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

Prince Otto: Bob Irvine asks about Otto’s unusual appearance

with 6 comments

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 Imagefriends, 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 conclImageusion. 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.


Written by pennyfielding

21/05/2012 at 6:23 pm

6 Responses

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  1. “That what strikes Sir John is the incongruity of Otto’s red-blonde hair and dark eyes suggest[s] that he is thinking in the specific terms of a later development, mid-nineteenth-century racial theory” – in the lack of more signs in the text of racial feature theory in play here, I’d see red hair and dark eyes as just an uncommon and therefore slightly disturbing combination.

    For “congenital deficiency” (imperfection from birth): this could be either a bad throw of the genetic dice or an inherited imperfection, but in either case seems to be distant from the broad application to whole populations of racial theory.

    The humour seems to be that of the ‘enlightened’ traveller making fussily pseudo-scientific annotations — and certainly, a note on his pseudo-science is going to be of interest, but the main point seems to be that his many precise annotations reach no conclusion at all. RLS himself in his travel works tries to arrive at understanding through “sympathy”.

    Having said this, the fact that Otto is lacking in regal aptitude and is compared to the last of the Merovingians is also interesting and is certainly closer to S’s own ideas (and occasional personal feelings of his own inadequacy).

    And I don’t mean to question your approach; as Fleeming Jenkins is reported as saying in S’s Memoir: an explanation is only connecting two things together: to the history of ideas, to the text, to the author… if it is interesting and illuminating, that’s good for me.


    22/05/2012 at 9:49 am

    • But maybe I got it wrong and hair-and-eye colour combinations were so typically an observation of racial physiognomy theorists that we can say that this is indeed sufficient sign of racial feature theory in play here.


      23/05/2012 at 10:45 am

  2. Notably employing facial measurements, Sir John goes on to describe the Princess:

    ‘She has a red-brown rolling eye, too large for her face, and with sparks of both levity and ferocity; her forehead is high and narrow, her figure thin and a little stooping.’

    This uncomplimentary combination of unfortunate physical deficiencies – and tendencies – presumably detracts from her having beauty, at least in the eye of that particular beholder. He had just called her ‘superficially clever, and fundamentally a fool.’ (Sir John is definitely a chiel amang them makin’ notes, as Burns said of the Scottish peregrinations of the travelling antiquary Captain Francis Grose.)

    The facial angle as a measure of intelligence between what he believed were different species of man was dreamt up by the Dutchman Pieter Camper in 1770, the proponent of craniometry. The actual angle was made by drawing two lines, one horizontally from the nostril to the ear; the other vertically connecting the upper jawbone and the forehead. Saint-Hilaire and Broca both took such measures further in their studies.

    In Popular Science Monthly for July 1881, E. B. Tylor in “The Races of Mankind”, discusses the range of complexion among mankind: ‘Until modern times these race tints have generally been described with too little care. Now, however, the traveler, by using Broca’s set of pattern-colors, records the color of any tribe he is observing, with the accuracy of a mercer matching a piece of silk.’ Mention of ‘the traveler’ by Tylor is interesting, and he also later notes that ‘European travelers in Tartary in the middle ages described its flat-nosed inhabitants as having no noses at all, but breathing through holes in their faces.’ (Sir John, after declaring that Otto’s ‘features are irregular, but pleasing’, says his nose is ‘perhaps a little short’.)

    Tylor, in noting that the iris is the part in different individuals which shows the greatest variety of colour, mentions Broca’s scale of eye colours, arranged as ‘shades of orange, green, blue, and violet-gray.’ However, he counters that the eye has too complex a pattern of colours when viewed closely, and it is a more distant viewpoint which blends its tints into one uniform hue. He adds that so-called black eyes, ‘commonly of the deepest shades of brown or violet’, are ‘by far the most numerous in the world […] In races with the darkest skin and black hair, the darkest eyes generally prevail, while a fair complexion is usually accompanied by the lighter tints of iris, especially blue.’

    The work of the social anthropologist, Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), refuted the popular theory of social degeneration, begun by such as Blumenbach and Buffon, asserting that races could degenerate into primitive forms; some held that environmental factors like climate and diet were fully concomitant with the theory. The July 1881 Popular Science also includes ‘Degeneration’ by Dr. Andrew Wilson, which although concerned with crustaceans and other lower life forms, perhaps when taken with that of Tylor affords an indication of the state of the debate in such matters at this time around when Otto was being written.

    Although one wielding a dark eye, and whose ‘very hair is [or was!] of the dissembling colour’, I can’t speak else for Otto other than to note that its year of publication in 1885 also saw that of John Beddoe’s “Races of Britain”, which today, largely through its 1971 reprint, remains the best known such work of the period. More controversially, in 1883 Sir Francis Galton – a cousin once removed from Darwin – first used his term ‘eugenics’, which he defined as ‘the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.

    Neil Brown

    24/05/2012 at 11:09 pm

  3. I’ve just read Pater’s ‘Duke Carl of Rosenmold’ (in Imaginary Portraits 1887) which is also about a small German principality, full of quaint inefficiency, a daydreaming prince who goes off in disguise: I was just wondering when this literary topos has its origins, I mean specifically located in the small German principality.


    07/06/2012 at 7:34 pm

  4. Thanks Richard and Neil. Broca and Tylor were among the texts I trawled through looking for any reference to this particular combination, but didn’t find anything so specific.
    The most important precedent for Stevenson’s representation of a small German principality is Meredith’s /The Adventures of Harry Richmond/ (1871). Note the date: my hunch is that Anglophone writers get interested in quaintly inefficient German principalities once they have vanished forever in the new Empire, declared that year, or at least at the point when that fate is clearly inevitable. But that is just a hunch.

    Bob Irvine

    13/06/2012 at 4:30 pm

  5. Interesting to note in Hardy: “Far from the Madding Crowd” (1874) Bathsheba’s description of Fanny having ‘hair of that dreadful colour[yellow].’ – ‘How can she be [pretty], poor thing, under such an awful affliction!’, she excliams. Bathsheba herself has ‘a bright face and dark hair’ with ‘a peculiar vernal charm’, we are told earlier.

    Neil Brown

    16/07/2012 at 11:41 am

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