Prince Otto: Bob Irvine asks about Otto’s unusual appearance
I am currently writing the notes for our edition of Stevenson’s 1885 novel Prince Otto. This work turns up all kinds of surprises. When Sir John Crabtree, an English traveller, is detained in Otto’s palace, he is accommodated in ‘the Gamiani apartment’. Gamiani; ou, deux nuits d’excès is a famous French erotic novel published anonymously in 1833, often attributed to Alfred de Musset! A little in-joke for Stevenson’s louche gentleman friends, perhaps. A note can simply cite this text and leave the reader to make of the connection what they will.
More difficult to annotate are those passages which evoke a discourse or way of thinking specific to the period, without (it seems) alluding to a specific text or texts. The case of Sir John again provides us with an example. The scathing description of Otto’s court which he has prepared for publication describes the prince as follows:
He is not ill-looking; he has hair of a ruddy gold, which naturally curls, and his eyes are dark, a combination which I always regard as a mark of some congenital deficiency, physical or moral …
And although his opinion of Otto improves after the prince challenges him to a duel in defence of the princess’s honour:
‘…I still mistrust your constitution; the short nose, and hair and eyes of several complexions; no, they are diagnostic; and I must end, I see, as I began.’
Several nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences provide the concepts that the learned Sir John is using to interpret Otto’s features here. ‘Physiognomy’ had been instituted on a formal basis in the eighteenth century by Johann Kaspar Lavater in his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–8), which encouraged the idea that moral traits and habits of mind could be read off the facial features of an individual, and this idea remained in circulation. That what strikes Sir John is the incongruity of Otto’s red-blonde hair and dark eyes suggest that he is thinking in the specific terms of a later development, mid-nineteenth-century racial theory. This interpreted such features, not in the first instance in terms of moral traits in the present generation, but as an inheritance from distant forebears. The important texts here are French: Prosper Lucas’s Traité philosophique et physiologique de l’hérédité naturelle (1847) and Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité de races humaines (1853–5). This racial theory provided the framework within which anthropologists collected data under the rubric of ‘anthropometrics’. So, the ‘Final Report of the Anthropometric Committee’ to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883 was able to observe that the combination of dark eyes and light hair was especially common in the south-west of England, because in this region ‘the light and dark races meet and overlap each other’. Such ‘hybridity’ of races was picked out for examination in works such as Paul Broca’s Recherches sur l’hybridité animale en général et sur l’hybridité humaine en particulier (1760).
But Sir John does not only identify an incongruity between his hair- and eye-colour: he reads this as ‘a mark of some congenital deficiency’. That suggests a third conceptual context for Sir John’s comments. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species of 1859 had described a natural order in which races of organism were changing all the time; the possibility was therefore raised that, while human beings had evolved into a higher form from their primate ancestors, they could also, over time, degenerate back into a lower form. Even before Darwin published, B.A. Morel had brought out Traité de dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine (1857). So the phrase ‘congenital deficiency’ might have evoked, for the readers of Prince Otto in 1885, this concern with the decline of the species as a whole.
What I have been unable to find is any particular text which links the ‘racial’ mixing suggested by Otto’s mis-matched hair and eyes with ‘congenital deficiency, physical or moral’. Theories of hybridity seem predominantly interested in the fertility or infertility of racial ‘mongrels’ and the degree to which they are capable of stabilising into new ‘races’, rather than with their moral or physical strength more generally. Theories of degeneration, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly concerned with the lower social classes, with criminals and slum-dwellers, and not with decadent royalty like Otto (the idea of the ‘higher degenerate’ such as the decadent artist seems to be very much a product of the 1890s). If any readers of this posting can point me towards sources that anticipate Sir John’s connection between hybridity and degeneration, I would be very interested to hear from them.
There is another context for Sir John’s comments that may be worth mentioning in conclusion. In his moral decay and loss of power to his prime minister, Gondremark, Otto perhaps resembles, speculates Sir John, ‘the last Merovingians’. The later kings of this Frankish dynasty are remembered as powerless figureheads, their empire ruled by their hereditary chief stewards. The last Merovingian king, Childeric III, was deposed by his steward; his red hair, till then uncut as a symbol of his royalty in the fashion of his clan, shorn to symbolise his loss of power. Here is that event as imagined in a nineteenth-century painting by Évariste-Vital Lumais. A rather more humane exile awaits Otto: but in Childeric’s face, apart from the misery of dispossession, are we also being shown ‘marks of congenital deficiency’ that made it inevitable? A parallel, perhaps, for Sir John’s diagnosis of disaster in the physiognomy of Stevenson’s prince.