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

Major new Stevenson manuscript: In The South Seas

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Lost manuscript

A major Stevenson manuscript has recently come to light in Ireland. It is a collection of over 90 pages of drafts for his planned historical, cultural and anthropological work on the Pacific islanders, In the South Seas.

The manuscript had never been previously heard of, not being included in the big auction of Stevenson books and manuscripts after his widow’s death in 1914, nor in any subsequent sale of Stevenson material. It will be auctioned at Christie’s of New York on 3 December this year.

The seller is an Irishman who inherited it from his grandfather, an engineer who lived for a period  in New Zealand. The most likely story is that, visiting Samoa some time between Stevenson’s death in December 1894 and the final departure of his family in 1897, he was given the sheets as a keepsake. Stevenson’s widow Fanny and daughter-in-law Belle distributed quite a number of manuscript pages in this way in the years after 1894, including several pages of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

New sections of In the South Seas

The pages fall into four or five groups (described in the sales catalogue, pp. 347-48), and, Roger Swearingen reports:

[M]ore than half of these are not only unpublished but until now have been known only from chapter titles in various outlines.

The most spectacular group of pages makes up eight chapters of text, 40-plus pages, intended to be the first two parts of the South Seas but never used. The two parts are titled ‘Whites in the Pacific’ (5 chapters) and ‘Contraband’ (3 chapters), topics of great interest indeed.

There is also a very full table of contents in which six chapters on Tahiti are listed (these were never written) as well as these chapters on white influences.

And there are two drafts of an unpublished chapter on the island of Manihiki, which the Stevensons visited during the Janet Nicoll cruise, and draft material for four of the published chapters: two chapters on Penrhyn and two on Molokai.

Although the collection of pages represents different part of In the South Seas, Swearingen speculates that

these pages are possibly together because they represent Stevenson’s own consolidation of the last work that he did on the South Seas before he dropped plans for an all-inclusive work. At this point he decided to move forward in the planned scheme and write the chapters on the Gilbert Islands, as a self-contained unit. Then he called a halt. This would be in March or April 1891, and Stevenson seems never again to have visited this material.

Stevenson abandoned his innovative ‘big book on the Pacific’ partly under the weight of the material he gathered, but perhaps mostly because of continual criticism from his wife Fanny and friends at home (including his mentor Sidney Colvin). They clearly wanted a personal essayistic travel book, not the  serious (though, of course, ever-stylish) study that Stevenson had in mind. This new manuscript gives us a picture of Stevenson’s last attempt at carrying out his grand original idea.

Written by rdury

05/11/2010 at 3:52 pm

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  1. […] I have also had the pleasure of making a complete, annotated transcription of the first half‑dozen chapters of The South Seas as Stevenson himself wrote them: forty‑four folio manuscript leaves, 16,000 words, now in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (See ‘Major new Stevenson manuscript: In The South Seas‘). […]

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