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

Archive for November 2016

Stevenson: more fascinating mysteries

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In Death in Venice Thomas Mann says ‘desire is a result of imperfect knowledge’—’die Sehnsucht ist ein Erzeugnis mangelhafter Erkenntnis’. Ah yes, the mysterious stranger speaking another language! But this is true of feelings not only towards another person but also towards areas of knowledge.

For example, I find the Scandinavian settlement of eastern and northern England and part of southern Scotland in the ninth and tenth centuries constantly fascinating because we have so little information about it. A similar frustrated desire to know more also made itself felt today as I looked at a letter to Stevenson from his cousin Bob.

A letter from Bob Stevenson to RLS

In the collection of letters from Bob Stevenson to his cousin Louis at Yale there is an interesting undated letter (GEN MS 664 19, 5322-26 (B 5674)):

I was glad to get your letter yesterday as I thought you were never going to write and of course without your address could not initiate a correspondence. [1]

De Mattos a Cambridge Man (living near Falkenden) [2] whose acquaintance I made lately has all nearly of Spencer’s books. Unfortunately “First principles”  he has lent to another Card [?] at present so I have been pegging into Biology and Psychology[.] Psychology is an extremely hitting off work especially the 1st part or description of the nervous system[.] It is the cleverest thing in the way of description I ever read. Every action of life for two or three days after becomes exciting because you imagine the whole process of discharges and compound discharges going on. How in the name of goodness did you wade [?] in for getting coin offered, and by what magazine. [3]

Please read Spencer’s “Education” first or rather after you have got the idea of your game down so as not to cramp you from fear of cribbing; [4] and then H Spencer will give you some prime games on Pere et fils work. I have read it[.]  His “Biology” (HS Biology) is the Inductive or Scientific part I suspect of his theory. Until you have got to it I think he will continue to appear fanciful and a man with a Theory[;] it is very different work as far as I have looked into it. It is H.O2 C.O. &c. &c. Real. Prime Chemistry partly incomprehensible and totally tiresome I fear at least to asses like us who have neglected fostering the Scientific side of our nature and have at least as far as I know devoutly cultivated a hatred of chemistry particularly.

People find it difficult to bring a walking tour [5] fitly to a close. I suspect that will be a strained affair of yours I dont know why[.] Although if it [? is] in reality an Essay about Censure and Hope it is different[;]  I think you could do that better. It is a good channel to convey infidelity in as you say not having the appearance of a Solemn attack with the heavy artillery of philosophy brought into the field.

I have been in the house 2 or 3 days with a sore eye so cannot tell Baxter that you will write in a few days until I go out. [6]

I have been to to Hallè and M. Neruda the other day [7] and sat facing Hallè as he played quite close down on the edge of the orchestra. I thought before that that no changes in his appearance took [? place] in correspondence to the nervous game that must be going on to produce the feeling in the music. But you see every blessed expression in the movements and his face when you are near.

Why cannot we work off to a certain extent the Programme Soiled Hands [8] all the world has soiled hands J.C. [presumably Jesus Christ] thought so too. Note for J.C. the peoples friend[.]

Yours affectionately

R Stevenson

The letter apparently refers to a work accepted by a magazine [3] and two projects planned by Stevenson: an essay with something to do with education and father-son relations [4] and a walking tour essay that also involves thoughts on censure and hope [5]. (There is also the possibility of a collaborative work, point [8].)

Concerning the location of Stevenson and Bob, Stevenson is not at home but has just gone to a new address [1], while  Bob is in Edinburgh (as he says he can’t see Baxter until he’s well enough to go out [6]). ‘Falkenden’ (see [2]), which could be a place or a person, seems to be below the horizon of internet searches at the moment.

Dating the letter

As for the date, a good clue seems to be ‘How in the name of goodness did you wade [?] in for getting coin offered, and by what magazine’ ([3]). At first sight, this suggests autumn 1873, as it sounds like Bob’s request for information about Stevenson’s first paid publication, i.e. ‘Roads’, accepted 23 October 1873 and published in the Portfolio in December of the same year. (The reference to the difficulty of finishing a travel essay could then apply to the unfinished ‘Cockermouth and Keswick’, probably first drafted in July 1873 and which Stevenson might have been trying to finish in the autumn. —Except that it isn’t about ‘Censure and Hope’ nor does it touch on ‘infidelity’, i.e. atheism.)

Incidentally, Stevenson did at first have problems finishing travel essays: ‘Night Outside the Wick Mail’ included in a letter in 1868 (L1: 169-172) and ‘An Autumn Effect’ published in 1875 both end a bit like a school composition with the essayist taking the train back home. He got better by the time of Travels with a Donkey.

But even if there is a rough fit with this autumn 1873 dating, we still have to coordinate it with the reference to the concert by Charles Hallé (conductor and pianist) and Madame Norman-Neruda (violin). Hallé, based in Manchester (and founder of the Hallé Orchestra in that city, still flourishing, and which I often saw performing in my student days), from 1869 gave an annual series of concerts from November/December to February in Edinburgh. Using the Scotsman online archive search facility and searching for ‘Hallé’ and ‘Neruda’, there is a notice in the issue of 15 November 1873 that Hallé and Neruda ‘will give’—and there the snippet view ends! I’m actually quite careful with my money and, being reluctant to pay a subscription just for this piece of information, I’ll assume it’s an announcement for a concert a few days later.

However, the date can’t be autumn 1873, since on 4 November RLS was ‘ordered south’ to Mentone and set off from London the following day. Bob’s letter makes no mention of this momentous piece of news, and his letter starts ‘I was glad to get your letter yesterday’, which can’t be a reference to a letter from RLS written from London before 4 November, as this is at least two weeks before any possibility of Bob hearing a Hallé concert in Edinburgh. Back to square one.

Could the letter be from January or February 1873, during the previous winter season of Hallé concerts? (The Scotsman search facility gives mentions on 13 January and 13 February.) Stevenson was at Great Malvern spa for his health for three weeks with his mother in January 1873. This letter (with Bob’s mention of ‘infidelity’) goes well with Stevenson’s announcement to his father that he was an agnostic on 31 January 1873. In a letter to Bob from Great Malvern which has only partially survived (L1: 272) he mentions an essay on spiritualism, of which however there is no mention in Bob’s letter here. And of course we have no information about a paid publication at this date, which adds to the mystery.

What about December 1872? Stevenson was at the Bridge of Allen for his health in this period. And the mention of Spencer in Bob’s letter would fit with a letter from RLS to his friend Ferrier of 23 November 1872 in which Stevenson says ‘I am reading Herbert Spencer just now very hard’ (L1: 259). —Except that Bob was actually at the Bridge of Allen with him until Christmas Day 1872 (L1: 265), so had no need of the address.

What about an earlier date? Unfortunately neither Letters not his mother’s diary record absences over the winters of 1869-70, 1870-71 or 1871-2. And the Hallé concerts apparently began in 1869.

Let’s rethink this. Could it possibly be after Stevenson’s departure for Mentone, perhaps early 1874? That would fit the recommendation of Spencer on education: ‘Please read Spencer’s “Education” first or rather after you have got the idea of your game’, as ‘your game’ could refer to early ideas for what became ‘Lay Morals’ from this period, which in the 1879 MS starts with a chapter on what should be taught to children as an ethical guide to conduct. —But, alas!, from some time in November 1873, Bob was in Antwerp studying painting and in the letter he is in Edinburgh.


Where the Woozle wasn’t

At this point, I’m beginning to feel like Pooh and piglet going round and round the trees, following the tracks of the Woozle.

But let’s appeal to the maxim of Sherlock Holmes: ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.’ Applying this, the best fit is January 1873, since all the other Hallé season periods from December 1869 to February 1874 seem impossible. Of course, Stevenson may have been absent from home over the winters of 1869-70, 1870-71 or 1871-72 with this not recorded, so we can’t be sure, but January 1873 seems to be the best fit on the evidence we have.

Remaining mysteries

Yet even if we have a possible date, this single letter apparently refers to four ‘games’ by Stevenson or which we have no other record:

  1. An article that Stevenson thought he was going to get published and paid for by a magazine. [3]
  2. An unfinished essay on a walking tour that is ‘in reality an Essay about Censure and Hope’ and touches on the lack of foundation of conventional faith. [5]
  3. A planned essay that has something to do with education and fathers and sons. [4]
  4. Perhaps a planned collaborative work called ‘Soiled Hands’. [8]

There are a lot of tantalizing unknowns here. Yet at the same time, the letter is revealing: it  shows how before Stevenson met Colvin in July 1873 he was ‘beating about the bush’ in a series of unfocussed literary exercises, and it shows him engaged in an epistolary conversation with his cousin involving Spencer, an important influence on his thinking, and involving lack of faith, which was to come to a head at the end of January 1873.

Has anyone any suggestions concerning the above ‘games’, or concerning what walking tour could be intended, or any corrections to the reasoning about dating above?

Written by rdury

14/11/2016 at 1:15 am

Posted in News

Stevenson’s last letter to Colvin (Oct-Nov 1894)

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The present contribution has been kindly provided by Roger G. Swearingen

[In my previous post I wrote by distraction that Stevenson’s letter with parts cut out was from 1887, this has now been corrected to November 1894, thanks to the comment below sent by Roger Swearingen, who adds a following interesting observation.]


There is only one letter from which lines on editorial matters were physically cut: RLS to Colvin, ca. 15 October, 4 and 6 November 1894, Letter 2797 [Letters 8: 382-4]. In note 2 it is remarked that the portion dictated to Belle on editorial matters (November 4 and 6) was masked out and the top quarter of the last sheet was cut away, affecting text on both sides of the page.

Bradford A. Booth, ‘The Vailima Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson’, Harvard Library Bulletin, 15:2 (April 1967), 117-128. Booth comments on this letter, 127-128, noting only that Colvin omitted the literary comments (except on St. Ives) from his publication of this letter and that when he sold the letter he ‘masked out key passages’. (Booth does not mention the cutting away of the top quarter.)

There is nothing in the previous post that you mention – ‘Colvin steps in with vim’, 24 May 2013 – about any letter in 1887 that was (also) cut. There, you refer correctly to the cuts made in the 1894 letter.

Colvin’s Version of RLS’s Letter

October and November 1894, Letter 2797


Letters (‘New Edition’, 4 vols, 1912), Scribner edition, IV, 371-2.

This letter was not published at all in the previously published  Vailima Letters (1896) or Letters . . . to His Family and Friends (1899).

It is intriguing that this version has a short paragraph at the end that does not appear in the Yale Letters:

Things are going on here in their usual disheartening gait. The Treaty Officials are both good fellows whom I can’t help liking, but who will never make a hand of Samoa.

Possibly this paragraph was in the portion of this letter that was physically cut away but was included for its interest by Colvin in his expanded edition of the letters. I have not examined the letter itself (at Harvard) but cannot imagine that if this paragraph was (is) present Ernest Mehew could have overlooked it creating the (complete) text in the Yale Letters.

Written by rdury

08/11/2016 at 4:01 pm

Posted in News