounded.”

Stevenson was so delighted with Baxter’s replies thus far that he broke cover to acknowledge gleefully:

“Dear C.B.
You would have ‘thought as much’ many times over if you had seen McG’s letter. He had ‘thought as much’ himself on the terms of the advertisement, and wrote a low, boastful, and (constructively) dishonest letter; proving his ignorance of manners, business, and common decency and giving as much as possible the idea of a vain theftuous dupe. And it drew! And yours drew! The Lord love us!
Yrs ever,
B. McG.
They have not all come off YET, my friend.”

Indeed they had not. Baxter next received a 12-page sales letter from George Thomson of Pendennis, Lee, Kent, extolling the virtues of an “electric paint remover”. Prospective directors were expected to be prepared to invest £1,000 and Thomson claimed to have already attracted 15 applicants. The Writer to the Signet this time adopted a different approach:

“My client is a member of a very distinguished Irish family, and I could not advise him to incur the resentment of his relatives by entering the board of a company which, though doubtless strictly honest, is of a very commercial nature, and hardly such as an Irish Gentleman and landowner would care to put his hand to. My client’s views are directed toward some of the leading Banks, Railways or even Great Steamship Companies”.

Mr Thomson’s response to this was spectacular. In a long, apoplectic reply he retorted:

“Your letter is simply an insult to myself and my directors… Let me inform you that our directors are men of very high social position in this small city of London and also men of considerable wealth – although not impoverished Irish landowners or men likely to be coerced by the petty whims of their relatives… I mix with such men as the bankers of this City, Lord Geo. Hamilton, Duke of Portland, Earl Cadogan, Sir Robert Fowler (late Lord Mayor)… Perhaps the great banks you are connected with are satisfied with their directors having £1,000 in the business and an overdraft of several thousand.
I am, Sir, Yours etc.
G. Thomson”.

Stevenson had often expressed admiration for Baxter’s style of business correspondence when the WS was roused to anger. In 1892 RLS wrote to him: “I wish I had your gift – I have appeared rather freely lately as an insulting letter writer, but I do not consider I am fit to black your shoes”. Baxter’s reply to Thomson saw this “gift” given its full expression:

“Dear Sir
I am favoured with your letter of the 26th inst., upon the tone of which I shall make no comment except to say that it has apparently been written under some excitement. This is unfortunate for you, as it is distinctly libellous, and I have accordingly sent it to my London solicitors to proceed with, without delay.
Your assumption that my client is impoverished is warranted by his own folly in answering such an advertisement as yours; otherwise it is, like the remainder of your letter, grossly inaccurate.
If you are a man of business you ought to know that a parade of high sounding names such as you mention has no effect except to make one smile at the Cockney simplicity that imagines anyone will be influenced by them; but apparently the senile Tory belief in the virtues of the aristocracy is not yet extinct. It soon will be however, thank God.
I am, yours very truly,
Charles Baxter”

And there, the Byron McGuinness file, as immaculately and meticulously kept as any of Baxter’s records, closed. It goes without saying that the WS Society, then and indeed now, would hardly condone the duping of third parties for sport, yet it is hard not to admire the satirical talents of the two friends. Baxter, of course, enjoyed the freedom of those Victorian years, long before practising certificates and statutory regulation by the Law Society of Scotland. What is striking, however, is how fresh and modern is the humour aimed at lampooning the pompous and boastful.

Baxter and Stevenson continued to correspond prolifically for the rest of their lives, on both business and personal matters. When Stevenson died in Samoa, at the age of just 44, Charles Baxter was on his way to the Pacific for a prolonged visit. Instead, he continued to the island for the sad business of winding up his old friend’s estate.