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

“What Are You Reading” Workshop, NLS Dec 7th 2011

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Insights into Scholarly Editing at the NLS


At the third “What Are Your Reading” workshop at the National Library of Scotland (7 December 2011), presented by EdRLS editors, Penny Fielding started by emphasizing the complexity and difficulty of choices in preparing a a scholarly edition, taking as an example the striking and memorable incident of Alison thrusting the sword into the frozen ground in The Master of Ballantrae, which Colvin did not include in the Edinburgh Edition (1896), where it is printed prefaced with the note “The present text follows a copy of the first edition corrected by the author before his death”.

Gill Hughes then talked about the three basic choices of ‘base text’ for an edition:  the final manuscript prepared by the author, the first edition, or the last lifetime edition produced with the author’s input.

Richard Dury: gave an overview of the history of composition and publication of Kidnapped, in particular of the difficult coordination of overlapping publication by Young Folks magazine and in book form by Cassells.


The particpants, in three groups guided by the presenters, studied the variant readings of a page of Kidnapped (from chapter 1, 2, and 3 according to group). The aim was to explain how the differences had arisen and – taking the role of volume editor – advise on any emendations to the base text.

For the purposes of the exercise the 1886 Cassells edition was taken as the base text and compared with the MS (a reading text version of the manuscript), and YF (the Young Folks serialisation). The aim was not to choose a base text, but to give the participants the experience of making editorial choices.

Chapter 1 group

Here are some observations of the group that was looking at the page from Chapter 1.

a certain morning early in the month of June: ”early” is not in the MS, but is in YF and Cassells (left). The group agreed that this must have been an addition by RLS on the YF proofs. One could see the reasons: it emphasizes the beginning of the story at the beginning of the day, the month and the summer, and it is vaguely reminiscent of a folk song.

“Well, Davie, lad,” said he: in MS and in YF this is “, Davie lad“, so the added comma looks like a change made by the Cassell’s printer and not noted by RLS–or made by the printer and accepted by RLS–or made by RLS himself on the Cassells proofs. (This shows the difficulty of reconstructing what happened.) One member of the group could see justification for the change, seeing “lad” as equivalent to “my lad”; the others saw “Davie lad” as a unit (like “Chrissie lass”, or “Davie bach” in Anglo-Welsh), with the “lad” part reinforcing the suffix of endearment. Here, the editors would want to look at other examples of the construction by RLS and others and possibly then propose an emendation to the base text.

Chapter 2 group

This group had some interesting points where the MS differed from the printed versions: in some cases the MS reading seemed better, in other cases it seems to contain an error that has later been corrected.

bats flew in and out: the MS has “flew in out“. This might seem a straightforward correction of an accidental omission of a small word while writing. However there was an interesting discussion about (i) whether “in out” was a possible phrase, or (ii) whether perhaps RLS wrote “in”, wasn’t sure about it, and wrote “out” and forgot to cross out the first alternative. Backing up this possibility was the suggestion that at dusk, bats would be flying out from their place of daytime rest.

I lifted my hand with a faint heart under my jacket, and knocked once: the MS has “hand” followed by a comma, removed in YF and Cassells. Participants here were split between those who could see this as the intervention of RLS not wanting too long a pause after “hand” (wanting the important pause to be after “jacket” as David hesitated), and others who thought this could be a mistake in copying the MS because the comma usefully removes the possible ambiguity of “lifted with a faint heart”.

Mr. Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws: MS has “Balfour of the Shaws”. Participants were not quite sure of the MS reading here: could it be an old Scottish expression? Could it show Davie’s uncertainty about the title? The group also had an image of the MS and could see that this also might have been a mistake, later corrected by the author: RLS writes in the MS “Balfour of the” and comes to the end of a line, then as he moves the pen across the page he imagines he’s written the words “house of” and starts the new line with “Shaws”.

Chapter 3 group

This group also had some interesting cases of differences in the MS that were changed for the printed versions.

Half-a-dozen dishes stood upon the shelves: MS has “stood upon the bink” (as recently discovered in preparation for this event), a Scots word meaning “shelf” or “dresser”. The feeling of the members of the group at the NLS was that this was probably a change made by the author, but they would like to emend the text to “bink”, on the grounds that the early proofing was not really part of “the initial creative process”.

I’ll take the ale, though: MS has “beer“; clearly a change made by the author to the YF proofs, the group thought. Some members noticed that earlier on (third paragraph of this chapter), when Davie enters the kitchen he sees on the table “a cup of small beer”. Some thought it was better to follow the MS, to keep consistency and use “beer” in both places; others saw “ale” as an older and more traditional word that was used here to show Ebeneezer’s more old-fashioned way of speaking in comparison with David.  So in the first case (“shelves” vs “bink”) the members of the group wanted to keep the MS reading, and in the second, some wanted to take the variant in the printed versions as better.


The discussion of the passages went on too long for a proper conclusion. But one general reaction was surprise that on every page there were so many and often important variants; another reaction was an understanding of the complexity of preparing a scholarly edition.


Written by rdury

12/12/2011 at 5:09 pm

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  1. Roger Swearingen has kindly sent a series of comments on various points of this posting, which I here summarize with additional comment.

    Most of the points derive from the fact that I was simplifying in an aim to address both experts and ordinary interested members of the public. However, as an Edition we are professionally interested in details and getting them right, so it’s useful to have these questions aired.

    Roger’s comments also very usefully emphasize (as we were trying to do in the workshop) how much interpretation and critical judgment are involved in textual editing, something the general public quite naturally does not normally understand


    1. which Colvin did not include in the Edinburgh Edition (1896), which is printed with the note “The present text follows a copy of the first edition corrected by the author before his death”.

    This was originally posted as “which RLS instructed Colvin to remove from the Edinburgh Edition (published posthumously in 1896)”; this was my summary simplification in the write-up: in her presentation, Penny referred correctly to Colvin’s note.

    Roger out points that, in the absence of the “first edition corrected by the author” and its marked changes, that we cannot take differences in the Edinburgh Edition as authorial. This seems fair: in scholarly editing (as in life) we are working all the time with weighing probabilities and expressing the results of this process in summarizing formulas: the more accurate version is Roger’s; I was simplifying.

    It was a simplification, as Roger points out, that is also adopted by Ernest Mehew in the letters: “In his corrected copy sent to Colvin for the Edinburgh Edition, RLS deleted the phrase” (also by Adrian Poole in his Penguin edition).

    Roger interestingly suggests that deletion and substitution of the phrase could have been the work of Colvin alone; (i) it was not removed from the Scribner’s Thistle Edition (1895), so Colvin hadn’t told them about it if he already knew about it; (ii) The Edinburgh Edition (in the Heron Books facsimile reprint) has a missing full stop in after the substituted words (i.e. “handled it a second time[.] [then, continuing with the 1886 text] ‘I will take…’); Roger says that this suggests that “the change was made at the very last minute before publication”, after proofs, as “it seems to me unlikely that it would have escaped the eye of a proofreader. The Edinburgh Edition is remarkably clean in this respect.”

    He asks if anyone has collated the Edinburgh Edition of The Master of Ballantrae with the 1889 Scribner’s first edition. I am happy to say that our Edition has decided to collate the Edinburgh Edition for all volumes as we hope this will clarify the disputed area of Colvin’s interventions as well as revealing changes that might marginally be of authorial origin.

    2. Typescript version of the early chapters of Kidnapped
    Roger asks what evidence there is that the lost typescript was used by the compositors of Young Folks, and in particular for the first ten chapters, set up in the Copyright Edition and then re-used in the magazine version. This is a valid question; as Cassells started printing second, one would expect them to use the Young Folks sheets; it’s a question that can be answered only by a careful study of dates and production practices.

    My assumption that the MS hadn’t been used for setting up any type was the lack of compositors’ names and markings from the few pages I have seen and from a reply to a query to this effect to Caroline McCracken-Flesher who has a microfilm of the whole MS. A careful study of the MS should solve this problem, and we await Caroline’s edition for this. The pencil queries and proposed changes reported in the margins of chapters 1 to 8, I assumed to be those of an early reader or readers—but, once again, one would have to study the manuscript carefully to determine this. Perhaps Barry Menikoff can enlighten us.

    On the draft stemma I prepared for the event there were numerous question marks: over ‘typescript ch 1-10’ and various ‘derives from’ linking lines. At the NLS I thought it best to present a simplified version.

    3. “early in the month of June” and “Davie, lad”
    Roger agrees that, in the case of the comma in “Davie, lad” “there is no telling whether this is “a change made by the Cassell’s printer and not noted by RLS – or made by the printer and accepted by RLS – or made by RLS himself on the Cassells proofs”.

    Exactly the same applies, he says, to the “early in the month of June” example, which appears in YF and then in the Cassells book version: we don’t know who made this change.

    The group “agreed that this must have been an addition by RLS on the YF proofs” probably because they thought on balance that an added word would come from the author. Of course, as RGS point out, we don’t know for sure—and that is certainly a good salutary point to bear in mind. However, the exercise was in making editorial choices, and for that the evidence has to be weighed up and a single choice made.

    4. This change “would be lost if we take the MS as base text”

    I have now removed this comment (referring to the insertion of “early”); I should have written “if we simply publish a reading version of the manuscript without a critical apparatus”, but since the event wasn’t focussed on the choice of base text nor on the form of publication I realise it is irrelevant. For all the variant readings we keenly await Caroline’s edition.

    5. “this part of the MS dates from 1885”
    I have removed this as it was a comment of my own to justify the group’s decision that that proofing wasn’t part of “the initial creative process” and confining this to the manuscript—I was interpreting their comments, which I only had in note form. We let the groups have a free rein in their judgments: the aim was to give them an idea of the complexity and difficulty of the task.

    There is a possibility, of course, (which I adopted, simplifying things, in my comment) that the early part of the manuscript is on sheets first written on in1885 (with later changes and additions of course): (i) if the pencil queries in the margins of chapters 1 to 8 are finally judged to be of an early (1885) reader, (ii) the fact that the first page of the present manuscript has “the month of May, the year of grace 1749” changed to “the month of June, the year of grace 1751”, while on 18 January 1886 RLS says in a letter “It is laid in 1749” (L5:179), (iii) RLS says that “I have written one chapter [one of the last chapters] seven times […] while all the earlier part is only a first and second writing” (L5: 249), (iv) The fact that on 18 January 1886 RLS says in a letter “I hope soon to have another boy’s book on the stocks” and then only five days later, he says he has finished 16 chapters.

    A closer look at the manuscript (and calculations of speed of writing and recopying) I’m sure would help us here: it’s amazing the amount of information you can get from the artefact itself. So we eagerly await Caroline’s edition.

    6. bink
    Roger rightly says that we don’t know who changed ‘bink’ to ‘shelves’. The only evidence I can add to the debate is that the MS has no question mark or underlining of this word, while there are question marks at other points. One would also have to consider whether Young Folks would have changed words of an established literary author: we don’t know this, but a judgment on the matter is going to be part of the decision-making process.

    We thank Roger for his helpful comments. And we impatiently await Caroline’s edition.


    14/12/2011 at 8:47 am

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