Archive for May 2014
In 2008, Robert-Louis Abrahamson, Richard Dury and others agreed to read through Prince Otto and share our thoughts about it on the online discussion group ReadingRLS (topics 282, 293, 294, 296, 314). What follows are a few strands of that conversation, a conversation with no pretence to academic rigour, copied out and re-arranged.
RLA: The distanced tone and reference to Florizel of Bohemia make us think we’re back with the New Arabian Nights. The Shakespearean references to Perdita and the Bohemian seacoast suggest a world of parody and playfulness.
The playfulness continues when we’re told the precise year doesn’t matter and is “left to the conjecture of the reader”. This feels like it’s going to be a comic tale, a game of some sort, where, in fact, we’re encouraged to take part in the creation.
YOU shall seek in vain upon the map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. […] On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, […]; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia. […]
The precise year of grace in which this tale begins shall be left to the conjecture of the reader.
Then at the beginning of Book II ch. 11, we get the precise time reference, but only after a playful ‘feint’:
AT a sufficiently late hour, or to be more exact, at three in the afternoon
RD: The story opens with two minor characters fililng us in about the situation: naturally we think of the stage convention. Their dialogue is of the type found in a play-script, requiring us to fill in the details; part of the first dialogue could be re-written as follows with stage-directions:
There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. What’s that? No, nothing—no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. That for your Otto!’
This could be rewritten as
First Huntsman: There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. [Sudden noise] What’s that? No, nothing – no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. [snaps his fingers] That for your Otto!’
The reader is clearly being asked to recognise these conventional bits of stage ‘business’; the reading experience here depends if you want to enter the game or not. I’m reminded of Roxy Music’s LP Avalon with a cover of an Arthurian knight seen from behind and a misty lake: there’s no sign that this is ironic—you are supposed to think ‘This can’t possibly be serious. Or is it?’ and enjoy the artful way you are left in doubt.
The stage-play effect continues with the farcical dramatic irony of Otto in disguise in conversation with the people in the farmhouse about Prince Otto – for example, the following would be a splendid opportunity for a good actor to ‘milk the pause’ before ‘Indeed?’:
‘Not what you might call disliked,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘but despised, sir.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Prince, somewhat faintly.
RLA: Of course, Prince Otto started out as a play [as Bob irvine’s Introduction reminds us (added comment)]. In Book II, the chapter titles (‘Act the First’ etc.) explicitly take us into the theatre. And then there are continual allusions to theatre, acting etc.: ‘with a man like me to impersonate’ — ‘come buskined forth’ — ‘puppet’ — ‘Hoyden playing Cleopatra’ — ‘this gentleman, it seems, would have preferred me playing like an actor’ — ‘a scene of Marriage à la Mode’ etc. etc.
RD: Much of the exaggerated staginess reminds us of grand opera [and Bob Irvine’s Introduction to the New Edinburgh Edition comments on several direct influences from operas (added comment)], and the story in a way becomes an opera at one point, when (Book III, ch. 3) the Countess von Rosen sings the Handel aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ outside Otto’s door in the Felsenberg. (This reminded me of Becky Sharp singing ‘Remember me’ in Andrew Davies’s BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair from 1988.)
Elsewhere we are reminded of the conventions of (campy) melodramatic acting:
‘It is very strange, Herr Cancellarius, that you should so persistently avoid my questions,” said the Prince. “You tempt me to suppose a purpose in your dulness. I have asked you whether all was quiet; do me the pleasure to reply.’ […]
The Prince waited, drawing his handkerchief quietly through his fingers.’
Drawing a handkerchief slowly (but I like ‘quietly’) through the fingers must have been a well-known piece of stage ‘business’.
RD: Apart from being reminiscent of a play, the work also has the structure of chance meetings and conversations with a variety of people of the 18th-century philosophical novel (and is reminiscent of S’s own short stories with debates –‘Markheim’ and ‘Villon’).
RLA: One of the central moral issues concerns the possibility of forgiving. Otto says of Seraphina ‘I can, of course, [forgive her], and do; but in what sense?’ And Colonel Gordon replies ‘I will talk of not forgiving others, sir, when I have made out to forgive myself, and not before; and the date is like to be a long one”—in other words, the question of ‘not forgiving’ is not even to be put.
Gordon then links this to wider considerations to Otto and Gotthold:
And as for this matter of forgiveness, it comes, sir, of loose views and (what is if anything more dangerous) a regular life. A sound creed and a bad morality, that’s the root of wisdom. You two gentlemen are too good to be forgiving.
It is not by morally judging ourselves that we achieve greatness.
RD: Gordon also associates ‘this matter of forgiveness’ with ‘a regular life’ (=ruled by conventions?) and (we infer) a so-called ‘good’ morality (=conduct governed by fixed rules).
RLA: The meaninglessness of ‘forgiveness’ is also touched on in ‘Truth of Intercourse’: ‘so far as I have gone in life I have never yet been able to discover what forgiveness means’.
RD: Other ‘philosophical’ discussions in the text centre on Otto’s ‘manly’ or ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour: his honesty, understanding of others, awareness of his own faults, sense of justice, lack of assertiveness.
RLA: At the end, just as he did in the New Arabian Nights, Stevenson undermines his whole narrative, this time during a summary of the later life of Otto and Seraphina based on close citation of printed sources.
RD: The Postscript starts with lots of real and probable names , then in the last few lines we get ‘Buttonhole’, ‘Lord Protocol’ and ‘Admiral Yardarm’ – S doesn’t pretend any more and says ‘it’s all a fiction’. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found that reading the first part I am lulled into the literary joke and enjoying the clever imitation documentary evidence – so when these last absurd names are produced, one feels the author is showing that he can still surprise us and that he’s in control.
RLA: This reminds me of formulaic ways of ending fairy tales in some cultures, where the storyteller adds a long jesting closing formula to bring us back to normality. Even the fairy-tale ‘Pretty Woman’ film ends with the crazy guy on the Hollywood sidewalk saying ‘This is Hollywood – the land of dreams’. A final twist – the last trick of the storyteller.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Prince Otto, ed. by Robert P. Irvine, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
Published 28 April 2014. £70 (and for around £50 from booksellers associated with Amazon)
We have ample evidence that when RLS had the opportunity to read proofs he did so very carefully and did not like his puctuation being changed:
- Edward Bok of Scribner’s, who saw him at work in 1887, reports that ‘No man ever went over his proofs more carefully than did Stevenson; his corrections were numerous; and sometimes for ten minutes at a time he would sit smoking and thinking over a single sentence, which, when he had satisfactorily shaped it in his mind, he would recast on the proof.’ ( Edward Bok, The Americanization of Edward Bok: The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After, New York, Scribner’s, 1923).
- In November 1887 RLS wrote angrily to a printer: ‘ If I receive another proof of this sort, I shall return it at once with the general direction: “See MS.” I must suppose my system of punctuation to be very bad; but it is mine; and it shall be adhered to with punctual exactness by every created printer who shall print for me’ (Letters 6, 51) (his insistent use of semicolons might suggest that it was changes to these that he was particularly angry about).
- A report in the Edinburgh Dispatch Dec 19 1894 (quoted in Hammerton Stevensoniana, p. 153): ‘The handwriting of Stevenson was a horror to compositors, and the anxiety of printers was by no means abated when they succeeded in getting the proofs despatched to the novelist, as it was his not infrequent habit to signify his displeasure at any slip from accuracy in strong terms on the margin of his proof-sheets; and in the matter of punctuation he was extremely fastidious.’
This post is contributed by Gillian Hughes with help from Richard Dury and Roger Swearingen
Hugh Walpole’s collection of manuscripts at King’s School, Canterbury
The rare book and manuscript collection of the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941), now owned by the King’s School, Canterbury, reflects its former owner’s interest, among other things, in Scottish literature of the nineteenth century and includes items by James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The scanned catalogue, accessible through the National Register of Archives website revealed an entry for a manuscript fragment of twenty lines of ‘A Tale of Scottish Life’ by Robert Louis Stevenson that had not been hitherto identified.
Naturally intrigued by this description, I contacted the King’s School Librarian, Peter Henderson, about it. The title given in the catalogue turned out to be descriptive only and the manuscript leaf was itself untitled: paginated 5 and beginning in mid-sentence it obviously once formed part of a longer manuscript, and the scenario of a Covenanting sermon from which a ‘truant sentry’ escapes to find a lad called ‘Crozer’ identifies the story concerned as ‘Heathercat’.
 Acknowledgement is made to Mr Henderson and to the King’s School, Canterbury, for supplying an image of the manuscript leaf and for granting permission to use it in the present note.
Stevenson mentioned his idea for this story about the Scottish Covenanters to S. R. Crockett in a letter of around 15 August 1893, responding to Crockett’s dedication to him of The Stickit Minister (Letters 8, 153). By late March the following year, he reported to J. M. Barrie that he had about fifty pages written; then in May he learnt that Crockett was planning a novel about the same subject (the ‘Killing Time’, the savage suppression of the Cameronian Covenanters in the early 1680s), and wrote to him ‘I’ll race you!’ (Letters 8, 259, 286), but the story remained unfinished at the time of his death in December 1894.
‘Heathercat A Fragment’ was duly published posthumously in December 1897 with an Editorial Note by Sidney Colvin in Volume XXVI of the Edinburgh Edition (pp. 87-121). The surviving Part I (‘The Killing Time’) of what was intended to be a full-length novel is divided into three chapters the last of which, entitled ‘The Hill-end of Drumlowe’, breaks off in the middle of the Covenanting minister’s sermon. The text in the Edinburgh Edition ends with the words ‘He’s going round like a roaring rampaging lion. . . .’.
Stevenson’s draft manuscript for this chapter survives in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, GEN MSS 664, Box 30, Folders 711-726 (B 6303), and consists of four pages numbered consecutively -4. At the end of the final page the text actually breaks off with the words ‘He’s going round like a roaring ramp^ag^ing lion, bragging and basting Christs folk in the’. And there the page ends (the caret marks here showing Stevenson’s insertion.)
The marginal comment seems to be: ‘in dramatic | persons, with | changing interxxxxs [?] | and with a great | increase of the | broad Scots.’ It must be a later idea (notice the different ink) for an insertion—commenting on the minister’s dramatic delivery—after ‘he could hear some of his words’, perhaps with an intended addition like ‘and his manner of speaking’; ‘in dramatic persons’ would mean ‘imitating the different voices’. The sixth word, isAny ideas? (For suggested answers, see Comments)
The King’s School leaf
The leaf in the Walpole Collection is clearly the continuation of the Beiencke fragment: it is paginated 5, and it covincingly continues the unfinished sentence at the bottom of page 4 (‘bragging and basting Christ’s folk in the’) with ‘<wilderness> ^fields^, and riding and wading in the precious blood of the elect’ (the angle brackets indicating a deletion).
Interesting features of this new fragment
The Walpole leaf continues what Stevenson has previously termed the ‘poetry apart’ of the sermon, a ‘homely tissue’ relieved by an ‘occasional pathos of simple humanity, ^and^ frequent patches of big ^biblical^ words’. Perhaps with the much-criticised representation of such Covenanting rhetoric by Sir Walter Scott in Old Mortality (1816) in mind, Stevenson set himself to convey both the occasionally ludicrous familiar imagery of such sermons and their touching vulnerability, particularly in the context in which they were delivered. The preacher, ‘Auld soupit ^hirplin^ Sandie’, for instance, asks God to ‘cast the lap of thy mantle over Sandie and his weans’ or to hide them in his armpit (‘oxter’) from Clavers.
One is struck in both the Beinecke and the Walpole fragments at Stevenson’s ability with Scots dialogue. The many deletions and insertions in this passage of the Beinecke MS show how anxious Stevenson was to get the tone he aimed at exactly right. Although the following paragraph apparently came more easily, the inveterate reviser is still evident, Stevenson weighing the precise words in which he might best convey the contrasting trivial mood of the knot of country lads engaged in a primitive gambling session when they are supposed to be on the lookout for the approach of government soldiers. The reader longs for his account of the personal combat of Heathercat and Crozer that presumably was intended to follow, and which would have caused them to fail to alert the congregation to the approach of the enemy, but alas! the remainder of the leaf remained blank.
Transcription of the Walpole leaf
Here then is a reading transcription of the Walpole leaf (deletions omitted and insertions unmarked), with its final continuation of Heathercat, never previously published:
……Meanwhile the truant sentry, with a certain pang of self-reproach at these images summoned up before him of the magnitude of that service he was neglecting, passed again out of hearing of the preacher, and came at last through a deep clump of junipers in view of his destination. Crozer was not at his post; but below in a hollow where he could neither be seen himself nor spy upon the approach of danger, he sat with three other boys of nine or ten engaged in the game of pitch and toss for one of the most infinitesimal of Scottish coins; the whole capital at stake being very likely overestimated at twopence.
The manuscript ends at the end of a sentence, but not at the end of the sheet: clearly Stevenson here abandoned the draft. For those interested in what comes next, the Beinecke Libary also has a number of earlier drafts, including two of the beginning of Chapter IV. But that is another story and for another time…