Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 1
In October 2013 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
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