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

Talks by the EdRLS Essay Editors

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The Literary 1880s: James, Stevenson and the Literary Essay

As part of the Literary 1880s workshops, the editors of the new EdRLS edition of Stevenson’s essays were invited to present aspects of their work on 23rd March 2012, in the Conference Room of David Hume Tower, in the University of Edinburgh.


James and Beerbohm

First, we heard from two people on other 1880s essay topics. Workshop-organizer Andy Taylor explored the changing position of Henry James in his 1883 essay on Trollope. This enters the 1880s area of debate over Realism, French Naturalism, and the art of fiction to which RLS made important contributions in essays such as “A Note on Realism” and “A Humble Remonstrance”, but the focus here was on James’s shifting attitude to Trollope and his position in the cultural rivalries of Britian and the USA.

Then Sara Lodge talked on Max Beerbohm and “camp aesthetics”, in which she made many points of interest to our exploration of Stevenson’s essays, starting with her thoughts about the essay as a literary genre, identifying it as a performative form associated with the creation of a persona, and so related to the dramatic monologue.

This she saw as developing from the 1820s onwards, citing Lamb and Hazlitt — though my view of Stevenson’s essays is that he revives this tradition after it had disappeared under the oratorical and earnest emphatic style of the mid-Victorian monthly magazines. So in what way was the obvious “performance” of the high-Victorian sages different from that of Lamb, Hazlitt and Stevenson? Perhaps readers of this blog would like to comment.

The essay, Sara continued, is also like a confession — and here she referred to Adam Phillips, who the essay editors had seen speaking on this very subject (the affinities of the essay with the psychoanalytic narrative) at the Literary Essay conference at Queen Mary in London a few months before.

In any case, the essayist keeps a distance between the apparent and the real object of the writing, and this can be seen as either deliberate and artful, or unintended. The same can be said of performing in general: we are always performing, but we don’t realize it most of the time. One form of very self-aware performance, is “camp” behaviour.

(Sara sees the origin of “camp” in a distancing from aestheticism and as being created by Wilde. I feel that, although “camp” as “homosexual codes of signifying behaviour” is very probably modelled on Wilde, it has, however, a wider and non-homosexual meaning, deriving, as Susan Sontag suggests, from “the eighteeth-century pleasure of over-refinement”. Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights can be seen as a camp text, and was written in the 1870s before Wilde appeared on the London scene, and the reported behaviour and the discourse of RLS, Bob and Simpson also have, to me, clear campish aspects.)

Sara then illustrated self-mocking camp “failed seriousness”, the celebration of the absurdity of things, in the early essays of Beerbohm, such as “1880” and “An Infamous Brigade”.


The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert-Louis Abrahamson opened the session on Stevenson’s essays with an overview of Stevenson’s career as an essayist. He made the point that the 1879-80 journey to California was not an immediate turning point. His essay-writing career falls into two main periods 1874-82 (with one essay in 1873) and 1883-88 (with one final essay in 1894).

His first essays were aesthetic, to fit their destination, the fine-art magazine Portfolio; and a focus on the visual arts also marked his group of essays for Henley’s Magazine of Art in the early 80s. Sidney Colvin steered him away from heavy subjects (the essays on Knox and Savonarola he had planned), seeing him as an irreverent ally in the Darwinian cultural wars. He also introduced him to Leslie Stephen’s Cornhill Magazine, which became his “home” for twenty essays  in the first part of his career, including most of those collected in Virgninibus Puerisque in 1881 and in Familiar Studies in 1882.

The magazine associated with later part of his career was the New York Scribner’s, where he published thirteen essays, including the monthly series published in 1888. These twelve essays have, strangely, never been published together in a sequence before, but will be so in our edition.

Alex Thomson then talked about Memories and Portraits (1887), the collection of essays that he is editing, characterizing it as an “Edinburgh book”, significantly placed in 1894 in volume 1 of the Edinburgh Edition, together with Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes.

The “Memories” of the title can be seen in the context of a Scottish tradition of “reminiscences” (for example, Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Sottish Life and Character) and of commemoration, linked to the desire to preserve the memory of a disappearing culture. The “Talk and Talkers” essays can also be seen in a Scottish Enlightenment tradition of conversation and sociability. “Portraits”, on the other hand, suggests more a London-based tradition of aestheticism (e.g. Pater’s Imaginary Portraits).

Examples were given of the changes between 1871 and 1887 in “An Old Scotch Gardener”, showing how Stevenson mostly deleted, allowing anecdotes to stand on their own without the earlier chatty interpretation.

These essays are self-reflexive (both about memories and the reflecting subject, as RLS admits in the prefatory “Note”), and so have interesting affinities to the romantic lyric poem. They also reveal a subject that is both detached from his culture, attracted to a wider cultural context outside Scotland, distrustful of nostalgia, yet desiring to get back into contact with his own cultural identity (a quandary suggested by the key concept of “the foreigner at home”).

Richard Dury: I talked on style and its important persuasive and relation-creating function in the personal essay. An indication of  its prominence is the way commentators illustrating Stevenson’s style in general have taken most of their quotations from the essays. His was a new voice in the 1870s, a reviver of Montaigne’s scepticism and an essayist who broke with high Victorian seriousness and emphasis.

I then went on to charactize Stevenson’s essay style through six broad characteristics: lightness, enthusiasm, variousness, playfulness, strangeness and “charm” — used merely as tools to understand an elusive and mobile set of features, and as a way to understand why reading these essays is a source of pleasure.

The playful, complex and unexpected linguistic form of Stevenson’s essays can be seen in terms of Stevenson’s own concept of the “knot”: a slight delay in understanding, and also an interweaving of strands. This form is interwoven with an equally fascinating play of thought, both of them working together in the exploration of a world that has no centre or essence, where language is mobile and malleable. The effect of “a lot going on” in form and meaning is to make the reader more aware of text as performance and reading as an event in time. Stevenson’s essays are works of great value in themseves: elusive, fascinating and memorable reading experiences.

Lesley Graham ended the afternoon with an overview of the history of the reception of the essays. Often appreciated above all as a brilliant essayist in his lifetime, in the early years of the twentieth century the essays were quarried for quotations (collected in slim self-help volumes), especially those emphasising on happiness and friendship and the importance of courage to face the struggle of life. These very aphorisms were then used to condemn the essays after the First World War.

In the USA, where the teaching of literature was associated with the teaching of writing, essays were a privileged genre and Stevenson’s  widely used as models. Then, however, there was a turn away from the literary essay in both Britain and the USA, “the death of the essay”, reinforcing Stevenson’s general decline in critical favour.

With perhaps the single exception of Furnas in 1951, critics then continued to mainly criticize and downplay Stevenson’s essays, including Daiches in 1947 and Saposnik in 1974. A significant moment of change comes in 1988, a year which saw the publication of three anthologies of Stevenson’s essays by Treglown, and (in translation) Le Bris and Almansi.


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  1. SWINC ‘Literary 1880’s’ session last Friday afternoon produced much response to Richard Dury’s paper on ‘Style’; especially RLS’s use of “web”, “pattern”, “knot”, and weaving in general in ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’.

    Marina Warner in her most recent work, Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (London: Chatto & Windus, 2011), details this carpet business; the relation between text and textile –noting their “interconnectedness” in Latin languages. For her, the flying carpet of the Nights “metonymically enacts the work of imagination in making up a story and perusing it; knotting a plot or following it, drawing on a repertory of elements in different recurring combinations, adds to the satisfaction of the audience. The perceived ‘figure’ brings the pleasure of recognition, while the metonymies of rug, carpet and fabric condense many desired properties of fantasy narrative: a satisfying pattern, a defining frame, harmonic relations of detail and whole, significant ornament, pleasurable texture, atmospheric colour.”

    Actual oriental carpets rarely tell stories in themselves, but are full of abstract designs. Warner examines the various “familiar” symbols used in carpet design, notably the arabesques which we know were so beloved by RLS, but can find no key to them, only the “both broad and vague” descriptions like Paradise afforded by their designs. They are “figures whose semantics elude pinning down.” The intricate patterns of woven carpets imply “a strong degree of predictability; the symmetry and recursive repetitions work like oracles”, Warner says. Patterns “must come out in a certain sequence, so discerning them becomes paramount but not quite patent. It needs finesse to read a carpet’s complexities.” She continues: “Many of the stories in the Nights establish such a pattern and follow it to its outcome; often the outcome is predicted, by a prophecy or a spell, or it can be anticipated by the reader from the character of the genre.” However, much reader pleasure arises when a story “takes an unexpected turn and springs a different denouement.” This, or when the reader foresees an end result of action, which the character himself has not foreseen.

    Warner mentions writers like Nabokov (He liked to fold his magic carpet, after use, in such a way ‘as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.’); and the Moroccan poet, Khatibi (In emphasising the geometry of curved forms and loops – stiches and knots – involved in the arabesque, he notes that the Arabic word for rug, bissat, also describes a poetic metre.). Calvino, in his Italian Folktales, “emphasised the correspondences with the weaving process in which patterns keep shifting and creating new patterns, each time producing a new story.” Elsewhere Calvino proposes: ‘A reading in which metaphors, rather than being considered an ornament that adorns the fundamental interweaving of plot, subplots and narrative functions, move them forward into the foreground, as the true substance of the text, bordered by the decorative arabesque threadwork of fabulous vicissitudes’, she says.

    “The flatness of a carpet contains and orders all constituent elements at an indeterminate scale – large or small – in the same way as a story compresses and organises swathes of raw material […] Cristina Campo evokes how an oriental rug unfolds a surface on which ornaments play in infinite recession, or mis-en-abyme,” Warner says, quoting Campo’s comment that ‘the borders [of the carpet] themselves are eloquent. Above all, the number of the borders speaks, for it can reach twelve or thirteen, enclave within enclave, discourse into discourse. A hierarchy of allusions is assigned to the succession of borders, from the inside towards the outside.’ Warner sees that this structure “rhymes with the storytellers’ methods” in the Nights: “stories within stories that give the Nights its involuted structure, just as oriental carpets are often banded one frame set inside another. The sprawling vagaries of the tales are contained – sometimes barely so – by the storyteller who imposes limits; these take the form of internal structural devices, but are also affected by the fundamental outside frame, the space of a single night [Alf layla wa layla properly translates as ‘A thousand nights and a night’, I would add.] which begins with Dinarzade on cue prompting her sister [Sharazad] to speak, but which ends when dawn interrupts the episode. Then the voice that remains above or outside the scene, in the position of the Solomonic narrator above, repeats the refrain, ‘and speaking was no longer permitted and Sharazad was silent’.”

    Neil Brown

    14/04/2012 at 5:08 pm

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