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

Archive for November 2012

Language statistics

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Wordsmith Tools is the name of a program for statistically analysing the vocabulary of large samples of language, to see how words are patterned; it was developed by a gentle genius, Dr Mike Scott. I thought it might be interesting to compare RLS’s essays with some other essays, just to get an inkling of some things that might make them distinctive. To do this, I made a word-frequency list of all of RLS’s essays and compared it with two control corpuses via a ‘keywords’ analysis. For Wordsmith ‘key words’ are those whose frequency is unusually high in comparison with a comparative corpus. (You can also look at the words that are unusually infrequent in comparison with the other corpus.) I did this all very quickly, so it’s only intended here as an amusing entertainment that might provoke thought.

1. Comparison of RLS’s essays with Sampson’s 1912 anthology ‘Nineteenth-century Essays’

Sampson’s  Nineteenth-century Essays  is a one-volume collection (so quite small) including: Carlyle, “On History”; Macaulay, “Ranke’s History of the Popes”; Bagehot, “Shakespeare — the Man”; Newman, “Literature”; Ruskin, “Sir Joshua and Holbein”; Arnold, “Marcus Aurelius”; and Stevenson, “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured” (which I omitted from the corpus file).

The most characteristic words in  RLS (I took all his essays) compared with Sampson’s selection are (in descending ‘keyness’):


and the words most characteristic of the Sampson corpus that are little used by RLS in his essays are (in ascending negative ‘keyness’):


Who would have thought that ‘which’ was so little used by RLS in comparison with the six other essayists?

The two lists make an interesting random poem: RLS’s key words  focussing on subjectivity, partiality (some, somewhat), concession (although), simply perceived phenomena (and), movement (road – one of only two  nouns!), experience (moment); while the Victorian sages have those terribly heavy nouns and heavy links (therefore, which).

2. Comparison with Modern English Essays, edited by Ernest Rhys

Rhys’s substantial five-volume collection from 1922 contains RLS’s “Walking Tours” (in vol 2), which I removed from the corpus file, then made a word-frequency list, and used this to compare with the wordlist of Stevenson’s essays.

Interestingly the words that stood out as most unusual in comparison with the other texts were again suggestive of subjectivity and interpersonal relations, and once more we find ‘and’:

YOU    I    YOUR    MY    AND

The most characteristic Stevenson words include some proper nouns (Knox, Burns, Arethusa – I had included An Inland Voyage as an essay-like text), but also UPON (RLS tends to use this rather than ‘on’), SOME (13th position) and SOMEWHAT (in 20th place), as in the previous list. Other interesting words near the top of the list include: PLEASURE (14), PLEASURES (23); YET (15), the only conjunction in the top group; and, once again ROAD (24).

What about the words that were, instead, significantly more frequent in the five volumes of ‘Modern English Essays’? Here, the list contains a lot of proper names (MONTAIGNE, JAMES, GEORGE…) as Rhys’s selection tends towards critical essays, but once again the most frequent word in the control corpus in comparison with Stevenson is WHICH.  Curious.

Written by rdury

20/11/2012 at 6:27 pm

Journal of Stevenson Studies 9 (2012): Special essays number

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The Journal of Stevenson Studies 9 has just been published and is on its way to subscribers. The contributions all address aspects of Stevenson’s essays. Richard Dury and Robert-Louis Abrahamson, the guest editors, along with Lesley Graham and Alex Thomson, are editing Stevenson’s essays in five volumes for the New Edinburgh Edition. The four of us have been working together on the project for the last few years, discussing the essays with others in the ‘ReadingRLS’ internet forum and speaking with each other often several times a week via Skype.

This present collection constitutes the lengthiest study of Stevenson’s essays yet published, and we hope will open up a way for critics to talk about them, not merely in an instrumental way, when explaining the narrative works or the historical context of when they were written (revealing though these approaches are), but also in their own right as interesting literary works and memorable reading experiences.


1. overviews
Robert-Louis Abrahamson, ‘“The essays must fall from me”: an outline of Stevenson’s career as an essayist’

Traces RLS’s career as an essayist, the literary networks and magazines associated with the beginning of his career, RLS’s attitude towards the genre and his reasons for abandoning it.

Richard Dury, ‘Stevenson’s essays: language and style’

A study of S’s style in his essays, emphasizing reader-involvement and the many factors of variety and shifting focus that lead to their experience as performances in time by a mercurial, ever-changing artist.

2. 1880s essays /essays on memory, art and imagination
Richard Hill, ‘Stevenson in the Magazine of Art’

The six essays RLS wrote for Henley’s Magazine of Art 1882-4, though apparently diverse are linked by interest in relationship between the visual arts and literature, in the possibilities of an illustrated text, and on the importance of childhood memories and the imagination in the creative process.

Alex Thomson, ‘Familiar style in Memories and Portraits’

An examination of how Memories and Portraits is a collection of ‘familiar essays’ that explores autobiography, memorial and the consequences of pervasive inherited memory, and how the self-reflexive essay form distinguishes them from the Scottish tradition of nostalgic ‘reminiscences’.

Dewi Evans, ‘Stevenson in Scribner’s: ethics and romance in the literary marketplace’

A study of connected and contrasting ethical and aesthetic ideas in earlier essays and how they are consolidated in the Scribner’s series, with particular attention to the writer in the literary marketplace.

Neil Macara Brown, ‘Had their day: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Popular Authors’

Documents Stevenson’s reading of popular authors and planned and finished works connected with popular genres, supplies bio- bibliographical information about the writers, speculates on their attraction for him, and suggests scenes from popular books that he read that may have inspired his own fiction.

Marie Léger-St-Jean, ‘“Long for the penny number and weekly woodcut’: Stevenson on reading and writing popular romance’

A comparative reading of papers on popular literature by Rymer (1842) and Stevenson (1888), followed by an exploration of the imaginative importance of illustrations for RLS and their link with ‘romance’, dreams and daydreams and a ‘true’ inner life.

3. Californian and South Seas essays / essays on sympathetic understanding / evolution as an essayist
Jennifer Hayward, ‘“The Foreigner at Home”: The Travel Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson’

How RLS’s writings about California helped him develop views of national identity and race and empathy towards the marginalized.

Andrew Robson, ‘Stevenson as sympathetic essayist’

RLS shows sympathy and understanding for the dispossessed and oppressed; this is present in early essays and develops in his American and Pacific writings.

Timothy Hayes, ‘“Not so childish as it seems”: Stevenson’s interrogation of childishness in the South Seas’

RLS showed an interest in childhood and its relation to adult existence in a series of essays and his ‘South Seas’ pieces continue with an interest in ‘childlike’ behaviour in adults. In the South Seas can be considered a collection of essays because of their variety of approach, their shifts in point-of-view, and seen as exploratory ‘attempts’.

4. afterlife
Lesley Graham, ‘The reception of Stevenson’s essays’

Traces Stevenson’s literary reputation and his appreciation as an essayist and relates this to the decline in interest in the essay.

JSS is available by annual subscription only; to obtain a copy of this issue, send a cheque for £15 (UK) or £17/€18/$23 US/$24 CA (overseas) to JSS, English Studies, Univ. Stirling, with subscription form.

Written by rdury

14/11/2012 at 10:45 am

Essay on Hugo with an addition by Colvin

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One of RLS’s most impressive early essays is that on Victor Hugo’s novels (later included in Familiar Studies of Men and Books). He finished the fair copy at Swanston on 4 May 1874 and sent it to Colvin for his opinion. This was returned with some changes and on 4 June RLS writes to him:

“Victor Hugo” has come; I like all your alterations vastly, except one which I don’t like, tho’ I own something was needed there also.’ (L2: 18)

Not many early MSS of RLS survive, but luckily this is one of them (Yale GM664-63-1453, if I may invent an abbreviation). In a note to the above letter, Mehew identifies one change by Colvin (on f. 40) that, not deleted in the MS, was removed in proof:

     Having thus learned to subordinate
his story to an idea to make his art
speak <ins>both to the artistic and the moral sense, and at best to both these harmoni:/ously together</ins>, he went on to teach it to say
things heretofore unaccustomed. […]

In the insertion, the three b’s with a loop stand out immediately as not typical of RLS’s handwriting. The lead-in line to RLS’s b sweeps up to a point or spike, in contrast his h always attempts to start with a loop – indeed, we have taken the absence/presence of a loop as a way of disambiguating between b and h. Look at the bs and h’s in the lines immediately  below in the same MS:

The insertion also has another unusual feature: ‘harmoniously’ ends with a gamma-y; while RLS (as far as I can remember) writes ‘y’ like a tailed-u (as in ‘say’ below the word), or uses yough-y (French-y, as in ‘hastily’ in the second picture). The use of a colon instead of a hyphen (‘harmoni:’) is also unusual.

(There is one small hitch: in the reproduction that addition looks as if it is in the same ink as the rest of the writing, clearly an impossibility – but a check of the MS should decide the matter. I also need to acquire a better knowledge of the handwriting of Colvin (so I can see what other changes in the MS Colvin suggested) – for the moment, we can rely on the testimony of Mehew, who was familiar with all the hands connected with RLS MSS.)

I ought to add that Colvin’s possible changes in the MS seem examples of  helpful collaboration rather the imposition of a different point-of-view. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the episode is that RLS in 1874 was already confident enough to reject the rather weak and inconsequential addition by Colvin in the example above.

Written by rdury

11/11/2012 at 9:32 am