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

Stevenson and London magazine

with 3 comments

RLA, me and Colindale

Screen shot 2013-10-01 at 05.58.46Last January two Essays Editors, RLA and myself, set off from Linton near Cambridge, to drive down to the Colindale Newspaper Library in North London. Our aims: to read through Young Folks (to see if the two MS papers for juvenile readers on Writing and Reading had by chance been published there—they hadn’t), and to try to identify possible articles by Stevenson in London: the conservative weekly journal of politics, finance, society and the arts.

Time passed quickly on the journey as we discussed a draft of the Edition’s General Introduction; we then successfully identified just the right place to turn for the Library, and (still feeling good about that) quickly found a parking place. The suburb and the Library building are from the 1930s and the Library had a certain old-fashioned charm: we registered at a ground-floor cloakroom window, then went up to a first-floor reading-room that reminded me of a 1950s town library in its slight workaday disorder.

Day in the Library

colindaleThe opening hours not being generous (10 am to 5 pm), we got down to work as soon as the sturdily-bound volumes arrived. I was surprised to see the London was actually in broadsheet newspaper format, and was impressed by the accurate printing on thick white paper. Each printed letter pressed, slightly but sharply, into the paper. Running your fingers over the surface, you could feel the indented shapes on your finger-tips.

All this I was unconsciously taking in as I started to rapidly leaf through the pages. I saw that the typical contents included foreign affairs, domestic politics, essays and miscellaneous articles. Section titles included ‘Capell Court’ (financial news), ‘The Whispering Gallery’ (gossip column), ‘Book of the Week’, ‘Mudies’ (short notices of books),  ‘Vanity Fair’, and ‘Bohemia’, though sections varied across the life of the magazine. We were looking for articles that may have been by RLS, but time was short, so all we could do was to scan for likely items, then rapidly try to ‘taste’ them, all the time making notes.

After a couple of hours we went for lunch in a “caff” on the local row of suburban shops, chatting all the while about likely items that each of us had found; then we returned to take up the unequal race against time. Before we knew it, the clock was touching 4.30 and we were hurrying to order photoreproductions before closing time.

London: the conservative weekly…

Screen shot 2013-09-30 at 11.08.31According to World Cat, London is only held by two Libraries in the world: here in the British Library and at Yale—and the volumes in Yale are photographic copies of the ones here. So this was a precious document.

Articles by Stevenson

We know that RLS contributed to the magazine from the very first number on 3 Feb 1877 (‘A Salt-Water Financier’ and ‘Mr Tennyson’s “Harold”‘) to November 1878 (‘Leon Berthelini’s Guitar’). The journal (edited by Henley from December 1877) did not itself continue much longer and the last number was issued on 5 Apr 1879.

Stevenson’s initial period of collaboration was short: from February to March/April 1877 (and in mid-May he writes, ‘I’ve been done with London, many’s the long day’ (L2, 210), but we know that he then contributed again from April to November 1878.

His seven items from 1877 had actually remained unknown for many years: Ernest Mehew identified six  articles from that year in 1965, and Stevenson’s first published story ‘An Old Song’ (Feb–Mar 1877) was discovered by Roger Swearingen in 1982. The introduction to his edition of the text begins stirringly:

Few scholarly discoveries are as exciting as finding an important, entirely unknown work by an author one has been studying for years.

Articles not by Stevenson

Scanning through the volumes, we came across some articles that seemed witty, intelligent and well-written but could not be by RLS, or might be, but did not contain enough clues to merit the label ‘possibly by Stevenson’.

One of those that we momentarily considered a candidate because of references to Herbert Spencer, Darwin and ‘arboreal ancestors’, and which we then agreed to exclude (because of its frivolity and the lack of good clues), was a humourous piece on ‘The Evolution of Valentines’ (8 Feb 1879) which begins:

Evolution, Mr. Herbert Spencer tells us, proceeds always from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. What could more beautifully illustrate this truth than the development of the Valentine?

Another whose style excluded it was an article on Mark Twain (1 Feb 1879). It was first considered because of the sentence ‘Boys like him because he has been a boy and hates the whole Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Budget system of education with a rich, boyish hatred’—since Franklin and Budget ‘The Successful Merchant’ are criticized in Stevenson’s ‘Lay Morals’ from the same period. But then we thought it could well have been written by Henley (the style is rather laboured: ‘hated […] with a rich, boyish hatred’), and he could have easily picked up these names from conversations with RLS. The following sentence I thought particularly successful:

Solemnly, soberly, positively, impossibly fantastic, exaggerating exaggeration; winging an idea of entirely unforeseen absurdity with words of the straightest, soundest, strongest pattern to be found in the dictionary or out of it; he takes possession of his opposite from end to end, hurries him from fit to fit of chuckling fondness, hurls him bodily into such abysses of laughter as are perilous to sound, and only leaves him when he is exhausted, and when, though he is not able to laugh any more, he is in a state of happiness not less complete than idiotic.

Another reason we decided against these two items is because they are both from February 1879 when we have no other information of RLS writing for the magazine.

Another item that attacted our attention was a witty put-down of a novel Done in the Dark (3 Mar 1877): well-written and handled with lightness, it could be by RLS—but it could also be by someone else. As I enjoyed reading it, I’ve put it at the end of this post to share with other readers.

Eleven possible London items by Stevenson had, before Mehew in 1965, been listed by George L. McKay (they had very probably been proposed by Beinecke’s Stevenson researcher, Gertrude Hills), but most of them do not look very likely: the two series ‘Husbands’, ‘Wives’, ‘Sweethearts’, ‘Flirts’; and then ‘Gossip’, ‘Scandal’, and ‘More about Gossip’—not only seem improbable titles for Stevenson but date from the period immediately after late April 1877 when we know RLS had thankfully abandoned the unwelcome forced work for the magazine. Indeed, they were more probably by James Walter Ferrier, as Henley writes in February 1877, ‘Ferrier will contribute ‘a series of “Humorous” – brief essays, on Sisters, Afternoon tea & et., like the Saturday mind [The Saturday Review; ‘kind’?], only humorous, & not witty’ (Atkinson, 44 & n). Another title listed in McKay, ‘At the Lyceum on Monday’, was shown by Swearingen (1980, p. 25) to be by Henley.

Only two of McKay’s eleven seemed possible candidates to us, for style, content and date: one on Balzac and the other on Villon. These we marked for for pdf requests and further investigation.

Another clue

Screen shot 2013-10-01 at 11.29.01

Inland Voyage Notebook (Yale B 6452), bp. 16

Arabian Nights….£4 10s
………do…………….£4 an article also
………do…………….£5 an article also
…………………………£4 16s an article also
English Admirals £8 8s
……………………….. £5 6s an article
……………………….. £4 10s
……………………….. £3 10s

On back page 16 of the Inland Voyage Notebook, RLS has listed payments received in 1878, in chronological order, ending with the sequence above which comes in the list immediately after the payment for ‘El Dorado’ (published May 1878). Although only the first five payments are specifically identified as ‘Arabian Nights’, the arrangement suggests that, apart from ‘English Admirals’ (published in the Cornhill in July 1878), these are 9 payments for episodes of the ‘Latter-Day Arabian Nights’ (published 8 Jun–26 Oct 1878), four of which also include ‘an article also’. (‘do.’ stands for ‘ditto’, i.e. archaic Italian—probably borrowed into English through accountancy—for ‘[already] said’.)

Without attempting to link these payments to exact numbers of London, the list seems to suggest that RLS was paid for four articles in London roughly in the period late June–August 1878, articles so far unidentified. The significance of this list was only realized after we’d had our day in Colindale and by chance it was a volume of the magazine we hadn’t had time to look at.

Second chance at the Beinecke

Luckily both RLA and myself will be at the Beienecke Library, Yale University, in October. We have already reserved their copies of London, and we intend to look through the pages for this period with an open but receptive mind.

Colindale, adieu

But to Colindale we shall never return. This pleasantly old-fashioned instititution will close forever on 8 November 2013, the building—admittedly, no jewel of modern architecture—will be pulled down and the land used for housing. The newspapers will be taken to a new state-of-the-art warehouse in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. Access to the collection will be in a new Newspaper Reading Room at St Pancras in the form of microfilm, digital copies or (if these are unavailable and the volume can travel), exceptionally, by the actual printed periodical. But eventually all the collection will be on microfilm or digital copy and the periodicals will stay locked inside their low-oxygen warehouse. (See reports in the Guardian and Financial Times.) So perhaps no-one will ever feel the delicately indented printed letters of London again.

Bonus track: review of Done in the Dark

I thought it was a nice example of deadpan irony, so I’ll share it here; it could be by RLS—but also by someone else, and nothing in the text gives a good clue to authorship.

Done in the Dark (Samuel Tinsley), by the author of “Recommended to Mercy,” is in many ways a remarkable book. That it has any merit as a novel we cannot conscientiously aver. There does not seem to be any particular story. The characters are all curiously unlike human beings. As for the dialogue, let this serve as a sample, the speaker being Joy, the heroine, who has just had the misfortune to lose her brother: “Have I no feeling, that I can talk so quietly of Archie’s death? Do I believe, have I understood, that never more in this world of the next will his warm fingers close upon my own, nor his brother’s dear kiss be pressed upon my cheek? Is it nothing to me that my father, to whom Archie was dear as was ever son to parent, is standing bare-headed, with a gray, pinched look upon his face?” &c., &c. And in point of reflection there are few, we imagine, but will feel the force of such a pregnant fancy as “even the restless robin feels that there is a time for all things, and perhaps (for who dares limit the extent of his faculties which God has given?) hails with thankfulness the moment when ‘tired Nature’s sweet restorer’ will close upon his bright black eyes in welcome slumber.”
From a heroine who could make such a speech as that one quoted above, while people with hooks and poles were dragging the river for Archie’s body, the reader is entitled to expect a great deal. He naturally feels a little disappointed when he gets nothing but a couple of more or less uninteresting marriages. How each of these is brought about we do not pause to explain. Indeed, we feel a certain delicacy on the subject, and had rather it were dropped, for our own sake as well as that of the authoress.
Nevertheless, the book is a remarkable book, and will well repay perusal. Having created a reflective and literary robin, the creation of a peculiar language was, comparatively speaking, as easy task. As a stylist, the authoress of Done in the Dark is not without merit. A sentence of fifteen, eighteen, or twenty-four lines is to her a mere everyday feat. The trick is skilfully done; a greater artist in the use of dashes and parentheses has never tried to write English; only the result is sometimes a little perplexing to the average reader. For it is not pleasant, after all, to come to the end of a sentence, and, after escaping a whole army of supplementary clauses, now beaming openly on you from between commas, now lurking for you behind brackets, now smiling at you across a stretch of dash, to find that you have forgotten the subject, and are as innocent of the import of your predicate as you are of the doings of Father Beke. But still, one feels that one is in the presence of a person who has original ideas on the subject of English composition, and one goes on one’s way with a vague feeling of respect.
The authoress is evidently well read. She has a fund of elegant quotation. We have seen that even her robin is acquainted with Shakespeare and other authors of merit. Her citations are numerous and varied. One or two are made to do duty twice as chapter headings; possibly an emulation of the Leitmotive of Wagner. But a person who is as familiar with Arsène Houssaye as with Shelley, with La Rochefoucauld as with Chaucer, ought to know better than to sanction such an impropriety as “Sweet bells jangles and out of tune.” What would Mr. Furnivall say?

(London 3 Mar 1877, p. 116)


3 Responses

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  1. […] Robert-Louis Abrahamson, when we called up their copy of London (remember: the only copy outside the British Library and that one now “in quarantine”). The months from July to September, we had […]

  2. […] January 2013, Robert-Louis Abrahamson and myself went to the Colindale Newspaper Library to try and identify possible unsigned articles by Robert Louis Stevenson in the weekly magazine […]

  3. The review of Done in the Dark’ contains the following amusing passage:

    ‘it is not pleasant, after all, to come to the end of a sentence, and, after escaping a whole army of supplementary clauses, now beaming openly on you from between commas, now lurking for you behind brackets, now smiling at you across a stretch of dash, to find that you have forgotten the subject, and are as innocent of the import of your predicate as you are of the doings of Father Beke.’

    This has some affinity with the following from Stevenson’s ‘Debating Societies’ (1871):

    ‘The success of three simple sentences lures us into a fatal parenthesis in the fourth, from whose shut brackets we may never disentangle the thread of our discourse. A momentary flush tempts us into a quotation; and we may be left helpless in the middle of one of Pope’s couplets, a white film gathering before our eyes, and our kind friends charitably trying to cover our disgrace by a feeble round of applause.’


    18/12/2014 at 5:16 pm

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