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

the semicolon

with 7 comments

Stevenson and the semicolon

It was Barry Menikoff who first studied Stevenson’s interest in the semicolon (in his ground-breaking 1984 edition of The Beach of Falesá, pp. 43-46). He remarked on how his use of the semicolon creates uncertainty and ambiguity; how the semicolon juxtaposes and accumulates but does not promise a causal link (especially true when followed by “and”); and how it can also “set up contrast within a sentence”. He also reveals a tendency of compositors to change these semicolons to commas.

Following on from this, in my edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (EUP, 2002), I remarked on how

RLS typically places a semicolon before a conjunction, perhaps to render problematic the link between the two parts of the sentence. Early examples of this are: “No doubt the feat was easy to Mr. Utterson; for he was undemonstrative at the best” […], “And then there is a chimney which is generally smoking; so somebody must live there” […]. The conjunction following the semicolon is frequently “and“: there are no fewer than 203 examples of this in the text. Nabokov seems to have noticed this, as in his teaching copy of the book he rings both semicolon and following “and” in three examples in the first two chapters.

A confession

I had studied Nabokov’s teaching copy of the book in the New York Public Library (Berg Collection, Nabokov 00-21) and in my edition I noted the most significant annotations that I found there. One annotation, however, I did not record—not because I found it insignificant, but because I couldn’t make head or tail of it. The first occurrence of a ringed semicolon followed by ‘and’ is accompanied by a marginal comment:

whose “and”?

What on earth could that mean?

It comes in the last sentence of an early paragraph:

Tramps slouched into the recess and struck matches on the panels; children kept shop upon the steps; the schoolboy had tried his knife on the mouldings; and for close on a generation, no one had appeared to drive away these random visitors or to repair their ravages.

An inkling of a solution

Nabokov’s lectures on literature that he gave at Wellesley College and Cornell University in the 1940s and 50s. were reconstructed from notes and typescripts by Fredson Bowers and published in 1980. I had consulted it for the chapter on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but hadn’t read the rest. Now I find that

1. The lecture on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary starts with “I want to draw attention first of all to Flaubert’s use of the word and preceded by a semicolon.” He sees this as “peculiar feature of Flaubert’s style”, used at the end of “an enumeration of actions or states or objects […] to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail” (Bowers p. 171).

2. The artistic use of the semicolon was also a feature of Nabokov’s own style. Rereading his father’s work on The Butterflies and Moths of the Russian Empire (1912), he says he was struck at the similarity of the style to his own, including

my father’s predilection for the semicolon (often preceding a conjunction — something one does find in the language of his university tutors: “that scholarly pause,” an echo of unhurried English logic — but at the same time related to Montaigne whom he regarded so highly); and I doubt that the development of these traits under my frequently willful pen was a conscious act. (‘Father’s Butterflies‘, Atlantic Monthly 285.4 (2000)

(‘Doubt’ here seems to be used with the French sense of ‘suspect’.) Here’s a typically Nabokovian reference to outdoors sex from Lolita

Poisonous plants burn his sweetheart’s buttocks, nameless insects sting his; sharp items of the forest floor prick his knees, insects hers; and all around there abides a sustained rustle of potential snakes.

Whose “and”?

Now we know that Nabokov was interested in the stylistic effect of the semicolon followed by the word and, his ringing of this sequence in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more understandable. But what does that enigmatic annotation mean? Well, you tell me. Could it be “the word and evokes a mysterious second author” (is that possible?).

But perhaps I copied the note wrongly, leaving out a semicolon,  or—a hypothesis that I prefer—perhaps Nabokov’s “and” stands anyway for “semicolon followed by ‘and'”; in this case, the annotation could mean “I wonder who is the originator of this stylistic feature?”, or “Did he get this from Flaubert?” Any ideas?



Written by rdury

22/11/2011 at 7:04 am

7 Responses

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  1. I see that there are 29 semi-colons in the Shorter Catechism, fourteen of which are followed by “and”. Perhaps Stevenson’s predilection originated in that early influence.

    Lesley Graham

    22/11/2011 at 1:24 pm

  2. Do we have the ms of that paragraph of J&H? Could it be an addition by the editor?
    By the way: is there any complete list of RLS’s mss?


    22/11/2011 at 5:32 pm

    • Yes, we have the MS of the beginning and end of JH, and the semicolon is there.

      But I see what you mean: would “whose ‘and’?” mean “is this the author’s or from an editor?” – in fact, that sounds a normal interpretation. And yet it also seems strange that Nabokov would ask such a question about a stylistic feature that interested him. (And I doubt if he elsewhere raises questions of textual transmission.)

      No, we don’t have a guide to RLS’s MSS; we work with Swearingen’s Prose Works and the printed and on-line catalogues of libraries and auction catalogues. As part of EdRLS we have an online Database of Prose Works where we add call numbers of MSS and other information and no doubt when we approach the poems we’ll have a database for this as well. These could then become guides to MSS at some time in the future.


      22/11/2011 at 6:26 pm

  3. Before Barry Menikoff’s remarks in his 1984 Falesá, Graham Good had said in 1982 that RLS “liked to produce a kind of ‘knot’ or ‘hitch’, a ‘moment of suspended meaning’ (this may account for his near-addictive use of the semi-colon).” (The brief quotes are from Stevenson’s essay on “Style”). (Graham Good, “Re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson”, Dalhousie Review 62.i (Spring 1982), pp. 44-59; p. 51.)

    And of course Nabokov was probably pointing it out to his students in the 1940s in class.


    27/01/2012 at 6:14 am

  4. Alice Meynell’s essay ‘Solitudes’ (in The Spirit of Place, 1898) has clear Stevensonian echoes

    – forcing words to new meanings and uses (for this, RLS may have learned from a writer like Lancelot Andrewes), and mixture of long and short words, Latinate and Germanic:

    a lifelong, habitual and _wild solitariness_

    [the expression of people in cities shows that they have] no hope of _news_ from _solitary counsels_

    – sudden changes and thought-like additions:

    [Solitude] needs no park. It is to be found in the merest working country; and the thicket may be as secret as a forest.

    (here we have the unusual use of ‘merest’ and that typical Stevensonian “; and” followed by the more concrete explicative example.


    15/10/2012 at 8:03 am

  5. On attitudes to the the semicolon, see Ben Dolnick in the New York Times


    20/10/2012 at 10:58 am

  6. Nabokov remarked on the the sequence “; and” in Flaubert, but Marcel Proust had done so earlier (‘A propos du “style” de Flaubert’, Nouvelle Revue française, jan. 1920): while Flaubert typically omits ‘et’ for the last item in list (such as three adjectives) he inserts ‘et’ where others do not use it—and his example is the sequence ‘; et’ introducing ‘une phrase secondaire’, with the effect of an ebbing wave about to re-form (Proust, Essais et articles (Paris: Gallimard/Folio, 1971), p. 287).


    02/01/2017 at 1:29 pm

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