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

Stevenson and Bourget: an enigma

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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

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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-heared 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

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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

Reviews of the New Edinburgh Edition of Virginibus Puerisque

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers ed. Robert-Louis Abrahamson (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).


1. from Howell Chickering, ‘RLA on RLS’, Amherst, Fall 2019, pp. 48–9:

Virginibus Puerisque has a secure place in the history of the English familiar essay, being much admired and often reprinted.  Stevenson took its title from Horace’s Odes III.1 where the poet says he will sing a song “of [or for] maidens and youths.” The first four essays discuss the merits and pitfalls of marriage from the viewpoint of a young man (maidens appear mainly in the title).  Most of the essays in the volume were written during Stevenson’s mid to late 20s, though the voice we hear sounds older and wiser. He proposed to his publisher a series of disparate essays on “aesthetic contentment and a hint to the careless to look around them for disregarded pleasure” to be taken in the things of this world. So among the “Other Papers” we find such topics as “Child’s Play,” “An Apology for Idlers” and “Walking Tours.” (The last should only be taken by oneself.)  Stevenson’s style is undogmatic, playful, both charming and intellectually penetrating. Herbert Tucker, Amherst classmate of Abrahamson and now an eminent Victorian scholar, recalls that, upon first coming upon the book, courtesy of RLA, he was blown away by “the urbane energy that drives the essays unpredictably forward and sideways.”

Abrahamson’s Introduction and the comprehensive discussion of “Stevenson as Essayist” (an article in its own right), along with the copious notes, make it easy to understand and enjoy reading Stevenson in his historical and literary contexts. The whole book is meticulously edited and sets a very high standard for further volumes in the series. In fact, in 2020 the press will publish Essays II: Familiar Studies of Men and Books, ed. Robert-Louis Abrahamson and Richard Dury.

2. from Alan Sandison, in The Bottle Imp, 25 (2019):

The reaction to the appearance of this volume of the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson has, first and foremost, got to be one of gratitude. As the finer distillation of humane sentiment is remorselessly adulterated with every day that passes, we are given another opportunity to listen to the voice which once gave it such eloquent expression; and if we are to take this volume as a fair example of the promise the new edition holds for us, we (and Stevenson) shall be very well served.

There is a pleasing briskness about the opening formalities, though that briskness might have been modified just a little when it resulted in the heading ‘Note on the Text’ losing its indefinite article; but that is an insignificant matter of personal taste. More important is the entirely adequate (as well as economical) defence of the copy text adopted, thus side-stepping a multitude of editorial entanglements.

What the editors cannot escape is an engagement with the definition of the essay – particularly when the exponent can be respectful of the conventions at one moment and at another apparently quite cavalier. The editors are, of course, well aware of just how Protean this writer can be. Yet, though his readiness to exploit different anatomies for the essay-form might have resulted in a random miscellaneity, it doesn’t: to define the nature of the disentropic glue which gives order to his literary world is therefore to define the character of Stevenson the essayist.

So he can refer to these works sometimes as ‘Familiar’ essays, sometimes as ‘Studies’ and sometimes even as ‘Gossips’; and include within these categories further sub-sets. Thus they can sometimes appear in letters as does ‘Night outside the Wick Mail’ in a letter to his cousin Bob, or as ‘essayistic passage’ as in some of his early letters to Fanny Sitwell. ‘The lack of clear literary status for the essays’, write the present editors, ‘is reflected in the arrangement of the Edinburgh Edition proposed by Colvin and accepted by Stevenson: the essays were placed in a series of volumes entitled Miscellanies’.

Confronted by such a various essayistic universe, the editors sensibly invoke Montaigne (a seminal influence on Stevenson) on whose model ‘a collection of essays can be quite varied and built up by accretion’. Hybridity of the sort they encounter allows for some pragmatic interpretation of the rules, a necessity which they turn to advantage so that while their discussion of the essay and of Stevenson as essayist is appropriately discriminating, it is also not too prescriptive, allowing room for Stevenson’s own mutable, iridescent literary persona. Stevenson well knew that he was breaching certain formal boundaries, that his inclination ‘to enter into dialogue with readers “and wander […] into a little piece of controversy”‘, was, as the editors say, not consistent with the typical essay. It was, however, consistent with his ethical and aesthetic principles which emerge from a world-view the editors rightly associate with Montaigne’s scepticism and relativism.

Written by rdury

05/10/2019 at 7:28 am

Posted in News

Writing Explanatory Notes /2

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Understanding (through) Annotations,
15th International Connotations Symposium
July 28 – August 1, 2019, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen (Germany)

The following notes on papers of interest to EdRLS are taken from the book of abstracts.

David Fishelov, ‘Annotating Satirical Texts and Its Limitations: Exemplified by Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels’. This talk tackles the problem of whether providing close contemporary context can go too far, turning the text into a historical document.

I will argue in my paper that by anchoring certain textual elements of satirical texts in a specific historical context, these annotations take the risk of narrowing the semantic potentialities and the universal appeal of these elements. I will further argue that the effectiveness of satirical texts lies ultimately in their ability to transcend the concrete historical circumstances of their composition. Effective satirical texts constantly move between the topical, the universal and the fantastic, and we should be careful not to pay too much attention to topical references found in detailed annotations, lest we turn an effective satire into a historical document.

Lena Linne and Burkhard Niederhoff, ‘Against Interpretation: Annotating Literature as an Embedded Textual Practice’. This talk argues for restraint in annotation

Notes should facilitate rather than interfere, support rather than interrupt. They should enable readers to find their own interpretations instead of imposing a particular interpretation on them. A violation of these principles can be found in Roger Luckhurst’s note on the scene in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which Edward Hyde collides with a girl and then calmly walks over her. Luckhurst suggests that this is an allegory of sexual intercourse or, more specifically, of child prostitution. This note is superfluous or even misleading for two reasons. First, any reader might arrive at the Freudian interpretation him- or herself. Second, the note detracts from an attentive literal reading of the passage which is more interesting and original than the allegorical one. In our talk, we would like to examine three recent editions of Stevenson’s novella by Luckhurst (World’s Classics), Katherine Linehan (Norton) and Richard Dury (Edizioni C. I. Genova) to distinguish necessary and helpful notes from superfluous and misleading ones and to flesh out the principles of an-notation as an embedded textual practice.

[I fear that the Dury edition will provide a good example of excessive annotation. —RD]

Marcus Walsh, ‘Annotating Alexander Pope for Oxford: Theory and Practice’. A General Editor of the planned 24-volume Oxford edition of Alexander Pope addresses practical and theoretical issues of annotation with reference to his section on Annotation for the ‘Editorial Guidelines’.

I shall consider in particular:

The nature and range of our assumed audience (‘scholars and informed modern readers, including the able undergraduate’), and its consequences for our practice;

The approach taken in our edition to linguistic, literary, political, personal, and cultural contexts;

Our approach to the relation of commentary to interpretation, including the selection of contextualising information, the illustration and explanation of allusions, and the necessity and value of lexical notes.

Manfred Malzahn, ‘ “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us”: Self-Annotation in Scottish Literature’. A talk about the function of self-annotation in texts.

I intend to present and discuss samples of footnotes and glossaries to texts by authors such as Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson or Lewis Grassic Gibbon, in which elements of Scots—whether seen as national language or as dialect—are embedded in standard English.

See also Writing Explanatory Notes.

New Edinburgh Essays I published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers ed. by Robert-Louis Abrahamson, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Published October 2018. £80 (and for around £77 from Amazon).

Review by Alan Sandison in The Bottle Imp 25 (2019).

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Writing Explanatory Notes

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I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a new annotated edition I go straight to the explanatory notes—the salted peanuts of the volume as far as deliciousness and difficulty of stopping are concerned. Unlike salted peanuts, however, they are all different: more like a series of entries in that fascinating publication Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It would seem that we are hard wired as a species to like random information—which might explain, to a puzzled observer like myself, the addictive nature of mobile phones.

When it comes to writing such notes, however, you are immediately aware of a series of problems, and it was to share ideas about this that Prof. Burkhard Niederhoff kindly invited fellow essay-editor Lesley Graham and myself to speak for a morning in June this year at the University of Bochum. This gave us an opportunity to think about our experience in writing notes; what follows are a few notes about what was said, followed by a summary of a recent article and information about a conference on this very subject.

General considerations (Lesley Graham)

1. What we annotate. 1. literary, biblical and historical allusions; 2. words that are not immediately understandable; 3. words in a foreign language; 4. proper names; 5. cross-references to themes covered by Stevenson elsewhere; 6. biographical details; 7. facts that can be checked.

2. The imagined reader. Someone a little like ourselves. Not a school child, but not a literary expert either. Not an expert in either essays, history, philosophy, the life of Stevenson or 19th Century philosophy, but someone with a curious mind. Not necessarily a Westerner, but someone with at least a basic knowledge of the Western literary canon. Not a fluent speaker of French or Italian or Scots, or German, nor a reader of Latin, but someone that knows what voilà and al fresco mean. And probably someone who will occasionally like to take some of these notes a little further.
[RD: 1. For the essays in particular, we imagine a range of readers: the notes here, apart from as a way of understanding the text, are going to be read for a wide range of documentary reasons, so, for example, it’s a good idea to provide relevant background biographical information.]

3. Wouldn’t digital annotation be better? Hyperlinks can be detrimental to a profound reading experience; the affect is engaged in different ways when we see an essay as a whole self-standing thing with its own current and internal logic rather than an organic, pulsing jump off point. Our job in the volume is to accompany the reader, without allowing him/her to go off on long detours, in a reflective reading experience, to facilitate the reading of the work, to accompany the reader’s understanding and appreciation of it but doing some of the hard work of establishing context, definition, and allusion but none (or very little) of the joyful, heuristic work.

4. Restraint. There are so many fascinating facts to be found and that may seem highly relevant but when you step back and look at the whole thing again, you realize you have to cull the extraneous material if you want to preserve the joy of discovering the essay for the reader.

5. Some problems found while annotating the essays.
1. Stevenson writes either two or three parish churches: should we supply information where the author is deliberately vague? (in this case, no).
2. Obscure terminology, e.g. travellers, and headers, and rubble, and polished ashlar: should we define terms that Stevenson did not expect his readers to know? (we decided, yes in this case).
3. Avoid self-indulgent additional information, e.g. Turnberry Point: should we mention the Trump golf-course there now? (no; restraint required). Dunfermline, in whose royal towers the king may be still observed (in the ballad) drinking the blood-red wine: in supplying the allusion to the ballad should we add historical information about royal connections of the town (we thought not).
4. And a lord he was (reading a Greek New Testament on the beach of Fair Isle): do we need to identify him? (yes;  Stevenson does so in his letter from Fair Isle).
[RD: Item (iv) is a case of Stevenson’s use of allusions that are known to only a small number of readers or often only by himself. The essay editors in their discussions have called these ‘bald allusions’ and Barry Menikoff, with reference to Kidnapped, has called the phenomenon ‘subtextual meaning’: ‘Stevenson actually defies rather than helps his real readers. He forces them to uncover the allusions for themselves, but nothing is lost if they do not. For the surface prose is sufficient unto itself; the literal meaning of the text can be followed with no difficulty whatever’ (Narrating Scotland, 60; see also 59-60, 91-2, 109). I think it’s clear that the reader of an annotated edition will want to have these allusions explained.]
5. My business lay in the two Anstruthers: do we provide date and Stevenson’s reason for being there? (yes: the essays will be used by those interested in Stevenson’s biography.)
6. Shell House: should we supply more information about this place? (yes: the essay will be used by those interested in local history, so we need to explain the ‘snatches of verse’ and to point out that its location as an ‘outpost’ to Anstruther Wester is the result of a confusion with another shell-decorated house).

6. Excluded from Explanatory Notes in the essays.
1. any analysis of the structure of the essay, of its internal logic.
2.the editor’s personal reading, irrelevant in a scholarly edition. This is at once frustrating (I would love to tell you about how I believe ‘An Education of an Engineer’ is really about the difficulty of communication and the risk of miscommunication, but also humbling and affords freedom for follow up studies and analyses.)

7. Lightness (RD). 1. put first the most important and the relevant things; 2. put things in chronological (and other ‘natural’) order; 3. don’t use complicated series of subordinate clauses etc.; 4. give the most probable explanation without too much hedging.

Writing definitions (Richard Dury)

1. Place the gloss or definition first.
Scots law the legal system of Scotland: under the 1707 Act etc. [more information]
A medlar the fewer on the three-legged medlar-tree! one rotten fruit the fewer on the gallows tree; medlar: etc. [glosses and commentary on ‘medlar’ and ‘three-legged’].

2. Make the gloss syntactically equivalent to the lemma. Examples: check-string cord etc (not ‘a cord’); doubled … with played by the same actor as. The definition should ideally be able to replace the lemma in the text.

3. Don’t copy-and-paste the OED definition. This is difficult in our edition anyway, where the note starts with a lower case letter if preceded by an elided ‘is’ or ‘means’ (e.g. ‘Scots law [is] the legal system of Scotland’) and OED definitions always start with a capital letter; difficult anyway because you will often be glossing a noun or verb not in the dictionary citation form, so the ‘lemma’ followed by the OED definition would not make a coherent sentence (see previous item). Other reasons for adapting the OED definition or writing your own definition are given in the following points. [LG It may be useful to compare the OED definition with other dictionary definitions]

4. Make OED definition clearer and more concise if necessary. OED definitions will cover many cases, for the Explanatory Notes only the relevant parts should be included. You may also be able to make the formulation less wordy than in the OED: e.g. : check-string a string by which the occupant of a carriage may signal to the driver to stop (OED) / cord inside a carriage, pulled to tell the driver to stop.

5. Look critically at OED definitions and the citations. The OED, like all sublunary things, is not perfect; you may need to write a definition not found there, e.g. the entry for hold the candle does not mention its use (from French) of ‘assist in a love affair’, though Stevenson uses the phrase alluding to this meaning on at least a couple of occasions. In other cases, reading the citations carefully will reveal a meaning not listed. [LG: When the citation is the very sentence you seek to elucidate, give yourself a clap on the back]

6. Look elsewhere for help in defining a word or phrase. 1. Look elsewhere in Stevenson’s works, e.g. a puzzling use of motive may be resolved by finding that he sometimes uses the word to mean ‘motif’ (for this you will need a corpus of Stevenson’s writings; I’ll try and provide this asap). 2. Look in related entries in the OED, e.g. a reference to Henry James and his humorists of ordinary life may be solved by looking at ‘humour’ meaning ‘a particular disposition, inclination, or liking’. 3. Search internet (including using Google Advanced Book Search) so that, instead of the general OED definition, sinnet, for example, can be defined with relevance to its use in the text: ‘braided, rather than twisted, cordage, (here) the typical flat, plaited coconut-fibre cords of the Pacific islands’. 4. Take into account what the reader needs to understand, phenomena possibly assumed as known by the OED, e.g. aspects and connotations of vanished Victorian domestic life such as pass-key and area. 5. Inspect the cognate word in French (see next point).

7. Be aware that Stevenson often invents new uses of words. The context is of more importance than the OED in determining Stevenson’s ‘nonce’ meanings, e.g. a generic in the following: ‘Boswell’s is, indeed, a very special case, and almost a generic’. After studying the whole context very carefully it seems clear that Stevenson is using ‘a generic’ to mean ‘a case apart, i.e. a genus on its own’, not found in the OED. Stevenson’s nonce-words or -uses are often calques from French: checking in the online Trésor de la lange française is a good strategy in doubtful cases. Check with Google Advanced Book Search to confirm a suspected original use by Stevenson.

8. The OED may only provide negative information (show what is not possible). For example blowing in the key cannot mean ‘thrusting in the key’ as there are no examples of ‘to blow’ as a verb derived from (the etymologically unrelated) noun ‘a blow’ (it means ‘blowing to remove any dust from the key before inserting it’).

3. An article on annotation

Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirke (2017), ‘Explanatory Annotation of Literary Texts and the Reader: Seven Types of Problems’, International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, 11.ii (2017): 212-232.

The second part of the article describes a model of layered annotations for digital editions, but the following notes are only on the first part, which examines seven ways that existing annotations  do not take into account readerly needs. The comments there are of interest to both print and digital annotation.

The authors propose not to attempt guidance by an imagined readership but to provide annotations that are of use to a variety of readers and do not think that interpretation should be discarded from annotations altogether. They then analyze a series of actual annotations by asking two questions: (A) What knowledge does the annotation presuppose? (B) What knowledge does it provide? Here are the seven types of annotation problems.

1. Stating the obvious: explaining something that any potential reader will know already or can gather from the text itself.

2. Inconsistent assumptions and unclear functions: where the explanation assumes lack of knowledge in an area but uses unexplained terms from the same area; or provides information which does not have a clear function in understanding the text.

3. Presupposing (expert) knowledge: the assumption of knowledge that is never made explicit, as for example in a quotation from the same author that supplies a wider context (an enriching rather than explanatory annotation), when this is not clearly related to the text being annotated (just introduced by something like ‘Compare’).

4. Sending the reader on the wrong track: for example, using a general definition from the OED that omits important contextual meaning in the text being annotated or meanings supplied by the author’s personal use elsewhere.

5. Delimiting interpretation: giving one definition/explanation where more than one is plausibly present.

6. Offering intuitions without evidence: giving personal reactions (in an essay-like fashion)—the text annotated ‘becomes an occasion to think about one’s experiences and feelings’

7. Missing annotations: a missing annotation tells us either that nothing is to be explained or that explanation is impossible—in the latter case the difficulty should be dealt with in a note anyway.

The second half of the article gives information about digital annotation using the ‘Tübingen Explanatory Annotation System’ (TEASys), using three levels of information and eight categories that classify the content. As NEd is not using digital annotation, this part is less directly relevant to us. But here are the eight categories of annotation content which could well be of interest:

A   linguistic (lexicon, syntax etc.)
B   formal (verse, narrative structure, iconicity etc.)
C   intratextual (motifs, recurring structures etc.)
D   intertextual (relations to other texts)
E   contextual (biography, history, philosophy, theology, etc.)
F   interpretative (synthesis of A–E)
G   textual (variants relevant to the understanding of the text)
H   questions (items that require annotation; comments on research already done relating to an item).

A conference on annotation

‘Understanding (through) Annotations’ (15th International Connotations Symposium): July 28 – August 1 2019, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen (Germany).

We invite papers that are concerned with annotations to specific literary texts written in English and address their functions. Papers may also reflect on the speakers’ own  annotation projects, analyse existing annotations, offer suggestions as to a more systematic approach to the practise of annotating texts, and/or discuss historical and theoretical dimensions involved, such as the relation of lemma and context, part and whole, the envisaged reader of annotations, etc.

Please send an abstract (300 words max.) to the editors of Connotations by October 15, 2018 at symposium2019@connotations.de

See also Writing Explanatory Notes/2

Written by rdury

27/09/2018 at 1:55 pm