The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

x or n?

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When transcribing Stevenson’s manuscripts certain letters can be deceptive. One of these is ‘x’.


In an early period, Stevenson formed his ‘x’ like a multiplication sign:

Screenshot 2015-11-05 17.41.59













Indeed, in the case of example 3 (‘Reminiscences of Colinton Manse’), the 2-stroke-x helps confirm a dating to c. 1870.



In mid-1872 Stevenson worked for a time in an Edinburgh law firm, Messrs. Skene and Peacock. During that time he wrote a journal of a few pages, recently sold at auction; I suspect that if examined, this would contain the s-c ‘x’ (like the letter used in algebra): in a law firm he would have to write a ‘clerkly hand’ (i.e. a form of roundhand) and in this hand the ‘x’ is formed in this way.


1873 onwards

Whether this is true or not, from 1873 onwards, we only find the s-c form for ‘x’, as in the following examples (the first is the old-form, included for comparison):

Screenshot 2015-11-05 17.49.53




























‘x’ vs ‘n’

Screenshot 2015-11-05 17.35.33

Written by rdury

05/11/2015 at 5:05 pm

Posted in News

Spring Song — which spring?

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Affairs of Weather

Five penciled notes around the text of one fair copy of Stevenson’s Spring Song supply a complete history of the poem when decoded. An investigation of these inscriptions not only reveals an exact place and date for its composition at odds with earlier conclusions, but also discloses the inspiration for its creation and the appropriate music for its lyrics. In addition, the manuscript itself corrects a common misreading and provides evidence to identify the copyist.


Fig. 1: Beinecke GEN MSS 664 Box 42 f. 942

The air was full of sun and birds,
The fresh air sparkled clearly.
Remembrance wakened in my heart
And I knew I loved her dearly.

The fallows and the leafless trees
And all my spirit tingled
My earliest thought of love, and Spring’s
First puff of perfume mingled.

In my still heart, the thoughts awoke;
Came bone by bone together.
Say, birds and sun and spring, is Love
A mere affair of weather?


The Text

Of the three known manuscripts of ‘Spring Song’,  one at the Beinecke Library has a penciled title,


Fig. 2: 6910

another has a clearly marked title,


Fig. 3: 6911

and one at the Writer’s Museum has no title at all (LSH 137/91), but appears as the canceled second part of a cycle of at least three poems under the heading Fröhlicher Landmann, named after Schumann’s piano piece. The first work in the cycle was Come, Here is Adieu to the City, and a third was represented only by a Roman numeral without any following text.

Fig. 4: Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

Fig. 4: Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

Fig. 4: Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

The texts of all three manuscripts of Spring Song are identical except for minor changes in punctuation, and all are copied by the same person in what McKay calls an “unknown hand” in entry 6910 of The Stevenson Library of E.J. Beinecke (1961).

Although the texts are the same, some editors’ transcriptions are not. The first two lines of the last stanza are printed as “In my still heart the thoughts awoke, came lone by lone together” in Poems Hitherto Unpublished (1916), New Poems (1922) and The Complete Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (1923). The editions of Janet Adam Smith (1950, 1971) and Roger C. Lewis (2003) print “bone by bone” instead. The correct reading is apparent from a comparison with the word “love” in each of the three manuscripts:


Since the copyist consistently joins the letters “lo” at the bottom and equally consistently joins the letters “bo” at the top, the correct transcription is, “In my still heart, the thoughts awoke; Came bone by bone together.”

This macabre image may be easier to assimilate if we suppose that Stevenson drew it from Ezekiel 37:1-14:

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones …This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life … there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.


The Copyist

In the introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting (1940) Gertrude Hills explains why caution should be used when identifying Stevenson documents:


The author reproduces a manuscript of “Robin and Ben” from Moral Tales (1881-2) and verifies that it is in Stevenson’s hand. When it is compared with the ms. of Come Here is Adieu to the City the overall appearance suggests that they had the same copyist.


Fig. 10: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting, 1940, p. 25

Fig. 11: Writer’s Museum LSH 137/91

Fig. 11: Writer’s Museum LSH 137/91

It would take a handwriting expert to decide, but the comparison seems to support the conclusion that the three manuscripts of Spring Song as well as that of Come Here is Adieu to the City are in Stevenson’s handwriting.


The Place

The editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished claim without evidence that Spring Song was written in 1871. In the Collected Poems (2003), Roger C. Lewis indicates no date, but says the poem was written in Edinburgh. RLS never returned to that city after 1886, and so Lewis implies the poem was written before 1887.

In entry 6910 for Spring Song in The Stevenson Library of E.J Beinecke, McKay remarks,

Stevenson has written the following notes in pencil at the bottom and in the left margin: Bon / Road behind C…’s gymnase / first conceived out hunting, however.


Lewis quotes the same remark in his comments on the poem. What stands out in these marginalia is that for no apparent reason two words are in French: Stevenson judges this poem “bon” and mentions a “gymnase.”

There is no reference to a “gymnase” in Edinburgh during the period 1870-1886, and neither McKay nor Lewis attempted to interpret the apparently illegible word preceding it. RLS himself was unsure about that initial letter, first writing a small c and then capitalizing it.

However, a little scrutiny identifies the word as “Cone’s” and the full phrase as “Road behind Cone’s Gymnase.” There is no evidence of such a building in Edinburgh, but the presence of the two foreign words suggests France, where of course there are many gymnase. A search of Paris reveals the Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle. Perhaps writing the word “bon” reminded Stevenson of the street name Bonne-Nouvelle and then the theater, encouraging him to make the note.


Théâtre du Gymnase in 1877, A-P. Martial, 1828-1883 (via Gallica ark:/12148/btv1b8458129r)


Stevenson was fluent in French, and if he remembered a French theater run by someone named “Cone,” it is likely that he approximated the French pronunciation of that name in his English note.

The October 16, 1880 issue of the Academy, a British publication for which RLS wrote criticism and which he was known to read in Paris, reveals the correct spelling in an announcement of the new manager of the Gymnase:

SS15The French pronunciation of Koning became the English Cone and this explains why RLS was confused about writing the first letter. Spring Song was therefore written on the road behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle in Paris.


The Date

According to J.R. Hammond’s A Robert Louis Stevenson Chronology (1997), after 1880 (when Koning took over the Gymnase) RLS was in Paris only twice, in April 16-May18, 1881 and August 11-23, 1886.

For Stevenson Paris in the springtime of 1881 was not much to sing about. Fanny and Lou had been married hardly a year and they were both recovering from illnesses. Virginibus Puerisque, in which the first three essays are about love and marriage, was published April 15th of that year and contained a statement about lovers that hardly proved true for the newlyweds.

They are half inclined to fancy it is because of them and their love that the sky is blue and the sun shines. And certainly the weather is usually fine while people are courting.

During that sojourn in Paris he wrote at least 11 letters. Five of them complained about money troubles, five complained about his and Fanny’s health, two complained about the cold weather, and one described Paris as “a temple of stenches.”

It seems unlikely then that Paris in the spring of 1881 was full of sun and birds, the fresh air sparkled clearly, and Lou’s earliest thought of love and spring’s first puff of perfume mingled.

The second and last time Fanny and Louis were in Paris was in August of 1886. They stayed at 12 rue Vernier with the painter Will H. Low, whom he had not seen for ten years. They first became acquainted at Grez, where Lou also met Fanny for the first time, probably in August of 1876. Remembrance must certainly have wakened in his heart at this reunion.

In A Chronicle of Friendships (1908, p. 331), Low records the events of Stevenson’s stay with him, and notes that he took Lou on trips in an open carriage

… through the beautiful city in the pleasant sunshine, which was clement to him during all the stay in Paris … Every sight of the streets pleased him, above all, the trim Parisiennes … or, more often, bareheaded working girls tripping along on their way to their shops … [Stevenson said,] “The Lord was on His mettle when He made the French woman.”

Both McKay and Roger C. Lewis pointed out another note in pencil on the left side of the ms. and transcribed it as, “first conceived out hunting, however.”

SS16Although the word “conceived” is difficult to make out, there is no argument about the correctness of the transcription, only with the sense. In Samoa in the 1890’s Stevenson had a gun cabinet at Vailima, but in August of 1886 it is not probable that he lurked about the Paris Théâtre with a rifle in his arms, flushing grouse. If little time elapsed between his conceiving of Spring Song and writing it down on the road behind the Gymnase, it implies that he did his hunting in Paris. What was he after?

On one excursion with Stevenson, Low says their first goal that day was the bookshop of Calmann-Levy at 3 rue Auber to find a copy of New Arabian Nights as a gift for Rodin, who was doing a bust of Henley. From there they went across the Seine to J. Hetzel’s bookshop at 18 rue Jacob in search of a translation of Treasure Island for Low’s wife Berthe.

Although Low does not recount any more of the journey, he may have had one more goal in mind. His former teacher and friend the sculptor Adrien Gaudez (1845-1902) was restoring the sculptures on the Porte Saint-Denis at the junction of boulevards Bonne-Nouvelle and St. Denis. A glance at a map of Low and Stevenson’s itinerary suggests that their final destination could have been the site of Gaudez’s restorations.

Not only was Gaudez Low’s teacher, but he was also a friend of Stevenson, who reported in Booth-Mehew letter 450 what a good time he, Low, cousin Bob and Gaudez were having in Paris in October of 1876 when he was 25. It would seem natural that Low would want to surprise Stevenson with a visit to his other old friend since the Gymnase was only an eight minute walk from where Gaudez was working.


The Itinerary of Low and Stevenson (Google Maps)

On the road behind the Gymnase there were probably birds and sun, but Low makes no mention of rifles or wild game, and so the only logical explanation for the penciled note is that Spring Song was written behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase and conceived while Stevenson and Low were out hunting, not birds, but old friends and books.


The Music

Those familiar with early 19th century keyboard music immediately associate the title Spring Song with Mendelssohn’s piano piece from Songs Without Words (book 2, op. 30, no. 6). Stevenson must have because he made an arrangement of it, probably for flageolet, which he called by its German name Frühlingslied. It would hardly have been a surprise if the lyrics of Spring Song fit Mendelssohn’s music, but they don’t, and forcing them to would require more humoring of the notes than Stevenson ever permitted himself.

Although the editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished were misled about the time and place for the poem’s origin, they provide an essential clue for identifying the inspiration of Spring Song in their remarks about it and three other poems, The Summer Sun Shone Round Me, You Looked So Tempting in the Pew, and Love’s Vicissitudes.

We naturally group together any notes concerning these four poems, so manifestly are they the result of the Heine influence. The metre of the first and third was used by the German poet time and time again. “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” suggests itself immediately. Nor is it alone in form that the effect of Heine on Stevenson is apparent.

Stevenson refers to Heine many times in his letters, and Stevenson’s Library Db quotes him as saying, “Heine’s vocabulary I know very well, and can therefore read him with ease.” Spring Song does share many similarities with Im wunderschönen Monat Mai including the season, the mention of birds and the sentiment of awakening love.

SS18The meter is almost identical.

SS19Establishing the date of Spring Song as August 1886 is important because RLS began learning piano in April of the same year, and by December of 1887 he had developed a passion for writing lyrics to music. He had written songs previously, but apparently only by imitating someone else’s text and probably without reference to music.

In R.L.S. and his Sine Qua Non (1918), Adelaide Boodle described her relationship with Stevenson as his writing student and musical associate at Skerryvore in 1886,

It was sheer delight when, under friendly guidance, he was able laboriously to pick out some simple air (nearly always a Schumann for choice)

At that time Stevenson had been using various books to learn the piano, including Litolff’s series of simplified arrangements of famous works, one of which includes Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Altogether he made six manuscript copies of melodies from Schumann piano works and two, Ländliches Lied and Träumerei, are from a volume published by Litolff devoted entirely to Schumann. Litolff also published Schumann-Album, which contains 40 Schumann songs in translation including Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.

Though it is only a subjective judgement, perhaps the most important indication that RLS constructed his poem around Schumann’s setting of Heine is the music’s unusual ending on an unresolved 7 chord (C#7), which Berlioz said Schumann was the first to do.

SS20This is meaningless to those untrained in music but is easily understood from its use in connection with Happy Birthday. After singing the usual lyrics, people often add the tag, “And many more” to the notes of an unresolved 7 chord. Another example is the “And that ain‘t all” motif that is often tacked on to popular piano pieces, sometimes with a tremolo on the chords. This device makes any piece of music seem as if it hasn’t ended, which is appropriate to the meaning of those lyrics. In the same way, Schumann’s song seems to be unfinished and ends as if with an unanswered question, just as Stevenson’s poem does.

Additional more objective evidence that this is the correct music comes once again from Stevenson’s penciled notes.


To the left of the phrase “Road behind Cone’s gymnase” Stevenson has written and crossed out “Cyclus.”

This remark raises once more the question of language. Why did Stevenson use the Latin “cyclus” instead of the English “cycle” or the German “Zyclus”? Heine’s poem appears in his collection called Buch der Lieder under the group title “Lyrisches Intermezzo [Lyric Interlude]” without any use of a word resembling or meaning “cycle.” However Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is the first work in Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love, 1840) and the title page immediately explains Stevenson’s use of the Latin word.

SS22Though there is no evidence that RLS owned this edition of the music, it seems clear that he had seen and remembered it.

Schumann’s music accommodates Heine’s two stanza poem by repeating almost exactly the same music twice. However Stevenson’s poem has three stanzas and so requires three repetitions. Although this distorts Schumann’s original form, the third repetition of this hauntingly beautiful music is nevertheless welcome and the entire song with Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here.

That Stevenson should choose as his model a song from Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Poet’s Love, is apt, for would it be so surprising, while riding in an open carriage on a beautiful summer day in Paris and admiring the pretty, bare-headed parisiennes, if not just love, but poetry as well could be a mere affair of weather?

Written by rdury

27/10/2015 at 1:17 pm

Posted in News

Stockfish: a mystery

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14331. Stockfish

Stockfish is dried, unsalted cod.

2. A list of essay titles — with stockfish

Among the Graham Balfour papers in the National Library of Scotland is his transcription of Stevenson’s outline (from late 1876 or early 1877) for a book of essays to be called ‘Life at Twenty Five’. Twelve numbered chapters are followed by a shorter unnumbered list, which may be for a second part of the same volume:

Screenshot 2015-07-08 17.16.27

NLS MS 9900, Notebook 1895; numbered p. 15

At first glance, these seem to be simple pleasures that any young bohemian might enjoy. The deleted ‘Religion’ might be have been a provocative idea about which he had second thoughts, but what on earth can that ‘Stockfish’ be? It is so bizarre that I thought it could be a mistake on Balfour’s part.

3. Notes — with stockfish

Then the other day, among the material made available by the Harry Ransom Center, I saw the following at the top of a page of notes, in a rebound series of leaves from a dismembered notebook, from the same 1876-77 period:

Screenshot 2015-07-08 18.25.17

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Manuscript Collection MS-4035, Box 1, Folder 5 (‘Notes and Fragments’), p. 1 (top of page).

Stockfish. take posterity on our backs. Act straight for | today, and remember that your theory for posterity will be | wrong. Better a straw fire of popularity than t other thing.

Stockfish again. Something tells me Balfour didn’t make a mistake.

But there was more to come. You see that pencil line at the bottom left of the image above? It goes right down to the bottom of the page (by-passing a series of quotations and translations from Montaigne) and loops around the following:

Screenshot 2015-07-09 08.20.03

One of these vices, which have “je ne sais quoi de | genereux. || stockfish. [with uncrossed -t]

[Added 15 Nov 2015: A reader has commented that the pencil example looks like’shellfish’, but looked at carefully the vertical line following the initial-s (which I take to be an uncrossed ‘t’) is clearly followed by ‘oc’; what looks like double-l, could indeed be that but in the context it must be ‘k’, which usually looks like ‘R’ and sometimes has a more-or-less vertical second part and looks like double-l, as in the word written a few lines above this fragment:

Screenshot 2015-11-15 09.44.10

This, believe it not, is ‘kinds’. In the ink example, this second part of the ‘k’ has been merged with the vertical line of the ‘f’. ]

The phrase ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux’ is another quotation from Montaigne: Book II. 2 (De Yvrongnerie, / On Drunkenness), in Cotton’s translation (with a bit more context), ‘Now, among the rest, drunkenness seems to me to be a gross and brutish vice. The soul has greater part in the rest, and there are some vices that have something, if a man may so say, of generous in them; there are vices wherein there is a mixture of knowledge, diligence, valor, prudence, dexterity and address; this one is totally corporeal and earthly.’ It is a quote he remembered and reused in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883): ‘The canine, like the human, gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s “je ne sais quoi de genereux.” ’

And this too is apparently connected with stockfish.

So at the top of the page we have ethical advice that could easily go in the ‘Life at Twenty Five’ volume. The meaning is not clear, but it could be something like, ‘you should not be conditioned by the idea of posterity: take posterity with you on your back like Æneas carrying his father out of burning Troy ; it’s better to enjoy brief popularity now than to have it after your death when you can’t enjoy it at all.’ (Æneas seems a better fit than Horace’s ‘black care’ which sits behind the rider (Odes III. 1).)

And at the bottom of the page, we have some more ethical advice, here not about the choice of conduct but about judging it: some vices are low and beastly, but others have ‘generous’ aspects (perhaps involving nobility and self respect).

And both of these have something to do with stockfish…

What has ethical advice got to do with stockfish? (By the way, don’t start thinking that I’m going to find the answer to that question.) Perhaps we can get some clues from other uses of the word.

4. Stevenson and stockfish

Stevenson rarely uses the word. In ‘The Wreath of Immortelles’ (1870) he says the talk of fishmongers runs ‘usually on stock-fish and haddocks’. Fair enough. And in Weir of Hermiston (1894), the older Kirstie gives her opinion of Gib the weaver: “He’s maybe no more stockfish than his neeghbours! He rade wi’ the rest o’ them and had a good stomach to the work, by a’ that I hear!” (ch. V ‘Winter on the Moors’, 1. ‘At Hermiston’). Here, ‘stockfish’ clearly means ‘a stiff, unemotional person’ , by analogy with dried cod (and maybe Kirstie means to say ‘stockish’ and says ‘stockfish’ by applying a kind of folk etymology).

Not much help here.

5. Connotations of stockfish

Across the centuries, the metaphorical connotations of ‘stockfish’ are all negative. Falstaff uses it to berate Prince Hall :

you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bulls-pizzle, you stockfish (1 Henry IV II. 5. 249)

In particular it is used as noun or adjective for a stiff, unimaginative person:

the stockfish-souled reader (B. S. Naylor, Time and Truth Reconciling the Moral and Religious World to Shakespeare (London, 1854), ch. 12, 168.

a sort of stock-fish though earnest expression’ (The Examiner 557 (30 Aug 1818), 555)

mute as a stock-fish (Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (1841) ch. 46)

dead as a stock-fish (George Meredith, Richard Feverel (1859) III. 5)

Faces seen in street and countryside came thronging up before him—red, stock-fish faces; hard, dull faces; prim, dry faces […] How could he know what men who had such faces thought and did?’ (John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga Part III. 3 ‘Irene’)

6. So, what does it mean here?

Assuming that Stevenson is using ‘stockfish’ in this tradition, we can imagine he might be adopting it for a common target of his social criticism in the 1870s: conventional, respectable, ‘stuffed shirts’, people lacking in imagination, flexibility and tolerance.

In the list apparently of essays on simple pleasures (Tobacco, Walking Tours, Wine…), ‘Stockfish’ must be an odd thought for an essay, perhaps one summarizing his thoughts on respectable society.

In the page of notes in the Harry Ransom Center, the annotation ‘stockfish’ seems to be attached to conduct contrasted with the that of respectable society. All I can suggest is that these notes made him think of negative conduct and judgments to be dealt with in the ‘Stockfish’ section or chapter.

Hmm, not very satisfying as explanations. But can anyone think of anything better?


Written by rdury

09/07/2015 at 8:35 pm

The Stevenson Manuscripts Collection at Harry Ransom Center

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Screenshot 2015-07-07 11.58.21

The launch (on 30 June 2015) of a new online resource of manuscript images by the Harry H. Ransom Center (HRC) in the University of Texas at Austin, provides an outstanding resource for scholars and is a welcome policy of access to out-of-copyright materials. Even the HRC, a centre of expertise in this area, has to say ‘manuscripts … believed to be in the public domain’—so complicated and unknowable are the laws of copyright. Hence this new policy of is all the more welcome to those of us who know somewhat less about it all.


Screenshot 2015-07-07 14.06.50




The “Robert Louis Stevenson Collection” contains images and information of all the HRC’s 48 Stevenson and Stevenson-related MSS. By clicking the link Browse all items in the collection, you will see them all listed and with links to images.

Immediately we see another benefit of the new resource: it makes the wealth of resources of the HRC more visible, less easy to miss. If we choose to browse the 12 Works by RLS, we see it contains for the most part interesting MSS of works already published that will be of great interest to our Edition, and previously classed as ‘untraced’. I personally did not know of the location here of any of these MSS before opening the page yesterday and seeing fascinating list of titles and thumbnail images. Nor are any of them listed as located here in Roger Swearingen’s The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (1980).

The 13 Letters from RLS are all in the Yale Letters, identified as ‘MS Texas’ (unless they have recently changed hands), so all merit to Ernest Mehew for finding this  part of the Collection. Having these items so conveniently available will be of a help if we have to use handwriting to date another MS.

The 23 Miscellaneous items contain many things of interest, including music, an early list of favourite books, University lecture cards, receipts for payments and letters about RLS.

It is amazing that much of this remained both ‘known’ as in some way available and ‘unknown’ because not found by anyone interested in it. And it is not the case that these items were only recently acquired.

The MS of one of Stevenson’s most witty essays ‘The Ideal House’, sold in 1914, and of ‘Virginibus Puerisque’ and ‘On Falling in Love’, sold in 1918 to raise funds for the British Red Cross, were considered ‘untraced’—until yesterday. Yet they were part of the collection of eccentic bibliophile T. Edward Hanley (1893-1969), whose collection was acquired by the University of Texas in 1958 and 1964, and therefore have presumably have been catalogued there for over fifty years. The MS of ‘A Winter’s Walk in Carrick and Galloway’,  which no-one has even located in a sale catalogue, was in the John Henry Wrenn collection, purchased by Library as long ago as 1918, so has been here for almost a century.

‘Talk and Talkers’ MS (again, not located in any sale catalogue so far) was transferred to the Ransom Center in 1960 from the University of Texas Rare Book Library. The leaf frm the Notebook draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, sold in 1914, was received in the Manuscripts department, again internally transferred, in 1974.

Hats off then to the Harry Ransom Center and the REVEAL team for providing not only an unparalleled resource but also a network of references that has allowed its items to be discovered.



Black eyes

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Screenshot 2015-07-04 21.14.22

Dunoon, April 1870

Stevenson was in Dunoon, on the outer Firth of Clyde, from 26 April to 3 May 1870 to follow harbour works. In a letter dated 29 April 1870 from the Argyll Hotel, he wrote to his mother,

I have had my fortune told: I am to be very happy and get to be much on the sea: two predictions which my queasy stomach will hardly consider as agreeable with each other.
(Bonham’s Sale 17520, Los Angeles, 19 October 2009, now in the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, St. Helena)

In the same period, probably while still in Dunoon, he began but then abandoned an essay in which he described the fortune-telling in more detail:

All that I could gather may be thus summed up shortly: that I was to visit America, that I was to be very happy, and that I was to be much upon the sea, predictions, which in consideration of an uneasy stomach, I can scarcely think agreeable with one another. […] She suddenly looked at me with an eager glance, and dropped my hand saying, in what were either tones of misery or a very good affectation of them, ‘Black eyes!’ A moment after she was noisily at work again. It is as well to mention that I have not black eyes. (‘A Retrospect’, Yale, GEN MSS 664 28, 668 (B 6173), pp. 5-6)

Screenshot 2015-07-04 18.03.49

‘It is as well to mention that I have not black eyes’, Beinecke B 6173, p. 6.

Bournemouth, August 1887

Stevenson came across this abandoned essay while he was packing up in Bournemouth before going to the USA in August 1887, and he added a note at the bottom of the page:

Screenshot 2015-07-04 18.48.57

written at Dunoon 1870 (?). And very strange | it is : the old pythoness was right : I have been happy, I did | go to America (am even going again—unless—) and I have | been twice and once upon the deep. Moreover I have (and had) black | eyes. R.L.S 1887.

twice and once: several times, often (‘I have been merry twice and once ere now’, 2 Henry IV, V. 3. 39)

 Black eyes?

In April 1870, Stevenson wrote ‘I have not black eyes’, but in August 1887 he wrote ‘I have (and had) black eyes’. How can we explain this?

Maybe his eye-colour darkened between 1870 and 1887 (and he forgot it had once been lighter). But is this likely? Can eye colour change in this way? The blue eyes of babies darken in most cases in the the first year of life and eyes grow paler in old age. But apart from this,

fluctuations in eye color do occur, but they are relatively minor. As a general rule, eye color may be thought of as a highly stable physical characteristic.
(Morgan Worthy, Eye Color: A Key to Human and Animal Behavior (San Jose : ToExcel, 1999), 81)

For me, a better explanation is that Stevenson had very dark brown eyes, and in 1870, inclined to take the prophecy as false, he classified them as ‘not black’; but in 1887, inclined to see the prophecy as true, he classified them as ‘black’.

And is this not a good example of how we place things in categories because we want to see the world in a particular way? In a way deceiving ourselves.

Written by rdury

03/07/2015 at 6:20 pm

Back in London for missing Stevenson articles in London magazine

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The story so far

Those who follow this blog will know of our search for possible unnoticed articles by Stevenson in London magazine—ending up with a closer analysis of a list of 1878 payments for work on London, after which I concluded that I would need to look more closely at the four numbers of 13 July to 3 August 1878. R.-L. Abrahamson and myself had already looked through these numbers, but found nothing that we thought was even possibly by Stevenson, apart from ‘A Story-teller’ and a note on George Eliot (for 13 July), and notes from ‘a correspondent in Paris’ (for 20 July). We suspected that a poem on 13 July (from comments in a letter by Henley) might be by Stevenson, but we were interested in prose. To tell the truth, I was prepared to let it rest there: if whatever was in the 27 July and 3 August numbers had not been distinctive enough to be visible to us before, and there was no guarantee that another trip to London would be accompanied by sudden enlightenment.

A (deceptive) letter from Lang changes the picture

Then I was looking through Marysa Demoor’s useful edition of letters from Andrew Lang to Stevenson and my eye was caught by an undated letter from 1877 in which he says, ‘I’ve sent for the new book on Villon’, which probably refers to Longnon’s innovative biographical study, which must have been published in February 1877, as the Academy gives a report of the publication in its ‘Paris Letter’ in the issue of 3 March (95–6). Andrew Lang seems to be indirectly praising Stevenson in this letter when he writes,

‘I wish your C. B. would get a political fellow as good in his way as the author of Balzac’s correspondence and George Eliot’ (Demoor, 42–3).

By ‘C. B.’ he meant the editor of London, Robert Glasgow Brown, who Lang thought was ‘Caldwell Brown’ (Demoor, 6n); by ‘Balzac’s Correspondence’ he is referring to the review article with that title in the second issue of London on 10 February 1877, p. 44. This is an article that R.-L. Abrahamson and myself identified as probably by Stevenson on our first look into London at the old Colindale Newspaper Library back in January 2013. It hasn’t previously been reported here—well, we’ve got to keep something for the album. When I saw Lang’s letter I thought: could he be indirectly praising Stevenson for the article on ‘Balzac’s Correspondence’—and for another on George Eliot too? That decided it: I had to go back to London to investigate this possibility for February 1877, and combine it with a closer look at the issues of the magazine for July and early August 1878.

britishlibrarycourtyard Return to the Newsroom

So it was that on a pleasant morning in June I crossed the British Library forecourt with RLA (who this time had to look at microfilms of Chatto records of Virginibus Puerisque—this will be the first of our essay volumes to appear, in the first half of next year). I went straight to the Newsroom, picked up the five hefty volumes of London and immediately turned to February 1877 and located the article on George Eliot in the issue of February 10, p. 43. Immediate disappointment: Stevenson could not begin an essay in this way:

The cultus of George Eliot is one of the great social facts of the age. Its adherents include nearly the whole of the reading public. For purposes of generalisation they may be classed under three headings—Conformist, Disciples, and Sceptics.

The article then continues with a humorous paragraph on the reception of Eliot by each of these three classes of reader and a final paragraph collecting some epigrams about her and her novels. Such a preliminary announcement of categories followed by a paragraph apiece is, as far as I remember, not to be found in any of Stevenson’s writings. In addition, the article contains no Stevensonsonian language-play (new meaning created by use, unexpected epithets, calques from French), no intelligently concise formulations, no typical use of semicolons etc. It is true that in the fourth paragraph contains the following:

With very, very few exceptions, he [the Sceptic] knows that all of them [‘the gay young fellows it has pleased her to put forward as men’] have a comb concealed among their back-hair.

This reminds us immediately of Stevenson’s ‘Virginibus Puerisque’, published in August 1876:

Even women, who understand men so well for practical purposes, do not know them well enough for the purposes of art. Take even the very best of their male creations, take Tito Melema [in George Eliot’s Romola], for instance, and you will find he has an equivocal air, and every now and again remembers he has a comb at the back of his head.

But the later passage in London must be Henley (who probably wrote the article) cheekily ‘borrowing’ from his friend’s recent essay. With no more internal evidence than this, we cannot take the article as by Stevenson.  Lang letter: red herring.

July—August 1878 again

OK—now for the 1878 volume. Henley, talking about the 13 July number says in a letter to Stevenson:

Don’t tax me with ‘Ce Que Se Dit’. I only brushed it up. In doing so, I’ve made it presentable, but I’ve broken the author’s heart. (Atkinson, 52)

This sounds like Henley not apologising for having changed a poem by Stevenson (the person who might ‘tax’ him about it). Here it is: Screenshot 2015-06-29 18.34.51on the strict Q.T., ‘confidential (quiet)’ (first Advanced Google Books Search hits: 1877; 1877 song by Lydia Thompson; called ‘a crude expression’ in George Moore’s A Mummer’s Wife (1884));
rather! ‘yes! I should think so!’ (OED (1904) calls this ‘vulgar’, the online OED identifies this as ‘Brit. colloq.‘; first OED citation 1836);
ripping! ‘great, excellent, stunning’ (first OED citation 1776).

My guess is that this may have been about Fanny Osbourne with the last line a piece of American slang, that Henley changed to British slang (to make it presentable)—absolutely no proof, except that ‘You feel you’re tripping’ doesn’t fit well into the previous two lines and seems inserted to rhyme with ‘ripping’. Well, it’s perhaps not worth losing any sleep about, whatever the story is behind it.

6 July number

This was a week with ‘an article also’ opposite the payment for the ‘Arabian’ episode but a payment that corresponded only to that episode. I looked again, but could find nothing

27 July number

Subtracting the estimated payment for the ‘Arabian’ episode from the total payment, left me looking for a contribution of about half a column. The ‘Whispering Gallery’ section has three items of news from Paris, one in particular about the Jurors of the Exposition (and Stevenson was nominal secretary to one of them, Fleeming Jenkins). It starts ‘The Exposition has developed inventions undreamt of by the carnal mind of the casual observer. For instance, amongst the Jurors hospitality reigns’ (where ‘carnal mind’ could have a Stevensonian epithet). It goes on to mention that dishes with new names have been invented and gives a menu with items like ‘Potage. Emaillé de Printanier’ and ‘Truits. Patinée à Génèvoise’. This could be the Stevenson contribution—nothing earth-shaking, as you can see.

3 August number

Here, again, I was looking for something of half a column or less. And, again in the ‘Whispering Gallery’ section there is a contribution ‘from a letter’ that sounds as if it might be from Stevenson, containing a nonsense rhyme: Screenshot 2015-06-30 18.17.17Here, the French word béquille ‘crutch’ and béquiller ‘walk with crutches’ has clearly touched the poet’s funny nerve (maybe because a homophone béquiller (from bec ‘beak’) is a slang word for ‘eat’) and he creates a calque in English ‘to beckle’ which he repeats and varies in a crazy progression that threatens to extend to infinity.

There is a good chance this is by Stevenson: it is from a letter (the origin of other contributions from Stevenson in this period), it involves play with French, which we often find him doing, the creation through use of a new meaning of ‘fulfilled’  at the end of the third stanza reminds one of Stevenson’s typical word-play, and Stevenson writes similar verse in other letters to Henley in this period (e.g. L2, 259).

That’s it

With that, I had more-or-less accounted for the four annotations of ‘an article also’ on the 1878 list of payments. That list, of course, only goes up to 10 August and it is possible that Stevenson continued contributing short pieces and poems after that. But this I generously leave to another researcher.

On Board the Old Equator

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.


Summary: In this post, John F. Russell argues that the comic song “I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea” was not composed by Fanny Stevenson and Lloyd but by Stevenson himself; he explains some of its allusions, and links it to the music for Thomas Moore’s “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms”.


A storm at sea

Senza titolo

The Equator (From MacCallum, Thomson Murray. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934)


Sometime between the 4th and 11th of November, 1889, the schooner Equator, all sails standing, was becalmed in the South Pacific a few hundred miles south of Butaritari. The Stevensons were asleep in their specially fitted stateroom when a sudden squall tore off the schooner’s fore topmast, ripped the sail, tipped the Equator on its side and threw Louis and Fanny against the wall.

No one was hurt and the ship was soon righted, but RLS was so impressed that he wrote two poems and two letters about the event. On approaching Samoa a couple of weeks later, he rather calmly told his mother:



The next day and fifty miles farther south he recalled the incident with a little more excitement:


To further commemorate Mrs. Stevenson’s “bearing up wonderfully,” he wrote the poem To My Wife, where the last stanza recalls the storm:

Songs of Travel XXXIV


Finally, he satirized the event in some unpublished lyrics used as an entertainment for his shipboard birthday celebration on November 13th. He had already written ‘Tis Years Since He Was Born for fellow passenger Adolf Rick’s birthday on the 12th.



Huntington Library, Rare Book 45074


The complete lyrics read:

I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea,
On board of the old Equator.
There never were passengers better than we,
On board of the old Equator.

Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone pray?
Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone?

Of chequers the captain did blow and boast,
On board of the old Equator.
The passengers did him as brown as a roast,
On board of the old Equator.


In Santo Pedro was our delight,
On board of the old Equator.
When bobbery struck us along in the night,
On board of the old Equator.


The captain he ran from a fifteen hand,
On board of the old Equator.
I’ll be damned if that old jib-topsail will stand,
On board of the old Equator.


The sail was the rotteness’d ever was bent,
On board of the old Equator.
But blamed if it wasn’t the stick that went,
On board of the old Equator.


The captain he turned to the mate, and he laughed,
On board of the old Equator.
I guess you are learning some sailor craft,
On board of the old Equator.


There’s one thing you know at the least and the last,
On board of the old Equator.
You know how to lose a fore-topmast
On board of the old Equator.


Some of these lyrics may benefit from an attempt at explanation.

  • There never were passengers better than we

 According to the Equator’s 20 year old novice cook Thomson Murray MacCallum (1869-1957), “Quite a few changes were made in the cabin … for the accommodation of the passengers,” including extra bunks and other conveniences. These changes were necessary because the Equator was a copra trading schooner, not a cruise ship. The Stevensons were its first real passengers and therefore there were none better.

  • In Santo Pedro was our delight,
    On board of the old Equator.
    When bobbery struck us along in the night,    

 The sense of the stanza is that the storm struck at night while they were near Santo Pedro.

San Pedro (Motane, Moho Tani) is an island which RLS visited on the Casco in August of the previous year. In the Marquesas section of In the South Seas he writes, “I was amazed to behold so deep a view behind, and so high a shoulder of blue sea, crowned by the whale-like island of Motane.”

In his letter to his mother, Stevenson said they left Butaritari Island in the Gilberts on November 4th and that the storm occurred after this and before his and fellow passenger Adolf Rick’s birthdays on the 12th and 13th. The storm must then have occurred within a week’s sailing distance, or around 300 miles from Butaritari.

Since San Pedro Island is in the Marquesas thousands of miles away and the storm occurred in the Gilberts, RLS must have been mistaken about the name. According to the British Hydrographic Office‘s The Pacific Islands (1885) there is no island in the Gilberts called Santo (or San) Pedro. Perhaps because this one Spanish name stood out among so many Polynesian ones, he confused it with Peru Island, 378 miles from Butaritari. This may be where the storm actually occurred.




  • The captain he ran from a fifteen hand,    

 Because it was night, everyone except the watch was probably sleeping when the storm hit. Stevenson says there were 15 men and one woman (Fanny) on the boat. The captain, then, ran from where the men were sleeping to save the ship. If the letter “a” is actually the Scots word for “all,” this may be some small evidence for Stevenson’s authorship.

Celebrating the Storm


Thomson Murray MacCallum recalled Stevenson’s birthday celebration in his book Adrift in the South Seas (1934):



Fellow passenger Paul Leonard, also known as Paul Höflich, described the same storm and celebration in Nellie Sanchez’s The Life of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (1920):


On the day of the party, Lloyd photographed the participants. Wearing a hat with a band, Fanny sits to the left of Scotch-Irish Captain Edwin Dennis Reid (1865?-1920) in a Tam O’Shanter. RLS stands at the far left.



MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934


Considering that Stevenson had already expressed himself multiple times in poetry and prose regarding the squall, it seems most likely that he also wrote On Board of the Old Equator, especially since he had just written lyrics for Adolf Rick’s birthday. Neither Fanny nor Lloyd ever published any verse.

One particular word in the third stanza of the song reinforces Stevenson’s authorship. In Booth-Mehew letter 2153 from Honolulu around April 2, 1889 to Edward Burlingame, RLS asks him to send 11 novels of Frederick Marryat. Stevenson first mentions Marryat in Booth-Mehew letter 849 (September 1881) and then in letter 1733 (Dec. 23, 1886) where he quotes from Mr. Midshipman Easy. Marryat uses the unusual word “bobbery [hubbub]” in Midshipman Easy and also in two other works Stevenson requested, Peter Simple and Newton Forster.

In a letter to Colvin as recent as the previous January Stevenson wrote:



He uses the same word again in a letter to Colvin two years later:



Neither Lloyd nor Fanny appears to use the word in any of their works.

Other Darlings

Both MacCallum and Leonard claimed that On Board of the Old Equator was written by Fanny and Lloyd and at first the words of the chorus appear to favor Fanny.

Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone pray?
Captain, darling, where has your topmast gone?

It seems appropriate only for Fanny to call the captain “darling.” The lyrics never refer to RLS in any way, so she was not addressing him, even though MacCallum and Leonard called it a birthday song.

After Fanny and Louis had been thrown against the wall, Stevenson asked Murray MacCallum to give a message to the Captain.


MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934

If the Captain was on familiar enough terms with Stevenson to give him his “love,” perhaps Stevenson might also call him “darling” for fun in return. RLS stated his affection for Captain Reid in A Footnote to History (1895):



However, it may be more accurate to treat the term “darling” as a surname rather than an endearment. Throughout the centuries there has been no lack of Captain Darlings, but one in particular could easily have been familiar both to Stevenson and Reid.

Built in Glasgow, the intriguingly named barque Edinburgh Castle was launched in 1863. The last captain of this 175 ft., 627 ton, three-masted, iron-hulled ship was J.B. Darling. The California Digital Newspaper Collection records it’s presence at San Francisco multiple times after 1872. Of course RLS was in that city in 1880 and 1888, and the Equator itself was built for the San Francisco based Wightman Brothers in 1888 with Reid as its first captain. The Edinburgh Castle and Captain Darling may have come to the attention of Reid and Stevenson by the fact that on January 15th, 1888 it was stranded in the harbor at Warnambool, Australia and wrecked there by a storm.

It should also be noted that by 1888 the boys’ adventure novelist Frank H. Converse (1843-1889) had already written two works with the suspiciously familiar titles Island Treasure and In Southern Seas. The last featured a character called Captain John Darling.


Golden Argosy. New York, Saturday, June 11, 1887

Golden Argosy. New York, Saturday, June 11, 1887


In another story by Converse, Darling is described as being in the same business as Captain Reid.


Finally, in an article about the Equator by MacCallum in Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections (1996), “Captain Darling” is printed as if it were a proper name.



Young and Old Charmers

Murray MacCallum said On Board of the Old Equator was written to the melody of a popular song and that Lloyd sang it. Paul Leonard said he joined in the singing. However no one ever actually names the tune.

There is no obvious clue to the music in Stevenson’s lyrics, but an examination of the more than 120 manuscript copies of his own compositions, arrangements and favorite tunes provides one match which requires only, as RLS said of Alan’s Air in Catriona, “a little humouring to the notes in question.”



Princeton University Library, Morris L. Parrish Collection, Box/Series/Folder/Thesis #: Bd MSS 113, 114, Code/Call Number #: C0171 1B


New lyrics are often supplied to old songs to take advantage of the irony that results from the contrast, and On Board of the Old Equator is no exception. The music among Stevenson’s manuscripts that best fits “I’ll sing you a tale of a tropical sea” is “Believe me”, a transcription of the traditional melody normally associated with Thomas Moore’s very different lyric “Believe me, if all those endearing young charms”.

According to the Historic American Engineering Record of the United States National Park Service, the 78 foot, 72 ton schooner Equator entered the South Pacific copra trade in June 1888 under 23 year old Captain Edwin Dennis Reid, so when Stevenson began his journey from Hawaii on June 24, 1889 the boat had been in the water for only a year and hardly deserved to be called “old.”

Reading the lyrics while keeping Captain Reid, the Equator or RLS in mind, it is an appropriately ironic song for a 39th birthday, a damaged new schooner and a very young captain.



This image of Thomas Moore’s (1779-1852) lyrics was scanned from the 1872 edition of his Poetical Works, which RLS owned, according to the Stevenson’s Library Db. The melody sung with Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here.

After its six month Pacific cruise with the Stevensons, the Equator went through many metamorphoses. In 1897 it was converted to a steam tender for work in the Alaskan salmon trade, and then became a tugboat for charting underwater hazards in southeastern Alaska in 1915.



MacCallum, T.M. Adrift in the South Seas. Los Angeles: Wetzel, 1934


In 1923 it ran aground and sank off the Washington coast but was refloated. It was converted to diesel in 1940, and in 1956 after 68 years of service it was finally abandoned near the mouth of the Snohomish River at Everett, Washington. In 1967 it was hauled out and in 1980 moved to the Port of Everett in Washington State.


The endearing young charms of the old Equator clearly have faded away but must still be dear to our memory of Stevenson.


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