Obstacles to writing
Does anyone ever sit down and dash off pages and pages of writing? Certainly not me. Apart from natural reluctance to start (which incidentally stimulates some positive actions, such as finally tidying up my desk), there are the frustrating succession of interruptions on any normal day. One learns to sympathize with the protagonist of Simon Gray’s Otherwise Engaged who tries again and again to listen to a recording of Wagner’s Parsifal (pick-up delicately placed on the lead-in groove: a pleasure of delightful mindful anticipation unknown to a digital generation), only to have a succession of people ringing at the door of his flat after the first chord or two.
Another obstacle is running into an uncertain area of knowledge—not unlike taking the wrong turning on a motorway that leads you to a space apparently not represented on maps, or like driving gingerly along a dirt track only to find the wheels stuck in mud or snow.
So it was that I was revising my Appendix of ‘Essays Planned or Lost’ (for the volume of Uncollected Essays and Reviews 1868-79) and just had to drop everything for a week to work out ‘ “Covenanters” Notes’.
A mixed bunch of notes
The item in question is this:
The title on the cover (for some reason in quotation marks) is ‘Notes on Covenanters and Cavalier etc.’; in the MacKay catalogue it is ‘Covenanters. Notes’ and in the Yale finding aid ‘ “Covenanters” notes’. It’s a mounted and bound series of 25 leaves of laid paper (it’s not clear if from a notebook or separate leaves), with (obviously added) pagination 1-24 in pencil and preceded by another unpaginated leaf with the title ‘Covenanters’:
The trouble starts with p. 1 (i.e. the leaf paginated ‘1’), where the first note is:
‘The Position of the English Clergy to Elizabeth should be sedulously compared with that of Knox to Mary. See Hallam . Const. Hist I. IV. p 173.’
This refers to the late 16C, a period well before the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ of 1643 and the persecution of the Covenanters from 1679 to 1688 (‘The Killing Times’).
On the second half of p. 1 begins a series of notes from Robert Wodrow, Analecta: or, Materials for a History of Remarkable Providences; Most Relating to Scotch Ministers and Christians: odd notes made by Wodrow in the early years of the eighteenth century: observations, remembered stories or anecdotes told by others—none of them specifically about Covenanter history, but all of them revealing aspects of typically Scottish religious attitudes. Stevenson’s notes are in volume order: they were clearly made as he read through the volume. The handwriting is the rather large, angular script of the early 1870s:
This takes us to p. 6, where another set of notes starts (pp. 6-16): on Covenanters in the period 1688-89 from Alexander Shield’s notebooks as transcribed by Wodrow at the end of his volume of Analecta. These are all in a similar hand to the first set of notes, though with some sections in a sloped variant.
Then on p. 17, without any heading, there is a new set of notes on the French Camisard leader Jean Cavalier (pp. 17-22). These are in a distinctly different hand: the smaller writing with less angular descenders that is typical from the late 1870s onwards:
The works from which these notes are taken are: Eugène Bonnemère, Histoire des Camisards (1869; Stevenson’s copy is now at Buffalo), Napoléon Peyrat, Histoire des Pasteurs du Désert (1842; now at Yale), Anon., Histoire des Camisards (1744) (vol. 2 of which is now at RLSM, St. Helena, CA), Maximilien Misson (translated by John Lacey), A Cry from the Desart (Stevenson cites the 2nd ed., 1717, untraced among the sources for Stevenson’s library). A further source is cited in the initial pencil notes on Cavalier’s life, physical characteristics and character, Bxxxxxx:
Unfortunately no works listed in the Stevenson Library Database fit this shape. Any ideas about what this name could be?
Swearingen dates work on the study of ‘Colonel Jean Cavalier’ to June 1881 (p. 59); could these notes be from then, or are they from an earlier period?
To end it all (p. 23) is an outline of the first two chapters of ‘Lay Morals’, which since the latter was written in March 1879 must date from just before.
A final leaf (p.24) has some pencil jottings: something crossed out, the word ‘God’ or ‘Good’ and two lines of verse linking romance and Colinton: ‘Dwelt in the country of romance / In that green garden round the Manse’
Knox, Scottish religious attitudes c. 1702, Covenanters 1688-90, Jean Cavalier, ‘Lay Morals’ and this bit of verse—quite a mixture.
Sorting it out
Even getting that idea of the mixture of notes took time to work out; then I had to try and make some sense of it. So here I was, having taken a wrong turn off the motorway, with signs pointing in various directions, none of which made much sense to me. OK, stop the car and study the map.
First of all, the mixed nature of the notes suggests these are sheets from a notebook that was used at several periods. It is just possible that the creator of the bound volume put together heterogeneous notes that just happened to be on the same paper—but then would the same paper be around in both the early and late 1870s, let alone perhaps the early 1880s for the Cavalier notes?
1. ‘Covenanters’ (Sept–Oct 1873), pp. 1-16
At first I thought the note on Knox, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth must be related either to an essay on John Knox (one already written in July 1873; a biographical study planned in early 1874; or the published essay on John Knox and women which occupied Stevenson for a year from early 1874), or to one of the studies in the planned volume of studies on the Reformation (under consideration for a year from autumn 1874). Then I read on. The second note is:
Cf. Isobel Alison’s examination (C[l]oud of Witnesses p. 115 at
top) with Queen Mary’s Speech (Burton IV. p. 12 near foot) and
I think somewhere in Knox. This repetition is surely as instructive
and strange as it is deeply sad. The crowned Queen pestered by
high-minded and intolerant spiritual questioners, paralleled
a century afterwards by the “pour lass” before the Privy Council.
In other words, the reference to Isobel Alison, a Covenanter martyr, is accompanied by parallels in time and space, between one century and another, and between England and Scotland. This intent of providing a deep historical context gives us the clue to the following notes (pp. 1–6) on Scottish religious attitudes in the early 18th century from Robert Wodrow’s Analecta, followed by notes (pp. 6–16) specifically on Covenanters, in the period 1688-89, from the same volume.
We know that Stevenson was making notes from this volume in October 1873, as he tells Frances Sitwell in a letter: ‘I kept on at Wodrow’s Analecta (a Covenanting book) and made my notes as best I could’ (Letters 1, 327; 2 Oct 1873). These must be the notes we’re looking at here. As a clincher, we know that he was reading Hallam’s Constitutional History of England (cited in the first note) the month before: ‘I have been out reading Hallam in the garden’ (Letters 1, 319; 16 Sept 1873).
In September, Stevenson had written to Frances Sitwell about his planned study on the Covenanters:
I do not think I should be in a hurry to commit myself about the Covenanters; the whole subject turns round about me and so branches out to this side and that that I grow bewildered; and one cannot write discreetly about any one little corner of an historical period, until one has an organic view of the whole. I have however, given life and health, great hopes in my Covenanters […]. (Letters 1, 311; 22 Sept 1873)
His reference to ‘the Covenanters’ shows that Mrs Sitwell already knew about the project and that it had most likely been discussed with her and Sidney Colvin shortly before, in July and August, when Stevenson had first met them at Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk. But what is interesting for us here is the reference to the complexity of the project because ‘one cannot write discreetly [? discretely] about any one little corner of an historical period, until one has an organic view of the whole’. Looking again at these notes, they seem to fit with this aim at ‘an organic view of the whole’ for a study of Covenanters, a study which would perforce be focussed on the second half of the 17th century, but which we can see for Stevenson involves religious attitudes in Scotland (and also England) from the later 16th to the early 18th centuries.
A few months later, when Stevenson planned a volume of studies on ‘Four Great Scotchmen’, he said that he wanted to cover ‘their lives, their work, the social media in which they lived and worked, with, if I can so make it, the strong current of the race making itself felt underneath and throughout—this is my idea’ (Letters 1, 474-5; 6 Feb 1874, to Fanny Sitwell). The planned approach to describe these lives in the context of social milieu and race, suggests an influence of the Hippolyte Taine, who saw historical processes as the product of ‘race, milieu et moment’. Notice that Stevenson uses the same keyword ‘race’, and surely not in its later deformed biological sense and obsessed by purity, but in Taine’s sense of the internal mainsprings of a civilization involving heredity, climate, geography and psychology, the things which hold a population together.
Returning to our ‘Covenanters. Notes’, also of interest is the parallel between the browbeating of the two Queens and the similar treatment of the ‘pour lass’ Isobel Alison. This shows a similar empathetic ability to link people of diverse historical and cultural periods that strikes us in the writings that became In the South Seas.
All these notes on pages 1 to 16 therefore seem to be for the study of Covenanters that Stevenson was pursuing in September and October 1873.
2. ‘Jean Cavalier’ (late 1880-early 1882; early 1879?)
In November 1873, Stevenson had decided to include the French Calvinists in his study of the Covenanters, and says he hopes to find books in Paris ‘on the French Calvinists which are necessary for my little Covenanting game’ (Letters 1, 357). Could our Cavalier notes be connected with these proposed acquisitions in Paris? Not in the sense of dating from the same period: the handwriting is clearly from a later period.
The Cavalier notes are placed here before the outline of ‘Lay Morals’—could they too date from early 1879? One thing we can say is that they are not connected with Travels with a Donkey. Although this contains a section ‘The Country of the Camisards’ and was being written in this period (December 1878 to early January 1879 and Stevenson was correcting proofs and perhaps adding new material in late March and early April 1879), Jean Cavalier receives only passing mention in this work.
Stevenson borrowed books on the Camisards from the Advocates Library in January and March 1879, but they are not books cited in these notes (so, with Camisard books borrowed in March when proofs were being read, it looks as if he was indeed adding new material to Travels with a Donkey at this late stage).
The first definite reference by Stevenson to a study of Jean Cavalier dates from a letter of September 1880, when he asks the historian John Hill Burton for help in finding sources relating to ‘the career of Cavalier after he joined the English service—I mean John Cavalier, the ex-Camisard’ (Letters 3, 98). Then in a notebook used at Davos in the winter of 1880-1881 he made a list of planned ‘Studies’, including ‘Colonel John Cavalier’ (Notebook 53, f. 2v; Beinecke GEN MSS 664 box 38, folder 850). In the same winter of 1880-81, he wrote a draft of the opening paragraph of the study (Notebook C, ff. 3 and 3v; Beinecke GEN MSS GM 664 box 34 folder 820).
Several months later, in June 1881, he asks Edmund Gosse about the same period in Cavalier’s life, adding ‘I have splendid materials for Cavalier till he comes to my own country’ (Letters 3, 186-7). In September 1880 and again in September 1881 he borrowed more books on the Camisards, returning them after keeping them over the winter in Davos. These show a revived interest in Camisard history, but are not directly related to these notes as the borrowed books are not quoted there, which is not surprising because (as we have seen) at least three of these were in his own library.
All this seems to point to the winter of 1880-81 as the most probable time for our Cavalier notes.
But with the books used for these notes on Jean Cavalier possibly in Stevenson’s library from when he passed through Paris on his way to Mentone in early November 1873, or on his way back in April 1874, could they have been made in early 1879? Well, from the handwriting they could, as this is similar to the handwriting of the ‘Lay Morals’ outline and of ‘Lay Morals’ itself. However, it is also very similar to handwriting of the early 1880s:
The position of the Cavalier notes before the ‘Lay Morals Outline’ from early 1879 in this series of rebound notebook leaves cannot be taken as any strong indication of dating. With more indications of serious work on ‘Jean Cavalier’ between September 1880 and the winter of 1881-82, and the handwriting of the notes being close to that of this period, the best fit for dating of our Notes is the same period (with a residual possibility that they were made in early 1879).
3. ‘Lay Morals’ (early 1879)
We know that ‘Lay Morals’ was written (or mostly written) in March 1879 (Letters 2, 303; 8 March 1879), so this outline probably dates from just before, let’s say early 1879.
Back to work
It is unusual that the same notebook was used in the autumn of 1873, early 1879 and the winter of 1880-81, but but it is possible and seems to be the case of the notebook from which these rebound leaves derive. The dating of the three main sections seems pretty clear and I now understand the projects they were associated with—I think I can get back to work on my list of ‘Essays Planned or Lost’ again.
But first, let me relax and sit down with a drink to listen to this recording of Parsifal…