A Gossip on Prince Otto
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.