This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Song: ‘Dark Women’
Dark Women is a long poem in which Stevenson contrasts women of opposite hues, wonders at the shades of one particular woman’s nature and welcomes the consolation of her embrace.
Fanny is not mentioned by name in the verse, but in a letter to Colvin concerning the preparation of Songs of Travel (published in Scribner’s Magazine 75.iv, April 1924, p. 419), she says that in addition to the poem My Wife (”Trusty, dusky, vivid, true”), “There was another that Louis rather liked–I think it was called, ‘In praise of dark women’; what do you think of adding that? I only suggest the looking at it.”
Colvin chose instead to include in Songs of Travel only stanzas 2-3 of Dark Women:
Because of the poem’s personal nature Janet Adam Smith assumed that Colvin suppressed the remainder, which has since been published in varying six-stanza versions and by Lewis (2003) in an eight-stanza conflation of the various versions because no single manuscript represents the work in a clearly finished state.
In 1890 Stevenson wrote to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine concerning poems he wanted to publish under the titles Ballads and Songs of Travel.In a following letter he mentioned that many of them were written to music, and that he thought it would be a good idea to include the voice parts:
In addition to other items, Beinecke manuscripts 5865-9 contain four versions of a list of poems intended for Ballads and Songs of Travel.
The list headed Posthumous Verses (apparently intended for publication after his death) contains 48 titles divided into four sections: Vailima, Underwoods, Verses and Songs:
In the section “Songs,” number 43 has the title To You, Let Snow and Roses and is followed by a line count of 16 (which would seem to correspond to the version published in the Edinburgh Edition). It appears in the list together with titles such as Ditty, To an Air of Diabelli’s, To the Tune of Wandering Willie, and 16 others, 9 of which have been found to be associated with music and are listed in the index of the Music of Robert Louis Stevenson website.
Stevenson said on several occasions that he enjoyed the challenge of writing lyrics to music, and so it seems apparent that the reason To You, Let Snow and Roses appears in the section titled “Songs” rather than the other three sections is that it too was written to music.
A different (and clearly later) version of the list (B 6894) has 61 titles. Number 53 is Dark Women and has a line count of 24. RLS apparently considered To You, Let Snow and Roses complete enough to publish at the time but later expanded it to three stanzas and retitled it. Three varying six-stanza versions have been published (Strong 1899, Gosse 1908, Hellman 1925) and an eight-stanza (64-line) conflated version appears in Lewis’s Collected Poems (2003).
A song—with music
Stevenson’s musically inspired poems occasionally contain clues to the melody in the title, subtitle or body of the poem, but in this case the only clues are the rhythm and meaning of the verse. Identifying the tune for this particular work would be hopeless, except that many of the scores Stevenson acquired for his musical studies have been identified and most of his original manuscript musical compositions and transcriptions are available. The proper place to begin searching for music he might have used for a poem is in the scores he collected and the manuscript copies he made, and so it is not haystacks that need to be looked in for this particular needle but in “those great stacks of music,” as Lloyd Osbourne called them.
Out of Stevenson’s more than 140 manuscript transcriptions of music, only one fits the poem properly. He called it Mozart, but its actual title is Duettino from Clemenza di Tito, Act I, Scene 3. Although it is a duet, Stevenson generally copied only from the first part, simplifying some rhythms, changing a few notes, and shortening the whole by six bars.
A recording using the first stanza of Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here. In the opera, Sesto and Annio sing these words:
Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso, / Amico mio fedel;
E ognor per me lo stesso / Ti serbi amico il ciel.
Ah, let me embrace you dearly, / My faithful friend,
And may heaven ever keep / Your friendship constant for me.
The texts of the opera and poem share the theme of friendship, and Stevenson even seems slightly surprised that it is “her of duskier lustre whose favour still I wear.” Although To You, Let Snow and Roses is a song for one voice, its two stanzas comparing two kinds of women produce a duet of its own kind. That the poem fits so well with the opera melody and that the two works share a similar theme should be proof enough that Mozart’s music inspired the poem; however some small details in Stevenson’s transcription add further evidence.
RLS has written the expression mark “dolce” (sweetly) in the middle of the second line. The two bars of music that follow are alterations by Stevenson of Mozart. At this point in the opera the two voices sing separately and echo each other:
If Stevenson had chosen to copy Mozart’s music exactly, he would have written the following, which is a compilation of the two voices:
However, this particular line of the poem has too few syllables for too many notes, so he leaves some out and changes others. The result is a sweeter version of the melody which the lyrics implicitly dedicate to Fanny: “For her of duskier lustre.”Other changes RLS made in Mozart to accommodate his lyrics can be found in the last three bars of the song. To set the words “The rose be in her hair,” he added extra notes specifically for the words “be” and “her.” Because the first stanza of his lyrics finishes at this point, he ends his song and discards the remaining six bars of Mozart’s music:
In To You, Let Snow and Roses Stevenson fused the two melodies of the Duettino into one air on the themes of friendship and color, but later he seemed to realize that by leaving out the operatic image of the embrace, he expressed only half the meaning he intended. Long after the music is silent, verse after searching verse follows in praise of a multitude of shades and colors, but the poem can only end when once again Lou finally embraces Fanny.
The Duettino reads,
Ah, let me embrace you dearly,
my faithful friend,
and may heaven ever keep
your friendship constant for me
The last stanza of Dark Women reads:
The defeats and the successes,
The strife, the race, the goal,
And the touch of a dusky woman
Was fairly worth the whole.
And sun and moon and morning,
With glory I recall,
But the clasp of a dusky woman
Outweighed them one and all.
John F. Russell
In 2008, Robert-Louis Abrahamson, Richard Dury and others agreed to read through Prince Otto and share our thoughts about it on the online discussion group ReadingRLS (topics 282, 293, 294, 296, 314). What follows are a few strands of that conversation, a conversation with no pretence to academic rigour, copied out and re-arranged.
RLA: The distanced tone and reference to Florizel of Bohemia make us think we’re back with the New Arabian Nights. The Shakespearean references to Perdita and the Bohemian seacoast suggest a world of parody and playfulness.
The playfulness continues when we’re told the precise year doesn’t matter and is “left to the conjecture of the reader”. This feels like it’s going to be a comic tale, a game of some sort, where, in fact, we’re encouraged to take part in the creation.
YOU shall seek in vain upon the map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. [...] On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, [...]; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia. [...]
The precise year of grace in which this tale begins shall be left to the conjecture of the reader.
Then at the beginning of Book II ch. 11, we get the precise time reference, but only after a playful ‘feint':
AT a sufficiently late hour, or to be more exact, at three in the afternoon
RD: The story opens with two minor characters fililng us in about the situation: naturally we think of the stage convention. Their dialogue is of the type found in a play-script, requiring us to fill in the details; part of the first dialogue could be re-written as follows with stage-directions:
There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. What’s that? No, nothing—no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. That for your Otto!’
This could be rewritten as
First Huntsman: There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. [Sudden noise] What’s that? No, nothing – no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. [snaps his fingers] That for your Otto!’
The reader is clearly being asked to recognise these conventional bits of stage ‘business'; the reading experience here depends if you want to enter the game or not. I’m reminded of Roxy Music’s LP Avalon with a cover of an Arthurian knight seen from behind and a misty lake: there’s no sign that this is ironic—you are supposed to think ‘This can’t possibly be serious. Or is it?’ and enjoy the artful way you are left in doubt.
The stage-play effect continues with the farcical dramatic irony of Otto in disguise in conversation with the people in the farmhouse about Prince Otto – for example, the following would be a splendid opportunity for a good actor to ‘milk the pause’ before ‘Indeed?':
‘Not what you might call disliked,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘but despised, sir.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Prince, somewhat faintly.
RLA: Of course, Prince Otto started out as a play [as Bob irvine's Introduction reminds us (added comment)]. In Book II, the chapter titles (‘Act the First’ etc.) explicitly take us into the theatre. And then there are continual allusions to theatre, acting etc.: ‘with a man like me to impersonate’ — ‘come buskined forth’ — ‘puppet’ — ‘Hoyden playing Cleopatra’ — ‘this gentleman, it seems, would have preferred me playing like an actor’ — ‘a scene of Marriage à la Mode’ etc. etc.
RD: Much of the exaggerated staginess reminds us of grand opera [and Bob Irvine's Introduction to the New Edinburgh Edition comments on several direct influences from operas (added comment)], and the story in a way becomes an opera at one point, when (Book III, ch. 3) the Countess von Rosen sings the Handel aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ outside Otto’s door in the Felsenberg. (This reminded me of Becky Sharp singing ‘Remember me’ in Andrew Davies’s BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair from 1988.)
Elsewhere we are reminded of the conventions of (campy) melodramatic acting:
‘It is very strange, Herr Cancellarius, that you should so persistently avoid my questions,” said the Prince. “You tempt me to suppose a purpose in your dulness. I have asked you whether all was quiet; do me the pleasure to reply.’ [...]
The Prince waited, drawing his handkerchief quietly through his fingers.’
Drawing a handkerchief slowly (but I like ‘quietly’) through the fingers must have been a well-known piece of stage ‘business’.
RD: Apart from being reminiscent of a play, the work also has the structure of chance meetings and conversations with a variety of people of the 18th-century philosophical novel (and is reminiscent of S’s own short stories with debates –‘Markheim’ and ‘Villon’).
RLA: One of the central moral issues concerns the possibility of forgiving. Otto says of Seraphina ‘I can, of course, [forgive her], and do; but in what sense?’ And Colonel Gordon replies ‘I will talk of not forgiving others, sir, when I have made out to forgive myself, and not before; and the date is like to be a long one”—in other words, the question of ‘not forgiving’ is not even to be put.
Gordon then links this to wider considerations to Otto and Gotthold:
And as for this matter of forgiveness, it comes, sir, of loose views and (what is if anything more dangerous) a regular life. A sound creed and a bad morality, that’s the root of wisdom. You two gentlemen are too good to be forgiving.
It is not by morally judging ourselves that we achieve greatness.
RD: Gordon also associates ‘this matter of forgiveness’ with ‘a regular life’ (=ruled by conventions?) and (we infer) a so-called ‘good’ morality (=conduct governed by fixed rules).
RLA: The meaninglessness of ‘forgiveness’ is also touched on in ‘Truth of Intercourse': ‘I have gone in life I have never yet been able to discover what forgiveness means’.
RD: Other ‘philosophical’ discussions in the text centre on Otto’s ‘manly’ or ‘gentelmanly’ behaviour: his honesty, understanding of others, awareness of his own faults, sense of justice, lack of assertiveness.
RLA: At the end, just as he did in the New Arabian Nights, Stevenson undermines his whole narrative with a summary of the later life of Otto and Seraphina based on close citation of printed sources.
RD: The Postscript starts with lots of real and probably names , then in the last few lines we get ‘Buttonhole’, ‘Lord Protocol’ and ‘Admiral Yardarm’ – S doesn’t pretend any more and says ‘it’s all a fiction’. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found that reading the first part I am lulled into the literary joke and enjoying the clever imitation documentary evidence – so when these last absurd names are produced, one feels the author is showing that he can still surprise us and thathe’s in control.
RLA: This reminds me of formulaic ways of ending fairy tales in some cultures, where the storyteller adds a long jesting closing formula to bring us back to normality. Even the fairy-tale ‘Pretty Woman’ film ends with the crazy guy on the Hollywood sidewalk saying ‘This is Hollywood – the land of dreams’. A final twist – the last trick of the storyteller.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Prince Otto, ed. by Robert P. Irvine, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
Published 28 April 2014. £70 (and for around £50 from booksellers associated with Amazon)
We have ample evidence that when RLS had the opportunity to read proofs he did so very carefully and did not like his puctuation being changed:
- Edward Bok of Scribner’s, who saw him at work in 1887, reports that ‘No man ever went over his proofs more carefully than did Stevenson; his corrections were numerous; and sometimes for ten minutes at a time he would sit smoking and thinking over a single sentence, which, when he had satisfactorily shaped it in his mind, he would recast on the proof.’ ( Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After, New York, Scribner’s, 1923).
- In November 1887 RLS wrote angrily to a printer: ‘ If I receive another proof of this sort, I shall return it at once with the general direction: “See MS.” I must suppose my system of punctuation to be very bad; but it is mine; and it shall be adhered to with punctual exactness by every created printer who shall print for me’ (Letters 6, 51) (his insistent use of semicolons might suggest that it was changes to these that he was particularly angry about).
- A report in the Edinburgh Dispatch Dec 19 1894 (quoted in Hammerton Stevensoniana, p. 153): ‘The handwriting of Stevenson was a horror to compositors, and the anxiety of printers was by no means abated when they succeeded in getting the proofs despatched to the novelist, as it was his not infrequent habit to signify his displeasure at any slip from accuracy in strong terms on the margin of his proof-sheets; and in the matter of punctuation he was extremely fastidious.’
This post is contributed by Gillian Hughes with help from Richard Dury and Roger Swearingen
Hugh Walpole’s collection of manuscripts at King’s School, Canterbury
The rare book and manuscript collection of the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), now owned by the King’s School, Canterbury, reflects its former owner’s interest, among other things, in Scottish literature of the nineteenth century and includes items by James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The scanned catalogue, accessible through the National Register of Archives website revealed an entry for a manuscript fragment of twenty lines of ‘A Tale of Scottish Life’ by Robert Louis Stevenson that had not been hitherto identified.
Naturally intrigued by this description, I contacted the King’s School Librarian, Peter Henderson, about it. The title given in the catalogue turned out to be descriptive only and the manuscript leaf was itself untitled: paginated 5 and beginning in mid-sentence it obviously once formed part of a longer manuscript, and the scenario of a Covenanting sermon from which a ‘truant sentry’ escapes to find a lad called ‘Crozer’ identifies the story concerned as ‘Heathercat’.
 Acknowledgement is made to Mr Henderson and to the King’s School, Canterbury, for supplying an image of the manuscript leaf and for granting permission to use it in the present note.
Stevenson mentioned his idea for this story about the Scottish Covenanters to S. R. Crockett in a letter of around 15 August 1893, responding to Crockett’s dedication to him of The Stickit Minister (Letters 8, 153). By late March the following year, he reported to J. M. Barrie that he had about fifty pages written; then in May he learnt that Crockett was planning a novel about the same subject (the ‘Killing Time’, the savage suppression of the Cameronian Covenanters in the early 1680s), and wrote to him ‘I’ll race you!’ (Letters 8, 259, 286), but the story remained unfinished at the time of his death in December 1894.
‘Heathercat A Fragment’ was duly published posthumously in December 1897 with an Editorial Note by Sidney Colvin in Volume XXVI of the Edinburgh Edition (pp. 87-121). The surviving Part I (‘The Killing Time’) of what was intended to be a full-length novel is divided into three chapters the last of which, entitled ‘The Hill-end of Drumlowe’, breaks off in the middle of the Covenanting minister’s sermon. The text in the Edinburgh Edition ends with the words ‘He’s going round like a roaring rampaging lion. . . .’.
Stevenson’s draft manuscript for this chapter survives in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, GEN MSS 664, Box 30, Folders 711-726 (B 6303), and consists of four pages numbered consecutively -4. At the end of the final page the text actually breaks off with the words ‘He’s going round like a roaring ramp^ag^ing lion, bragging and basting Christs folk in the’. And there the page ends (the caret marks here showing Stevenson’s insertion.)
The marginal comment seems to be: ‘in dramatic | persons, with | changing interxxxxs [?] | and with a great | increase of the | broad Scots.’ It must be a later idea (notice the different ink) for an insertion—commenting on the minister’s dramatic delivery—after ‘he could hear some of his words’, perhaps with an intended addition like ‘and his manner of speaking'; ‘in dramatic persons’ would mean ‘imitating the different voices’. The sixth word, isAny ideas? (For suggested answers, see Comments)
The King’s School leaf
The leaf in the Walpole Collection is clearly the continuation of the Beiencke fragment: it is paginated 5, and it covincingly continues the unfinished sentence at the bottom of page 4 (‘bragging and basting Christ’s folk in the’) with ‘<wilderness> ^fields^, and riding and wading in the precious blood of the elect’ (the angle brackets indicating a deletion).
Interesting features of this new fragment
The Walpole leaf continues what Stevenson has previously termed the ‘poetry apart’ of the sermon, a ‘homely tissue’ relieved by an ‘occasional pathos of simple humanity, ^and^ frequent patches of big ^biblical^ words’. Perhaps with the much-criticised representation of such Covenanting rhetoric by Sir Walter Scott in Old Mortality (1816) in mind, Stevenson set himself to convey both the occasionally ludicrous familiar imagery of such sermons and their touching vulnerability, particularly in the context in which they were delivered. The preacher, ‘Auld soupit ^hirplin^ Sandie’, for instance, asks God to ‘cast the lap of thy mantle over Sandie and his weans’ or to hide them in his armpit (‘oxter’) from Clavers.
One is struck in both the Beinecke and the Walpole fragments at Stevenson’s ability with Scots dialogue. The many deletions and insertions in this passage of the Beinecke MS show how anxious Stevenson was to get the tone he aimed at exactly right. Although the following paragraph apparently came more easily, the inveterate reviser is still evident, Stevenson weighing the precise words in which he might best convey the contrasting trivial mood of the knot of country lads engaged in a primitive gambling session when they are supposed to be on the lookout for the approach of government soldiers. The reader longs for his account of the personal combat of Heathercat and Crozer that presumably was intended to follow, and which would have caused them to fail to alert the congregation to the approach of the enemy, but alas! the remainder of the leaf remained blank.
Transcription of the Walpole leaf
Here then is a reading transcription of the Walpole leaf (deletions omitted and insertions unmarked), with its final continuation of Heathercat, never previously published:
……Meanwhile the truant sentry, with a certain pang of self-reproach at these images summoned up before him of the magnitude of that service he was neglecting, passed again out of hearing of the preacher, and came at last through a deep clump of junipers in view of his destination. Crozer was not at his post; but below in a hollow where he could neither be seen himself nor spy upon the approach of danger, he sat with three other boys of nine or ten engaged in the game of pitch and toss for one of the most infinitesimal of Scottish coins; the whole capital at stake being very likely overestimated at twopence.
The manuscript ends at the end of a sentence, but not at the end of the sheet: clearly Stevenson here abandoned the draft. For those interested in what comes next, the Beinecke Libary also has a number of earlier drafts, including two of the beginning of Chapter IV. But that is another story and for another time…
RLS plans something—but what?
The Beinecke Library at Yale has a single sheet with what looks like a series of titles or subjects:
…..Excellent old melodrama: the bottle Imp.
…..…..…..Aladdin, Pollock [?]
…..on a cue from a French author: the Twins
…..…..Humorous [?]: les trois Bossus.
…..Metempsychosis: from Magics [?]. The Body Changer.
…..…..Scientific, from an Axxxx [?American; Armenian?] xxxx [pastor?] Hoyten [Hayton?]: The Sand Bag [Bug?].
Return of the Husband:
…..…..…..Ulysses. (concealed [?] ^disguised^ Prince)
[in ink and in another hand, sloping, below: calculations of interest and: Aranxx | imaginaire]
Story-types and examples
Stevenson has organized the list as a series of universal story-types (Revenge, return of the Husband etc.), each followed by one or more titles as examples (Ulysses, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden are all examples of the Return of the Husband).
Is this a preparation for a sudy of narratives? ‘on a cue from’ suggests that this is a list of stories to be adapted from other sources, and also reminds us of Stevenson’s own proposed titles ‘ The Bottle Imp: A Cue from an Old Melodrama’ and ‘The Waif Woman: A Cue from a Saga’ (L7, 436; Dec 1892, to Colvin), and of course Stevenson actually wrote ‘The Bottle Imp’ and ‘Rahero’, a long-ish narrative poem published in Ballads (1890). On this evidence, the document would then seem to be a list of possible narratives to write (in verse or prose), subdivided into story types.
the bottle Imp: Stevenson read the story among the play collection of his neighbour Sir Percy Shelley, some time after spring 1885, and wrote his story with this title in 1889-90.
Aladdin, Pollock: ‘talisman’, ‘magical object’, fits the stories of the Bottle Imp and Aladdin and the lamp. Pollock, publisher of the toy teatre sets described in “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured”, would seem more appropriate in notes for an essay or study of story types.
the Twins: this could possible be the story of Louis XIV and his twin (the Man in the Iron Mask) told by Dumas in in Le Vicomte de Bragelonne.
les trois Bossus: a humorous medieval French tale ‘Les trois bossus ménestrels’: a wife gets rid of her husband, killed by mistake as a result of his own actions prompted by jealousy.
Magics [?]: possibly the name of the author, something like ‘Murger’.
The Body Changer: untraced reference.
Hoyton/Hayton: The Sand Bug/Bag: untraced reference.
Rahero: Hawaiian folk-tale that Stevenson took as the basis of a ballad in 1889.
Ulysses / Colonel Chabert / Enoch Arden: stories of a husband’s return by Homer, Balzac and Tennyson. These titles seem more like examples of the story-type that ideas for stories to write (Stevenson cannot surely have been thinking of retelling the story of the return of Ulysses in verse or prose).
The best clue to dating is ‘Rahero’, which seems added later in lighter pencil. This story was learnt by Stevenson from Princess Moë and others some time after Nov 1888 in Tautira, Tahiti (Lewis, 465-66). The mention of ‘the bottle Imp’ fits into this dating, since Fanny Stevenson reports that ‘he spoke of it several times when we were living in Honolulu, as being, in its ingenuity amnd imaginative qualities, singularly like the Hawaiin tales’ (Tus 13, 12), in other words in the period in Hawaii immediately after the stay in Tahiti.
A list of ideas for a book of Ballads? (but including The Bottle Imp?)
A list of ideas for a book of prose tales? (but including Rahero?) The interesting ‘on a cue from a French author: the Twins’ suggests a planned companion piece for ‘The Bottle Imp’ and ‘The Waif Woman’ in a collection of retold and adapted stories.
An attempt to list some universal story types also found in the South Seas? (but with Rahero the only South Seas title?)
Ideas for an essay on story types? (but after the period when he had virtually abandoned essay-writing?)
Any suggestions will be welcome, as will any help with the untraced names and titles.
This post is contributed by Roger G. Swearingen, author of The Prose Works of Robert Louis Stevenson etc., presently working on a biography of Stevenson and an edition (not for EdRLS) of The South Seas.
New Light on The South Seas from unpublished pages and Stevenson’s day-to-day journals
The cruise journals
Stevenson’s day-to-day journals from his first two cruises in the South Seas – aboard the yacht Casco in 1888-1889 and the trading schooner Equator in 1889 – have attracted almost no attention from his biographers or from most literary scholars, even those writing about his work in the South Seas.
The reason is simple. No one, then or now, seems to think (or to have thought) at all highly of The South Seas, a work that Stevenson called “my big book on the South Seas: the big book on the South Seas it ought to be, and shall” (RLS to Marcel Schwob, 19 August 1890, Letter 2238). And his day-to-day journals consist of almost 250 legal-sized pages in Stevenson’s not particularly legible handwriting – a formidable task for anyone merely to read.
I have now had the pleasure of doing just that, thanks to four weeks of undivided research time that I was able to spend recently with these pages at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
The recently-discovered opening chapters
I have also had the pleasure of making a complete, annotated transcription of the first half‑dozen chapters of The South Seas as Stevenson himself wrote them: forty‑four folio manuscript leaves, 16,000 words, now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.*
Unseen and unknown for more than a century, these opening pages are titled “Whites in the Pacific” (or “Sailors and Traders”, or “schooners, islands and maroons”, to give two other versions of the title from Stevenson’s outlines). And they offer a panoramic survey of life as it was actually being lived in the South Seas when Stevenson was there. He depicts an environment of whites of many nationalities far from the places of their birth and upbringing and of native peoples who themselves exhibit a great diversity of outlooks and cultures, a world made up of men living in harbour towns and on islands and aboard ships, and of men, women, and children, native and white, living on islands and in island groups separated by vast distances of open, largely empty, imperfectly charted, unlighted and unpredictable seas.
It is a world in which life and commerce go forward according to rules and customs and uncertainties that would baffle or at least surprise most outsiders: a world of vitality, incoherence, danger, risk, and charm – and often of outlandish humour and misbehaviour as well. Beginning the book as he does – anecdotally, and with a focus on “Whites in the Pacific” – Stevenson frames The South Seas as a work of contemporary social history rather than as autobiography, narrative, journalism, or travel.
Colvin’s In the South Seas
This is not at all the same book that generations have known under the title In the South Seas. In the South Seas is a compilation that Stevenson’s friend Sidney Colvin made after Stevenson’s death for publication in the Edinburgh Edition of Stevenson’s works in 1896. Colvin reprinted the chapters on the Marquesas, the Paumotus, and the Gilbert Islands that Stevenson himself had seen published in 1891 in the New York Sun and other newspapers and in the English weekly magazine Black and White. But Colvin did not include the chapters on the pearl islands of Penrhyn and Manihiki. Nor did he include Stevenson’s account of Hawaii, possibly from a wish not to reprint Stevenson’s lengthy comments on leprosy and his account of visiting the leper settlement on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in late May 1889. Nor did he publish Stevenson’s own opening chapters, no doubt because he had no idea that they existed. The result was In the South Seas, a remarkable book as it stands but something completely different from The South Seas as Stevenson outlined and began writing it.
Stevenson reworking of journal entries
“His majesty was very Arabian and monstrous languid,” Stevenson wrote in one passage in his day-to-day journal that is only glanced at in the published version, near the end of the first chapter of his account of Butaritari, in the Gilbert Islands:
and though the courtiers made very merry with us, examining the gold stoppings in our teeth, the sovereign but twice condescended to smile, never to speak. The queen on the other hand will retain a lively impression of our visit; for when one of our party played the part of Commander Goode [in King Solomon's Mines] and snapped his false teeth at her, she became deadly pale and was thenceforth unable to remove her eyes from the performer. A younger lady, after the same experience, retired behind the royal privy, and I could observe her to experiment on the condition of her own teeth; they were fast enough and white enough you may be sure.
Stevenson’s day-to-day journals are occasionally amusing, as in the present instance. But they show, at all times, how much effort Stevenson put into revising his journals for publication. In the first three chapters on the Marquesas, the first landfall of the Casco, Stevenson takes passages from more than twenty different places in his journal, from the third to the fifty-seventh page and ranging in length from a few words to more than a thousand. He adds clarification and context, and above all he adds thematic comments and reflections: long and short passages that make narratives, facts, and conversations in the journals instances of themes rather than mere occurrences. Tari (Charlie) Coffin and his family, so poignantly presented in the third chapter of Stevenson’s account of the Marquesas, “The Maroon”, is first mentioned under the date of July 22nd , on the eleventh page in Stevenson’s journal:
We were aware of an elderly grizzled man, of a younger fellow, slim and tall and grave, and a girl of sixteen, with her baby in her arms. The girl had remarked our presence; and the family had come down the den to make us welcome after the island fashion, so unassuming to us clumsy and niggardly barbarians, so embarrassing.
For the published version, Stevenson then draws upon, re-shapes, and provides context for material from this and three other places in his journal, transforming the account of Tari Coffin into an instance of the profound melancholy that he saw as dominating the outlook of the Marquesans.
An edition in preparation
Extensive and representative selections from Stevenson’s journals, the complete text of his original opening chapters for The South Seas, annotations, photographs and illustrations, outlines, and much else – even a previously unknown chapter on the island of Manihiki – will all appear together in a new, complete reading edition of Stevenson’s “big book” that I now have in preparation. For the first time it will be possible to see and read The South Seas as Stevenson himself envisioned it and as he actually began it. The South Seas is a fascinating and major work that will add significantly – and brilliantly – to the Stevenson canon.
Roger G. Swearingen
* Stevenson, Robert Louis, Drafts of the South Seas, 1889-1891. Yale, GEN MSS 808. Images of the whole MS can be viewed and downloaded in the online Beinecke Digital Collections: folder 2, folder 3 (folder 1 is just the original envelope that held the MS).
For more information, see previous post ‘Major new Stevenson manuscript: In The South Seas‘.