EdRLS

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

Review: Arthur Ransome’s Long-lost Study of Robert Louis Stevenson

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Kirsty Nichol Findlay (ed.), Arthur Ransome’s Long-lost Study of Robert Louis Stevenson. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011.

The sequestered manuscript

It was to have been “Robert Louis Stevenson: A Critical Study”, following Ransome’s earlier Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Study (1910) and Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912) and with the same pattern: a quarter of the book devoted to a single chapter called “Biographical” and the rest devoted to the works. (Gissing’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study had apparently started the style of title, but he does not so clearly mark the division between life and works).

The contract for the Stevenson book was signed in 1910 but Martin Secker pushed for the Wilde book first. Relations with author and publisher became strained and in 1912 they parted company. Ransome continued to work on the book in 1913 and 1914 for Methuen.

How we got Swinnerton 1914, not Ransome 1914

In May 1914, when Ransome went to Russia to write a book on St. Petersburg, his wife Ivy, with whom relations were strained, apparently, and for her own reasons, took possession of the first draft manuscript, and deposited it in a bank.

Meanwhile, Secker had given the Stevenson project and its title to a Frank Swinnerton, a rival of Ransome’s. The rancour in of the resultant study published in 1914 can be judged right from its curious dedication to a friend who was an admirer of RLS: ‘to Douglas Gray, in malice’. It may have taken some added intensity from its being an indirect blow at Ransome, who did not, like Swinnerton, belong to the Wells-Bennett group and who had a poor view of Swinnerton’s novels.

The sequestered manuscript rediscovered

Ransome did not complete the project: his first draft was not available to him, his life was in turmoil, what with his unhappy marriage, the First World War and the Russian Revolution and his meeting with his future second wife (Trotsky’s secretary) and their escape across the Baltic in a sailing boat. And then Swinnerton’s iconoclastic work (following the pattern that Ransome felt that he had invented) was the focus of everyone’s attention. The manuscript was never recovered and was discovered, unopened, in the strong room of a London solicitor’s in 1990.

This edition

Kirsty Findlay has done us a service in editing the manuscripts (there is also an exercise book and some loose sheets) and in writing an excellent introduction. The first section, which tells the story of the manuscript has the appropriate Ransome-like title of ‘Parcel Post’, which puts us in the mood for a good story.

Ransome as literary theorist

From Findlay’s Introduction I learnt that Ransome actually wrote articles of literary theory, in a period before this became the exclusive property of universities. In the essay “Art for Life’s Sake” (1912) he says that “[the] act of conscious living is the work of art” and, in a sentiment that surely Proust would have agreed with,

“Art is itself life. Its function is to increase our consciousness of life, to make us more than wise or sensitive, to transform us from beings overwhelmed by the powerful stream of unconscious living to beings dominating that stream, to change us from objects acted upon by life to joyful collaborators in that reaction.”

He comes back to this idea in the Stevenson manuscript:

“a novel, like any other work of art, is an act of becoming conscious, performed by its author. But an illusion is produced that the author has left his own life aside, and is merely chronicling the lives of others. We are faced with the difficulty of reconciling this apparent contradiction.” (140)

In his essay “Kinetic and Potential Speech” collected in 1913 he calls for literary theory as the basis of criticism: “a statement of the nature of literature applicable not to the books of one nation of one time only, but to those of all nations and of all times”, so that criticism (he refers to “the history of literature”) can get beyond trivialities.


“Robert Louis Stevenson: A Critical Study”

As this is only an almost-complete first draft, parts are missing, parts are notes, and no doubt there would have been much revision had Ransome been able to complete the project. Nevertheless, it has the attraction of the opening of a time cylinder and is clearly a serious study, mainly admiring but not adulatory with some fresh judgements. Ransome deals with essays and early travel books together, then short stories, tales of adventure, Jekyll and Hyde and the Fables, the Scotch novels, and works produced in the South Seas.

Essays.

Ransome Divides Stevenson’s career into 1873-85, 1886-94 and sees the ten or eleven “earlier books” as “exercises in style” and “most of his essays are a kind of practice in this [stylistic] art” (98-99). This reminds us of the similar opinion of Daiches in 1947 and is for myself – an editor of the essays – the most disappointing judgment in the book. I would see it as related to the decline in critical opinion of the essay and its relegation to a peripheral status in the literary canon. Also by a desire by critics to note progress, to see an early and a late style.

Ransome does, however, dedicate a generous amount of space to the often neglected Familiar Studies of Men and Books (pp. 100-106), including an interesting discussion of the meaning of ‘familiar’ in the title.

The variety of style and stylistic experiments in Stevenson’s works is emphasized: “in art he was preoccupied with technique so largely that all he did seems now to have been by way of experiments during a prolonged adventure in the discovery of technical perfection […] he will be counted as one of the greatest exponents of the objects and the methods of literature’ (87). He also notes the common praise for Stevenson’s “charm” but goes further than other contemporaries by attempting to analyze what this might mean: “literary charm […] depends […] on tenderness exhibited by a writer for his subject, on the infectious mood in which a man looks affectionately upon the past” (95).

Short stories – among his best works

The short stories he places among Stevenson’s best works: “It requires little courage to say that Stevenson is a very much greater storyteller than novelist, and even to say that his short stories are better than his longer tales” (109). He praises in particular “Providence and the Guitar” (111-12). Also the two stories in Scots: “Thrawn Janet” and “The Story of Tod Lapraik” “are among the best of Stevenson’s achievements. The dialect seems to knit the words together so that there are no interstices to allow reality to slip out” (114). One influence of RLS in the 1890s and early 1900s is shown by the observation that to  The New Arabian Nights “we owe […] the many miraculous Londons that have been discovered in these latter years” (113).

High praise for A Memoir of Fleeming Jenkins

“Nearer to life than any of his novels, his memoir of Fleeming Jenkin is among the three or four best books he wrote. Considered only as a work of imagination, how admirable is its careful discontinuity of texture, the general setting of the family, with its set character sketches of Jenkins and Jacksons, then in a larger pattern the account of Jenkins himself, and finally, the small web again, in the account of the last days not only of Jenkins himself but the picturesque members of the previous generation, survived from the first chapter… I know of no biography which, without flatulent adulation, leaves so heroic an impression of its subject.” (147)

In the South Seas – underestimated

“I think few books have been so curiously underestimated in comparison with the other works of their writer than Stevenson’s In the South Seas […] there are few books of travel so vivid, so sympathetic with the people visited, so rich in the sense of the strange, so precise in its expression of that strangeness. […] I believe the reason of its neglect and the disparagement of silence it has suffered is that it bears Stevenson’s name on the title-page, and that persons reading that name, conversant with Stevenson’s other works, expect a different book.” (148)

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Written by rdury

10/10/2011 at 1:58 pm

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