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

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

with 5 comments

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

5 Responses

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  1. Bacon?

    Neil Brown

    03/05/2013 at 10:14 am

    • ‘Bacon’ replaced by ‘Ben Israel’—I can’t imagine RLS doing that! Bill will have to look at the MS to confirm what that first name is.


      03/05/2013 at 10:25 am

  2. Supposing that this is what he did, Stevenson’s use and then discarding of the name ‘Ben Israel’ for the main character in ‘The Yellow Paint’ seems to me another instance of his lifelong scepticism about the not-really learned: people who think that they know or understand things but who actually understand nothing.

    Among the ‘Fables’ one might cite (among other instances; indeed one might almost say that the limitedness of human knowledge is the theme of all of them) ‘The Sick Man’, in which the eponymous character is convinced that he understands everything, saying that ‘the proper service of the strong is to help the weak’ – to which the fireman rightly replies: ‘”I could forgive you being sick,” he said at last, as a portion of the wall fell out, “but I cannot bear your being such a fool”. And with that he heaved up his fireman’s axe, for he was eminently just, and clove the sick man to the bed’.

    Or consider, in ‘The Clockmaker’, the ‘animalculae of unrivalled intellect’ who develops fine and fancy theories . . . not knowing that he and the other creatures are all just bugs in a carafe of water. Or the vivisectionist in ‘The Scientific Ape’, needing the chief of the apes to rescue his own child.

    The essence of the joke is talking oneself into – ‘reasoning’ oneself into – absurdities. And of course we all do it, all of the time.

    In New Arabian Nights, for example, one of the suicides declares that ‘he would never have joined the club, if he had not been induced to believe in Mr. Darwin’. “I could not bear,” said this remarkable suicide, “to be descended from an ape”.’ ‘”Here I am,” the clergyman Mr. Rolles laments in the ‘Story of the Young Man in Holy Orders’, ‘”with learning enough to be a Bishop, and I positively do not know how to dispose of a stolen diamond. . . . This inspires me with very low ideas of University training.”‘ There is a similar joke in The Hair Trunk.

    At Vailima, RLS for a time wrote comments about his books to be put on cards with them. About Catriona, 5 November 1893, he wrote a nice deflation of David Balfour’s earnestness:

    All about my native city and among the lawyer crew,
    See my stiff-necked Davie wander, seeking what a lad can do.
    Finding to his own amazement nothing possible at all
    But to please the pretty ladies – give the ruder men the wall.

    In ‘The Yellow Paint’ RLS eventually saw that the jibe against ‘learning’ through the allusive (or perhaps merely resonant) name contributed nothing to the fable, and in fact narrowed its applicability to no benefit. So he discarded it.

    Roger Swearingen

    03/05/2013 at 7:56 pm

    • And in ‘The Sinking Ship’, disputants, drunken sailors and the independent-minded smoker all meet the same end… Concerning ‘The Yellow Paint’, the ‘young man’ is rather a _schlemiel_ than anyone with authority, learning or social position; chosing the ‘resonant’ (good word) name would have added a nonsensical twist—suggesting meaning and at the same time taking it away—which he decided against (rightly so, I think, as the fable is focused on credulity and religious hokum—it would have added nothing and merely confused.)


      04/05/2013 at 6:19 am

  3. >>indeed one might almost say that the limitedness of human knowledge is the theme of all of [the Fables].<<

    Yes indeed: the limitedness of human knowledge (though not always human knowledge in the literal reading of the fables, e.g. the devil, the frog), including moral knowledge, religious knowledge, self-knowledge.

    This seems to connect with the title in the BL MS: Aesop in the Fog, with Aesop embodying the moral/religious/cultural authority figure (or know-all), as well as (being Janus-faced) the one who exposes such pretensions to knowledge.

    I wonder if you could say the fables are about the judgement passed on know-alls, who often come to a bad end (also the case in Aesop’s tales) – or are sometimes just shown up, as in the case of the philosopher who comes to instruct the learned-ignorant extraterrestrial distinguished visitor.

    Given that the colour yellow was used from medieval times to mark out Jews (and other religious outsiders), maybe Stevenson associated the quasi-religious efficacy of the yellow paint (he didn’t after all have to choose yellow) with Judaism – hence Ben Israel?

    But the fable does seem to work better without any too specific application being invited.

    Bill Gray

    04/05/2013 at 3:49 pm

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