EdRLS

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

Black eyes

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Dunoon, April 1870

Stevenson was in Dunoon, on the outer Firth of Clyde, from 26 April to 3 May 1870 to follow harbour works. In a letter dated 29 April 1870 from the Argyll Hotel, he wrote to his mother,

I have had my fortune told: I am to be very happy and get to be much on the sea: two predictions which my queasy stomach will hardly consider as agreeable with each other.
(Bonham’s Sale 17520, Los Angeles, 19 October 2009, now in the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, St. Helena)

In the same period, probably while still in Dunoon, he began but then abandoned an essay in which he described the fortune-telling in more detail:

All that I could gather may be thus summed up shortly: that I was to visit America, that I was to be very happy, and that I was to be much upon the sea, predictions, which in consideration of an uneasy stomach, I can scarcely think agreeable with one another. […] She suddenly looked at me with an eager glance, and dropped my hand saying, in what were either tones of misery or a very good affectation of them, ‘Black eyes!’ A moment after she was noisily at work again. It is as well to mention that I have not black eyes. (‘A Retrospect’, Yale, GEN MSS 664 28, 668 (B 6173), pp. 5-6)

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‘It is as well to mention that I have not black eyes’, Beinecke B 6173, p. 6.

Bournemouth, August 1887

Stevenson came across this abandoned essay while he was packing up in Bournemouth before going to the USA in August 1887, and he added a note at the bottom of the page:

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written at Dunoon 1870 (?). And very strange | it is : the old pythoness was right : I have been happy, I did | go to America (am even going again—unless—) and I have | been twice and once upon the deep. Moreover I have (and had) black | eyes. R.L.S 1887.

twice and once: several times, often (‘I have been merry twice and once ere now’, 2 Henry IV, V. 3. 39)

 Black eyes?

In April 1870, Stevenson wrote ‘I have not black eyes’, but in August 1887 he wrote ‘I have (and had) black eyes’. How can we explain this?

Maybe his eye-colour darkened between 1870 and 1887 (and he forgot it had once been lighter). But is this likely? Can eye colour change in this way? The blue eyes of babies darken in most cases in the the first year of life and eyes grow paler in old age. But apart from this,

fluctuations in eye color do occur, but they are relatively minor. As a general rule, eye color may be thought of as a highly stable physical characteristic.
(Morgan Worthy, Eye Color: A Key to Human and Animal Behavior (San Jose : ToExcel, 1999), 81)

For me, a better explanation is that Stevenson had very dark brown eyes, and in 1870, inclined to take the prophecy as false, he classified them as ‘not black’; but in 1887, inclined to see the prophecy as true, he classified them as ‘black’.

And is this not a good example of how we place things in categories because we want to see the world in a particular way? In a way deceiving ourselves.

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Written by rdury

03/07/2015 at 6:20 pm

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