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

Archive for May 2013

Reading transcriptions of manuscripts

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A technical post about how we present manuscripts in our volumes

Reading transcriptions

Some of the texts in the EdRLS volumes will be based on manuscripts, and this leads us to the problem of how to present them. One way to do this would to ‘reproduce’ the manuscript as a full diplomatic transcription with all deletions and insertions. EdRLS has decided not to do this, but to ‘publish’ MSS in a reading transcription, with the volume editor acting as a respectful intermediary: ignoring deletions, adding insertions, changing underlinings to italics, ‘&’ to ‘and’, correcting clear slips of the pen, supplying clearly missing punctuation and correcting all other language-processing errors.

An unavoidable problem comes with non-standard spelling, and for our edition we have decided to ‘correct’ all spelling that we feel sure a contemporary printer would have changed and that RLS would have accepted (and provably did so, accepting the change in dozens of cases where we have manuscript with one spelling and printed editions with the other). This means that the ubiquitous ‘niether’ is changed to ‘neither’, ‘it’s cause’ becomes ‘its cause’ etc. No problem.

Problem cases

However, we don’t want to iron out any spelling variants that seem to have been acceptable at the time and had a chance of being accepted by a printer or editor: examples in this grey area are ‘to develope’ ‘at the bakers’, ‘to recal’, ‘cloke’, ‘carreer’. Google Advanced Book Searches (GABS) show evidence of these forms being used in the nineteenth century, so how do we decide in these cases?

A proposal: test with Google N-Grams

One way to decide is to look in the ‘Forms’ given by the OED: any form marked as ’19’ (i.e. 19th century), or with an open range of centuries (century number followed by dash and space), is indicated by the OED as a variant spelling in the 19th century; this helps us decide about ‘develope’, which is marked ’16–’ (i.e. 16th cent. onwards). However, GABS often shows forms in print that are not listed as variant forms by the OED. In this case, I propose that we test the two forms using Google N-grams.

Google N-Grams shows relative frequency of words and phrases in a huge number of books. Let’s take an example, ‘carreer’, which RLS uses in the MS of ‘Essays, Reflections and Remarks on Human Life’ (1880; ‘at other periods of my carreer’) and again in the MS of Kidnapped (1886; ‘I was in full carreer’, a spelling kept in Barry Menikoff’s edition). Do we keep this as an interesting personal way of writing, a touch of individual savouring, or can we be sure that RLS would have accepted its correction without batting an eyelid and even thanked the printer for helping him with his uncertain spelling? Well, let’s put ‘carreer,career’ in N-Grams, select British English and date range 1870-90…. Press Enter and we get:Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 12.23.33This convinces me that ‘carreer’ had a snowball in hell’s chance of getting past a printer in 1886, and that RLS himself would have sensed it as strange if he saw it in print.

But what about if the tested form was around at the time but maybe just happened to get past a printer only a few times? Let’s try ‘cloke’, an interesting case because in Webster’s Dictionary of 1828 it is the one and only spelling given for the word, so it had certainly existed as a respectable spelling in the 19th century. Here’s the result with N-Grams:

Screen shot 2013-05-29 at 14.26.14‘Cloke’ is there but surviving on the level of the flat-fish. Now here’s my proposal: put the cursor anywhere on the vertical line that marks 1880 (not here: in Google N-Grams) and you get a reading of the frequency for books published in that year (N.B. it includes any historical books published then, which is where I suspect the occurences of ‘cloke’ come from): in this case it is ‘cloak 0.00115%; cloke 0.00004%’. I’ve underlined the zeros, because I propose that, counting the number of zeros after the decimal point, wherever the minority spelling is within one zero point away (on average 10 times less frequent) we consider it as a variant that would have been reasonably familiar in print; but wherever is it two zero points (or more) away (on average 100(+) times less frequent) we ‘correct’ it. Here, we have four zeros against two, a difference of two zero points, so ‘cloke’ doesn’t pass the test.

[Additional comment (January 2016): the ‘one zero’ measure is I think too rough: one zero point away goes down to .009 vs .0001, which is 99% of occurrences vs 1%. I suggest that ‘rare’ occurrences could be counted as those below 10% with respect to 90% of the dominant form, e.g. .oo9 vs .0009. The links to the examples of the minority form should also be inspected: some of these may be from books published in the selected period, but in editions of older authors. The actual facsimile pages should also be inspected as sometimes the snippet views show wrongly transcribed forms.]

OK, that helps us change ‘cloke’ to ‘cloak’, what about the other examples? ‘to develope’ and ‘at the bakers’ pass the test – frequent enough in print to possibly be accepted; ‘recal’ doesn’t, suggesting it should be changed to ‘recall’.

Any comments?

Colvin steps in with vim

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Sidney Colvin, as we know, acted as editor of Stevenson’s works while he was in the South Seas and then after his death. It is a curious human frailty to regard our own point-of-view as having a higher status than that of others, and Colvin was no less human in this respect than any of the rest of us. It is not often, however, that we have an example of his feeling of being right pursued to the extent illustrated below.

Talk and Talkers

In ‘Talk and Talkers’ (1882) Stevenson, in a kaleidoscopic sequence of similes, brilliantly characterizes (and imitates) the conversational style of his cousin Bob:

He doubles like the serpent, changes and flashes like the shaken kaleidoscope, transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so, in the twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a triumphant conjuror. […] I can fancy nothing to compare with the vim of these impersonations

After the essay was reprinted in Memories and Portraits in 1887, Colvin wrote to Stevenson, taking him to task for his Latin:

in another essay you have ‘with or by his vim‘, where equally of course it ought if anything to be vi, not objective but ablative. But the rule is that when you borrow a Latin word in an English sentence that way, you don’t decline it at all, but treat it like an English word, content yourself with the nominative for all cases alike, […] vis. Please have […] vim altered on the plates [i.e. on the stereotyped plates produced to print the volume]

But RLS wasn’t going to have any of this and replied (L6, 86; 24 Dec 1887):

vim is a good Scottish at least – if not (as I am tempted to think) a good English word; never a thought of Latin was in my mind; I used a current and a very general and definite colloquialism. Thank you for your explanations.

Edinburgh Edition

Despite that dismissal (‘Thank you for your explanations…’), Colvin was clearly not happy about ‘vim’ and in preparing the essay for publication in the first volume of the Edinburgh Edition he felt this and a series of other things ought to be changed. He either sent proofs or a series of points to RLS , to which RLS replied in early November 1894, clearly irritated at the liberties Colvin was taking  (L8, 384). Interestingly, two passages of Stevenson’s comments about Colvin’s changes, amounting to over seventy words, have been actually cut out of the letter. (Who could have done this? One suspects of course that it was Colvin himself, erasing Stevenson’s objections from the record.) What remains includes the following:

always make a reference to me before correcting. I should say as to vim that it is a word always used in my family — and I suspect always used in Scotland — and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears. Whether or not I shall be pleased with the substitution of vigour I cannot tell, not having the context before me.

Unfortunately, volume I of the Edinburgh Edition was published later that same month, undoubtedly before this letter could reach Colvin, so we don’t know if he would have made any changes as a result. The word printed in the essay there is ‘vigour’. (However, in the 1924 Tusitala edition it is once more ‘vim’; perhaps Colvin had a part in restoring it.)


Incidentally, the OED (in a fascicule published in 1917) says the word is ‘originally US’ and takes the side of RLS as to its non-Latin origin: ‘Commonly regarded as from Latin vim, accusative singular of vis strength, energy; but the early adverbial use […] suggests a purely imitative or interjectional origin.’

Citations start from the Yale Literary Review 1850 (where it seems to be presented as a Latin word), then two citations from Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor” (1850), and N.Y Herald (1875).

Google Advanced Book Search, however, reveals a use in 1876 in The Life of a Scottish Probationer by James Brown, Minister of St. James’s church, Paisley (the fiddler ‘whacked off’ a series of Irish dance tunes ‘with inconceivable vim and vigour’), the first UK use found so far, which suggests that the word may have been adopted early in Scotland — or even that it had an unrecorded history in Scotland before being taken across the Atlantic. (It is not in the online SND, however.) Indeed RLS’s comment (‘vim […] is a word always used in my family […] and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears’) strongly suggests that he heard it in Edinburgh in the 1850s and 60s.

Written by rdury

24/05/2013 at 4:34 pm

Charles Baxter returns home with Manuscripts from Vailima

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The following post is from Gill Hughes, editor of the EdRLS volume of Weir of Hermiston, (with contributions from Glenda Norquay and Richard Dury)


Charles Baxter travelled to take the first two volumes of the Edinburgh Edition to his old friend but arrived too late, on 31 January 1895. He then stayed a couple of months at Vailima going through Stevenson’s literary papers before travelling back via San Francisco. In Chicago he agreed to be interviewed by a local newspaper reporter; as this interview seemed to be of interest for the story of the publication of Weir of Hermiston and St. Ives, my daughter Rachel Sweet very kindly looked up the number in the Chicago Public Library and has sent me the transcription printed below.

One thing that puzzles me is that, from letters I saw at the Beinecke, Fanny and Lloyd seem to have been offended by something Baxter had said to newspapers in Chicago but I can’t see anything in this to offend them (though Andrew Lang certainly would not have been too happy about it, had he seen it).

Has anybody any ideas? Is it simply that Baxter is putting himself prominently as the person to get Stevenson’s work published and an Edinburgh memorial arranged, rather than the widow and step-son perhaps?

Screen shot 2013-05-15 at 20.26.23

Belle’s sketch of RLS giving Austin a history lesson

Another point of interest is the ‘series of history letters written to his small friend, Austen [Austin] Strong’, which Baxter expects will be published by the Youth’s Companion (though someone in England claims some right to publish them—if that is the meaning of ‘England, selfish as usual, wants it badly’; possibly ‘England’ is less amenable to the auctioning of Stevenson’s works, a practice which Baxter favoured — at the same time perhaps Baxter was trying with this comment to encourage the Youth’s Companion to offer a good price).

At least one of the history lessons exists, probably the first of the series, in the Huntington Library (HM 2393; it starts “The study of history is to learn how the world has moved and changed in former ages—how men have come together and separated and wandered”).

The Youth’s Companion was published by N. Willis of Boston between 1871 and 1929. There must be some chance that Baxter did indeed place the MSS with this periodical. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to locate a library with a collection that covers a likely period (say, 1895-97). There is an Index to the Youth’s Companion, 1871-1929, 2 vols (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972), but I haven’t been able to locate that either.

Does any reader of this blog happen to know of a library that has either the magazines or the index?


[From Chicago Evening Post, 25 April 1895]



Charles Baxter Here with Several Valuable Manuscripts.




The Writer’s Literary Executor Talks of Other English Poets—First Editions of Lang.


Charles Baxter, W. S. of Edinburgh and London, has arrived in Chicago from San Francisco.

“I am, or, I am sorry to say, was, the life-long friend and legal and literary agent of Robert Louis Stevenson,” said Mr. Baxter today to a reporter for THE EVENING POST. “On Dec. 7, in fulfillment of an old promise, I left London to pay him a visit at Brindisi. [should be ‘…visit. At Brindisi…’] I received a letter full of joyous anticipation of our meeting. At Port Said three cablegrams told me that he was dead. From what I now know I believe the terrible blank to me has been felt as a terrible blank by the civilized world. The French literary men especially have mourned his loss. I remained two months at his home in Samoa. As his executor, appointed along with Henry James, Jr., the novelist, who felt unable to act, I have been able to arrange his affairs. His family was kindness personified. I am now on my way back to his, and my, old country.

“Yes, I am taking with me several unpublished works, the first of which will be “The Vailima Letters,” being a species of diary sent monthly to his best friend, Sidney Colvin, keeper of the prints in the British Museum. Mr. Colvin introduced Stevenson to the world of letters and has ever since been his warmest admirer, severest critic and truest friend. Great competition has taken place for this book. It will appear in book form only, in England and America.

Two Uncompleted Works.

“Then I have “St. Ives,” which wants two chapters of completion. These explain the plot, but we shall leave the explanation, which is known only to one living person, as an exercise for the ingenuity of future readers. A splendid fragment (about 50,000 words), complete in itself, will be published as the first episode of what was to be his masterpiece, “Weir of Hermiston.” “The Great North Road” is a minor tale, of romantic interest, comprising about 15,000 words. A small volume of “Fables,” long ago contracted for, goes to the Longmans of London. And a charming little series of history letters written to his small friend, Austen Strong, suitable for children, will, I expect, be published by the Youth’s Companion. That is, if we arrange terms. England, selfish as usual, wants it badly.

“Stevenson’s biography will be written by Sidney Colvin, and I know he will approve of my saying that any letters of interest written to persons in the United States will be thankfully received and acknowledged by him and carefully returned. Certified type-written copies will do equally well.”

“Now, Mr. Baxter, as to your own future movements?”

“I go to-night to New York, and thence straight to Washington.”

“What about Samoan politics?”

“I decline to discuss politics.”

Mr. Stevenson’s Successors.

“Is there any successor to Stevenson as a stylist in English letters?”

“In prose—no. In verse, in which he was conscious he took but a secondary place, I will name three—Gosse, Andrew Lang, LL.D., and William Ernest Henley, LL.D., [this doctorate is a mistake of the journalist’s] all intimate friends of Stevenson. Dr. Henley is masculine and vigorous, full of new thought and invention in rhythm. He introduced the lighter French forms of verse into our country about eighteen years ago. He has had many imitators—few successful. He is my intimate friend. I reckon Poet Henley will live fifty years.

“Gosse is refined, cultivated, tuneful and sings a sweet note; but sometimes he recalls the voice of a past or present songster. He will live twenty-five years. Dr. Lang is the most curious problem of all. Industrious to a miracle, he envelops the world of broadsheets in that which looks like thought, but, as far as I can make out, is simply the result of an incredible memory. Not dull, not smart, far from a dolt, equally far from a genius, he, like a once famous rivulet, goes on forever. It was but last night I heard it complained that the English-written journal was being assimilated by Dr. Lang, and this, mind you, all over the world. His ‘first editions’ are innumerable. But now I am tired so I must really go to my friends, so you will excuse me. Before I go, however, let me give you one little sketch from real life.

“About six months ago I was travelling in the evening by a suburban train in the near neighborhood of London. A little vulgar man, with a large head and a sad eye, sat opposite. The carriage was what we call in England third-class. I was reading the first number of the ‘New Review,’ in which I held some very valuable 7 per cent preferred shares credited by my friend, W. E. Henley: I recommend them as an investment to some of your capitalists.

“ ‘You are literary, sir?’ said he, with a gasp. ‘I can read and write, but not spell,’ said I, severely. ‘Like first editions?’ said he. ‘That depends,’ said I, to cut him short. ‘Will you look at some of mine?’ he urged. ‘All right,’ I replied. The train stopped, and, seizing my arm, he rushed me down a dim village street, through a small grocer’s shop, into a back parlor, lined with shelves, each one of which was crowded with books. ‘Well, my man, what’s all this?’ I asked, really somewhat taken aback. ‘Every one of ‘em Andrew Lang’s first editions,’ he whispered, gazing at me with wide-pupiled eyes.

Andrew Lang’s First Editions.

“Then I realised the sorrow and the haunted look of my little grocer, but presence of mind came. ‘How much?’ said I ina low tone. ‘Two and sixpence per volume, taken by the load; dirt cheap,eh?’ says he anxiously. ‘Yes,’ I replied emphatically, ‘a magnificent investment. Take good heart. In five years they will be worth only one shilling and sixpence. Do not despair! Tie them up for 100 years. Your great-great-grand-children will then be lord mayors, marquises or earls and these will be priceless, because unique, the only known examples of Poet Andrew Lang.’

“Thank God, sir; thank God. Tell the wife that! She’ll be kinder, I think! What may I offer you to—’ ‘Nothing, man! In the name of heaven.” and I fled through the little shop, up the terrace, under the great railway bridge, and at last, alone, I sat me down and sighed beside the great moaning river and mused for hours on the futility of human aspiration.”

Mr. Baxter, with a cheery nod, remarking he was getting thirsty once more, left.

“By the way,” he shouted merrily as he passed up the pretty staircase of the Victoria. “I am just cabling Major Pound, in New York, to arrange a meeting of a few Scotsmen and women to hear me read Stevenson’s Scots poems in the vernacular, several addressed to me. Proceeds to put up a memorial in Edinburgh. I think it a good idea. What do you say? Good-by.”

Written by rdury

16/05/2013 at 5:44 am

Stevenson’s Fables MS: change of mind over a name

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The following post is contributed by Bill Gray, editor of the EdRLS volume including Stevenson’s Fables.


The name of the young man in ‘The Yellow Paint’

In Stevenson’s fable of the infinitely postponed benefits of the miraculous yellow paint, the young man on whose sad history the fable focuses has no name. However, in the BL MS he is named on four occasions, though each time the name is subsequently deleted. On two occasions (in paragraphs 2 and 3) the name looks definitely like ‘Ben Israel’:

Screen shot 2013-05-03 at 06.50.39

[d]Ben Israel[/d] [i]the young man was carried[/i] on a stretcher

Screen shot 2013-05-03 at 06.51.07

[d]cried Ben Israel[/d] [i]he cried, as soon as[/]

On two earlier occasions (in paragraph 1) it could be ‘Ben Israel’, a second choice after what looks like ‘Brown’:

[i]the same city[/i] a young man [d]of the name of Brown [i]Ben Israel{?}[/i][/d]

[i]the same city[/i] a young man [d]of the name of Brown{?} [i]Ben Israel{?}[/i][/d]

shook [d]Brown[/d] [i][d]Benisrael{?}[/d] the other to the [/i]

shook [d]Brown[/d] [i][d]Benisrael{?}[/d] the other to the soul[/i];

Clearly RLS first thought of Brown, a common name suitable for an anecdote or fable, then in paragraph two (for some reason) decided to use Ben Israel and made necessary changes in the first paragraph. However, by the time he got to paragraph four he had decided on ‘the young man’ and went back to change the earlier references.

Why ‘Ben Israel’?

‘Ben’ and ‘Israel’ are names RLS uses in Treasure Island; but the name ‘Ben Israel’ would be well-known to Stevenson as the name of the rabbi Nathan Ben Israel in ch. 35 of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820),  as a rabbi in part VIII of Longfellow’s The Golden Legend (1851), and as a historical figure, seventeenth-century scholar and printer Menasseh Ben Israel in one or all of his roles as  teacher of Spinoza, correspondent to Oliver Cromwell, and Biblical commentator.

The name has also been found (via Google Advance Book Search and archive.org) in various other works: a ‘Jewish Prince’ in seventeenth-century London in a play by Edward William Tullidge Ben Israel: Or, From Under the Curse (Salt Lake City, 1887); a rabbi in Jospeph Holt Ingraham’s The Prince of the House of David (New York, 1881); a rich philanthropist in Blanchard Jerrold’s The Christian Vagabond (London, 1873); even in a list of typical annoying charity projects in a humorous article in Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine for 1847 (p. 29): ‘righteous raffles, to raise sisterly aid for the Reverend Israel Ben Israel’.

It is curious that in all these cases we are dealing with a rabbi, a rich man or a prince. Can any reader explain this association of the name with such roles? Would then RLS’s original choice of name have had a mischievous aim of confusingly associating the feckless ‘young man’ with a name associated with dignity and learning? (As if, for example, he had been called David Hume…) How would this have changed the fable?

Bill Gray

Written by rdury

03/05/2013 at 10:03 am