Stevenson’s The Hair Trunk published
New Stevenson publication
The appearance of a previously-unpublished work by Stevenson is always an event, and this edition of The Hair Trunk edited by Roger Swearingen (and published by a small specialist publisher in Ayrshire), is no exception. This posting does not pretend to be be a review, but I can say that the book will appeal to those interested in Stevenson’s life, ideas and works; in addition, all who appreciate his prose will find much to enjoy.
The edition is based on the 1879 fair-copy MS in the Huntington Library, which must be closely based on an earlier good copy MS made sometime after the first beginnings in April or early May 1877.
Since the text is unknown to most people, I will give a summary, followed by a series of quotations of passages that struck me as I read, and some sample pages. Finally (of interest for EdRLS editors) I will outline Swearingen’s editorial principles.
The story itself, of the slightly-absurd and satiric style not too far removed from The New Arabian Nights, is unfinished, so is perhaps not the main attraction, but I’ll try to summarize it. ‘[T]he Strange Adventure of the Hair Trunk’ (p. 13) starts with five students and a friend, Blackburn, disoriented just after their period at University has ended—their joking conversations in which they make fun of everything while planning to avoid the grip of conventional existence and perhaps remain young forever (ch. I-III).
They hit on the idea of setting up an ideal commonwealth on the Navigator Islands, i.e. Samoa (pp. 19–20) and before that to spend the summer and winter in an island off the West coast of Scotland, sailing and preparing for the greater project. We never get to either of these places, as the lack of money has first to be faced; Blackburn proposes that they appropriate a hoard of gold in a hair trunk (a horsehair-covered trunk) which he just happens to know about. Their right to appropriate it is argued by Blackburn as similar to that of colonizers, seeing that they have declared independence and are bound not by civic but by international law (ch. IV). They decide to break into the house with black ‘masques’. A scene with Blackburn in his rooms reveals more enigmatic details about him (ch. V).
The adventure to take possession of the treasure occupies the remaining 4 chapters of the unfinished Book II (ch. V consists of no more than the title). The six walk across a forested ridge in the west of Scotland and stop at at cottage inhabited by Blackburn’s old nurse (no further explanation supplied), and go to reconnoiter the grounds of nearby Tufto Castle (ch. II). Inside (ch. III), we find the formidable Mrs Lemesurier, her son Hugo , and Major Cunningham (‘family friend’ and constant inmate of the castle). Hugo wants to know the identity of the stranger who his mother entertained to lunch; she takes umbrage and orders him to leave the house. At the inn, Hugo meets Blackburn, recognises him as the stranger, stealthily follows him on his night-time sortie, is captured by the others in the grounds of the Castle and is forced to agree to stay where he is for several hours while the others make off with the treasure (ch. IV).
What was to happen next? The clues (which are scattered around without stressing their importance, so that everything seems to happen by a series of absurd chance events and coincidences) point to the solution that Michel Le Bris provides in his conclusion (La Malle en cuir, 2011): Blackburn is the illegitimate child of Mrs Lemesurier, half-brother of Hugo. Whether the group were intended to reach Samoa we do not know, but we may suppose that the Ideal Commonwealth did not prove a great success. In his May 1877 letter announcing the start of the story, Stevenson says ‘the trunk is the fun of it – everybody steals it’, which suggests that the conclusion was to be reached via a plot like that of The Wrong Box.
Passages that struck me as I read
Swearingen remarks that in reading The Hair Trunk we are constantly reminded of ‘characters and jokes and comic paradoxes in the essays and stories that Stevenson was writing and publishing at the same time’ (xvi), and cites passages with affinities to cited passages in The New Arabian Nights, and An Inland Voyage. As might be supposed, I was struck by the passages that reminded me of the essays. Each of the following, I thought, could easily come from one of Stevenson’s essays (here, as elsewhere, references are to pages of the volume not of the MS, and the editor’s intercalated MS page numbers have been removed; ellipses not in square brackets are Stevenson’s).
Here is the author’s comment on the dismay of students at having to enter ‘the Babel of Society’—something we also find in ‘An Apology for Idlers’ (1877) and its view of ‘the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces’. The thoughts in the second half of the quoted passage, on the sad departure from scenes of happy experiences, are related to those in section VII of ‘Fontainebleau: Village Communities of Painters’ (1884), where Stevenson has the more consoling idea of somehow leaving something behind: ‘those thrilling silences and whispers of the groves, surely in Fontainebleau they must be vocal of me and my companions?’.
To say farewell to the past, and go forth into the bleak world with no friend but the one below your own hat, and no object but the vain abstraction called Success—is something in the nature of a surgical operation even for the pluckiest of men. And Cambridge, emptied of its jolly companions, swept by a fitful wind and dabbled with Spring showers, struck cold and heavy on their hearts. This was the last bivouac before the battle. Tomorrow, they would be down in the heart of the enemy’s country, among bawling Q.C.’s and obscene financiers; tomorrow, youth with all its agreeable dallyings about the brink, would be forever at an end, and they must take up life with its solemn absurdities and run, with hunger at their heels, in the great race for a bald head and a bedeviled conscience. Nor was it merely a certain natural chill, before entering on the unpleasant Babel of Society; there was also a touch of something not unlike remorse among their feelings. For we cannot take away our own rich, vital and benificent personalities from any place we have long honoured with our presence, without unfeigned pity for what we leave behind us. How solitary will be our morning’s walk, with nothing moving in it all forenoon but birds and shadows! How will even the oldest inhabitant support the burthen of his existence, when he lacks our animating countenance? It seems really sad to snuff out the life and light from a whole unoffending countryside—to take away the many coloured lanthorn by which it saw itself, the brains by which it had an intelligent knowledge of its own existence, the centrepoint about which it turned, the admirable being for whom it sang, and shone, and decked itself in Spring Novelties at Easter! (15)
Blackburn meditates on the lack of convictions in the young men of today and their consequent exposure to dogmatic atheists like Herbert Spencer (though the poor and the Bohemian artist are immune). In ‘Lay Morals’ (1879) he will return to this lack of a morality and sketch out his own non-Bible based system.
[These young men] had been thoroughly unsettled, and nowise edified, by modern theories. From these, they had learned nothing positive but a taste for theorising. They had given up their old ideas without faithfully embracing any others; and now they hung in the wind, a cock-shot [= target] for enterprising dogmatists. Indeed the combination of Bohemianism with what are called modern ideas, produces quite a remarkable immunity from all convictions. The morality of current unbelief, suitable enough for highly respectable Professors, is promptly repudiated by the whole army of social freelances. Its virtues are not their virtues; and where they have need of indulgence, the atheistic rabbi meets them with uncompromising words and a countenance of iron. I can imagine almost any number of consecutive vestrymen falling in tears upon the neck of Mr Herbert Spencer; but I cannot for the life of me imagine a single landscape painter in the same graceful attitude. A Gospel which may be said to consist of equal parts of teak-wood and compound arithmetic, will never have much vogue among the slums and studios. Whether for good or ill, it will remain a dead letter for the outcast and the insubordinate. Its missionaries may succeed, for a time, in destroying other systems, but they will never be men enough to substitute their own. (39-40)
Blackburn analyses the methods of colonialism, a surprising anticipation here of comments that we find in Stevenson’s writings in the 1880s. Here, it is a justification for the group’s appropriation of the treasure (‘we shall treat the trousered proprietor in England exactly as we should treat the nude proprietor in Queensland’—with Stevenson unable to resist a play on the Latin law term ‘nude proprietor’ (titular owner of a property presently occupied by someone else).
As soon as [colonists] arrive … with their guns and hymn-books, their missionaries and their new diseases … they take possession of the land around them: and in the old civil law formula, ‘by force or fraud or on an insufficient grant’ … vi, clami vel precario … they steadily extrude the inoffensive aborigines. If these prove refractory, the settler shoulders his gun and passes round his rum bottle. And what with lead, and fire-water, and imported epidemics, civilisation advances with gigantic strides. Missionaries look on smiling. M.P.’s, vested in their integrity, compliment each other on our Colonial Empire. Christian manufacturers turn out the deadliest rum and the most imperfect hand-mirrors, literally by the ship load. ’Tis a vast conspiracy; theft and midnight murder are the ingredients of the bowl. (42)
Here are thoughts on Bohemianism (a subject considered for an essay c. 1876-78 and touched on at the end of ‘Lay Morals’), distinguishing the Bohemian from the ‘aesthetic soul’; the associated comments enter into the psychology of perception (especially aesthetic perception), an interest for several 1870s essays from ‘Roads’ (1873) onwards. The heterogeneous mixing (‘the destiny of humankind […] bitter beer’) is also typical of Stevenson’s essays, as are the cheeky presuppositions (‘the pratical advantages of robbery and murder’).
[A] truly aesthetic soul is not usually to be found in a Bohemian. The trick of looking upon things and apartments, as a whole, instead of seeing them in spots by the focus of a man’s natural eyes, is one only to be acquired after some trouble and by considerable exercise of the will. It is usually found in combination with some particular notions about the destiny of humankind, and a distaste for bitter beer. To a fellow who goes running about the world with a crop for all corn [=willing to eat everything], who likes green fields and slums at about an equal rate and can enjoy the society of that least and lowest of mankind, the billiard-marker, such a faculty is unnecessary and would end by being vastly disagreeable. Research in pleasures is not in his way, and research in furniture tenfold less. The man who can contentedly wear a fine coat along with a pair of ragged trousers, will not wince at a little discord between chairs and tables. Such people swallow the bad along with the good; they are more pleased than displeased; they can take out a great deal of pleasure in the contemplation of the mediæval wine cooler in one corner of the room, and quietly pass over the deformed chiffonier in the other. In short, they have no moral indignation in the æsthetic kingdom; and must count rather as private saints than as great apostles, in the goodly fellowship of those who adore the beautiful and the Apollo Belvedere. Nay, we may go farther, and say that theirs is, in a mild way, the same tolerant topsy-turvy habit of soul as enables the Sicilian bandit to enjoy the practical advantages of robbery and murder, side by side with the comforts of religion. (53-4)
We find several strong but compassionate women in Stevenson’s writings, notably Miss Gilchrist in St. Ives, and just such a caustic but kindly woman is the subject of a section of ‘Talk and Talkers (A Sequel)’ (1882). Here is another (note the typical creation of new meaning in the use of ‘unanimously’):
She was what, in Scotland, we call daft; she had lived all her life as an aggressive eccentric of the old school, free-tongued, undaunted, a female grenadier; and yet her plump speech and warfaring deportment in society, were not inconsistent with genuine tenderness of soul. In all her flights, although you might stare, you never doubted but she was a lady and a woman. Such dames were not uncommon once in Scotland, but the race is swiftly and unanimously dying out. (78)
In ‘Talk and Talkers’ (1882), Stevenson celebrates ‘good talk’ and praises in particular the abilities of ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ (his cousin Bob), ‘the insane lucidity of his conclusions, the humorous eloquence of his language’. An example of this entertainingly crazy talk is found in the Young Man’s rationale of the Suicide Club in The New Arabian Nights—and The Hair Trunk, which contains many dialogues between the young men, has numerous such examples. (Once again, ellipses not in square brackets are Stevenson’s.)
Here is Turton’s protest against civilization, followed in the text by his scheme for the division of society and the ‘Redistribution of the Sexes’:
Here’s a gigantic piece of machinery which has been at work for centuries. And what’s the outcome? Nobody allowed to do what he likes … young men languishing in clammy offices … the fine, manly instincts of the criminal classes thwarted at every corner … and the whole place crawling with policemen and indigent citizens! Civilisation is up a tree. Civilisation is a hopeless, wholesale, ungodly failure … a blague, an imposition, a joke and a damned bad joke! — You will doubtless point to the Pyramids of Egypt. Well … they are very good Pyramids. Steam is a capital invention. Printing, Gunpowder, Representative Government … I know all your catchwords. (30)
A rejection of ‘catchwords’ (empty formulas justifying conventional conduct) is found in several of Stevenson’s essays from Crabbed Age and Youth’ (1878) onwards. In the following example, the praise for ‘an artistic form of vice’ is again reminiscent of the Young Man’s rattling conversation:
“Yes; my father had a craze for gold. […]”
“Well, there’s something fine about a pose of that sort,” said Turton. “It is an artistic form of vice. It’s gratifying an appetite, and I always sympathise with that … it’s so genuine. There’s a kind of grandeur about the merest bald-headed person eating pickles; it’s natural, it’s durable, it’s as old as the sea; it’s true; it’s a protest against Members of Parliament and Isosceles triangles. No man can stand up, before his maker, and pretend that he prefers the angles at the base of an Isosceles triangle to pickles! The lie would stick in his throat; he would become the despicablest humbug in the world: the very brute beasts, sir, would regard him with contempt. (58)
As in his essays, Stevenson’s prose here has some occasional epigrams:
We cannot get away from sickness, misunderstandings and death. (35)
[T]here is nothing so profoundly wounding as an excess of politeness. (46)
A city is one vast chorus of voices requesting you to spend a coin. (51)
Intelligent trust is one thing: credulous levity another. (55)
I also marked passages that simply gave me pleasure to read. One of these is the description of the ‘great city’ from the beginning of Book I ch. V in the ‘Sample pages’ below. Another that I marked, not for the pleasure of the prose, but for the surprise, is the ending of Book I, where Turton looks over the shoulders of Blackburn at the reader: ‘And over the shoulders of the unconscious Prophet, he makes a knowing grimace to the reader of these pages’. Here are a few others:
Sloops and uninhabited islands, Ideal Commonwealths and cheap tobacco, the rhythm of the Ocean below the moving deck, the smell of salt sea air, the swift and final disappearance out of their lives of all hard work and social discommodity, the realisation of all that a young Bohemian ever dreamed in his most ruddy hours […] (34)
[O]verzealous disciples are perhaps the most mortifying accident in life to discreet Prophets with a taste for making a distinction. Poor Luther, poor Calvin, ground, all their lives long, under such calamities. The latter, indeed, was reluctantly compelled to burn some of his fellow creatures in the interests of moderation. (55-6)
The great vault of heaven and all the tumbled hills were strange and inspiring to behold. The blood raced gladly in the young men’s veins; the road rang below their consonant feet and a solemn exhilaration grew up within them as they thus met the peep of day upon the hilltops. (62)
‘[W]hiskey [sic] […] occupies over other liquids a somewhat similar preeminence of purity to that of mountain atmosphere over all other and meaner sorts of air’ (64)
Editorial principles and practices
The following will be of interest to other EdRLS editors. We may not always follow exactly the same practices, but it is always interesting to see how someone else does it.
1. Stevenson’s changes are assimilated without comment, but any interesting earlier wordings are listed in the ‘Textual Notes’ (i.e. changes ‘of intention or desired effect’ or changes that ‘shed light on Stevenson’s intentions or his actual or potential satiric targets’)
2. Corrections are silently made of spelling, hyphenation and capitalization errors. Such correction removes unintended distractions and would have been made if the text had been set in type for publication. (It is not clear if acceptable spelling variants have been standardized, but possibly that has been the policy too.)
3. Unchanged are idiosyncratic capitalization of words not usually capitalized (Bargee, Summer, Spring, Island), as Stevenson possibly ‘wishes to emphasize or give an abstract categorical status to the words by so doing’.
3. Stevenson’s punctuation has not been changed or standardized; to do so ‘might make the text somewhat easier to read, but only at the cost of other effects that Stevenson may have been anxious to retain’.
4. The MS page numbers have been added to the text in square brackets at the point corresponding to the end of the page (see the sample pages of Chapter V above) and these numbers are the only reference used for Explanatory and Textual Notes (Swearingen’s rationale: ‘Doing so keeps alive the idea that this edition presents the text of a manuscript […] not a work that he saw through to publication’).
5. Explanatory Notes: these are illustrated; as much of the humour depends on knowledge no longer shared, little-known novels and stories have been summarized, little-known songs, hymns and verses have been quoted, philosophic and scientific references have been explained. To give an idea of ‘how facts and personalities were regarded at the time’, the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) has sometimes been quoted.
6. References: (i) Beinecke references are in the form ‘Yale GEN MSS 664, Box 33, Folder 34, Beinecke 6587’; (ii) Letter references are to the letter number, not to the volume and page; (iii) OED references are to ‘online edition accessed [month, year]’ with this annotation made once only in the list of Reference abbreviations at the front of the volume.