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

Archive for November 2013

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 2

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part 1 | part 3


Columbia University


Columbia University


La Città Ideale

Columbia University, situated on the upper west side of Manhattan, north of Central Park, has a campus of lawns and wide pedestrian avenues that has the feel of a garden suburb, while the calm spaces around the monumental buildings are reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Città Ideale’. One of these buildings (below) is the Butler Library, beaux-arts neoclassical in style, where I was headed in order to look at Stevenson’s copy of Montaigne.butler libraryUp on the top floor, in Rare Books and Manuscripts, I went through registration pleasantly enough thanks to a young lady with public relations skills, received a locker key on a large, slender iron ring (like that of an old-fashioned gaoler), stowed my things, entered the corridor-like reading room with a couple of dozen tables, handed in my request and was “all set”, waiting for the books to arrive.

Stevenson’s Montaigne: First impressions

The edition consists of four volumes in good condition (stoutly bound, well-printed, on good paper) that have been much marked by Stevenson: his typical vertical lines in the margin, occasionally double (very occasionally triple), some underlining, and a few comments written in the margin or (for translations) between the lines. I immediately realized there were too many markings to log them all, so decided to note only double lines, underlinings and comments.

I started on volume 1 (containing Montaigne’s Book I) and immediately finished it: there are just two markings: a double line marking of a passage of ‘To the Reader’ and one single marginal mark on the first page of the first essay.

Volume 2, containing about half of Montaigne’s Book II (including the very long ‘Apology for Raimond Sebond’), shows many signs of having been read: there are markings on 12 of the 18 essays.

Strangely, the second half of Montaigne’s Book II in the following volume has markings for only 2 of the 19 chapters. But this volume 3 contains the beginning of Montaigne’s Book III, every essay of which is marked, both here and in its continuation in volume 4 (which has the last four essays and then other matter).

From the evidence here, it looks as if Stevenson skipped his volume 1, carefully read volume 2, and then concentrated on Montaigne’s Book III. This squares with what he says about often reading Montaigne without any attempt to read him from cover to cover: in ‘A Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’ (1887), he confesses

I have never read the whole of Montaigne, but I do not like to be long without reading some of him, and my delight in what I do read never lessens.

He remains one of six ‘continual literary intimates’, his Essays among ‘the books that we re-read the oftenest’:

One or  two of Scott’s novels, Shakespeare, Molière, Montaigne, The Egoist,  and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, form the inner circle of my  intimates.

His ‘Ideal House’ (1883) has a ‘little room for winter evenings’ containing ‘three shelves full of eternal books that never weary starting’; the list that follows is longer, but starts ‘Shakespeare, Moliere, Montaigne…’.

Selective reading of Montaigne

Unmarked essays were not necessarily unread by Stevenson: he may have read them in the Cotton translation (which—I kick myself—was there in the Columbia Rare Books—overlooked by me); he could also have read them in another unrecorded edition, or read them without marking them. This said, marked essays certainly were read by him and found of interest.

Book I

The lack of markings in Book I is not totally surprising: Montaigne is here still groping for his method; the essays contain many classical exempla with an emphasis on stoicism (this evolution of Montaigne’s ideas—from the stoicism of the early essays to a position in the later essays that it is ‘in living happily, not […] dying happily that is the source of human contentment’—is one of the threads of Saul Frampton’s recent study When I am Playing with My Cat…).

It is a little surprising, however, to find no markings at all, given the affinity pointed out by Cinzia Giglioni (in European Stevenson, ed. Ambrosini and Dury, 2009) between Stevenson’s own ideas and interests and essays in Montaigne’s Book I with titles like: ‘Of Idleness’, ‘That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’, ‘Of the Force of the Imagination’, ‘Of Pedantry’, ‘Of the Education of Children’, ‘Of Friendship’, ‘Of Cannibals’ (containing the epigram ‘Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage’, which must surely have inspired Stevenson), and others.

The Stoic acceptance of death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ (1874) does indeed seem very close to one of these essays:

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
nature, leading us by the hand, an easy and, as it were, an insensible pace, step by step conducts us to that miserable state [death], and by that means makes it familiar to us, so that we are insensible of the stroke
Stevenson, from ‘Ordered South’ (1874):
in this dulness of the senses there is a gentle preparation for the final insensibility of death. And to him the idea of mortality comes in a shape less violent and harsh than is its wont, less as an abrupt catastrophe than as a thing of infinitesimal gradation, and the last step on a long decline of way


Perhaps if I had looked Stevenson’s copy of  Cotton I might have found that passage marked… [But see Neil Brown’s comment to this post.]

The same essay by Montaigne contains a call to live life without regard to death, a theme of ‘Æs Triplex’ (1878). Here the possible influence is less direct. Montaigne’s humble image of planting cabbages is perhaps transformed to the more noble writing of a folio, and it may have inspired the striking reference to everyday objects elsewhere in the essay: umbrellas, salad, cheese and ginger-beer bottles.

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished
Stevenson, from ‘Æs Triplex’:
It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room. By all means begin your folio, even if the doctor does not give you a year

That he had certainly read and knew Book I is shown by the quotation here in ‘John Knox’ (1875) to ‘the “two or three children” whom Montaigne mentions having lost at nurse’ , which is a reference to Montaigne’s Book I essay (with a long title) ‘That the relish for good and evil depends in great measure upon the opinion we have of them’.


Book II

In Samoa Stevenson reports that he is reading the second book of Montaigne and ‘This morning I have read a splendid piece of Montaigne’ (L7, 179; Oct 1891). We know that this was a book already familiar to him:

  • ‘The English Admirals’ (written late 1877) incorporates a long quotation from Montaigne’s ‘Of Glory’ (Book II.16) in Cotton’s translation.
  • In a letter of 1885 he alludes to a passage in ‘An Apology for Raimond Sebond’ (Book II.12): ‘as Montaigne says it [literature] is a pot with two handles, and I own I am wedded to the technical handle’ (L5, 91-2), a passage marked by by two vertical lines in vol 2 of this edition.

Book III

The markings on every one of the essays in Montaigne’s Book III after sparse markings in the second half of Book II shows that he read this Book through from start to finish. It is probable that this was what wanted to read (divided as it is between volumes 3 and 4 in his edition) when he wrote to his parents from Bournemouth in December 1884 to ‘bring […] my Montaigne, or, at least, the two last volumes’ (L5, 45). To be more exact, this was the section he wanted to re-read:

  • In the letter of October 1873 in which he tells Fanny Sitwell he has been reading Montaigne as he dined alone, he quotes in French from ‘De la Physiognomie’ (Book III.12) (L1, 339).
  • In ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (written July–August 1877) he writes: ‘While Calvin is putting everybody exactly right in his Institutes, and hot-headed Knox is thundering in the pulpit, Montaigne is already  looking at the other side in his library in Perigord, and  predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’. This seems to be an allusion to a passage in ‘De l’expérience’ (Book III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible: forasmuch as our mind does not find the field less spacious wherein to controvert the sense of another than to deliver his own; and as if there were less animosity and tartness in commentary than in invention’ (Cotton’s translation). Against this passage in this French edition, Stevenson has written ‘Calvin?’
  • He quotes from ‘De l’expérience’ again in ‘A Night Among the Pines’ in Travels with a Donkey (written December 1878–January 1879), using Cotton’s translation: ‘We are disturbed in our slumber only, like the luxurious Montaigne, ‘that we may the better and more sensibly relish it.’  We have a moment to look upon the stars.’

This concentration is unsurprising: Book III contains Montaigne’s profoundest insights, in its affirmation of the value of experience, the unity of man and animals and nature, the need for toleration and sympathy, the relative nature of cultural norms. So, in his reading of Book III, Stevenson was concentrating on the most original and revolutionary aspects of Montaigne’s philosophy.

Part 3 of the posting

But this is getting over-long. A concise summary of markings will be the subject of a (I hope shorter) third posting.

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 1

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part 2 | part 3


In October I made two trips from New Haven to Columbia University in New York City to look at Stevenson’s copy of Montaigne (recently located by Neil Macara Brown), curious about what markings and comments he may have made on the pages of a writer who was clearly very important for him.

Stevenson and Montaigne


Michel de Montaigne

R.L.S., c. 1871

R.L.S., c. 1871

As early as 1871–72, RLS placed Montaigne’s Essays in first place of his list of favourite books (‘Catalogus Librorum Carissimorum’, Yale B 6073). In October 1873 he writes to Fanny Sitwell that, alone in the house, he has been reading Montaigne at dinner and found him ‘the most charming of table-companions’ (L1, 335-6). He is still re-reading him with pleasure in 1891 in Samoa  (L7, 179).

As might be expected from Stevenson, a writer interested in creating reading pleasure, he often remarks on this aspect of Montaigne: the essays are ‘ever-delightful’ (‘Ordered South’; 1874), he is ‘the radiant Montaigne’ in 1882 (L4, 21), and ‘my beloved Montaigne’ in 1886 (L5, 226), and the ‘delight’ in re-reading him ‘never lessens’ in 1887 (‘Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s’). He remembers the pleasure of forgetting time while reading him at Swanston: ‘weel neukit by my lane, [on my own] / Wi’ Horace, or perhaps Montaigne, / The mornin’ hours hae come an’ gane / Abune [above] my heid’ (‘Ille Terrarum’, dated 1875).

The pleasure comes from style and an interesting revealed personality: Montaigne’s ‘apt choice and contrast of words’ and his ability, with other great writers, ‘to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness’  (‘On Style…’, 1885). As for the personality, re-reading him is like re-visiting a friend (‘Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’, 1887), like Pepys he presents himself to the reader with an admirable ‘fulness and such an intimacy of detail’ (‘Samuel Pepys’, 1881), he is one of the first of those ‘who have […] survived themselves most completely, left a sort of personal seduction behind them in the world, and retained, after death, the art of making friends’ (‘Charles of Orleans’, 1876).

Equally important is Montaigne’s thought and world-view: he gives a ‘temperate and genial picture of life’, exemplifying ‘heroism and wisdom’ (‘Books Which…’, 1887). It’s not difficult to imagine what appealed to Stevenson. In the 1870s, he would have been attracted by Montaigne’s skepticism, his dismissal of conventional ways of thinking, and his effort to understand others—all themes that we find in the early essays. In the 1880s, Montaigne would appeal to Stevenson’s new focus on tolerance and cultural relativism. And throughout his career he would have found an affinity in Montaigne’s morality of heroism: his acceptance of the difficulty of living a good life and his praise of modest virtues. He mentions Montaigne in fourteen of his essays, and quotes or closely alludes to him in six of them.

Stevenson’s copies of Montaigne

Stevenson’s principle copy of Montaigne is a four volume edition published in Paris by Garnier Frères 1865-66. We know he had this in December 1884, as he asks his parents to ‘bring […] my Montaigne, or, at least, the two last volumes’ when they come to Bournemouth (L 5, 45). This was the copy I went to Columbia to look at.

In addition to this French edition, we know that Stevenson had a copy of Cotton’s late seventeenth-century English translation and he quotes from this several times in the 1870s (in ‘François Villon’, ‘The English Admirals’ and Travels with a Donkey). His copy of this (in an 1869 edition) is also at Columbia University Library (Butler Library, PR5495 .M6), but I overlooked this fact on my visit, so it remains for someone else to look at the markings there.

The Vailima Library also had a presentation copy of The Essays of Montaigne done into English by John Florio (London: David Nutt, 1892), with an introduction by George Saintbury, in the series ‘The Tudor Translations’ edited by W. E. Henley. It is dedicated: ‘To Robert Louis Stevenson / This new fashioning of an / old and famous book is dedicated / by its contrivers’, but Henley’s original idea had been to dedicate it to ‘To the R.L.S. of of Virginibus Puerisque, Memories & Portraits, Across the Plains’ (4 May 1892, B 4633), which would have been quite an accolade to RLS the essayist.

Prepared with the help of the Stevenson Library Db and the Stevenson Allusions Db

Written by rdury

16/11/2013 at 4:51 pm

A Night in France

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My second to last day in New Haven, I was checking something in the 1923 Vailima Edition, so I thought at the same time I’d compare our transcription of a manuscript fragment about music at night in Mentone (see (L1, 477-78; 5 Feb 1874), called ‘A Night in France’ by Hellman (Prose Pieces… Hitherto Unpublished, 1921, and from there republished in the the Vailima, Tusitala and Skerryvore Editions).

It’s a rough pencil draft with a number of obscure words, so it’s not surprising there should be differences in transcription. The most important ones are the following, Hellman’s text on the left, our transcription on the right:

The sea trembles with light; white hotels and villas show lit windows far along the curved beach, and from above envy the silent stars. The strange night sky endues itself in monstrous space over all, the large moon beams forward.[…] For this is no squeak of southern fife, […] Clear sad voices sing in the gray dawn sadly; for a country made desolate, for the bold silver that shall no more clatter forth in pay, and the good King that shall come home no more. The sea trembles with light, white hotels and villas show lit windows far along the curved beach, and from above among the silent stars the strange night sky arches itself in monstrous space over all, the large moon beams forward.[…] For this is no squeak of southern pipe, […] Clear sad voices sing in the grey dawn sadly; for a country made desolate, for the bold riders that shall no more clatter forth on fray, and the good King that shall come home no more.

We had examined and debated all these points when our first transcription had been made (by Mafalda Cipollone, and then twice proofed by me), but seeing them there made me realize I had to look at the MS again. I had actually previously proofed our transcription against the MS: what was different now was finding out why Hellman had made his choices—a way of looking at the MS again with fresh eyes (very necessary in MS-proofing—as in other situations in life: it’s amazing how you see what you’re looking for and what you’re not looking for, you just don’t see).

Yale GEN MSS 664, box 34 folder 815 (B 6631)

Yale GEN MSS 664, box 34 folder 815 (B 6631)

So on my last day on the Beinecke, I called up the item. Was that ‘far along the curved beach’ or ‘along the curved beach’? Although grains of graphite are flying away each time this item is consulted, I convinced myself, finally, looking through the strongest magnifier available, that ‘far’ was deleted by a line sloping down a bit to the right; ‘among the silent stars’ was obviously right (there’s not ‘e’ for envy). But then I looked again: ‘stars’ is definitely followed by a full stop and then a capital letter (of a deleted ‘The’). AND, and… was it ‘stars’?: no crossbar for a ‘t’ was visible and the second letter had not trace of a bowl for ‘b’ or ‘d’, so it must be ‘l’… ‘slars’? No: there is definitely a dot which RLS almost never omits for his ‘i’: ‘slirs’…. What about that first letter? could it be ‘a’ or ‘o’: ‘alirs’, ‘olirs’. YES, yes, of course! ‘among the silent olives’. Followed by a full stop.

The ‘pipe’ was clearly right: Stevenson’s ‘p’ and ‘f’ are usually clearly distinct, and these are p’s with hooked beginnings.

So what about that third passage?

Screen shot 2013-11-06 at 08.57.16‘for the bold silver’ looks wrong, and the first letter is clearly Stevenson’s inverted-v ‘r’; there is a dot faintly visible above the second letter (but for how much longer? I had a sense that it was vital for me to correctly decypher the word this afternoon, before the evidence ‘dislimns’ and fades away). Screwing my eyes up, seeking the best light under the magnifying glass, I could see no left-bowl for a ‘d’. Not only that, the last letter was that inverted-v ‘r’ again with concave second stroke: clearly not the convex stroke of his ‘s’. But what else but a rider could ‘clatter forth’?

2006-01-01 00.00.00-102Then I remembered that RLA was sitting behind me in the Beinecke reading room and how useful it is for another person to look at these points: so I took the leaf and the magnifying glass to his table. He read through the sentence slowly, and then said: that third letter could be just a tall ‘e’… yes, it’s ‘riever’, usually spellt ‘ei’: a border raider. Hooray! We kept ‘on fray’: a bit strange, but perhaps acceptable RLS-strange, and it certainly isn’t ‘on pay’.

Also, on inspection, I changed the moon ‘beams forward’ to ‘leans forward’. I also confirmed our reading ‘hard knit faces’ rather than Hellman’s ‘hard thin faces’: the middle word is not clear but it is preceded by a deleted ‘gathered’, for which ‘knit’ seems to be a semantically-close substitution.

So here, below is the final, cleaned transcipt (with ‘riever’ spelt thus because the OED records it as a 19th-century Scottish spelling; the words in brackets must be alternatives that RLS was considering but hadn’t decided on).

A Night in France

The perfect southern moonlight fills the great night; along the coast the bare peaks faint and dwindle against the intense blue sky; and far up on the glimmering mountain sides the dark woods design their big (full shapes in black) fantastic profile. The sea trembles with light, white hotels and villas show lit windows along the curved beach, and from above among the silent olives. The strange night sky arches itself in monstrous space over all, the large moon leans forward. The still trees stand in relief aloof one from the other with the light all about them, naked (bare) in the moonlight.

Up in the room, the piano sounds and into the southern night, note follows note, chord follows chord, in quaint, sad, northland cadence. Do not the still trees wonder, and the flat bright sea, and the lonely glimmering hilltops far withdrawn into the purple sky? For this is no squeak of southern pipe, no light melody of provençal farandole; to these airs, brown feet never tripped on the warm earth nor boatman cheered his way across deep midland waters. Wild and shrill, ring out the reels. Dunbarton drums beat bonny. The wind sounds over the rainy moorland; Wandering Willie is far from home. Clear sad voices sing in the grey dawn sadly; for a country made desolate, for the bold riever that shall no more clatter forth on fray, and the good King that shall come home no more. The sun sets behind Ben Ledi. Macleod’s Wizard flag sallies from the gray castle. Faint and fair, in the misty summer afternoon, reach out the purple braes, where the soft cloud shadows linger and dwindle. At home, by the ingle, the goodwife darns her goodman’s grey breeks. And my love, up in the north, is like the red red rose.

O sound of the wind among my own bleak hills; the snow, and the cold, and the hard knit faces of steadfast serious people. The boats go out at even, under the moon; sail by sail they spread on the great uneven sea; at morn, in the rain plains, boat by boat comes back with its glittering burthen.

In brown grass fields, wander white sheep, patiently stand the shivering cattle.

Uncertain about gaslights: a notebook fragment

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The Beinecke Stevenson finding aid General Manuscripts 664 (created by Michael Forstrom) records the Yale collection of Stevenson’s notebooks for the first time. Previously, the McKay catalogue had listed the contents of the notebooks as separate items; but now, in ‘GM 664’, these McKay items are grouped together under the individual notebook headings.

Of course, listing the contents of a notebook is rather difficult, if not impossible: they contain many odd notes, sketches, addresses etc. Hence, it is still possible to come across odd unrecorded texts such as the following, found in a notebook that, appropriately as it turns out, I was looking at on 31 October.

This small notebook (GM 664 box 35 folder 833), its green card cover bearing the printed title ‘The Academic Exercise Book’, can be dated pretty accurately as it contains notes from James Lorimer’s lectures on Public Law and James Muirhead’s on Civil Law, which RLS followed between 3 November 1871 and 20 March 1872.

So here is RLS, 21 years old, up in his room at 17 Heriot Row, Edinburgh, writing this short piece—perhaps feeling sorry for himself, perhaps just wanting to to imitate someone like Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps wanting to work out some ideas on the feeling of doubleness, or to artfully combine sounds and ideas:

Screen shot 2013-11-03 at 06.09.02

Night after night, up here,[1] this hateful yellow gas looked on while white-faced pain and I played on at our endless game. He has become a personality to me. He cranes over my shoulder with a flaw[2] to see my hand and then advises my adversary with his lurid winks and flickers; and he sways his long fingers, with a loose crying sound, whenever white faced pain takes up a trick. So he shall do, too, when pain takes up the last.

[1] followed by ‘was’, undeleted by oversight. [2] in the sense of ‘sudden flare’ (like ‘a flaw of wind’).