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

Sandbox: can an editor use a new title?

with 5 comments


Titles and terminology are protected by a certain sanctity: they are labels used by society and (to confine ourselves to written language) contained in an unknowable number of documents that would become, with any change, inexact.

Yet one would still like to change some of them. Of inadequate terminology, the young Stevenson himself had something to say in his ‘Numbered Notes’ of 1873-74 (the, ahem!, new title that—in this sandbox anyway—I wish to use for the, let’s admit it, rather inadequate title ‘Selections From His Notebook’):

Scientific language like most other language is extremely unsatisfactory, as being a series of petitiones principii—as being committed from beginning to end to former and less perfect theories. Look at the degraded terminology of Mechanics—the very name being a misnomer with its so-called mechanical powers and other misleading and incorrect expressions. Any attempt, again, to talk scientifically about heat or the variation of temperature involves, on the now proved dynamical hypothesis, a series of misstatements—a string of verbal confusions.


In the first volume of Stevenson’s uncollected essays, there are a few titles I am tempted to tweak. I hasten to add: only with minor works that seem to have been given inappropriate titles by other editors. Perhaps the best way to proceed would be to look at them one by one.

1. Dunoon

a.k.a. ‘A Retrospect’ (Edinburgh Edition; Swearingen); ‘Dunoon. Encounter with a Fortune-Teller, 1870’ and ‘Dunoon. Visit at a House in 1870 where R.L.S. had Spent a Week in Childhood’ (McKay and Yale finding aid)

Here we have an early manuscript (B 6174): five sheets written on both sides numbered 5–13, i.e. missing pp. 1–4 and, since the text started on p. 13 is truncated at the end of the page, missing following pages too. It consists of several separate pieces: on Hazlitt (abandoned), on Dunoon (the contrast between impressions on a recent revisitation and memories of a distant childhood visit) (which reaches a conclusion), on Imagination (just a paragraph, though possibly finished—a pensée) and Obermann (continued on lost sheets). These pieces are separated by short centred lines: apparently a collection of essay ideas written out neatly, on both sides of the sheets to save paper.

Then we have a later manuscript (B 6173—McKay thought it was earlier, hence the lower number), written on the same paper, in which RLS decided to link together his thoughts on Hazlitt and his anecdote about childhood memory (perhaps they were always intended to be linked, as he talks specifically of Hazlitt’s ‘On the Past and Future’ and adopts Hazlitt’s points in that essay that the future is nothing, while the past is a ‘real and substantial a part of our being’). However, he also decides to insert another element before the second part: the telling of his fortune by a crazy Highland woman on the occasion of the same recent revisitation Dunoon. Clearly, Dunoon had become a crossroads of timelines and an appropriate place for thinking about past and future. Unfortunately, he abandons the project shortly after starting to rewrite what is now the third section, the one about childhood memories, though the anecdote can be be picked up on the earlier draft, in front of RLS as he wrote.

A more accurate title would be perhaps ‘Dunoon: a prophecy and a recollection’ (‘recollection’ occurs eight times in the later draft), as this is announced in a summary sentence of the later draft:

What led me to the consideration of this subject and what has made me take up my pen tonight, is the rather strange coincidence of two very different accidents—a prophecy of my future and a return into my past.

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 22.48.40

However, following a principle of least intervention, I propose to call the (fragmentary) essay ‘Dunoon’, which is a name used by McKay and is also contained in Colvin’s note placed under the title ‘(A Fragment: written at Dunoon, 1870)’. Colvin’s title ‘A Retrospect’ only refers to the anecdote about childhood memory and seems therefore to be based on a misunderstanding of Stevenson’s intentions as shown in the quotation above.

One might add that Colvin’s essay is also not exactly the same as the one we will publish, as he ends the anecdote of how childhood memories clashed with impressions on a return visit with a note ‘[Added the next morning]—’ and then continues with the pensée about, not memory, but the imagination, as if it were part of the same text, which it clearly is not.

Is the proposed title a legitimate intervention, or should I add the other title after it: ‘Dunoon (A Retrospect)’?

2. Scotland and England

a.k.a. ‘Differences of Country’ (Swearingen), ‘Differences of Country. Beginning of an Essay’ (McKay), ‘”Differences of country…”‘ (Yale finding aid, i.e. identifying it as an incipit rather than a title)

This, an unpublished fragment of an essay, starts with a series of notes to guide composition, each one separated by a dot with a space on either side (a sort of linear bullet-list):

Differences of country . The Channel & Tra los Montes . North and south
La verte Écosse et la bonne Italie . Skelts Dramas . Trees . Scotch Scene
Scotch & English houses . The Hill farm . &c.

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 18.47.50

Unfortunately the MS ends in mid-sentence at the bottom of p. 3, so continued in a section now lost. What remains is a paragraph and a bit covering the first two points ‘Differences of country . The Channel & Tra los Montes’:

(Para 1) The individuality of a country that we remember depends on significant physical differences (for instance, ‘A country with a long bare seaboard must leave a very different impression from one into which the bright sea enters deeply, and the firths run far inland and lie about the roots of mountains for all the world like lakes, and the islands are so thickly scattered that they make the sea-run between them look shrunken and tortuous like a firth’) and differences of landscape created by different cultures and tastes , basically unchanged for centuries (and he cites a medieval French illumination with features of the countryside still typical today).
(Para 2) The Channel has done much to influence English thought; in Gautier’s Tra los montes we read of how a traveller going south sees a gradual change from France into Spain… (And here the MS ends.)

On 14 January 1875 RLS writes to Colvin:

I shall have another PRTFL [Portfolio] paper, so soon as I am done with this story [‘When the Devil was Well’] […] The Prtfl paper will be about Scotland and England.

‘When the Devil was Well’ seems to be written on the same paper as this fragment (I’ll be checking this in the Beinecke), which (another clue to dating) makes reference to the typical landscape of Romney Marsh—undoubtedly showing the influence of Basil Champneys’ A Quiet Corner of England, which he read in Oct-Nov 1874 (cf L2: 79), his review being published in The Academy of 5 Dec 1874. The ‘Prtfl paper about Scotland and England’ also fits in well with the summary notes at the top of p. 1 of our MS, which seem to sketch out an introduction about differences of landscape between different countries before moving on to specific landscape differences between Scotland and England (an interest already present in the obvious evocation of Scottish lochs and islands in Para 1). The reference to Skelt’s Dramas must be to the memory he includes in ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’:

England, the hedgerow elms, the thin brick houses, windmills, glimpses of the navigable Thames—England, when at last I came to visit it, was only Skelt made evident: to cross the border was, for the Scotsman, to come home to Skelt; there was the inn-sign and there the horse-trough, all foreshadowed in the faithful Skelt.

So we have ‘Differences of country’, first item in a series of notes for the essay that is most probably the one ‘about Scotland and England’ referred to in the letter. I’d like to call it ‘Scotland and England’ Or should it be ‘Scotland and England (Differences of Country)’, or ‘Differences of Country (Scotland and England)’? Or no change at all?

3. Lay Morals (Man and Money)

‘Lay Morals’, an essay-treatise divided into four chapters, is a different case:  as it is a well-know work, changing the title is not advisable. However, RLS never refers to it with this title, written in pencil by another hand at the top of the 1879 MS.

The first two chapters seem to have been given the title ‘What We Teach’ (which covers the content of these chapters quite well) in an outline sketch in a notebook, and RLS refers in a letter to the whole project as ‘Man and Money’ (L2, 308; late March 1879) (and we find the following titles in lists of planned essays in the 1870s: ‘Morality and Money’, ‘Money’, ‘On Money’ and ‘Money and Morals’). Even though this latter title seems to apply most to Chapter IV, it also embraces Chapter II, sections 9 and 10 (the long personal anecdote and about living on unearned income and the explanation of how ‘stealing’ covers certain kinds of common economic behaviour), as well as the criticism in Chapter III of the conventional doctrine of profit.

The traditional title, apparently supplied by Colvin, provides a general title for a text that is occupied with more than money (criticisms of conventional moral education and hypocrisy, the impossibility of governing conduct by precepts because of the continually changing nature of life, the guiding of conduct by an internal sense of right, the importance of accepting bodily desires, and how the privileged classes should make service correspond to income and not waste money on undesired luxuries). The ethics of money is certainly a major interest but its development in ch. IV seems to be unsuccessfully attached to ch. I and II on moral education and ch. III on how conduct is to be judged in the absence of a divine moral guide. This latter is certainly a constant theme of the essay (making ‘Lay Morals’ an appropriate title), even if never explicitly stated.

Given Stevenson’s one explicit reference, I would like to use the title ‘Lay Morals (Man and Money)’.

This would also have the advantage of distinguishing the work from the untitled 1883 fragment, which incorporates parts of ch. III and seems to have the same aim of bringing together Stevenson’s thoughts on morality in the form of a guide to the young (and specifically states this in an Introduction) but does not mention money, a dominant element in the earlier work. It might possibly be referred to as ‘Lay Morals (Youth and Morality)’ using for the second part a title in a list of planned essay titles in a notebook of early 1882—but I leave this to the editor of the later volume.

4. At Sea, A Night in the South of France, Time

a.k.a 1. ‘A Note at sea’, 2. ‘A night in France’ (Mckay, Yale finding aid, Swearingen), ‘Fragment of an Essay on Time’ (Osbourne auction catalogue, 1914), ‘On Time’ (Swearingen)

These are three fragments (the third untraced since publication in the 1923 Vailima Edition). For the first, ‘A Note’ seems more of a description of the type of document, left over from the title in the auction catalogue, when ‘At Sea’ would be more elegant. It seems close in style to the 1875 ‘Prose Poems’.

The second, previously believed to be part of the ‘Forest Notes’ drafts (it was written in the same notebook) was actually written in Mentone and records thoughts of hearing a piano playing Scottish airs (also mentioned in a letter of February 1874). Various more accurate titles could be imagined, but a minimum intervention would be to add ‘the South of’ to the title.

The third, though only 309 words, could possibly be finished, and it looks very similar in topic and style to the 1873–74 ‘Numbered Notes’: thoughts on various mainly philosophical topics. ‘On Time’ suggests a longer treatise, while ‘Time’ would be a sufficient title for this short piece (and in line with the titles of the ‘Numbered Notes’). Indeed ‘Time’ is the title used in the 1923 Vailima Edition and the Tusitala Edition that derives from it. As Swearingen indexes the item as ‘Time, On’ it will cause minimum confusion to adopt the shorter title, the one used in previous editions that included it.

However, in the first two cases, I can see I am forcing matters. ‘A Night in France’ is perhaps a good enough title. If I am honest, I can also see that I want to call the first ‘At Sea’ because I want to make it like the Prose Poems. So, in the end I am inclined resist title tweaking and to keep these two titles unchanged. (Or does anyone think ‘At Sea’ would be permissible?)


Using this free area of play has been very useful: as I wrote I started to get second thoughts, to see matters from another side, started to suspect my own motives. Any helpful contributions to the debate will be welcomed.


5 Responses

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  1. The wrongness of this well-meaning programme of changing titles is signalled by your saying, of the changes that you plan to make, that they apply to ‘minor works that seem to have been given inappropriate titles by other editors’.

    No. These are not ‘works’. They are only words written in notebooks and elsewehere that Stevenson, for whatever reason, never prepared for publication – never brought remotely close to publication.

    Probably he shared them, those that he shared at all, if he did, with only one or two people, ever. None of them is finished, none of them is even titled.

    One might say, not inaccurately, that all of them were, at some time or another, simply abandoned.

    They are not ‘works’, major or minor, simply the leavings of an active literary life. They are different in kind, not just in degree, and it is fallacious and misleading to pretend otherwise. The question of titles hardly matters.

    During the early 1870s, at about the same time as most of these notebook entries and drafts were written, Stevenson actually was finishing ‘works’ and preparing them for a form of private ‘publication’ – this in addition to writing and submitting other works for publication.

    I refer to the half a dozen collections that he made of his poems under collection titles such as ‘Poems’, ‘Songs’, ‘Little Odes’ and ‘Recruiting Songs’. Examples other than poems include the play ‘Monmouth’, the long story ‘When the Devil Was Well’, and ‘The Hair Trunk’.

    Even though none of these was ever submitted for publication, unlike the notebook entries and drafts that you are dealing with here, these are ‘works’. Whatever their eventual disposition by him, they were so treated by their author.

    They have on them titles that Stevenson himself wrote out, they have been copied by him carefully and legibly and separately from other works, and except for ‘The Hair Trunk’ (which is unfinished) all of them have beginnings, middles, and ends.

    These features, among others, differentiate them sharply from the items you are dealing with.

    Stevenson had his reasons, we may suppose, for carrying some efforts further than others: for abandoning some efforts and not abandoning others. To call everything by the name of ‘works’, therefore, and to present everything together in one unbroken chronological sequence – as if these are all Stevenson’s ‘works’ – is fallacious and misleading, and it is false to his own actual practice.

    It was Sidney Colvin and George S. Hellman who first made most of these collections of words into ‘works’, giving them titles and tidying them up. But even Colvin and Hellman kept them separate from what Stevenson saw fit to collect – as his ‘works’ one is tempted to say – during his lifetime.

    Colvin often signals this very fact by explanatory titles such as ‘Miscellanies’ used in the Edinburgh Edition, titles such as ‘Selections From His Notebook’, or subtitles such as ‘A Frament, written at Dunoon’.

    I myself find none of the titles that Colvin and Hellman supplied for these items ‘inappropriate’. They all have some relevance or fit with the contents. None is therefore ‘inappropriate’, none of them misleading.

    Bibliographers such as George L. McKay, who prepared the original catalogue of the Beinecke Collection, myself, in The Prose Writings of RLS (1980), and Michael Forstrum, whose new-style Beinecke Collection finding aids have been online for some years, have accepted and used these ‘received’ titles.

    We have done so for the simple reasons that they are no more (or less) ‘authorial’ than any other titles that might be proposed, and – crucially – that it is under these titles that these collections of words first became known. Other titles may in our opinion or yours or someone else’s be more ‘logical’, or more congruent with the contents, or more pleasing, or more ‘accurate’.

    But as bridge players are wont to say, ‘a card laid is a card played’. There is no benefit in changing any of these titles now – and actual harm in that readers forever afterwards will have to figure out that what was once called X is what is now called Y – neither such title being Stevenson’s.

    The following before-and-after list, separated from all the whys and wherefores and what-ifs in your posting, in my opinion speaks all too plainly for itself.

    It shows how little benefit there really is in any of the changes – all the more so in that there is little or no intrinsic or authorial authority for making them, and plenty of reason not to.

    Selections From His Notebook > Numbered Notes

    A Retrospect/A fragment, written at Dunoon > Dunoon

    Differences of Country > Scotland and England

    Lay Morals > Lay Morals (Man and Money)

    A Note at Sea > At Sea

    A Night in France > A Night in the South of France

    On Time > Time

    These changes of title are not improvements, nor – more important – are the items in question now, or by being re-named are they now made into, ‘works’ suitable to be merged into the mainstream of what Stevenson himself eventually finished, published, and collected.

    These are notebook entries, and as scholars, editors, and bibliographers, we do our readers – Stevenson’s readers – no service by not making distinctions such as these clear, obvious, and unmistakable.

    That’s the real harm in this talk of re-naming. It makes it seem as if everything is the same, these ‘minor works’ (actually notebook entries and abandoned drafts) among them, and that everything should therefore be re-organized and merged into a single chronological sequence.

    Roger Swearingen

    11/09/2013 at 9:39 pm

  2. Thank you for entering the play area of the sandbox with your helpful contribution.

    It seems we have three questions here:

    (i) possibility of re-naming (in any way) of literary non-works (a nonce-term adopted here just to clarify),
    (ii) distinguishing ‘works’ (compositions published and ‘self-published’—fair copy, titled, complete) from non-works (‘words written in notebooks and elsewehere’, ‘notebook entries and drafts’, ‘the leavings of an active literary life’, ‘collections of words’),
    (iii) the order of presentation in a volume (works and non-works ‘merged into one single chronological sequence’ or in separate sections), a question not actually raised in the posting but of related interest.

    I will meditate.


    12/09/2013 at 5:43 am

    • the concept of a literary work is dependent upon there being human institutions (of which indeed critics have become an integral part), governing its production, and guaranteeing its relationship to human purposes. We only know that a literary work has been produced if these institutional features come into play.

      Chistopher Butler, ‘What is a Literary Work?’, New Literary History 5:1 (1973), p. 29

      Just collecting ideas. Letters (correspondence) cannot therefore be classed as ‘works of literature’ in the strict sense.


      12/09/2013 at 8:21 am

    • On ‘words written on notebooks’:

      We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indisciminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

      Joan Didion, ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ (1966).


      18/09/2013 at 10:16 am

      • Well, having mulled it over, I am now inclined to the following decisions:

        1. I’ll keep ‘A Note at Sea’, ‘A Night in France’ and ‘Differences of Country’ unchanged — I now agree with Swearingen that these label the items adequately and (in particular) are the titles used wherever they have been printed or referred to. In addition, ‘At Sea’ (as I admitted in my first post) is probably motivated by a desire to promote the writing to a work like a prose poem (which I will resist).
        2. ‘Dunoon (A Retrospect)’ — the best way, I think, to deal with the divergent titles in McKay (Dunoon) and EdEd and Swearingen (A Retrospect).
        3. ‘Time’ — a choice between ‘Time’ (Vailima Ed), ‘On Time’ (Swearingen) and ‘Fragment of an Essay on Time’ (auction catalogue); also ‘Spring’, again a choice between ‘Springtime’ (Swearingen) and ‘Spring’ (McKay). A similar case is ‘Criticism’ (McKay) and ‘Literary Criticism’ (Swearingen). Of course the explanatory notes will give the other slightly differing titles so the user of the edition should not be lost.
        4. ‘Lay Morals (Man and Money)’ — for the moment I’m keeping this for the 1879 composition as it will distinguish it from the related but (for me) different composition of 1883. They seem to me both unsuccessful (but very interesting) attempts to put into writing the ideas on morality and conduct that RLS had in the 1870s, the second re-using some of the material from the first.


        23/09/2013 at 1:00 pm

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