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

Stevenson’s nonsense poem

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In a previous post I suggested that the nonsense poem ‘A Legend’ in the issue of London for 3 August 1878 was by Stevenson.

This is now confirmed by the last item on Andrew Lang’s ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ column in Longman’s Magazine, 7 (Apr 1886): 664-5:

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Lang gives the definition supplied by Stevenson ‘to tap hurriedly with crutches’ but the rest is his; and ‘or a stick, like the blind man, Pew, in “Treasure Island”‘ is his winking acknowledgement that he knows the identity of the author. This fits into the  custom of playful allusions to fellow writers by periodical writers at the time, perhaps especially by Andrew Lang. This is then followed by ‘This useful word, “unknown to Keats” etc.’—a mock-philological comment and quotation invented by Lang entering into the spirit of the game.


Written by rdury

16/07/2018 at 10:36 am

New Edinburgh Amateur Emigrant published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, The Amateur Emigrant ed. by Julia Reid, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Published May 2018. £80 (and for around £65 from booksellers associated with Amazon).

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Written by rdury

17/06/2018 at 8:36 am

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley Quarrel

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‘A Christmas Sermon’ was one of those essays by Stevenson that were very popular and much quoted in the twenty-odd years after his death but since then have disappeared from view, rarely mentioned, not included in collections and anthologies.

The reason is obvious: it’s one of his ethical essays which appealed to early readers as a guide to how to live well but for some reason seemed less interesting to later readers—with the notable exception of Borges and C. S. Lewis, of course. Yet it is still an interesting essay: Stevenson always writes well and some of the essay’s brief ethical guidelines, simply and elegantly formulated, stimulate thought—in fact, I copied some of them into my commonplace book when I first read the essay:

To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation – above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.

Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect

But the essay is also interesting biographically: it is inextricably intertwined with a traumatic event in Stevenson’s life, his quarrel with his former close friend and collaborator, W. E. Henley in the spring of 1888.

Composition and publication

It was written in the spring of 1888. On 21 May he wrote to his friend Charles Baxter: ‘I still have two articles [of the monthly Scribner’s Magazine series] which must be done in eight days [before leaving for San Francisco and his first Pacific cruise], a feat I know not how to accomplish’ (Letters 6: 192). Assuming he wrote the twelve Scribner’s essays in their published order, these ‘two articles’ were those for November and December: ‘The Education of an Engineer’ and ‘A Christmas Sermon’.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was published in Scribner’s Magazine in December 1888 and then collected in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays in 1892.

What it’s about

The essay, in four sections, basically debates how to live a good and moral life.

I. It starts by saying we can be satisfied at the end of life if we are undishonoured and  have ‘served’ (probably: endured and contributed to the well-being of others). People nowadays have unrealistic ideals and then impose them on others. Morality shouldn’t be centred on not committing sins. We should just try to be kind and honest—not an easy task and with failure inevitable.

II. We should be child-like, easy to please, gentle and cheerful and give pleasure to others. People condemn pleasures enjoyed by others, especially natural appetites (not wrong in themselves),  and overlook really evil things. We should make ourselves good and our neighbours happy.

III. But when should we correct our neighbour and resist evil? —When our neighbour injures another person. (Though patience and sympathy will solve many cases.)

IV. We have many rewards and pleasures in life but all things pass—a process of detachment from life. Our epitaph will be that we have tried a little and failed much. As a parting word, here is a fine poem [identified as by Henley in a footnote] about a peaceful evening and a wish to die in such peace.


In his Preface to Across the Plains, Colvin warned readers that the essays at the end of the volume (i.e. including ‘A Christmas Sermon’, the last in the volume) were ‘less inspiriting’ because ‘written under circumstances of especial gloom and sickness’.  Reviews of Across the Plains in 1892 either ignored the  essay or briefly agreed or disagreed with Colvin’s judgment.

Richard Le Gallienne in the Star (14 April 1892) admired its fine stoicism.  The Piccadilly Magazine (28 April) commented on its ‘out-of-door philosophy’, ‘instinctive morality’ and ‘kindly pessimism’. In contrast the critic of the Saturday Review (possibly Gosse; see Letters 7: 326n) calls it ‘the one mistake in this stimulating volume’ and found ‘highly distasteful’ its ‘chapel-round-the-corner Christianity’. The most negative comments came from the critic of the National Observer—but, as this was probably Henley, we will quote that below.

Stevenson’s ethics of kindness, gentleness and cheerfulness clearly appealed to those in the years after his death who saw him as a guide on how to live well. Unsurprisingly, it is much referred to by John Franklin Genung in Stevenson’s Attitude to Life (1901) and by John Kelman in The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson (1903), both quoting mainly from sections I and II against negative morality and in favour of a simple positive morality.  George E. Brown, in A Book of R.L.S.: Works, Travels, Friends, and Commentators (1919), says that ‘No other paper perhaps so well represents Stevenson’s broad and positive conception of goodness’ (p. 58).

The important given to the essay is shown by the fact that, unusually, it was printed as a separate slim volume, in 1901 and 1906

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and again in a limited edition in the style of William Morris—with gilded title, rules and  initial capitals—by John Henry Nash in San Francisco in 1928;

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and then along with Prayers at Vailima in 1948:

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It was also included in collections of Stevenson’s essays by Francisco José Castellanos  (Robert Louis Stevenson, Ensayos, 1917), Hugh George Rawlinson (Selected Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1923) and Malcolm Elwin (The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1950).

But since 1950 it has not been included in any other essay anthology or collection of Stevenson’s essays.


One reason for the decline in interest in this essay is probably connected with a modern embarrassment about kindness: our ideal is for self-sufficiency and autonomy, forgetting our basic dependence on others, and our psychology has little place for compassion and altruism:

[W]e have come to suspect that the whole notion of kindness is a cover story—for ingeniously ruthless self-interest. […]  Religious people may still attach great significance to it, but among the secular-minded the case for kindness tends to be made only skeptically, with a knowing wink about the realities of human egoism. (p. 52)

And the apparent realism of all the self-interest stories—the accounts of human nature as essentially self-seeking and self-satisfying—have made the kindness stories sound soppy, or wishful, or simply the province of the religious. (p. 54)

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (2009).

Another reason might be that the essay as a whole does not share the serene wisdom of the sentences I copied into my commonplace book. Indeed, the essayist seems to be wrangling with a sense of personal failure:

we have been a long time dying, and what else?

dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness

A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness

To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose

In the third section in particular the writer seems in two minds about right conduct, and this is the section that seems to reflect most on his violent quarrel with his old friend Henley.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley quarrel

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was written during the terrible epistolary quarrel with Henley, which had begun in the March and still continued to obsess Stevenson in May (Letters 6: 129, 190–1). Several years of resentment and frustration on both sides mixed with friction between old friend and new wife came to a head with Henley’s suggestion that Stevenson’s wife Fanny might be guilty of plagiarism; Stevenson violently defended his wife, yet was doubtless aware that his own over-reaction might owe something to his own frustration and annoyance with an overbearing friend.

Echoes of the quarrel are visible in the essay: the dissatisfaction with conduct over the past year in sections I and IV (‘how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness’); the unhappiness felt because we ‘feel a sneer or an aspersion with unusual keenness’ in section III; and in the same section the justification for causing unhappiness when reacting to a wrong done to another (‘in the quarrel of our neighbour, let us be more bold […]: the defence of B is our only ground of action against A’). At the same time he realizes that ‘[i]ll-temper and envy and revenge’ can assume ‘pious disguises’ and that ‘the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel scene […] might yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy’, something he has been unable to do in the case of Henley. The praise and insertion of the complete poem by Henley at the conclusion of the essay can be seen as a private message of understanding.

The poem (as the footnote states) is from Henley’s A Book of Verses, which was published in May 1888, so Stevenson writing in that month must have had an advance copy. With the quarrel still at its height, it must have been poignant reading for Stevenson, as it contains Henley’s sketch of Stevenson in ‘Apparition’ and the Envoy to the ‘In Hospital’ sequence dedicated to Baxter and celebrating the friendship of ‘You, I, and LEWIS’ (dated March 1888).

Stevenson’s quoting of a whole poem from the volume was a private message of appreciation, of the poem if nothing else. It seems that in the late nineteenth century  it became a custom for writers to include playful allusions to fellow writers (often rivals) in their essays and magazine articles: Stevenson refers to ‘another novelist’ in the last paragraph of ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ and goes on to tease W. D. Howells: Lang and Howells duelled over the romance in contemporary literature in their monthly columns in Longman’s Magazine and Harper’s Magazine. Henley used his review of Across the Plains for no playful joust but to to reject Stevenson’s concluding olive branch.

Henley’s reaction

The most negative comments on the essay in the 1892 reviews of Across the Plains came from the critic of the National Observer (23 April), and this must surely be its editor W. E. Henley:

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Monterey, Stevenson House, Scrapbook III, p. 114

He judges the essay as the worst in the book and the confidence of its ethical pronouncements as ‘unseemly’ and questions their validity; says that ‘Mr. Stevenson makes some confusion between living by a hard law and imposing hard law upon others’; and ends by saying ‘We may not thrust a law upon our brother; but our own relation to our brother—shall not this be ordered by delicate negatives? Shall not Beatrice be mistress of her gravity? Beatrice refused her smile to Dante when he had been bowed to by a courtesan’.

Here he apparently says that we are free to behave how we think towards another. And then, is he really suggesting that he refuses to smile to Stevenson because of the latter’s sign of solidarity with an inferior woman? The opinion of other readers of this blog would be welcomed here: can he possibly be saying that he is like Beatrice offended by the courtesan’s attentions to Dante? Is it possible he is calling Fanny Stevenson a courtesan?

This was clearly some quarrel.


Written by rdury

11/06/2018 at 9:52 am

Posted in News

Prince Otto: ten sentences that give pleasure

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I thought I would gather here the ten postings on Facebook I made in 2014 on the publication of Prince Otto in the New Edinburgh Edition. (Next week I will post information about the latest publication: The Amateur Emigrant). Enjoy!

Sentence No. 1.

The hour, the season, and the scene, all were in delicate accordance. The air was full of birds of passage, steering westward and northward over Grunewald, an army of specks to the up-looking eye.

The accordance is ‘delicate’, like the words themselves that form structures and then pass—I think of the ephemerality of things. The next sentence, shows how a single sentence can take things apart and keep them together: I am aware of the global movement of birds passing over a map-like country, a mere human institution, and then from this perspective near that of the birds, we move to an individual standing on the ground, myself perhaps, looking up and seeing them as distant, fleeting. Such sentences seem so easy to write—they are syntactically simple—yet clearly the work of great ability and are, I say it again, a pleasure to read.

Sentence No. 2

Holding his feet, he stared out of a drowsy trance, wondering, admiring, musing, losing his way among uncertain thoughts.

Otto is sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream, that’s why he’s holding his feet—a nice reminder of the centrality of the body; and I recognise that state of losing my way among uncertain thoughts.

Sentence No. 3

At a quarter before six on the following morning Doctor Gotthold was already at his desk in the library; and with a small cup of black coffee at his elbow, and an eye occasionally wandering to the busts and the long array of many-coloured books, was quietly reviewing the labours of the day before.

— this is a brilliant presentation of a character without the need for the descriptive paragraph (Stevenson never uses this conventional device). We learn by indirect means that Gotthold is an diligent employee of the Palace, an early riser, an orderly person, someone who savours simple pleasures, is of a contemplative nature, and perhaps more.
— And what about that wonderful aside ‘and an eye occasionally wandering to the busts and the long array of multi-coloured books’, which concisely sketches in the Library (which I immediately imagine as a long room, a pleasant space, with a planned rather than an accumulated decor) and also gives us an idea of Gotthold’s contemplative nature, his present good humour, his habit of appreciating the world around him, and the relaxed rhythm of his careful work.
If only I could write like that! And if only my work experience could be like the one that Stevenson so brilliantly describes

Sentence No. 4

‘If you come to think of it,’ said Otto, ‘I am not a popular sovereign.’ And with a look he changed his statement to a question.

—Otto is talking to his cousin Gotthold in the Library. The second sentence is very simple, but how could you say it better? At the same time, it effortlessly tells you much about the intimate understanding between the two men.

Sentence No. 5

‘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.

—I chose ‘The Prince waited…’,  not because it is particularly well-formed, but because it is a good example of Otto’s amusingly camp behaviour.
This is a text full of references to the theatre and Otto is a master of style, with perfect manners, an artist with words (as the waspish first sentence shows) (the attention to style and form is a central part of camp humour) and also behaves in a stagey manner, putting on a humorously exaggerated performance. Drawing a handkerchief slowly (but I like ‘quietly’) through the fingers must have been a well-known piece of stage ‘business’. I could imagine the part being played by Rowan Atkinson or Donald Sinden.

Sentence No. 6

The council waved like a sea. There were various outcries.

For me this is from the most enjoyable chapter: Book 2, chapter 7 (is it part of the joke that the three ‘books’ are a mere 35, 90 and 35 pages?)—Otto’s confrontation with the Privy Council, summoned by Baron Gondremark (in alliance with the Princess) to declare war without telling Otto. These two short sentences come just before Otto’s entrance, after Gotthold has unexpectedly objected to the measure being passed unread and undiscussed: as a result, the council is set in commotion and ‘there were various outcries’. The contrast between the metaphor of the sea and the stark annotation of ‘various outcries’, between the regular rhythm of the first sentence and the awkward rhythm of the second, suggests the confusion, the discord created, and the disconnected nature of the cries.

On the stage this chapter would undoubtedly be the end of Act 1. And look how it ends: “And he bowed and left the apartment, followed by Greisengesang and the secretaries, just at the moment when the Princess’s ladies, summoned in all haste, entered by another door to help her forth.” A typical moment for “Curtain”. I think Stevenson is all the time encouraging us to see the story as a play.

Sentence No. 7

So without more delay, the Prince leading, the pair proceeded down through the echoing stairway of the tower, and out through the grating, into the ample air and sunshine of the morning, and among the terraces and flower-beds of the garden.

—OK, this is an easy construction that anyone can write: the sentence with expanding phrases that corresponds to an expansion of spirit or space. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 we have: ‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state, / Like to the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate’ where the enjambement and unexpected expansion of ‘at break of day arising–From sullen earth’ corresponds to an expansion of both space and spirit. The same here: (after the admirable concision of ‘the Prince leading’) we get the short phrases and transitional movement of ‘down through… out through’ (the grating is probably a small iron-bar gate), and then the paired ‘ample air and sunshine of the morning’ (in airy contrast—in meaning and in the assonance of ‘ample air’— with the material ‘stairway’ and ‘grating’) and then the unexpected addition of another pair of nouns: ‘the terraces and flower beds of the garden’.

I said anyone can write this: just string together ‘and… and… and… and’ and if you’re skillful you evoke your epiphany. Notice, however that Stevenson has a balanced pair of pairs, not a romantic or impressionistic potentially endless list, so we also have that feel of orderly, controlled eighteenth-century prose as well (only too appropriate for the orderly formal gardens that we can imagine). Just sit back and relax: Stevenson knows how to drive.

Sentence No. 8

A shaving of new moon had lately arisen; but it was still too small and too low down in heaven to contend with the immense host of lesser luminaries; and the rough face of the earth was drenched with starlight. Down one of the alleys, which widened as it receded, he could see a part of the lamplit terrace where a sentry silently paced, and beyond that a corner of the town with interlacing street-lights.

— Otto is waiting for the Countess von Rosen in the palace gardens. Saying two stressed syllables together requires more than usual muscular effort and so slows you down, that’s why I think ‘i-MMENSE HOST’ sounds so appropriate (slow, effortful enunciation is mapped onto a meaning of large size and difficulty of ‘comprehension’); then we get contrasting quick unstressed syllables of ‘LESS-er LUM-i-nar-ies’.

The ‘rough’ earth has all its irregularities brought out by the light and shade, and is ‘drenched in starlight’—full of darkness and small, faint patches of light: so that the trees and bushes are like the sky above.

And then we have the brilliant ‘tracking shot’ with that fascinating alley ‘which widened as it receded’ (an effect that language can make us imagine, but would be difficult to make clear on the screen), a section of terrace (one imagines: between the silhouette of two groups of trees) and the sentry’s movement on a path at 90° to our axis of vision, and beyond that the glimpse of the interlacing street-lights of the town beyond, which remind us, in their distance and and small size, once again of the stars.

Sentence 9

The day drew its first long breath, steady and chill; and for leagues around the woods sighed and shivered.

—this from the flight of the Princess in the woods in Book III chapter 1 which has sometimes been printed by itself as a virtuoso piee of writing, so any number of sentences cold have been chosen. The first half of the sentence presents a universe both personified and also independent of human concerns in the ‘steady and chill’ dawn wind.

The second half is a typical added-on final comment after ‘and’, with a turn towards things more concrete or visible, which we find in Sir Thomas Browne but also in Montaigne. The sound of the wind in the trees (this is the more concrete or immediate sensation here) is suggested by the alliterative ‘sighed and shivered’ (which of course also brings us back to the idea of an animate universe—of Serafina’s feeling that she is surrounded by living things.)

Sentence 10

‘Rightly looked upon,’ mused Gotthold, ‘it is ourselves that we cannot forgive, when we refuse forgiveness to our friend. Some strand of our own misdoing is involved in every quarrel.’

One of the genres that Prince Otto plays with is the eighteenth-century philosophical novel with its structure of chance meetings and conversations with a variety of people (and is reminiscent of S’s own short stories with debates –‘Markheim’, ‘Villon’ and ‘The Sire de Malétroit’s Door’). Perhaps the most illuminating of the resultant ideas is this surprising psychological insight from Gotthold in conversation with Otto in the coach taking them to their Felsenburg prison.

But for playfulness, the last two pages of ‘Bibliographical Postscript’ can’t be beaten: the following years of Otto and Serafina are summed up in precise bibliographical references, actual publishers and booksellers, quotations from books by and about them—all amusingly and skillfully convincing until the very last sentence, which reveals the artifice by references to ‘Buttonhole’, ‘Lord Protocol’ and ‘Admiral Yardarm’.

Written by rdury

20/05/2018 at 10:55 am

Posted in News

New Edinburgh Weir of Hermiston published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Weir of Hermiston, ed. by Gillian Hughes, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Published 5 June 2017. £80 (and for around £62 from booksellers associated with Amazon)


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See also Gill Hughes’s thoughts on working from Stevenson’s manuscripts in the preparation of this volume: Following the author’s hand

Written by rdury

05/01/2018 at 3:40 pm

The Dynamiter and Queen’s Square

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Prof. Penny Fielding is at present preparing a  critical edition of The Dynamiter for the New Edinburgh Edition. In this post I follow up at greater length some aspects of the text that will be covered in her notes.

After the publication of The Dynamiter by Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson, James Payn, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, wrote to RLS to say that his daughter had complained of recognizing ‘some features of her own house in Queen Square, Bloomsbury, in the description of that tenanted by the fair Cuban in the section of Stevenson’s Dynamiter which tells the story of the Brown Box’ (Tusitala 33: 72).

In reply, RLS wrote

Everything in the Dynamiter is not true; but the story of the Brown Box is, in almost every particular; I lay my hand on my heart, and swear to it. It took place in that house in 1884. (Letters 5: 173)

This is no doubt a teasing reply: instead of saying ‘your daughter can rest in peace as she hasn’t somehow shared a house with bizarre art-for-art’s-sake bomb-making terrorists, because it was all an invention’, he says: that particular part of the book was actually all true and took place in 1884 (the year of the peak in Fenian bombings in London).

But Stevenson is strangely insistent:  ‘I lay my hand on my heart, and swear’, he says, that it is true ‘in almost every particular’ and ‘took place in that house in 1884’. This insistence makes one think that there may indeed be some true elements in the story. And in fact, ‘Desborough’s Adventure: The Brown Box’ weaves in two moments of his own life: his meeting with his future wife Fanny Osbourne in 1876 (Section 3 below),and  his infatuation with Fanny Sitwell from 1873 to 1875 (Section 4).

1. The Story of the Brown Box

So what happens in the story of the Brown Box?

Desborough lives in a lodging house in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. His room looks onto the square but he has access to a terrace overlooked by the room a beautiful Cuban, Senorita Theresa Valdevia (Clara Luxmore in disguise). Desborough, immediately attracted to her, listens to her (again false) history. [Here follows the ‘Story of the Fair Cuban’.] Desborough, now obsessed with the woman, starts waiting for her in the square and following her. He notices the visits of a tall bearded man, who finally carries a brown trunk into the house. He confronts the Fair Cuban; she tells him that she is hiding from Cuban spies, and asks for Desborough’s help. He agrees to take the brown box, which she says contains everything connecting her to Cuba, from London to an Irish steamer at Holyhead. But when he arrives at the London rail terminus, Theresa catches up with him tells him to take the box back to their lodgings. Then she tells Desborough the  truth: she is Clara Luxmore, a dynamiter, and the box is a bomb. They hear a click of the timer; he flings her to the wall; but the explosion fails.

The fair Cuban is older than Desborough: ‘Her age, he durst not estimate; fearing to find her older than himself, and thinking sacrilege to couple that fair favour [=appearance] with the thought of mortal changes’.

The events that took place are therefore:

  1. A young man meets and falls in love with an alluring older woman in a house in Bloomsbury
  2. He waits for her in the square and follows her, frustrated and jealous
  3. She asks him to transport a trunk for her to Ireland
  4. She changes her mind and tells him to return the trunk to her house
  5. The trunk contains a bomb which fails to explode but which gives the two a fright.

Well, none of this happened in 1884, but the first two elements in the story have some connection with Stevenson’s own life.

2. The house in Queen’s Square

In Stevenson’s reply to Payn, he said that he only knew the houses on that side of the square from the street front and ʻfrom […] the back windows of Brunswick Rowʼ (Letters 5: 173-4). Brunswick row was where Fanny Sitwell had lodgings from 1874, and this comment shows that it must have been on the south side of this narrow street, overlooking the back gardens of the Queen Square houses, and that Stevenson must have been inside at least once (probably in spring 1874).

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Greenwood’s Map of London, 1827: Brunswick Pl[ace] is Brunswick Row in other maps of the period; this was where Fanny Sitwell had lodgings and from which you could see the back of houses on the W side of Queen Square

The house that the Brunswick Row house overlooked, and that in The Dynamiter  Desborough unwittingly shares with a group of dynamiters, is described by the Stevensons as follows:

It was in Queen Square that [Desborough] had pitched his tent, next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north: Queen Square, sacred to humane and liberal arts, whence homes were made beautiful, where the poor were taught, where the sparrows were plentiful and loud, and where groups of patient little ones would hover all day long before the hospital, if by chance they might kiss their hand or speak a word to their sick brother at the window. Desborough’s room was on the first floor and fronted to the square; but he enjoyed besides, a right by which he often profited, to sit and smoke upon a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room.

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Ordnance Survey 1895: Brunswick Row has now become Queen Square Place

Notes on the description in The Dynamiter:

The Children’s Hospital: in 1867 a hospital—from 1870 called the Hospital for Hip Diseases in Children—was established to treat children suffering from tuberculous arthritis, at No. 19 Queen Square, on the Corner of Brunswick Row. By 1873 the institution, had expanded to the next two houses (Nos. 18 and 17), and in 1881 it was renamed the Alexandra Hospital for Children with Hip Diseases.

So when Stevenson knew Queen Square the Hospital occupied the area as shown in the 1895 map, and ‘next door to the Children’s Hospital, on your left hand as you go north’ would be No. 16 (the house still stands and is still No. 16), the back of which would indeed be visible from the last three properties in Brunswick Row, where Fanny Sitwell  had her lodgings.   Here is a photograph of Nos. 13-16 as they were in 1956—the ground floor of No. 16 corresponds to the door and the two windows beside it on the right of the photo and the floors above):

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13-16 Queen Square (LCC Photograph Library)

Queen Square, sacred to humane and liberal arts: refers to the medical, educational and philanthropic institutions around the square. In 1874 and the following years these included: the Alexandra Hospital on the W side, the National Hospital on the E; the Alexandra Institute for the Blind (at No. 6); the Society of St Vincent de Paul (No. 31); the hospital of Anglican order of the Sisters of St Margaret (No. 32); and the English Presbyterian College, which trained candidates for the ministry (in the NE corner). In 1874 the square should also have been home to a number of educational establishments aimed at the poor or women: the Ladies Charity School at No. 22; the College for Men and Women—where Frances Sitwell was Secretary—at the S end; the College of Preceptors—an institution organizing and evaluating teacher training—at No. 42; and the Female School of Art at No. 43.

Queen Square […] whence homes were made beautiful: a reference to the office and workshops of William Morris at No. 26 (more-or-less opposite No. 16), which operated there from 1856 to 1881.

3. A young man meets and falls in love with an alluring older woman

Desborough has a room on the first floor and the use of  ‘a terrace at the back, which looked down upon a fine forest of back gardens, and was in turn commanded by the windows of an empty room’. This is probably the flat roof above a projecting part of the ground floor, accessed via a door by Desborough, but with the window of another room in the same house giving onto it, through which the occupant could step. Desborough is annoyed to see the other flat is occupied and his privacy gone and knocks his pipe on the terrace rail too hard and breaks it…

He threw himself savagely into the garden chair, pulled out the story-paper which he had brought with him to read, tore off a fragment of the last sheet, which contains only the answers to correspondents, and set himself to roll a cigarette. He was no master of the art; again and again, the paper broke between his fingers and the tobacco showered upon the ground; and he was already on the point of angry resignation, when the window swung slowly inward, the silken curtain was thrust aside, and a lady, somewhat strangely attired, stepped forth upon the terrace.

‘Senorito,’ said she, and there was a rich thrill in her voice, like an organ note, ‘Senorito, you are in difficulties. Suffer me to come to your assistance.’

With the words, she took the paper and tobacco from his unresisting hands; and with a facility that, in Desborough’s eyes, seemed magical, rolled and presented him a cigarette. He took it, still seated, still without a word; staring with all his eyes upon that apparition. Her face was warm and rich in colour; in shape, it was that piquant triangle, so innocently sly, so saucily attractive, so rare in our more northern climates; her eyes were large, starry, and visited by changing lights; her hair was partly covered by a lace mantilla, through which her arms, bare to the shoulder, gleamed white; her figure, full and soft in all the womanly contours, was yet alive and active, light with excess of life, and slender by grace of some divine proportion.

‘You do not like my cigarrito, Senor?’ she asked. ‘Yet it is better made than yours.’ At that she laughed, and her laughter trilled in his ear like music; but the next moment her face fell. ‘I see,’ she cried. ‘It is my manner that repels you. I am too constrained, too cold. I am not,’ she added, with a more engaging air, ‘I am not the simple English maiden I appear.’

‘Oh!’ murmured Harry, filled with inexpressible thoughts.

Robert Louis Stevenson (and we may suppose him to be the prime author of this passage) is clearly painting a picture of his wife and co-author and probably telling us something about their first meeting:

Her age, he durst not estimate; fearing to find her older than himself: Stevenson was ten years and nine months younger than Fanny Osbourne; when they met in September 1876 he was two months short of his twenty-sixth birthday, while she was already thirty-six.

there was a rich thrill in her voice, like an organ note: ‘Fanny Osbourne’s voice was low in tone, and she spoke with very little modulation’ and she would often recommend to her daughter: ‘A low sweet voice in a woman’ (Isobel Field, This Life I’ve Loved (1937), p. 106)

Her face was warm and rich in colour: ‘I was dark, like my mother’ (Nellie van de Grift Sanchez, The Life of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson (1920), p. 13), she had ‘clear olive skin’ (p. 14). In one poem (‘Dark Women’) Stevenson described Fanny as ‘Dark as a wayside gypsy’ (Roger C. Lewis (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh, 2003), 175), and in another (‘A California Girl’) he says ‘her skin’s a sort of orange brown’ (London 7 Apr 1877, p. 238).

her eyes were large, starry, and visited by changing lights: ‘Her red-brown eyes are most unwinking / Deep-set, and with a dangerous light, / A feline gleam that sets you thinking’ (‘A California Girl’).

her figure, full and soft in all the womanly contours: ‘Quite excellently small and slim, / Yet round and hard with exercise, / The contour of her every limb / At once excites and satisfies’ (‘A California Girl’).

rolled and presented him a cigarette: Living with her husband at a silver-mining camp in Nevada in 1864, ‘Fanny had mastered the masculine arts of rolling and smoking cigarettes’ (Margaret MacKay, The Violent Friend (1970), p. 7).

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 21.39.42Fanny Osbourne when Stevenson met her at Chevillon’s inn at Grez-sur-Loing in September 1876


RLS rolling a cigarette, 1885

4. A young man in love frequents the places where his love will pass but annoys her with his insistence

Desborough finds himself infatuated with Theresa and he takes to stalking her:

What should he do, to be more worthy? by what devotion, call down the notice of these eyes to so terrene a being as himself?

He betook himself, thereupon, to the rural privacy of the square, where, being a lad of a kind heart, he had made himself a circle of acquaintances among its shy frequenters, the half-domestic cats and the visitors that hung before the windows of the Children’s Hospital. There he walked, considering the depth of his demerit and the height of the adored one’s super-excellence; now lighting upon earth to say a pleasant word to the brother of some infant invalid; now, with a great heave of breath, remembering the queen of women, and the sunshine of his life.

What was he to do? Teresa, he had observed, was in the habit of leaving the house towards afternoon: she might, perchance, run danger from some Cuban emissary, when the presence of a friend might turn the balance in her favour: how, then, if he should follow her? To offer his company would seem like an intrusion; to dog her openly were a manifest impertinence; he saw himself reduced to a more stealthy part, which, though in some ways distasteful to his mind, he did not doubt that he could practise with the skill of a detective.

The next day he proceeded to put his plan in action. At the corner of Tottenham Court Road, however, the Senorita suddenly turned back, and met him face to face, with every mark of pleasure and surprise.

‘Ah, Senor, I am sometimes fortunate!’ she cried. […]

Next day he resumed his labours, glowing with pity and courage, and determined to protect Teresa with his life. But a painful shock awaited him. In the narrow and silent Hanway Street, she turned suddenly about and addressed him with a manner and a light in her eyes that were new to the young man’s experience.

‘Do I understand that you follow me, Senor?’ she cried. ‘Are these the manners of the English gentleman?’

Harry confounded himself in the most abject apologies and prayers to be forgiven, vowed to offend no more, and was at length dismissed, crestfallen and heavy of heart. The check was final; he gave up that road to service; and began once more to hang about the square or on the terrace, filled with remorse and love, admirable and idiotic, a fit object for the scorn and envy of older men.

This painful episode seems to contain elements of Stevenson’s infatuation with Fanny Sitwell. She was married but estranged from her (possibly alcoholic) husband; she too was older than Stevenson (by eleven years); attractive too, but in a very different way from Fanny Osbourne: she was tender, understanding of others, freely expressive of her feelings and enthusiastic, ‘irradiating charm’. In the summer of 1873 something happened between her and Louis under the trees in Cockfield Rectory garden in Suffolk—a consoling caress, perhaps, an affectionate peck on the cheek, no more—yet something that knocked the paint off young Louis and was followed by two years of yearning and infatuation. Unrequited, as her affections were already engaged and with none other than Stevenson’s mentor, Sidney Colvin.

Fanny Sitwell, now finally separated from her husband, moved to 2 Brunswick Row in early July 1874 and RLS asked for her new address (L2: 29), but in early September still did not know it (47). On 22 September he wrote that he would be in London within a few days ‘and I think we shall pass a few happy days’; he arrived two days later and asked her to write to him with ‘orders’, adding ‘No fear. I shall be good’  (56-7). In October, still in London he writes with a poem about ‘this love of ours’ (58). In the same month, back on Edinburgh, he says ‘I wish to God I did not love you so much, but I do’ (69), and repeats this several times in November letters.

On 2 December 1874, apparently invited by Frances Sitwell—writing of it on 28 November he says ‘it takes my breath away to write it’ (85)—he went to London and stayed till 13 December. However the invitation must have been to clarify matters between them, as on his return he wrote ‘I will try to be what you would have me’; it is true he looks forward to a next visit (89-90), but closes this time with ‘a son’s kiss’ (94).

On 7 February he writes ‘But I love you, dear, and —O if I were with you!’ (115). In the same month he tells her that in Edinburgh he had seen a woman come out of a shop ‘and, dear, I thought it was you’ (118).

Then came another invitation to a meeting. On the 24 February 1875 he writes ‘God bless you for your letter. I will try and get down about 15th […] O how I long to see you’ (122). On 8 March he wrote ‘How, when, where would you like me. On Saturday evening or not till Sunday morning?’ and signs off ‘Yours from top to toe’ (124).  It seemed he travelled on Saturday 13 March. In an undated letter he said ‘I shall pay a visit to Brunswick Row, sometime in the course of Sunday’.

It seems, however, that once again Mrs Sitwell had asked to see him to face up to the reality of their situation, as the next surviving letter, from Barbizon c. 1 April, is much shorter than all his previous letters and very different in tone; it opens ‘My dear’ and finishes ‘Ever yours’ (126-7).

In that spring of 1875 which saw the end of his hopes of love he was staying in the Savile Club and, contrary to his high hopes, perhaps only saw her once or twice. The following year he gave some more information about this period:

I daresay you may fancy I had a curious time in London last spring; […] it was very odd, you may believe. I was several times near Queen’s Square, but went away again. I once went down Southampton Row, and felt in a fine flutter in case you should come out of Cosmo Place [a narrow street linking Southampton Row and Queen’s Square]. But you didn’t. (L2, 177; 7 July 1875)

There’s no indication that he waited for her in the Square and followed her as Desborough does, but it does seem that he deliberately walked nearby, hoping and wishing for a chance meeting.

In both episodes of the story of the Brown Box, Stevenson makes fun of the ingénu Desborough and his confusion at finding himself in love; and in both cases he seems to be laughing at himself and his own experiences. So it was that he could lay his hand on his heart and say the story was all true.

Written by rdury

04/11/2017 at 7:11 pm

Posted in News

Some College Memories and the view from 17 Heriot Row / 2

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Stevenson’s Study

Following the contribution from Neil Macara Brown, we can confirm that Stevenson’s study, which he sketched out in a letter in 1873 (Letters 1, 323), was indeed on the west side of the front of the house:

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 22.24.10  Screenshot 2017-10-02 14.19.08

The bottom left (SW) room is the only one on the top floor with a window opposite and to the right of the door and with a fireplace on the right-hand wall as you enter. Stevenson has got the proportions wrong; he has also left out one of the windows and the one window he draws does not correlate to the either of the windows in the other plan. It is unlikely, however, that he would have made a mistake about the relative positions of door, window and fireplace.

Here’s Stevenson’s plan the right way up with his description of it:

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 05.26.32

The long Bookcase (A. A. A) is only about 3 feet 6 [high], so it is nice to sit on top of, especially in the corner, for I have a thorough child’s delight in perches of all sorts. The Box [near the door] is full of papers. Of course you see where I sit—on the chair that I have cross-hatched [i.e. behind the table], shut i among books and with the light in front all the day and at my right [from a gas lamp over the mantlepiece?]. I am going to buy a wicker arm chair so I shall have three chairs soon. I may say that in my sketch it [the chair?] has somehow got bigger than three times its right bigness, which is very odd; for I wish it were just a little smaller. Don’t you like the arrangement? (Letters 1, 324; to Fanny Sitwell, 1 Oct 1873)