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

André Gide’s Stevensonian tale

with 7 comments

This post is about Stevenson’s influence on the French novel in the early twentieth century, and in particular on André Gide’s Isabelle, a text in which such influence has so far not been noted.

André Gide looking Stevensonian in the 1890s

A strange experience

I recently read André Gide’s novella Isabelle (first published in 1911) and, as I did so, was continually reminded of Stevenson’s long short story ‘Olalla’.

Such were the affinities in characters, settings, events and even atmosphere that I was sure that Gide must have taken Stevenson’s tale as a conscious inspiration. This conviction was strengthened by my knowledge that Gide belonged to a group of of French writers and critics before and after 1900 who admired Stevenson and saw him as a model who could help the French novel find a new way forward.

Then I learnt that Gide recorded reading ‘Olalla’ in his Journal the year after he wrote Isabelle. I fell from the clouds (as they say in Italian). Where I wanted to find affinities, had I imagined them?

From what follows the reader will be able to judge between three possible explanations: 1. I had made a pattern out of unrelated elements and mere coincidences, 2. the two works share a common influence, or 3. Gide may have read ‘Olalla’ earlier than recorded in his Journal and had indeed been inspired by it.

‘Olalla’ and Isabelle: similarities

First of all, what was it about the narrative that made me think that Gide may have been thinking of ‘Olalla’ when writing Isabelle? In both texts

  • The narrator travels to and stays in a remote and decayed aristocratic residence inhabited by a family of declining fortune
  • The youngest members of the family are
    — a mentally handicapped boy (Felipe, Casimir), who is attracted to the narrator,
    — and a young woman (Olalla, Felipe’s sister; Isabelle, Casimir’s mother), with whom the narrator falls in love and who gives the title to the story.
    — There is also a priest in both (a visitor in ‘Olalla’, a resident tutor in Isabelle), who knows the family secret.
  • The narrator in both cases is ill-at-ease in the house,
    — not being an intimate friend of the family (foreigner and paying guest in ‘Olalla’; scholar consulting a manuscript and received as a guest in Isabelle);
    — he finds the house and its inhabitants strange (‘being in a strange place and surrounded by strange people’; ‘étranges êtres à peine humains’);
    — the house has elements from ‘Gothic’ tales and there are frightening noises at night.
  • In both cases, the narrator investigates and discovers the hidden truth about the family.
  • A turning point in both stories is when the narrator sees a portrait of the previously unseen young woman and becomes obsessed with it to the point of falling in love, an attraction which in both cases is ultimately frustrated.

‘Olalla’ and Isabelle: differences

There are important differences too:

  • An important theme in ‘Olalla’, absent in Isabelle, is the inherited degeneracy shared by all members of the family (except by Olalla herself, though she fears it will develop or be passed on to a child).
  • ‘Olalla’ is more ‘Gothic’: the narrator hears terrible screams in the night and finds himself locked in his room. In despair, the he puts his hand through a window and his wrist bleeds copiously; when he seeks help from the Senora, she leaps at the bleeding wrist and bites it to the bone.(1)
  • in Isabelle the main theme is that of the narrator’s self-deception: his idealistic and romantic view of Isabelle at the end is destroyed by crude reality: she is manipulative and mendacious (it’s a kind of Northanger Abbey in which events are expected by the protagonist on the basis of his reading but then turn out very differently).
  • It is also more realistic and Gide works in several autobiographical elements
  • It includes a number of metaliterary references and an outer frame to the main story,

On that last point, any influence of Stevenson in Isabelle is not going to be the only one, in view of Gide’s unusually large range of literary influences here and in all his writing, and of the way that — like Stevenson — he was constantly experimenting with different kinds of texts.

The following intertextual models have been identified for Isabelle: Chateaubriand’s René, Maupassant, Turgenev’s Virgin Soil, Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, Hoffman’s The Sandman, the writings of Francis Jammes (friend and character in the frame narrative), Paul Bourget’s Le disciple, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.(2)

So any influence of ‘Olalla’ will be only one of a whole range of others.

‘Olalla’ and Isabelle: shared influences

Some of the similarities between the two works are undoubtedly due to shared influences:

  • The gothic novel in which the ingénu visitor gradually discovering the secrets of an isolated house
  • Novels of the governess or tutor in an aristocratic mansion, their intermediate status, relations with the family members and romantic attractions
  • Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ in the gothic novel tradition; the decadent family and family home.

However, the composition of the family, the function of the portrait and the frustrated love story do seem strangely similar.

Other Stevensonian echoes in Isabelle

But right from the first chapter I noted what seemed to me a striking and pictorial incidents where the reader can picture the disposition of characters at an important moment — of the kind that Stevenson discusses in ‘A Gossip on Romance’ and that we typically remember from his narratives. In the introductory frame-narrative chapter, the unnamed narrator and and Francis Jammes are taken by Gérard Lacase to visit a nearby abandoned château, but then get separated from him during the exploration. Here it is in my translation:

We caught up with Gérard on the second floor near an unglazed corridor window through which a cord hung down from outside; it was a bell rope, and I was about to give it a gentle pull, when I felt my arm seized by Gérard; his movement, rather than check mine actually amplified it: a wild knell rang out, so close, so violent, that it made us painfully start; then, when it seemed that silence had closed round us again, two pure notes sounded again, at an interval, more distant. I had turned round towards Gérard and I saw his lips were trembling.

Isabelle, unnumbered introductory chapter

As I read, I came across other moments that seemed similarly Stevensonian. In the middle of a scene between Isabelle and her indulgent aunt (observed unseen by the narrator), Isabelle’s disapproving mother makes a theatrical entrance:

The baroness appeared in the doorway, rigid, in a low-cut gown, with rouged cheeks, in full formal array, and her head surmounted by a sort of plume of marabout stork feathers. She held aloft as best she could a large six-branched candelabra, all candles lit, which bathed her in a flickering light, and dropped wax tears on the floor.

Isabelle, ch. 6

This seemed to me a clear hommage to the scene between Flora and St Ives interrupted by the stately entrance of Flora’s aunt:

The words were still upon my lips when the door opened and my friend of the gold eyeglass appeared, a memorable figure, on the threshold. In one hand she bore a bedroom candlestick; in the other, with the steadiness of a dragoon, a horse-pistol. She was wound about in shawls which did not wholly conceal the candid fabric of her nightdress, and surmounted by a nightcap of portentous architecture.

St Ives, ch. 9

Other echoes I perceived may have been due to my pattern-making. For example, the scene between Isabelle and the coachman’s wife in the dark vestibule, observed but not heard by the narrator, in which the latter, holding a lantern, advances and the former retreats while ‘the lantern moved back and forth projecting leaping shadows’ (La lanterne s’agita projetant des ombres bondissants; ch. 6), reminded me of Stevenson’s penchant for describing such ‘dancing shadows’ (as he puts it in The Wrecker), for instance in ‘A Lodging for the Night’, where he writes: ‘there was no light in all the neighbourhood but a little peep from a lamp that hung swinging in the church choir, and tossed the shadows to and fro in time to its oscillations’.

But there was a more general influence of Stevenson in the narrative presented as an adventure, about which I will say more in the following section.

Roman d’aventure — not exactly ‘adventure novel’

After about 1890 it was generally felt that the French Realist or Naturalist novel (which had dominated the literary scene for several decades) had run its course. The need to explore aspects of fictional narrative apart from the naturalist world view (of the individual at the mercy of oppressive and mechanical social forces) was debated in the French periodical press by young writers and critics, especially a group around André Gide and the Nouveau revue française (which he was closely associated with from 1909). For them, a precious indication of how to move forward could be found in the example of Stevenson, Conrad and the ‘roman d’aventure’.(3)

The precise interpretation of this term was influenced by Marcel Schwob’s preface-manifesto to his collection of short stories Cœur double (1891), in which he wrote:

If the literary form of the novel persists, it […] will undoubtedly be an adventure novel in the broadest sense of the word, the novel of the crises of the inner world and the outer world

By roman d’aventure the writers of the period did not mean a sensational adventure tale, but a narrative, distinct from the naturalist novel, with an ethical core of choice and conduct (as in Stevenson and Conrad), and a novel that also highlights the importance of the imagination in human perception and understanding for both writer, characters and reader.(4)

To get an idea of how far all this was from any simplistic yarn of derring-do, it’s enough to look at two remarkable declarations by Jacques Rivière, author of the study-manifesto ‘Le roman d’aventure’, which first appeared in Gide’s Nouveau revue française in three parts in 1913. The first is at the very end of his study when Rivière finally gives an example of what he means by a roman d’aventure — and it is the scene from Stevenson’s Ebb-Tide when the schooner enters the lagoon of the pearl island. This episode involves not only anticipation and suspense but also a quickening of sense perceptions and a density of mental activity on the part of the observer Herrick, reflected in the prose, and responded to by the reader. When reading this ‘I feel my life expanding to infinity’, Rivière comments.(5)

The second is in a letter of 1923, when Rivière was in the middle of editing Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, in which letter he says that his 1913 study now ‘appears to me today as an announcement and almost a prophecy of a work that was to appear at the end of the same year: the work of Proust, to be precise’.(5) Here he refers to Du côté du chez Swann, the first volume of the Recherche, published in 1913, and — although this might be difficult to believe — seen as a realization of the roman d’aventure !

If we think back to Rivière’s example from The Ebb-Tide, however, the affinity becomes clear. At the same time clearly the word ‘aventure’ had become a catchword to identify the new kind of French fiction: in the text of Isabelle it stands out as the last word of the very first sentence. And in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (also from 1913 and another example of the new modern novel), ‘nos aventures’ is isolated at the end of a periodic sentence closing the fourth paragraph, chapter 8 is titled ‘L’Aventure’, and the word ‘nouvelles aventures’ are the last words of the whole text.

Stevenson, Gide, ‘Olalla’ and Isabelle

Gide wrote Isabelle in 1910 and it was published in the Nouveau revue française in 1911. According to his Journal he read ‘Ollala’ in the summer/autumn of 1911 and re-read it again in The Merry Men in 1913.(6)

It is possible, however, that he had read it earlier, in the translation by Alfred Jarry published in La Vogue in 1901. This magazine, together with the Mercure de France (where Gide published most of his books between 1897 and 1911) published many first translations of Stevenson in this period. As a reader of literary magazines, a member of a network of Parisian literary friends, and a writer interested in Stevenson, it is probable that Gide read this translation of ‘Olalla’ in 1901. And he had certainly read ‘Will o’ the Mill’ in the same magazine in Schwob’s translation in 1899.(7)

This possible (or probable) early reading could lie behind the interesting parallels between ‘Olalla’ and Isabelle. In any case Gide had read many works by Stevenson before writing his novella and its elements of roman d’aventure and the echoes of Stevenson’s style mentioned above seem clear influences of a writer who Gide admired and saw as a valuable model for renewing the French novel. And although Isabelle has a good number of other literary references and influences, I think that Stevenson and ‘Olalla’ should be numbered among them.


(1) For Gothic and other influence on ‘Olalla’, see Hilary J. Beattie, ‘Dreaming, doubling and gender in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson: The strange case of “Olalla” ‘, Journal of Stevenson Studies 2, pp. 16–17.

(2) Doris Y. Cadish, ‘Ironic Intertexts: Echoes of René in Gide’s Isabelle’, International Fiction Review, 121 (Jan 1985), 37–9; Émile Lavielle, ‘L’intertexte d’Isabelle’, Bulletin des Amis d’André Gide, 86–87 (avril-juillet 1990), pp. 307–320.

(3) Fitzpatrick, ʻR. L. Stevenson, Joseph Conrad and The Adventure Novel: Reception, Criticism and Translation In France, 1880-1930ʼ, Thèse de doctorat, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, 2015, pp. 247, 382, 425. For Gide’s reading of Stevenson, see Fitzpatrick, pp. 425–8. The ‘Manifeste des cinq’ against Zolian Naturalism was published in the Figaro 18 Aug 1887.

(4) For articles in the Nouveau revue française on the roman d’aventure, see Fitzpatrick, pp. 425–56, 546–49. For the way Schwob’s thoughts isnpired the Nrf critics, see Aleksander Milecki, ‘ “Isabelle” ou le refus du roman’, Bulletin Des Amis D’André Gide,18. 86/87 ( 1990), pp. 226–7.

(5) For more on this, see Richard Ambrosini, ‘The Miracle: Robert Louis Stevenson in the History of European Literature’, In Ambrosini and Dury (eds.) (2009), European Stevenson (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), pp. 138–9.

(6) André Gide, Journal I : 1887-1925, ed. Eric Marty (Gallimard, 1996), pp. 682, 745 (as cited by Fitzpatrick, p. 428).

(7) He mentions it in ‘Lettre à Angèle’, published in L’Ermitage, 10 May 1899 (cited by Fitzpatrick, p. 206 n).


leave a comment »

In his essay ‘A Gossip on Romance’ (1882, then in Memories and Portraits, 1887), Stevenson writes

There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral.

The word ‘a-moral’ would have struck contemporary readers as something new.

  • It is the earliest citation in the OED
  • It is apparently not a borrowing from French: in Trésor de la Langue Francaise the earliest use of amoral is attributed to the critic and dramatist Jules Lemaître in 1885, again in contrast with ‘immoral’: ‘[If we consider the world devoid of the idea of merit], S’il n’est pas immoral, il faut qu’il soit amoral‘ (italics in the original) (Les Contemporains, Première série, undated (the Preface says the articles were written in 1884 and 1885), 67).

The word unmoral had previously been used with the same meaning. The OED entry confuses matters by giving one definition for it: ‘Not moral; having no moral sense or standards, immoral; unconcerned with morality’, where they would have done better to distinguish two: ‘1. Not moral; having no moral sense or standards, immoral’ and ‘2. unconcerned with morality’. From the citations, the first use of the word in this second sense is c. 1840–50. So the concept was in the air but expressed by the ambiguous term unmoral.

It was clearly new in the 1880s, as both Stevenson and Lemaître use it in a context that brings out its meaning, and they additionally draw attention to it by the hyphen after the prefix and the use of italics.

However, Stevenson seems to have been preceded in the use of the word by a few years. Advanced Google Book Search reveals an earlier use of amoral in an article in the Quarterly Review for 1874 ‘Primitive Man: Tyler and Lubbock’, which I have found referred to in the Pall-Mall Budget for 31 July 1874, p. 13: ‘[There exists no evidence] for the evolution of a moral state from a pre-existing brutal and amoral (sic) condition of mankind’ (says the PMB reviewer quoting the article in the QR and pointing out the unusual word by the use of sic). The PMB reviewer says that the story of the Fall refers to ‘such an evolution from an “amoral” state of innocence to a moral knowledge of good and evil’ but adds that the important point is that the ‘scruples of savages’ are not ‘real morality’ ‘but rather morality in the act of being evolved out of something “amoral” (we thank the reviewer for that word)’. This shows the coining of the word in the QR in 1874, where it is used of a society ‘without moral standards’ and given a negative connotation in the phrase ‘brutal and amoral’. The PMB reviewer goes on to use it to refer to a society in a state either of Edenic innocence or of savagery, where in the second case amoral again designates a more primitive, less evolved state.

Stevenson therefore did not invent the concept (as it was around in the use of unmoral since c. 1850), nor did he invent the form (which seems to date from 1874), but his innovation is the use of amoral in a neutral and ethical sense: not of primitive and inferior individuals and societies but of morally-neutral choices and actions, since then the dominant use.

An echo of Dickens

leave a comment »

The following observation comes in a message from Alberto Meschiari (author of Le lanterne di stagno. Dieci racconti di commento a Stevenson [Tin lanterns. Ten short stories as a commentary to Stevenson] (2004), which, in indirect ways, develop ideas from ‘The Lantern Bearers’).

Has anyone previously commented, Alberto writes, on the affinities between the following two listings of miscellaneous but eloquent objects in a mysterious chest?

After some search, it [Barkis’s will] was found in the box, at the bottom of a horse’s nose-bag ; wherein (besides hay) there was discovered an old gold watch, with chain and seals, which Mr. Barkis had worn on his wedding-day, and which had never been seen before or since ; a silver tobacco-stopper, in the form of a leg ; an imitation lemon, full of minute cups and saucers, which I have some idea Mr. Barkis must have purchased to present to me when I was a child, and afterwards found himself unable to part with ; eighty-seven guineas and a half, in guineas and half-guineas ; two hundred and ten pounds, in perfectly clean bank-notes ; certain receipts for Bank of England stock ; an old horse-shoe, a bad shilling, a piece of camphor, and an oyster-shell. From the circumstance of the latter article having been much polished, and displaying prismatic colours on the inside, I conclude that Mr. Barkis had some general ideas about pearls, which never resolved themselves into anything definite.

For years and years, Mr. Barkis had carried this box, on all his journeys, every day.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850), ch. 31


Ill. by Hablot Browne (Phiz) (1849)

A strong smell of tobacco and tar rose from the interior, but nothing was to be seen on the top except a suit of very good clothes, carefully brushed and folded. They had never been worn, my mother said. Under that, the miscellany began–a quadrant, a tin canikin, several sticks of tobacco, two brace of very handsome pistols, a piece of bar silver, an old Spanish watch and some other trinkets of little value and mostly of foreign make, a pair of compasses mounted with brass, and five or six curious West Indian shells. I have often wondered since why he should have carried about these shells with him in his wandering, guilty, and hunted life.

[…] Underneath there was an old boat-cloak, whitened with sea-salt on many a harbour-bar. My mother pulled it up with impatience, and there lay before us, the last things in the chest, a bundle tied up in oilcloth, and looking like papers, and a canvas bag that gave forth, at a touch, the jingle of gold.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1881), ch. 4

Ill. by Henriette Munière (1982)

Alberto adds: ‘Despite the their interests in very different areas and their practical lives untouched by art, both pirate and carrier feel a need for beauty, that both approach through a shell that they carry with them wherever they go. This seems a wonderful metaphor. And perhaps here Stevenson was inspired by Dickens.’

To my knowledge no-one has commented on the parallels between these two passages: the examination of the contents of a travelling chest belonging to a person who has just died, and the resulting heterogeneous list of objects (both ending with a shell or shells) that reveal aspects of the owner’s life and inner life. It is not remarked on in the notes to John Sutherland’s edition of Treasure Island for Broadview Press and searches in Google Advanced Book Search with combined key phrases from the two lists has not produced any results.

The two lists, though similar, bring out differences between the two authors: the humorous prose of Dickens, his sentimentality and interest the grotesque detail and human folly; Stevenson’s more concise listing, the brief suggestion of dialogue in ‘They had never been worn, my mother said’ (bringing out the woman’s interest and understanding, and sketching in her pause in the search), and the greater mystery surrounding imaginative life of the owner of the box (unsurprising in the author who was to write ‘The Lantern Bearers’ on this very topic). The narrative voice is very different: Dickens ends with a barrister-like ‘I conclude that’, while Stevenson ends with a more intimate ‘I have often wondered since’.

Stevenson had read David Copperfield: his copy (with marginal notes) was sold in 1914, its present whereabouts unknown. But the person unconsciously influenced by Dickens’s inventory of the dead man’s chest may well have been Thomas Stevenson

My father […] set himself acting to collaborate. When the time came for Billy Bones’s chest to be ransacked, he must have passed the better part of a day preparing, on the back of a legal envelope, an inventory of its contents, which I exactly followed

(‘My First Book: Treasure Island‘)

We may imagine that Thomas Stevenson wrote out the list, while Stevenson fitted it into sentences.

Any such influence (unprovable of course), would in any case not be surprising in a text which Stevenson himself admits (in ‘My First Book’) was created in a spirit of intertextuality both conscious and unconscious.

Written by rdury

15/11/2020 at 7:09 pm

Dedications to Stevenson

leave a comment »

After the post on ‘Stevenson’s dedications to others‘, here are the printed dedications by other to him. These trace a network of friendships and give an idea of his growing repute, while several of them allude to friendship (as in Stevenson’s dedications) and to shared Scottish sentiments. They were appreciated by the recipient; referring to the first from Symonds and Low’s proposed dedication, Stevenson wrote to Low: ‘It is a compliment I value much; I don’t know any that I should prefer’ (L5, 87).

  1. The first book dedicated to Stevenson was by John Addington Symonds, a friend of many conversations at Davos in the winters of 1880–81 and 1881–2, in his Wine, Women, and Song: Mediæval Latin Students’ Songs (London: Chatto & Windus, 1884). It’s in the form of the letter to a friend, a kind of dedication that if not invented by Stevenson, was developed and popularized by him:

2. The following year brought the a dedication to Stevenson from someone not personally known to him (though they had mutual friends), an American couple who had moved to London: the illustrator Joseph Pennell and his wife the writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell. They dedicated their illustrated account of journey from London to Canterbury on a tandem tricycle: A Canterbury Pilgrimage, ridden, written and illustrated by Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell (London: Seeley, 1885). It is an inscription with something of Stevenson’s charm and graceful phrasing:

(For Stevenson’s letter of thanks, see L5, 121–2.)

3. Another admirer unknown to Stevenson personally was Joseph Gleeson White who dedicated to him his Ballades and Rondeaus, Chants Royal, Sestinas, Villanelles, &c. (London: Walter Scott, 1887). This takes the form of a brief inscription followed by a message, not fully in the form of a letter, but with address directly to Stevenson:

(For Stevenson’s thoughts on whether he deserved such praise, See L5, 370.)

4. The following year Will Low, an old and close friend, dedicated to Stevenson his illustrated edition of Keats’ Lamia (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1888) within an illustration:

On the thin scroll above the top border is a quotation in Latin from Cicero ‘There is no more sure tie between friends than when they are united in their objects and wishes’. The text of the dedication displayed by an amoretto is: IN TESTIMONY OF LOYAL FRIEND- / SHIP AND OF A COMMON FAITH IN / DOVBTFVL TALES FROM FAERY LAND, / I DEDICATE TO / ROBERT LOVIS STEVENSON / MY WORK IN THIS BOOK : WHL

The use of ‘doubtful’ to mean (probably) ‘open to many interpretations’ (a meaning not found in the OED) is influenced by a use of French douteux; it imitates Stevenson’s own use of epithets and Gallicisms, creating new meaning through the context of use.

In Stevenson’s copy, sold 1914 (now at Brown University) Low, in 1928, added a long note to the flyleaf, in which he says it was 

a book which held for Stevenson and myself more than the text, more than the drawings, would imply. The common faith “in doubtful tales from fairyland”, was more than a form of words it was the basis of our friendship.

Stevenson wrote to Low thanking him for ‘the handsome and apt words of the dedication (L5, 62–3) and sent him a poem in thanks (‘Youth now flees on feathered foot’, L5, 164)

5. The same year brought a dedication on a work of visual art, the gilded copper plaque by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Robert Louis Stevenson, in the first version (1888):

The panel includes Stevenson’s poem ‘To Will H. Low’ above Stevenson’s lifted hand holding a pencil, and in the top right-hand corner the dedication: TO ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON / FROM HIS FRIEND AUGUSTUS / SAINT-GAUDENS. The bond of friendship (here, between three friends) is again specifically mentioned, as in many of Stevenson’s own dedications to others.

6. In 1891 Marcel Schwob dedicated to him his Cœur double (Paris: Ollendorff) with the the simple inscription: A / ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON. But in the presentation copy he sent to Stevenson he added the following in English below:

To Robert Louis Stevenson this book is dedicated in admiration of ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Kidnapped’, ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, in the name of the new shape he has given to the romance, for the sake of our dear Francis Villon — Marcel Schwob.

7. In 1892 the critic George Saintsbury, fellow Savile Club member, dedicated to Stevenson his edition of The Essays of Montaigne Done into English by John Florio (London: David Nutt), with another simple inscription:

The ‘contrivers’ included W. E. Henley, general editor of The Tudor Translations series of which this was one. Henley’s original idea had been to dedicate it to ‘To the R.L.S. of Virginibus Puerisque, Memories & Portraits, Across the Plains’ (letter to Baxter, 4 May 1892; Yale, B 4633), associating the volume of Montaigne specifically with Stevenson the essayist (possibly also intended as the early Stevenson, from in the period when they had both been close friends). Perhaps Saintsbury, the austere critic, did not approve the association of Stevenson the essayist with the acknowledged master of the genre; for whatever reason, the resultant dedication seems strangely unbalanced.

8. The same year Alan Walters dedicated to Stevenson his Palms & Pearls; or: Scenes in Ceylon (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1892). Walters, clearly trying too hard, produced an elaborate classical-style inscription:

9. A classical inscription, but in contrast concise and densely poetic, was also chosen by S. R. Crockett for his dedication to The Stickit Minister (London: Fisher Unwin, 1893):

Stevenson was touched by this evocation of the hills of Galloway (seen on his ‘Winter’s Walk’ in January 1876), while ‘the graves of the martyrs’ made him think instead of Allermuir close to Swanston (familiar from his student days and through his early career) (L8, 159, 193–4). It inspired him to write a poem (later included in the posthumous Songs of Travel of 1895) and include it in the letter of thanks to Crocket (L8, 152–4). The first of the three stanzas is: ‘Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying, / Blows the wind on the moors today and now, / Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying, / My heart remembers how!’ The last line of this first stanza then inspired Crocket to change the last line of his dedication in future editions so that it echoed Stevenson’s poem:

In addition to the changed last line to the Dedication, the ‘second edition’ (1894) has a ‘Letter Declaratory’ beginning ‘Dear Louis Stevenson’ modeled on Stevenson’s own elegant dedicatory letters, preceded, on the page facing the dedication, by a facsimile of Stevenson’s MS poem and a transcription of it .

10. The last dedication to Stevenson was a dedicatory poem in Scots by his friend Andrew Lang in The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, ed. by Robert Kirk and Andrew Lang (London: David Nutt, 1893). This addresses ‘Louis’ in a far land where the inhabitants know nothing of Scottish religion (self-mockingly presented) but have many supernatural tales, and encourages him to tell them Scottish supernatural tales, which ‘stamped wi’ TUSITALA’S name / They’ll a’ receive them’ and ends with the world-weary poet wishing himself to be taken away by the fairies. Here is the first of the seven verses:

Written by rdury

06/10/2020 at 4:53 pm

Stevenson’s dedications to others

with one comment

Cope Cornford on Stevenson’s Dedications

Leslie Cope Cornford, a novelist and journalist specializing in maritime matters, published one of the earliest studies of Stevenson in 1899: Robert Louis Stevenson, a short volume just under two hundred pages, part biographical, part critical. The last section of the penultimate chapter, devoted to ‘His Style’, begins as follows:

But Stevenson’s most notable achievements as an executant were, perhaps, his Dedications. It is upon record that Thomas Stevenson, when all books failed him, as books will fail us all at times, would take down the volumes of his son and read the Dedications therein. These, at least, never, to the last day of his life, failed to give him the same pleasure. Since Ben Jonson wrote, there have been no better examples of this form of composition, made up, as the perfect Dedication must be, of tact, delicacy, eloquence, and cunning craftsmanship.

(p. 191)
Leslie Cope Cornford (1867–1927)

The present-day reader is surprised; why would Cope Cornford pick out Stevenson’s Dedications for such praise?

Cope Cornford was a friend and later biographer of W. E. Henley, and had worked for him on the National Observer, and in the Preface he thanks him for his help. We know that Henley felt he had been mistreated by Stevenson, so we can perhaps see Henley’s influence in the choice of the word ‘executant’ (also the last word in the book), which implies that Stevenson was essentially a wonderful craftsman, attentive to form, and the choice of his Dedications for high praise may fit into the same relativization of achievement.

Yet at the same time Cope Cornford also admired Stevenson, and, no doubt inspired by Treasure Island, was to publish his own pirate romance The Last Buccaneer in 1902. In the quotation just given he seems to be in two minds: his acclaim seems genuine, he really does find the Dedications worthy of praise, and he goes on to quote with approval from those for Virginibus Puerisque (to Henley). The Merry Men (to Lady Taylor), Travels with a Donkey (to Colvin), The Master of Ballantrae (to Sir Percy and Lady Shelley) and Catriona (to Baxter).

The anecdote of Thomas Stevenson at the end of his life reading Stevenson’s Dedications is touching, and gives an idea of the pleasure, gracefulness and charm of Stevenson’s style in these short texts: ‘tact, delicacy, eloquence, and cunning craftsmanship’.

What follows is an attempt to understand more fully why anyone should select Stevenson’s Dedications as one of his notable achievements.

Dedications before Stevenson

The dedication in from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries typically took the form of the dedicatory letter displaying rhetorical skill to a high-status dedicatee who is treated with ceremonious praise, while at the same time the ‘little book’ is modestly down-played. The heyday such long epistolary Dedications was ca. 1560 to 1720 (Manfred Görlach, Text Types and the History of English (Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004), 114) and ‘the long type of dedicatory letter was definitely dead by 1800’ (ibid., 120).

Dedications were either absent from a volume or confined to the brief, centrally aligned inscription headed by the word ‘To’. However, the importance placed on friendship by the Romantic poets led to a brief season in which the link of friendship is stressed in an affectionate dedicatory letter.

Byron dedicated The Corsair (1814) to his friend Thomas Moore in a long letter (also functioning as a preface) beginning ‘My dear Moore’; and dedicated the fourth canto of Child Harold (1818) to another friend John Cam Hobhouse in a similar long letter, beginning ‘My dear Hobhouse’, praising him as ‘a friend often tried and never found wanting’. Shelley, similarly, dedicated his verse drama The Cenci (1919) in a letter to Leigh Hunt, which starts as follows:

and ends thus:

Dedications in Stevenson’s day

The first study of Dedications was Henry Wheatley’s Dedication of Books to Patron and Friend: A Chapter in Literary History (1887). In his last chapter ‘Modern Dedications’ he says ‘As formerly no book was issued without a dedication, so now few are published with them’. Although Wheatley unfortunately overlooks Stevenson, his testimony shows how at this time Stevenson’s books—almost every one with a dedication—must have stood out as unusual.

Novels were not normally associated with dedications: Dickens has brief inscriptions in only two of his (Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend), Thackeray dedicated Pendennis (1850) to his doctor in a brief letter of gratitude for his attentions the previous year; George Eliot and Thomas Hardy did without dedications; Meredith and later Conrad confined themselves to brief inscriptions.

As for essays, Lamb’s Essays of Elia are playfully dedicated ‘To the Friendly and Judicious Reader’, but there are no dedications to Leigh Hunts Essays, Hazlitt’s Table Talk, Alexander Smith’s Dreamthorp or Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers.

The only example I have found from the immediately preceding period that seems close to Stevenson’s dedicatory letters—perhaps the gentle reader may find some others—is Edward Bulwer Lytton’s dedication to Caxtoniana of 1863, one of the essays of which is referred to by Stevenson in 1868 (L1, 147). This has the same allusion to shared memories and emphasis on friendship:

Stevenson’s dedications

As we have seen, apart from Caxtonianiana (and any other—I suspect, rare—examples), the lack of dedications in contemporary collections of essays must have meant that to the first readers it would have been a surprise to open Virginibus Puerisque in 1881 and see the collection of previously published essays presented as a self-standing work and with a dedicatory letter (not even preceded by the title ‘Dedication’) written in a foregrounded style, with a bold beginning reminiscent of the brusqueness of Bacon or Thomas Browne:

and ending elegantly, emphasizing the bonds of friendship with the dedicatee:

Leaving aside the volumes co-authored with Lloyd Osbourne, for which there are no dedications, Stevenson wrote ten dedicatory letters, six inscriptions and four dedicatory poems (and also inscriptions, to Lang and Meredith, to two of the plays written with Henley). They are notable for their elegant style and affectionate tone, emphasizing in most cases the ties of friendship and shared memories. In some cases there are allusions that only the dedicatee can understand, as in the dedication to Baxter of Kidnapped, in which he refers to ‘the old Speculative’, ‘the inglorious MacBean’ and ‘that great society, the L.J.R.’ Such details emphasize that this is indeed a private communication, and in the dedication to Sidney Colvin of Travels with a Donkey he even playfully suggests that the ordinary reader is just helping to pay for the delivery of the dedicatory letter to the dedicatee:

Stevenson’s influence

To estimate Stevenson’s influence in the writing of dedications would require a separate study, but here are two examples. First of all, the dedication to Critical Kit-Kats (1896) by Stevenson’s friend Edmund Gosse. It is a long, personal, friendly, stylishly witty dedication letter to Thomas Hardy, with reference to conversations and long friendship:

It ends, like Stevenson’s dedication to Henley with a hope for continued friendship in the future:

And for a second example, let us take John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an adventure romance that owes something to Kidnapped, dedicated to the Scottish rugby player and publisher Thomas Arthur Nelson (killed in France two years later):

Other examples of such dedications are welcomed from the gentle reader. For the moment, though, perhaps we have understood a little more why Stevenson’s dedications stood out for his first readers as artistically innovative, as something unexpected and new.

Written by rdury

23/09/2020 at 7:55 am

RLS’s Bournemouth reading

with one comment

Following the post on Stevenson’s Bournemouth, here are four listings of books that were acquired and read in the Bournemouth years. They were obtained by filtered searches on the RLS Library Database (http://bit.ly/RLSLibrary) .

Facts, raw data, bits of information etc. as stored in records and surveys, are themselves sterile and need to be selected, isolated and linked to stimulate understanding. This explains the eternal fascination of lists and the way the few facts on a series of tombstones can open up unsuspected stories. Let’s see what we can do by grouping together some of the entries in the RLS Library Database concerning books that Stevenson read while in Bournemouth.

None of the descriptions of Skerryvore mention bookshelves or bookcases, but we may imagine that books would have been kept in the drawing room and in the separate bedrooms of Fanny and Louis. The following lists contain the books that were probably acquired in the Bournemouth years. There were other books, with the Skerryvore bookplate too, but they had been acquired earlier and had been transported from Edinburgh or Hyères, and these have been excluded. Like the casual visitor who looks over the bookshelves or at the books lying on tables while waiting alone in a room, running the eye down these lists (in the momentary absence of the master and the mistress of the house) gives us some idea of the interests, current interests, and character of their owners.

The first list gives an idea of a network of literary friends sending each other copies of their latest books. One unexpected result of this listing is that it includes two books published in 1886 that their authors call a shilling romance or shilling dreadful—the same format/genre adopted by the Stramge Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, suggesting how this work inspired others to try their hand at something similar. There are also presentation copies from their Bournemouth friends the Taylors and (following Stevenson’s growing repute) a number of unsolicited books, some welcome, others less so.

Stevenson’s Skerryvore bookplate


1. Presentation volumes from friends and other writers

received 1884

Vernon Lee [Violet Paget], The Countess of Albany (1884)
          probably a presentation copy, untraced; discussed in a letter to the author, Oct 1884

received 1885

John Webster, Edmund Gosse (ed.), Love’s Graduate (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘Robert Louis Stevenson from his friend Edmund Gosse 5. 6. 85.’

Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, A Canterbury Pilgrimage, Ridden, Written, and Ilustrated by J. and E. R. P. (1885)
          a tandem tricycle journey from London to Canterbury; volume dedication to Stevenson: ‘To Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, We, who are unknown to him, dedicate this record of one of our short journeys on a Tricycle, in gratitude for the happy hours we have spent travelling with him and his Donkey’; RLS replied with thanks in July 1885: ‘when I received the Pilgrimage, I was in a state (not at all common with me) of depression, and the pleasant testimony that my work had not all been in vain did much to set me up again.’ (L5, p.121).

Julian Russell Sturgis, John Maidment (1885)
          presentation copy, untraced; letter from the author, 27 Nov 1885: ‘I venture to send you my new book, hoping you may find something to like in it’ (McKay, 4, 5825, p. 1654)

Sir Henry Taylor, Autobiography of Henry Taylor, 1800-1875 (1885)
          probably a presentation copy, untraced; letter to the author 24 Dec 1885: ‘I have at last read your autobiography, and that with so lively a pleasure that I cannot resist writing to thank you etc.’ (L5, pp.160-1); reply 25 Dec 1885: ‘It is a real and fine pleasure to me that that book of mine has given you pleasure & especially that your admiration of those whom I admired has fixed itself upon my step mother’ (McKay, 4, 5838, p.1658)

John Keats, Will H. Low (ill.), Lamia (1885)
          volume dedication to Stevenson: ‘In testimony of loyal friendship and of a common faith in doubtful tales from faery land, I dedicate to Robert Louis Stevenson my work in this book          WHL’; see letter from RLS to Low, 2 Jan 1886: Lamia has come and I do not know how to thank you not only for the beautiful art of the designs, but for the handsome and apt words of the dedication etc.’ (L5, p.163)

Charles Warren Stoddard, A Troubled Heart and How it was Comforted at Last (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘Louis and Fanny Stevenson – with the love of their devoted friend, the author.’

Henry James, The Author of Beltraffio, etc. (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘Robert Louis Stevenson, from his friend of many evenings, Henry James’

William Wilberforce Newton, Summer Sermons from a Berkshire Pulpit (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription to RLS; at Yale, inscription not seen

Gabriel Sarrazin (ed.), Poetes modernes de l’Angleterre (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription to RLS; inscription not seen

received 1886

William Sharp (ed.), Sonnets of this Century (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘To Robert Louis Stevenson in slight acknowledgment of an irredeemable debt of pleasure—from William Sharp January ‘86’; Sharp produced a second edition including ‘The Touch of Life’, one of the two sonnets that Stevenson sent with his reply (Letters 5, pp. 191–2)

William Sharp (ed.), Sonnets of this Century (large paper copy) (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘To Robert Louis Stevenson, with high regard — William Sharp’, from a letter sent in Dec, this was sent early Nov 1886 (McKay, 4, 5488, p.1574)

John Coventry [John Williamson Palmer, After his Kind (1886)
          untraced presentation copy from an American physician and poet; see RLS’s cool reply, 13 Feb 1886: ‘Thank you for your letter and book, which is of more promise (in my eyes) than performance’ etc. (L5, p. 201)

Edmund Gosse, From Shakespeare to Pope. An Inquiry into the Causes and Phenomena of the Rise of Classical Poetry in England (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘Robert Louis Stevenson from his friend Edmund Gosse – 28/3/86’

Andrew Lang, The Mark of Cain (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription : ‘A. L. can scribble, A. L. can scrawl, / A. L. can rhyme all day, / But he can’t hit it off with a shilling romance, / For, – he never was built that way! / A. L. // To the author of / The Hells of Gourock. / Mr. Hide and Dr. Seek-ill. / A Sequel. / In Fact / To R. L. Stevenson. / puris omnia pura’ (L5, p. 253); see letter from RLS to Lang, May 1886: I have never thanked you for the magnificent Mark de luxe. I had already read it in the bob [= shilling] form etc.’ (L5, p.253); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was also in price and format ‘a shilling romance’(see note for Vernon Lee below)

William Archer, About the Theatre. Essays and Studies (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription on half-title: ‘Robert Louis Stevenson  from W. A. 5 June: 86’

Edmund W. Gosse, Raleigh (1886)
          probably a presentation copy, untraced; letter from RLS to Gosse, 29 July 1886: ‘I must not lose a moment in congratulating you on your Raleigh. It is a thoroughly sound piece of narrative, and brilliant, not in patches, but by general effect etc.’ (5, p. 295).)

William Smith, Morley, Ancient and Modern (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘To R. L. Stevenson, Esq., with the Author’s kind regards, Morley, Aug. 17, 1886.’; Skerryvore bookplate; in a letter accompanying the book dated 17 Aug 1886, the author asks if he could have a copy of one of Stevenson’s works with an autograph inscription; local history and description of a Yorkshire town

Vernon Lee [Violet Paget], A Phantom Lover (1886)
          presentation copy, untraced, sent with a letter in which the author calls it a ‘shilling dreadful’, McKay, 6, p. 2556; see letter from RLS, late Aug 1886: I am just but returned and have found the dreadful and your note etc.’ (L5, pp. 306-7); another ‘shilling dreadful’ possibly inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (see Andrew Lang above)

Aubrey de Vere, The Search after Proserpine and other Poems (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘R. Louis Stevenson, from Aubrey de Vere, August 31, 1886’; letter from RLS to Ida Taylor, late Aug / early Sept 1886: I am death on [= (slang) enthusiastic about] Aubrey de Vere’s poems, and shall write to him soon (L5, p. 308); de Vere was a cousin of the Stevensons’ Bournemouth friend Lady Taylor

John C Dunlop & Alison Hay Dunlop, William Hole (ill.), The Book of Old Edinburgh (1886)
          presentation copy from Stevenson’s friend William Hole, illustrator of Kidnapped and author of the illustrations in the book; see letter from RLS to Hole, late Sept 1886: ‘Many thanks for the beautiful book: some of the pictures are most engaging, and some very spirited’ (L5, p. 325)

Ida A. Taylor, Allegiance: a Novel (1886)
          probably a presentation copy, untraced

Richard W Gilder, Lyrics (1885)
          presentation copy with inscription: ‘To Robert Louis Stevenson, with the regard & admiration of his friend, R. W. Gilder – Oct. 1887’; Skerryvore bookplate; Gilder was poet and editor of the Century Magazine in which The Silverado Squatters had been published in 1883

received 1887

Sir Stephen Edward de Vere, Translations from Horace and a few original Poems (1886)
          presentation copy with inscription to RLS, 1887; elder brother of Aubrey de Vere


2. English language literature

Excluding books known to have been acquired and read later

published 1884

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
          read enthusiastically immediately upon London publication in Dec 1884; Henley was among the earliest reviewers (Athenæum, 27 Dec 1884 (L5, pp. 41, 80; L6, pp. 161–2)

published 1885

H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
          probably sent by Henley with recommendation: cf. Henley’s letter to RLS, 16 Oct 1885: ‘How do you like King Solomon’s Mines? I think it is blamed good. Not art, of course; but a good deal of blazing imagination’ (Atkinson, p.144).

George Meredith, Diana of the Crossways (1885)
          published 16 Feb 1885; in a letter c. 6 May 1885 RLS says he is ‘sitting now in the porch, now out on the gravel, reading Meredith, looking at the rhododendrons and red hawthorn’

Brander Matthews, The Last Meeting (1885)
          sent by Henley; letter from Henley to Brander Matthews 24 Dec 1885: ‘I am going to send Louis the Last Meeting. Whatever he says of it you shall hear’; letter from RLS to Henley early Jan 1886: ‘Brander Matthews is one of the damndest idiots on record. He had better stick to criticism; the reviews on his swindle of a story are a disgrace to journalism’ (L5, p. 174); how Henley replied to Matthews is not known

Henry James, Stories Revived (1885)

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1885?)
          Skerryvore bookplate

Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1885?)
          Skerryvore bookplate

published 1886

George Bernard Shaw, Cashel Byron’s Profession (1886)
          recommended by William Archer (perhaps sent as a gift by him); see RLS’s enthusiastic letter to Archer of March 1886 (L5, 224–5)

Andrew Lang, Letters to Dead Authors (1886)
          untraced; bought by Stevenson himself; see letter from RLS to Lang, c. 10 March 1886: Letter from [Bournemouth to Andrew Lang, [c10 Mar 1886: ‘I treated myself to your Dead Authors, by way of an unbirthday present; and I can fancy none better. I think it the best thing you have done, I have read it once, much of it twice, and am not yet done reading etc.’ (L5, pp. 226–7).

Andrew Lang, In the Wrong Paradise: and other Stories (1886)

Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
          untraced; see letter from RLS to Hardy, June 1886: ‘I have read The Mayor of Casterbridge with sincere admiration: Henchard is a great fellow, and Dorchester is touched in with the hand of a master. Do you think you could let me try to dramatise it?’ (L5, p. 259)

Alfred Tennyson, Locksley Hall Sixty Years After etc. (1886)
          possibly acquired later

Eric Sutherland Robertson (ed.), The Children of the Poets. An Anthology from English and American Writers of Three Centuries (1886)
          sold at auction 1914, untraced; possibly a presentation copy; Robertson was a London-based Scottish man of letters who RLS probably knew


3. French and Russian literature

Excluding books known to have been acquired and read later

published 1884

Dostoievsky, Le Crime et le chatiment [Crime and Punishment] (1884)
          see letter Letter Henley, early Nov 1885: ‘Dostoieffsky is of course simply immense: it is not reading a book, it is having a brain fever, to read it etc.’ (L5, p. 151

Dostoievsky, Humiliés et offensés [The Insulted and the Injured] (1884)
          see letter to Symonds, early March 1886: ‘even more incoherent than Le Crime et le Chatiment; but breathes the same lovely goodness, and has passages of power’ (L5, pp. 220–1)

Alexandre Dumas, Le vicomte de Bragelonne (1884)
          ‘I have now just risen from my last (let me call it my fifth) perusal’, ‘Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’ (1887)

published 1885

Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin sur les Alpes (1885)
          possibly acquired later

Alexandre Dumas, La tulipe noire (1885)
          possibly acquired later

Ernest Renan, Dialogues et fragments philosophiques (1885)
          possibly acquired later

Jules Verne, La Jangada: huit cent lieues sur l’ Amazone (1885)
          with inscription: ‘Mrs. Osbourne’s copy — Eastham, Bournemouth West’; Eastham was the name of the house in Bournemouth West (exact location unknown, but somewhere near Skerryvore) where Lloyd was a resident pupil of the Rev. Henry John Storr (see L4, p. 41n), though he had left to go to Hyères in 1883 and by late Feb/early March 1885 he was a student at Edinburgh University (L5, p. 80); perhaps Fanny lent the book after a social visit

published 1886

Octave Feuillet, La Morte (1886)
          possibly acquired later


4. Other books acquired and read 1884–87

Excluding books bought in the USA, Sep-Dec 1887

published 1881

George Meredith, The Tragic Comedians (1881).
read on the train to London during his years in Bournemouth (1884–87) as reported by William Sharp (Literary Geography (1904), 20–23).

published 1884

Margaret Stuart (Mrs. Calderwood), Alexander Fergusson (ed.), Letters and Journals of Mrs. Calderwood of Polton, from England, Holland and the Low Countries in 1756, (1884)
          sold at auction 1914, untraced; Skerryvore bookplate; much local colour in chapters 21–3 of Catriona comes from here

published 1885

Horace Beng Dobell, The Medical Aspects of Bournemouth and its Surroundings (1885)

Henry Bruce and David Chalmers, Mr Gladstone and the Paper Duties, by Two Midlothian Paper-Makers (1885)
          untraced, sold at auction 1914; possibly left behind at Skerryvore by Thomas Stevenson

William Kingdon Clifford, The Common Sense of the Exact Sciences (1885).

Clifford was a fellow member of the Savile Club, first met through Sidney Colvin in late August 1873 (see the continuation of ‘Memoirs of Himself’ dictated in Samoa, Vailima Edition, 26 (1926), 235-236)

John S. Keltie, A History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland Regiments (1885)

Fulke Greville, The Greville Memoirs (Second Part). A Journal of the Reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1852 (1885)
          sold at auction 1914, untraced; Skerryvore bookplate; for the planned Wellington biography

Leslie Stephen, Dictionary of National Biography (1885–), earliest volumes

Lady Adelaide Cadogan, Illustrated Games of Patience (1885)
          Skerryvore bookplate

Gustave Strauss, Philosophy in the Kitchen: General Hints on Foods and Drinks. By an Old Bohemian (1885)
          RLS’s Skerryvore visiting card as bookplate

published/read 1886

William Youatt, The Dog (1886)
          veterinary treatise

Charles Warren Stoddard, Summer Cruising in the South Seas (1881)
          Skerryvore bookplate; orignally published in 1873, the same year as the American edition (with the title South-sea Idyls), which Stevenson also possessed (probably a gift from the author in San Francisco in 1880). Stevenson was re-reading one of these in Feb 1886 for the purpose of choosing extracts for a proposed anthology of prose to be selected with Henley (L5, pp. 198, 200, 203)


Written by rdury

27/07/2020 at 4:15 pm

Stevenson’s Bournemouth

with 8 comments

Version 1.7

Inspired by Andrew O’Hagan’s recent article, I here provide some additional information about Stevenson’s house in Bournemouth and about his time there. Any contributions and corrections to the following can be made in the Comments and will then be incorporated and acknowledged in an updated version of the posting.

I. Skerryvore in Stevenson’s day

Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous house of Skerryvore, where he lived from April 1885 to August 1887, was at 61 Alum Chine Road in Westbourne, only just recently included in Bournemouth, and about a half hour’s walk NW of the centre. Travelling by train from London Waterloo you went to Bournemouth station, 4 km away at the eastern end of town (the nearer Branksome station was built later). The house, destroyed by a stray World War II bomb, is now reduced to low walls tracing the outlines of the house plan, set amid a public park.

Fig. 1. Skerryvore today: line of the of drawing room walls with bay

But what was it like in Stevenson’s day?

Michael Stead of Bournemouth Libraries has found plans from 1880 made for the previous owner Captain Best when the house was named Sea View. The following plans (Fig. 2) have South (and the garden) at the top, North (and the road) at the bottom:

Fig. 2. Skerryvore, 1880 additions, ground floor plan
(Bournemouth Library)
Fig. 3. Skerryvore, 1880 additions, plan and west elevation
(Bournemouth Library)

The additions planned in November 1880 (so probably carried out in 1881) are coloured red: they consisted of a large kitchen area (with floors above) and an adjoining ‘veranda porch’ with W.C. (Fig. 3) and then a separate stable block and coach house between the house and the road (Fig. 2).

The path on the left of Fig. 2 leading to the ‘yard’ behind the kitchen was the one to which Henry James (mistaken for an expected carpet dealer) was directed to by the maid Valentine Roch on his first visit in April 1885 (L5: 104).


Plans from 1900 (Fig. 4) show further additions made at that date: 1. extensive additions the North side of the house incorporating the former stable block and adding a separate small bicycle house, and an additional bay window to the South side. The plans also show that a small infill extension has been built at some time in the angle made by the outside walls just South of the veranda porch.

Fig. 4. Skerryvore, 1900
(from a bookseller’s catalogue)

The bay window is shown in the South elevation ‘New Bay Facing Garden’:

Fig. 5. Skerryvore: dining room bay addition, 1900

Photographs and drawings with the additional bay therefore date from after 1900:

Fig. 6. Skerryvore, after 1900

1. Entrance

In the 1880 plan (Fig. 7) the porch was open but this could have been altered during construction or later.

Fig. 7. Skerryvore,
1880 additions, veranda-porch and new block behind
(Bournemouth Library)

Adelaide Boodle describes the first visit to the house with her mother: there was something wrong with the bell ‘and in that hospitable porch, all prepared with seats, we had to wait for several minutes and finally to pull a second time’ (Boodle, 6).

William Archer in 1887 refers to

tthe little porch veranda enclosed with wire netting, the model in Skerryvore granite of Skerryvore light, designed to serve as a lamp to this vestibule […] Behind it is a panelled wall, the divisions of which are in time to be filled up with mural paintings by the artists who are among the most frequent guests at Skerryvore. Some of the panels are already occupied — two at least by the pleasant landscape-work of Mr H. R. Bloomer, the American painter, one of Mr Stevenson’s oldest friends […].

Archer, qu. Terry, 106

(So Bloomer, then living in Chelsea (L5: 356), must have made an otherwise unrecorded visit to Bournemouth.) Archer says that the panelled wall with painted panels was ‘behind it’—this could mean behind the model lighthouse, but that would mean the panels would be exposed to the elements, or more probably behind the porch veranda, i.e. behind the front door and in the hall or vestibule with the staircase.

A photograph taken after Stevenson’s time (Fig. 8) shows the porch closed by a wooden screen, the upper half apparently glazed.

Fig. 8. Entrance porch post-1880 with corner infill to the right

Perhaps the squares in the upper porch façade, if they existed in Stevenson’s time, were filled by Archer’s wire netting in 1885. The netting was presumably to keep out birds—but this would only work if there was a door that could be closed and which must open and hidden in the photograph.

2. Dining room

The two rooms at the garden (south) side of the original house were the dining room, on the left in the two plans above (Fig. 2 and 4); and on the right a drawing room (with a bay window facing the garden).

The dining room had a fireplace on the North side (Fig. 4). The decor of the room in 1887 is described by Stevenson’s friend Wiliam Archer, a frequent guest at Skerryvore:

Over the fireplace is an engraving of Turner’s ‘Bell Rock Lighthouse’, built by Stevenson’s grandfather. Another wall is adorned by two of Piranesi’s great Roman etchings, between which hangs the conventional portrait of Shelley (a gift from his son, Sir Percy Shelley […]), with under it a portrait of Mary Wolstonecraft.

Archer, qu. Terry, 106

Fig. 9. W. M. Turner, ‘Bell Rock Lighthouse During a Storm’,
engraved by J. Horsburgh (Library of Congress)
Fig. 10. Giovanna Battista Piranesi, ‘Tomb of Cecilia Metella’, not necessarily the print owned by Stevenson (L4, p. 265), as Piranesi did several views of the tomb


Which room was the blue room?
Archer goes on to mention ‘the Venetian mirror, presented to the poet by that “Prince of Men, Henry James”‘ and he quotes the poem by Stevenson which refers to it as opposite the fireplace in the ‘blue room’. This leads us to a problem because Archer says specifically that the mirror and other items of decor so far mentioned are ‘in the “blue room” […]. It is an ordinary English dining-room’ (qu. Terry, 106). However If we compare details of two of Sargent’s portraits of Stevenson:

Fig. 11. Details of Singer Sargent portraits of Stevenson:
A. 1885 (Fig. 16), B. 1887 (Fig. 18)

From the discussion of these two portraits below, it is clear that A., which from the view through to the entrance-hall can only be the dining room, has walls painted pompeian red, while B., which from the furnishing can only be the drawing room, has walls painted cornflower blue. Hence it is the drawing room that must have been called the ‘blue room’ while the dining room was probably called the ‘red room’.

Since Stevenson places the Venetian mirror in the ‘blue room’ in his poem, that is definitely where it was in 1886, i.e. in the drawing room. Archer has not only confused the colour scheme of the two rooms but has placed in the dining room a mirror that was certainly in the drawing room in February and March 1886 (see below and L5: 210, 222–3). It is of course possible that it was moved to the dining room later, but from practical knowledge of how people tend not to change room decor, one should assume that it stayed in the drawing room and that Archer is confusing the two rooms.

And the most likely source of his confusion is the fact that there was another and distinctly different mirror in the dining room. This was a convex mirror, possibly also opposite the fire, but not James’s present, as Stevenson says in a letter of late July 1885, ‘We have bought a convex mirror for the dining room’ (L5: 122). This confusion of mirrors, plus the poem that locates James’s mirror in the blue room is perhaps the origin of the mix-up. If so, Archer’s description of other items in the dining room is going to be reliable.

Fig. 12. Convex mirror, RLS Museum, Samoa
(see Notes at the end of the post)

Archer continues that below the mirror (i.e. the convex mirror, possibly on the wall opposite the fireplace) were ‘buccaneering weapons […], some of which were presented to Mr Stevenson as having belonged to Pew and Long John Silver’. One of these, perhaps the first, was ‘Long John Silver’s’ pistol given to Stevenson by Henley’s brother Joe as a birthday present in November 1884 (L5: 31). Then there were photographs of Sidney Colvin and Sir Henry Taylor; an etching by Stevenson’s friend Will Low; a watercolour of the nearby New Forest by Henley’s brother Anthony; and some prized blue china. In his later description of the drawing room (see ‘2. Drawing room’ below), Archer specifically refers back to the photo of Colvin in the dining room.


In which room was the photo taken of Stevenson looking up from writing?
The well-known writing portrait photograph of 1885 was taken in front of a bay window, of which there were three in Stevenson’s day: on the east wall of the dining room, on the south wall of the drawing room, and on the same wall of the floor above, no doubt a master bedroom. (The south bay window of the dining room shown in the 1900 plans did not exist in Stevenson’s day). But which room was it? if we compare the proportions of the lower part of the central window in the photograph (Fig. 13)

Fig. 13. Stevenson, Skerryvore 1885

with the South elevation drawing from 1900 (Fig. 14),

Fig. 14. Skerryvore South elevation bay windows (from Fig, 4):
A. bedroom, B. drawing room, C. dining room

it is clear that it is not the bedroom (A), and since the south bay of the dining room (C) did not exist, it is either the drawing room (B) or the east bay of the dining room, for which no elevation has yet been found. We can exclude the drawing room windows (B) as decidedly narrower than those of the photograph, which leaves the east dining room bay. It is possible that the later south bay (C) was modelled on this, and here the proportions are certainly closer than to the narrower drawing room windows. In addition, Stevenson is not writing at a work desk but what could well be a dining room table. William Archer tells us that the dining room had Sheriton furniture taken over from the previous owner, so this could possibly be a Sheriton dining table such as the following:

Fig. 15. Sheriton dining table (later 18th cent.)

It seems, therefore, that the photo was taken in the dining room with the east bay window in the background.


In which room did Stevenson do his writing?
Unfortunately, from the size of the paper, Stevenson in the famous photo must be writing a letter and not Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. However we know that he wrote most of this and other works in bed or anyway in his bedroom: his stepson said that ‘came down to luncheon’ after writing all morning, and the family occasionally saw him ‘sitting up in bed, writing, writing, writing, with the counterpane littered with his sheets’ (Osbourne, 62, 66). Of all the rooms in the house his bedroom was most probably the room above the drawing room, with its bay window and a glimpse of the sea.

If we visit the site of Skerryvore today, the stones might at first seem uneloquent, but we need to use a little imagination, stand in the space behind the south-west bay window where the drawing room was (easy to identify), and think hard that it was in the bedroom above this that Stevenson wrote two masterpieces both published in 1886, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped.


Where was Sargent’s walking portrait painted?
One of Singer Sargent’s famous paintings of Stevenson at Skerryvore shows him and Fanny at the other end of the dining room.

Fig. 16. John Singer Sargent, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife’ (1885); Fanny is sitting in ‘Henry James’s Chair’ that had belonged to Stevenson’s grandfather (now in the RLS Museum, St Helena)
(Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

If we compare this with the relevant part of the 1900 plans (Fig. 17, here turned with part of the dining room at the bottom), we can see that what is visible through the door at the back of Sargent’s picture is the hallway with the staircase and, at the far end, the half-glazed door to the entrance porch.

Fig. 17. Skerryvore, part of dining room, hallway with stairs and door to veranda porch

3. Drawing room

It was in the drawing room that there were the unconventional wickerwork armchairs (and an unusual rug) and a large oaken cabinet as shown in the Sargent seated portrait (Fig. 18).

Fig. 18. John Singer Sargent, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’ (1887)
(Taft Museum of Art)

Fanny describes ‘a side wall’ (possibly the west wall) of the drawing room in a letter of February 1886 accompanied by a sketch:

Fig. 19. ‘side wall’ of the drawing room, Feb 1886

A magic mirror has come to us which seems to reflect not only our own plain faces but the kindly one of a friend entwined in the midst of all sorts of pleasant memories. […] The above, as you will readily perceive, is the present aspect of the side wall of our drawing room, correctly and carefully drawn. Miss Taylor’s beautiful work, Mr Lemon’s adorable picture of horses, the magic mirror, Sargent’s picture of Louis, and the copy of Chatterton.

Fanny Stevenson, Joint letter with RLS, 25 Feb 1886 (L5, p. 210).

(Clearly Fanny had tried unsuccessfully to sketch the picture of Chatterton and then blacked it out.)

Venetian Mirror Square MG 002063
Fig. 20. square Venetian mirror

Stevenson’s wrote James a poem, to thank him for the gift and sent it in a letter of 7 March 1886 (L5: 222-3). It includes the lines

To the sparkling fire I face
In the blue room at Skerryvore

‘The Mirror Speaks’, Underwoods

This shows that there must have been a fireplace in the drawing room, not shown on the plans above. If the mirror was on the west wall, the the fireplace was on the east.


Archer’s 1887 description of the drawing room.
In 1887 William Archer describes other items of decor (items placed in bold here for the reader’s convenience):

It is not encumbered with superfluous furniture […] Halfway along one side of the room runs a low divan formed of a series of oak boxes covered with yellow silk cushions. Lounging chairs, mainly of light wickerwork, are scattered about, and a large oaken cabinet stands beside he door. It is surmounted by a beautiful group in plaster executed as an illustration to one of Victor Hugo’s poems by the French sculptor Rodin […]. This group is flanked by a couple of grinning Burmese gods; and, perhaps to counteract the influences of these uncanny deities, a Catholic devotional image of ancient date stands in an opposite corner. Over the cabinet, again, hangs a beautiful ‘Landscape with Horses’ by Mr Arthur Lemon, with a photograph of the late Prof. Fleeming Jenkin to the right of it and one of Mr W. E. Henley to the left, both being, like the photograph of Mr Colvin in the dining-room, the work of a private friend. From another wall, Mr John E. Sargent’s [sic, John Singer Sargent] half-grotesque yet speaking portrait of Mr Stevenson himself looks out at us livingly. It represents him pacing noiselessly up and down this very room [actually the dining room, see above] […]. Underneath this quaint little picture hangs a copy by Miss Una Taylor […] of what purports to be an authentic portrait of Chatterton, with hard by it an imposing piece of flower-embroidery, framed and glazed, by the same accomplished lady. Over the divan some curious little wood-cuts […] are pinned to the wall. They illustrate a certain moral ballad of a converted pirate, and are the work of Mr Stevenson himself […].

(Terry, pp. 107–8)
Fig. 20. Rodin, L’éternel printemps
(from the 1914 Anderson sale of Stevenson’s MSS, books and artefacts (Lot484) with a dedication taken from Rodin’s letter added by RLS to the base
Fig. 21. Arthus Lemon, painting
(not the one from Skerryvore; see below)
Fig. 22. from ‘Rob and Ben, or The Pirate and the Apothecary’ (in Robert Louis Stevenson, Moral Tales)

The Sargent portrait over Una Taylor’s picture of Chatterton and her flower embroidery nearby agree with Fanny’s description from February 1886, but Arthur Lemon’s landscape with horses has been moved over the cabinet on another wall. Presumably the Venetian mirror was also there in 1887 and on the same wall facing the fire.


The Arthur Lemon paining of horses is now at the RLS Museum at St. Helena, California.

Fanny ‘was nearly always to be found after luncheon’ in the Blue Room (Boodle, 13).

If any reader knows of illustrations and present whereabouts of any of the items from the dining or drawing room, please add a comment about it and the information with acknowledgements will be added to the posting.

4. Stable

Another 1880-1 addition was the stable block and yard. The stable roof had a picturesque feature: what looks like a louvered belfry topped by a conical ‘cap’ and a weather vane. Adelaide Boodle tells us that the stables were not used (p. 1), so the Stevensons were not ‘carriage folk’. The stable yard was ‘a sheltered little place, paved with red brick’ (p. 15), later dedicated to Fanny’s cultivation of tomatoes ‘at that date very little cultivated in England’ (p. 115)

Fig. 23. Skerryvore, 1880 additions, stable block
(Bournemouth Library)

The stable block can be seen in a photograph dated to 1898 (Fig. 24, from O’Hagan) with behind it a three-storey block built after Stevenson’s time, but not yet linked to the original house as in the plans of 1900 (Fig. 4).

Fig. 24. Skerryvore 1898

II. Stevenson’s Bournemouth

This section deals with the other houses where Stevenson lived in Bournemouth and the houses of his Bournemouth friends (the people described by Andrew O’Hagan in his LRB article).

Fig. 25. Stevenson’s Bournemouth
to enlarge, right-click and choose View Image

1. Stevenson’s Bournemouth residences

  1. 12–19 July 1884: the Highcliffe Mansions Hotel, a large new modern hotel on the cliff top opened in 1872; now the Bournemouth Highcliff Marriott Hotel, 105 St Michael’s Road.
  2. 19 July to c.16 September 1884: Sunnington Rise, a boarding house on West Cliff Gardens.
  3. c. 16 Sept–5 Nov 1884: Wensleydale, ‘one of a tall row of lodging-houses on the West Cliff of Bournemouth [West Cliff Gardens], overlooking the sands below, and with a glorious sparkling view of the Needles and the Isle of Wight’ (Osbourne, 51). The exact location of these two boarding houses has not been ascertained, but there’s a good chance that the houses still exist as there are numerous Victorian houses along the street.
    In these first residences near the centre of Bournemouth Stevenson was busy writing plays in collaboration with Henley.
  4. 5 November 1884 to early May (29 Apr–early April) 1885: Bonallie Tower, a recently built furnished house on Burton Road in Branksome Park, an area of scattered houses among pine trees just west of Bournemouth; the house (later renamed ‘Blythswood’) was demolished in the 1970s and the site of Boanllie Tower will be under the garages of what is now ‘Lissenden’ , 1 Burton Road. No photographs seem to have survived, though Lawrence Popplewell says ‘The surviving property next door [at No. 3] was probably almost identical (without the tower) and probably by the same builder” (Dorset Echo). (Fig. 25, drawn before the information from Popplewell, shows the house on the correct side of the street but too far south: it was the second house from the north end of the street.)
    Here he wrote ‘Markheim’, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ and ‘On Style in Literature’, finished writing ‘The Dynamiter’ in collaboration with Fanny and continued writing plays with Henley.
  5. Early April 1885 to 20 August 1887: Sea View, immediately renamed Skerryvore, bought by Thomas Stevenson as a wedding gift for Fanny.
    Here he wrote his Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ‘The Misadventures of John Nicholson’, ‘Olalla’, Kidnapped, and published A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, Underwoods and Memories and Portraits. These were, as O’Hagan says, ‘the best years of his writing life’.


  1. arr. evening 12 July (Letters 5: 1–2)
  2. arr. 19 July (Letters 5: 3 n6)
  3. resident here for Visitors’ Directory for 17 Sept; first letter addressed from here 28 Sept (Letters 5: 7)
  4. first letter dated from here 5 Nov 1884 (Letters 5: 19)
  5. 8 Apr RLS’s parents moved into lodgings “to be out of the way of the flitting”; 13 April Henley wrote: ‘”I hope and trust you […] are well through the horrors of flitting” ‘ (Letters 5: 104): However, still res. in 4. for Visitors’ Directory of 29 Apr (with Sea View unoccupied); res. in 5. for VD 6 May where name already Skerryvore). They possibly had rented Bonalie Towers for six months from 5 Nov. 1884 to 5 May 1885 but moved in the first half of April.

2. A network of friends

Henry James arrived in Bournemouth on 18 April 1885 to be near his sick sister and stayed at St Albans Cliff boarding house in South Cliff Road (where now the BIC conference centre is; the exact location of the house on maps of the period has not been found). He first came to call at the end of April and then came ‘every evening after dinner’ (L5: 104), walking there from the centre of town just under half an hour away. When he left Bournemouth at the end of June after ten weeks of frequent visits, both Louis and Fanny felt his absence keenly (L5: 120).

Sir Henry and Lady Taylor with their two daughters Ida and Una lived near the centre of town at ‘The Roost’, a villa in Hinton Road (since demolished and the exact location not yet ascertained). In May 1885 they began a close friendship with the Stevensons, following an introduction by Wilfred Meynell, who Stevenson knew through the Savile Club (L5: 109). The Taylors were also friends of the Shelleys.

Sir Percy Shelley and his wife lived at the grand mansion of Boscombe Place, 6 km away, halfway between Bournemouth and Christchurch, 2.5 km on the eastern side of the centre of Bournemouth. No doubt they sent their carriage to pick up the Stevensons when they were to visit.

Adelaide Boodle, 26 years old, lived with her parents on the Poole Road in a house called Lostock on the corner of the semicircular Seamoor Road (in Fig. 20 it is placed on the western corner, but it could have been on the eastern corner.) She heard the news that a writer called Stevenson (and thought it must be the Stevenson who had written An Inland Voyage and ‘The Treasure of Franchard’), now living in Bonallie Tower, was about to move to a house even closer to hers. She persuaded her mother to join her on a formal call to the new house in the spring of 1884, and found the Stevensons still unpacking after moving in. As she was interested in writing some time later she plucked up the courage to ask if it would be possible to have lessons. Fanny at first did this to save her husband the strain, but then Louis took over. An interesting record of Stevenson’s teachings is given in her later memoir R.L.S. and his Sine Qua Non. As she walked down Middle Road (now Robert Louis Stevenson Avenue) she would see Skerryvore ahead of her at the end of the street.

In addition to local friends, the Stevensons had many visits from family and London friends, sometimes being unable to accommodate them all at Skerryvore: Stevenson’s parents, cousin Bob Steveneon and his wife, Bob’s sister Katherine De Mattos and children, W. E. Henley, Charles Baxter, Sidney Colvin, Mrs Fleeming Jenkin, ‘Coggie’ Ferrier (sister of his close friend James Walter Ferrier who died tragically young), John Singer Sargent, James Sully, William Archer, Arthur Meredith, and others (Fanny Stevenson, xvi–xvii; Balfour II, 7-9; Boodle, 98).

Skerryvore marked the end of Stevenson’s Bohemian years. After his happy years in Hyères, in Bournemouth he was often seriously ill and confined to the house, but he produced masterpieces, had the enthusiasm to study and write music, and the ‘evenings of interesting, clever, and brilliant talk were amongst the pleasantest experiences’ of his life (Fanny Stevenson, xvii). It was, perhaps, ‘the time of his life’.

Although Lloyd claimed that Stevenson never spoke about Skerryvore with regret (Osbourne, 59), in December 1889 he wrote to Colvin that with his Edinburgh home now empty it was Colvin’s apartment in the British Museum that was home for him, though ‘some passing thoughts there may be of the rooms at Skerryvore and the blackbirds in the chine on a May morning’.


Thanks to Michael Stead of Bournemouth Libraries who found the 1880 Skerryvore plans and then shared them with me.
Thanks also to Roger Swearingen for information on items in the RLS Museum, St Helena, California.
Thanks to Mafalda Cippolone for the images of Stevenson’s Rodin sculpture, of a convex mirror and of a landscape with horses by Arthur Lemon; as Roger Swearingen says, the actual painting and perhaps the mirror should now be in the RLS Museum, St Helena. The convex mirror in the RLS Museum, Vailima, is probably not Stevenson’s but is placed there to reproduce the furnishing in Stevenson’s time.
Thanks to Neil Macara Brown for indicating another bookseller offering the 1900 plans for sale.


William Archer, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson at “Skerryvore” ‘, Critic, 5 Nov 1887, 225–7; repr. in part in R. C. Terry, Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996), 106–8.

Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson., 2 vols (London: Methuen, 1901).

Adelaide Boodle, R. L. S. and his Sine Qua Non (London: John Murray, 1926).

Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 8 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), vol. 5.

Andrew O’Hagan, ‘The Bournemouth Set’, London Review of Books, 42.10 (May 2020), available online.

Lloyd Osbourne, An Intimate Portrait of R.L.S (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924).

Lawrence Popplewell, The Search for Bonallie Tower: RLS in Branksome Park (Bournemouth: Melledgen Press, 1996, rev. ed. 2002). Not seen. For a report on the books findings, see ‘House Detective’, Dorset Echo 21 June 2005.

Fanny Vandergrift Stevenson, ‘Prefatory Note’, in Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Fables (London: Heinemann (Tusitala Edition), 1924), xv–xviii.

Written by rdury

18/06/2020 at 7:13 pm

Stevenson and Bourget: an enigma

leave a comment »

Why was RLS so enthusiastic about Sensations d’Italie?

Paul Bourget

Paul Bourget (1852–1935), French critic, essayist, novelist and poet, much appreciated in his own day, is not now widely known even in France. The publisher’s presentation of an introductory volume Avez-vous lu Paul Bourget? (2007) begins by saying that he is now ‘little known, even scorned’ (‘méconnu, voire méprisé’). Quite a downfall for a writer who was nominated for the Nobel prize no fewer than four times.

Stevenson’s reaction to Sensations d’Italie

Bourget’s friend Henry James sent Stevenson a copy of Sensations d’Italie (1891), which he later described to Stevenson as ‘one of the most exquisite things of our time’ (Letters of Henry James, I, p. 188). Stevenson was enthusiastic—sent off immediately for all Bourget’s essays and at the same time wrote ‘I have gone crazy over Bourget’s Sensations d’Italie (L7, 197, 205) and told James ‘I am delighted beyond expression by Bourget’s book; he has phrases which effect me almost like Montaigne’ and the following day told him, ‘I have just been breakfasting at Baiae and Brindisi, and this charm of Bourget hag-rides me. […] I have read no new book for years that gave me the same literary thrill as him Sensations d’Italie‘ (L7, 210–11) Not only this, but he looked forward to meeting Bourget on a planned trip to Europe and dedicated Across the Plains to him, the only one of his volumes not dedicated to a personal friend or family member.

You cannot step twice into the same book

Some years ago, inspired by such an impressive recommendation, I bought a second-hand copy of Sensations d’Italie, expecting it to be a cross between Montaigne and Proust and promising myself an exquisite reading experience. Unfortunately, what struck me then were the mentions of trains and inns and long appreciations of paintings. It did not resemble Stevenson’s own travel writing: there are no descriptions of his feelings or of the people he meets, no detached irony.

Why was Stevenson so enthusiastic? The best way to answer this question would be to look at his copy of the book with his scorings and approving underlinings. It is in the Fales Library of New York University on Washington Square in Manhattan—which unfortunately is closed because of the present pandemic emergency, and probably will be closed after that as closure for renovation was planned from May to September 2020.

NYU Bobst Library, containing (3rd floor) the Fales LIbrary (special collections)

Stevenson’s copy being unavailable, I decided to re-read the copy I had with a fresh eye, suppressing the expectations of the previous occasion.

Amazingly, this time I read a different book. I noticed the essayistic passages about art and artistry, the ethical, psychological and aesthetic passages and the embedded narratives with striking and memorable details. The uncomfortable trains and inns were still there, but this time they faded into the background.

What Stevenson may have appreciated

We cannot be certain about what Stevenson liked about Sensations d’Italie but we can make an educated guess, especially concerning aspects that might have found an echo in his own thinking. When Stevenson’s copy of Sensations d’Italie becomes available again, it will be interesting to see which of the following passages are marked. (Quotations are from the 1892 English translation, Impressions of Italy, with page references followed by page references of Sensations d’Italie.)


Affiinities with Montaigne

One clue from Stevenson’s letters on the book is his praise for ‘phrases which effect me almost like Montaigne’. I think perhaps he may be thinking here of Montaigne’s striking metaphors (such as that of the give and take of conversation being like playing tennis). Here is what seems a Montaigne-like metaphor:

In every work of art, whether it be a picture or a book, a statue or a piece of music, there is a hidden principle of life, that is to say, a secret virtuality unsuspected by the creator of the work. Have you ever seen a ropemaker at his work, walking backward without looking where he is going ? We are all, great and small, working like him, half consciously, half blindly, and above all we do not know what purpose our work will serve when it is finished. (p. 126; SdI, pp. 129–30)


Affinities with Stevenson’s style:

1. Chapter 17 begins realistically with the ‘local train which moves almost like a steam tramway’ across ‘the vast plain of Apulia’ but then it changes register to the imaginative picturesque as Bourget’s destination reminds him of the story of how Manfred, last of the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Sicily, following defeat by Charles of Anjou and the revolt of his barons, sought refuge in Lucera ‘among his father’s Saracens’.

The story, too long to quote in full here, reminds me of Stevenson’s praise of ‘the poetry of circumstance’, ‘the fitness in events and places’, and ‘fit and striking incident’, ‘which stamps the story home like an illustration’ (in ‘A Gossip on Romance’). It has elements that are similar to the assassination of Archbishop Sharp that had long fascinated Stevenson and that he recounts in ‘The History of Fife’. In short, I hereby predict that when the volume in the Fales LIbrary can be consulted again, the pages containing the story of Manfred’s flight (SdI, pp. 179–82) will be approvingly marked in Stevenson’s hand.

Bourget says that the story is recorded by a chronicler ‘with a rare mixture of strength and simplicity’ (reminding me of Stevenson’s attraction to the prose of the Covenanters), it is a kind of passage that is ‘short, but which remain in the memory’ (‘si courtes mais qui restent dans l’esprit‘), like the ‘striking incident’ praised by Stevenson in ‘A Gossip on Romance’. Bourget then quotes the words of the chronicler:

He accordingly set out on a November night, accompanied by a scanty escort, to ride across this plain of Tavoliere to an asylum of which he was not even sure. The rain was falling. ‘It augmented,’ says Jamsilla, ‘the darkness of the night. The prince and his companions were unable to see one another. They could recognize each other only by the sound of the voice and by the touch. They did not even know whither the road they were following led, for they had ridden across the open country in order to throw possible pursuers off the scent.’ (p. 175; SdI, pp. 180–1)

After a bivouac overnight Manfred arrived at the walls of Lucera where ‘he was obliged to make himself known — an incident so romantic as to seem taken from a romance [trait si romanesque qu’il en semble romantique] — by his beautiful fair hair.’ The Moors had orders not to admit him, but said he could get round the order by entering through the sewer. Manfred prepared to do this and then (in the words of the chronicler) ‘This humiliation of the son of their beloved emperor awakened their remorse. They broke down the gates and Manfred entered in triumph.’

2. The only clue from his letters as to what part of Bourget’s book he might have found fascinating is the comment, ‘I have just been breakfasting at Baiae and Brindisi, and this charm of Bourget hag-rides me’. It should be mentioned, however, that Bourget does not go near Baiae or Naples, so Stevenson has just introduced that name for the alliteration to suggest a large part of southern Italy. Brindisi, however, is there and is associated with a haunting impression:

by having heard, by hearing still, the clanking of the chains worn by the galley-slaves resounding through the castle on the seashore. I have seen many prisons and many abodes of misery, […], but nothing has pierced my heart like the sound of those chains, forever and forever accompanying my steps, as I walked through the courts and the halls of the fortress. […] The noise made by each one, walking with his heavy step, is slight ; but all these slight sounds of iron clanking against iron unite together in a sort of metallic roar, making the whole fortress vibrate. It is indistinct, mysterious, sinister’ (pp. 217–18; SdI, p. 222–3)

This reminds me of the haunting sound of the waves in Treasure Island and in other texts by Stevenson.

3. Perhaps too Stevenson appreciated impressionistic descriptions that reminded him of his writing in the 1870s, such as:

Little girls […] whisper and laugh together and shake their pretty heads, bright patches on the dark background of the church [taches clairs sur le fond obscur de l’église]. (p. 74; SdI, 75)


Ethical concerns

Stevenson admired those who did what they thought was right and bravely faced the consequences, like the Covenanters and Yoshida-Torajiri, with his ‘stubborn superiority to defeat’, and Bourget provides us with another example of such a type. In ch. 21 he visits the castle of duke Sigismondo Castromediano: a ‘deserted manor’ where everything shows ‘a strange abandonment’, yet inhabited by the eighty-year old Duke who

has suffered all the tortures of a proscription as cruel as that of the companions of the Stuart conspirator. He threw himself, heart and soul, into the movement against the Bourbons of Naples, after the events of 1848. Arrested and condemned to death, his sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life in the galleys, and, refusing to sue for pardon, he was for eleven years a galley-slave. (p. 241; SdI, p. 246)

Eventually he escaped to England and returned at the time of Garibaldi. The castle ‘he has left untouched whether from a stoical indifference in regard to the comforts of life, acquired in misfortune, or from pride in his sufferings’ (p. 242; SdI, p. 247).


Psychological concerns

1. From about 1880 Stevenson was increasingly interested in how we can understand the world-view of people from very different cultural traditions, and we find this too in Bourget:

[the myths of the ancients:] the human feeling which underlies their religious ideal makes it possible for us to have communion with them, in spite of the differences of creeds and customs. (p. 92; SdI, p. 95)

2. In two essays written in 1887 ‘Pastoral’ and ‘The Manse’, Stevenson speculates on inherited primitive memories and how his ancestors are a part of him and he found some similar thoughts in Bourget:

the innumerable threads which heredity inextricably weaves into our being, so that in the sincere Christians of to-day their pagan ancestors, and other ancestors of still darker beliefs, live again (p. 273; SdI, p. 279).

3. The following passage has various echoes in Stevenson’s idea of constant variation in identity;

[T]he varying complexity of the I [la complexité changeante du moi] (pp. 56–7; SdI, p. 58)

4. In Bourget, Stevenson would have found ideas that were close to his own about the moral nature of the artist, about ‘the sympathetic interpretation of feeling’, and about the hidden feelings and motives that he explores in ‘The Lantern Bearers’:

talent has always, and without exception, a close resemblance to the moral nature of the individual. I mean a certain sort of talent; that which consists neither in facility of execution, nor a profound knowledge of effects, but in a sympathetic interpretation of feeling. The facts of a man’s life are so little significant of his real nature! The likeness of us which our actions stamp on the imagination of others is so deceptive! Do others, even, ever thoroughly understand our actions, and if they understand them are they able to unravel their hidden motives? Do we confide to others the world of thoughts that has stirred within us since we have come into existence: our inmost feelings, the secret tragedy of our hopes and our sorrows, the pangs of wounded self-love, the disappointment of ideals overthrown? (p. 45; SdI, p. 46)

Neither the doctrines of these believers nor their prejudices concern us any longer; it is their I — like ours in its secret needs, but which possessed what we so greatly desire — yes, it is this pious and heroic I which kindles our fervor from the depths of the impenetrable abyss into which it has returned. (p. 140; SdI, p. 143–4)


Thoughts on art

Finally, Stevenson was interested not only in theories of narrative and in technique and style but also in the philosophy of art, the nature of artistic genius, common elements of all the arts, the relationship between the artist and the finished work, the elusive charm of the artistic experience. Bourget too was interested in these aesthetic questions and in his book Stevenson would have found a writer with whom he could engage in an exchange of ideas.

‘Why, recognizing in every human action something of unconsciousness and of destiny, should we not admit that the genius of the great artists was greater than they themselves knew?’ (p. 53; SdI, p. 53)

Is the purpose of literature, then — I mean literature which is worthy of the name — different from that of the other arts — music and architecture, sculpture and painting ? Like them, and in a language of its own, what does it express but shades of human feeling? (p. 130; SdI, 133–4)

The supreme gift reveals itself in them [artists of genius], as it does wherever it is met with, by the master virtue, unerring clearness of vision. (p. 137; SdI, pp. 140–1)

This word [charm], so vague in its signification, […] is the only one which expresses the magic of certain […] works, shadowy, incomplete, […] but by which one feels one’s self loved as by a person, and which one loves in the same way. There are two classes of artists who have always shared between them the dominion of the world: those who depict objects, effacing themselves altogether ; and those whose works serve chiefly as a pretext to lay bare their own hearts. It is in vain that I admire the former with my whole strength and tell myself that they will never deceive me, while the sincerity of the others is often doubtful and they may always be suspected of posing — my sympathies go with the latter, it is with them I like to be. (pp. 117–18; SdI, pp. 120–1)

a book […] is not entirely the same a hundred years after it has been written. The words are unchanged, but do they preserve exactly the same signification ? What reader of intellectual tastes does not understand that for a man of the seventeenth century Racine’s poetry was not what it has become for us ? (p. 127; SdI, p. 130)

RLS on his father

with 4 comments

Father and son relationships are often difficult, and the Stevenson family was no exception. For an idea of how this may have influenced RLS’s writings we need only think of the overbearing father figures in his fiction.

An interesting document in this regard is the record of his father’s ‘faculties’ (bodily and mental characteristics and aspects of personality) in the copy of Galton’s Records of Family Faculties in the library at Vailima and now at Yale, reproduced in Julia Reid’s Robert Louis Stevenson, Science and the Fin de Siècle:

Julia Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle (2006), pp. 66–7.

Reid says this is ‘in Fanny’s hand’ but it seems clear to me that it is by Stevenson himself. Take the word ‘dark’:

and compare it with the same word in ‘Memoirs of Himself’ written in 1880:

Here we see the very typical R-shaped ‘k’ and the inverted-v ”r’. Other typical features (not shown here) are the lead-in line to the ‘f’ rising to a spur and the same in the case of the ‘b’ but the ‘p’ starting with a hook. Having studied Stevenson’s handwriting for some time, my opinion is that this is written by him not Fanny. This only makes the entry more interesting.

An interesting description

The description of ‘Character and temperament’ begins ‘choleric, hasty, frank, shifty‘. The adjective ‘hasty’ must be used in the sense of ‘quickly roused to anger; quick-tempered, irritable’ (OED). It is interesting that we find the same adjective applied to a father in Kidnapped

his gillies trembled and crouched away from him like children before a hasty father.

Kidnapped, ch. 23

Hastie is the first name of the white-haired Dr Lanyon in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and he is quick tempered in his outbursts against Jekyll (‘scientific balderdash’, ‘I am quite done with that person’), a habit of thoughtless and absolute rejection that makes him similar to Jekyll (who uses the same words as Lanyon when he twice repeats that he is ‘done with’ Hyde).

The last adjective is ‘shifty’. I don’t think that can mean ‘dishonest, not to be depended on’ etc. There’s no entry for the word in the Dictionary of the Scots Language but I can imagine it had a special use north of the border from two OED citations:

1859 […] The canny, shifty, far-seeing Scot
1888 W. Black [writer of the kaleyard school] In Far Lochaber xxiii She was in many ways a shifty and business-like young person

So it could have the positive meaning of ‘well able to shift for oneself’. But context is very important in determining meaning and here the other three adjectives are about the quality of interactions with others rather than such a practical ability, so perhaps we should search further. Some help comes from Stevenson’s use of the word in his essay on John Knox:

He was vehement in affection, as in doctrine. I will not deny that there may have been, along with his vehemence, something shifty, and for the moment only; that, like many men, and many Scotchmen, he saw the world and his own heart, not so much under any very steady, equable light, as by extreme flashes of passion, true for the moment, but not true in the long run.

Here ‘something shifty, and for the moment’ is associated with ‘vehemence’ and ‘passion’. It looks like a ‘shifty’ person is someone who changes position and beliefs as his passions dictate. Could this be the authoritarian person who can quickly justify any action?

Some more evidence of Stevenson’s use of the word is found in Weir of Hermiston (ch. 2), where the elder Kirstie has only the company of the maidservant

who, being but a lassie and entirely at her mercy, must submit to the shifty weather of “the mistress’s” moods without complaint, and be willing to take buffets or caresses according to the temper of the hour.

Here ‘shifty’ is associated with the changeable and unpredictable moods of an authoritarian person and this might fit Thomas Stevenson better.

Finally, in the company of the other three adjectives ‘frank’ probably doesn’t mean ‘open, sincere’ but more ‘candid, outspoken, unreserved’.

An unpublished letter from Stevenson to Violet Paget (Vernon Lee), 1885

with 2 comments

This post is contributed by Lesley Graham, presently working on Uncollected Essays 1880–1894 for the Edition.

Earlier this year a manuscript letter by Robert Louis Stevenson was found by Petersfield Bookshop between the pages of a volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters to his Family and Friends (ed. Sydney Colvin). The bookshop posted photographs of the two-page letter to their Twitter account (23 July 2019).  The letter does not appear in the eight-volume Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (Yale Univ. Press, 1994-5) and is transcribed below for the first time.

Violet Paget (1856–1935) wrote under the pseudonym Vernon Lee. She was an essayist, travel writer, critic and author of supernatural and short fiction with a scholarly interest in eighteenth-century Italy. When this letter was written in 1885, having lived in various parts of Europe, she was dividing her time between her family home in Florence and extended visits to England. She and Stevenson shared many friends and acquaintances — Henry James, J. A. Symonds, Horatio Brown, John Singer Sargent, Anne Jenkin etc. — but they do not appear ever to have met in person. Two letters from Paget to Stevenson are held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, but have never been published in full (Yale, GEN MSS 664 box 17 folder 453; B 5363-5364). The earlier of these is dated 6th August 1885 and written on stationery marked 5 via Garibaldi, Florence. It is Paget’s first contact with Stevenson and clearly prompted the reply published here. The second is dated August 10, 1886. Stevenson’s unfinished reply to this later letter appears in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (vol. 5, p. 306).

Stevenson’s letter touches on three topics: a discussion of the necessary permissions for the translation of two of his works into Italian; acknowledgment of receipt of a work by Vernon Lee, and most interestingly a sympathetic discussion of the character of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and what Stevenson sees as Vernon Lee’s unflattering and one-sided treatment of him as a repulsive drunk in her account of the life of his wife (Princess Louise Maximilienne Caroline Emmanuele of Stolberg-Gedern, 1752–1824) in The Countess of Albany (London: W. H. Allen, 1884). Stevenson mentioned the prince in Kidnapped the following year, 1886:

‘the Prince was a gracious, spirited boy, like the son of a race of polite kings, but not so wise as Solomon. I gathered, too, that while he was in the Cage, he was often drunk; so the fault that has since, by all accounts, made such a wreck of him, had even then begun to show itself. (R. L. Stevenson, Kidnapped (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 162)

He was also to write about the Prince several years later in the novel fragment The Young Chevalier (1892), which paints a brief but psychologically nuanced  portrayal of

a boy at odds with life, a boy with a spark of the heroic, which he was now burning out and drowning down in futile reverie and solitary excess (in Weir of Hermiston and other fragments, the Edinburgh Edition, vol. 26 (Edinburgh: Constable, 1897), pp. 82–3)

— a portrait in line with the plea for indulgence expressed in this letter.  (For more on Stevenson’s treatment of the Young Pretender, see Lesley Graham, “Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Young Chevalier’: Unimagined Space”, in Macinnes, German & Graham (eds), Living with Jacobitism, 1690-1788: The Three Kingdoms and Beyond (London : Pickering & Chatto, 2014), pp. 63–83.)

The bottom right hand corner of the first page of the letter is torn and the ends of four lines are consequently missing. In each case, our best guess as to the missing words or letters has been inserted between square brackets with a question mark.

Oct 14. 1885

Dear Madam,
I shall attend to the affair of Signora Santarelli [1] with my best diligence, which is a relative diligence. It is right, however, that I should explain to you how I stand. If the permission be granted in the case of the first series it will be of the grace of Messrs Chatto & Windus; and if in the case of the second, [2] Signora Santarelli will have to divide her thanks between the authors and Messrs Longman. So far as the authors are concerned, it is already done; neither my wife nor I would dream of denying any invalid what may possibly prove to be an entertainment: we have both unfortunately too much reason to sympathise with the sick.

            Your Prince [3] has arrived only this morning; and I have only read the introduction: if the rest be at all of a piece with it, you have sent me a great treat.

            I believe we have two more common friends than you all[ude?] to [4]: Symonds [5] and Prince Charlie. I, who had mostly s[tolen?] the bright pages of Charle’s [sic] Stuart’s life, felt it as perhaps[s a?] defect in your very interesting “Countess of Albany”, that yo[u had] failed to bring out the contrast. He was a bright boy; rather he was the bright boy of history, full of dash, full of endurance[,] full of a superficial [6] generosity, of blood more than of mind; he lived through great feats and dangers not unworthily. I should have liked perhaps, if you could not screw out a tear over so base a fall, that you had smiled a little sadly. We may all fall as low before we are done with it, and not have the picturesque and generous to look back upon. And indeed if you introduce your pretty countess to the bottle and keep her for months in Hebridean caves [7] with no other consolation, I suspect she would sink as low.

            I am a fault finder in grain [8] and you must not wonder if I sieze [sic] on the occasion of your letter to pick this quarrel which I have long been musing.

(I am amused at the way in which I have bracketed the living lion and the dead dog, [9] but I meant no disrespect to either, surely not to Symonds), With many thanks Believe me

Yours truly
Robert Louis Stevenson

Miss Paget.


[1] Signora Sofia Fortini-Santarelli: translator, wife of Cavaliere Emilio Santarelli of Florence who owned relics of the Young Pretender. She translated various works of Herbert Spencer, Ouida, and Symonds’s The Renaissance in Italy. In her letter, Paget describes her as “a lady who has taken to translating for the pastime which her recuperation affords her in a maiming & incurable malady”.

[2] the first series … the second: New Arabian Nights (1882) and More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter(1885). The latter was written in collaboration with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson

[3] Your Prince: Vernon Lee, The Prince of the Hundred Soups: A Puppet Show in Narrative (1883), a harlequinade.

[4] common friends: Paget had mentioned Henry James and John Sargent as friends they had in common.

[5] Symonds: John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), essayist, poet, and biographer best known for his cultural history of the Italian Renaissance.

[6] superficial: after this word Stevenson wrote, then deleted, ‘and not very wise’.

[7] in Hebridean caves: Charles hid out in some remote refuges in Benbecula and South Uist between April and June 1746.

[8] in grain: through and through, by nature (from ‘dyed in grain’, ingrained).

[9] the living lion and the dead dog: i.e. the two “acquaintances” they have in common: J. A. Symonds and Charles Edward Stuart.


Lesley Graham
University of Bordeaux

Written by lgraham

06/10/2019 at 8:15 am