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

Reviews of the New Edinburgh Edition of Virginibus Puerisque

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers ed. Robert-Louis Abrahamson (Edinburgh University Press, 2018).


1. from Howell Chickering, ‘RLA on RLS’, Amherst, Fall 2019, pp. 48–9:

Virginibus Puerisque has a secure place in the history of the English familiar essay, being much admired and often reprinted.  Stevenson took its title from Horace’s Odes III.1 where the poet says he will sing a song “of [or for] maidens and youths.” The first four essays discuss the merits and pitfalls of marriage from the viewpoint of a young man (maidens appear mainly in the title).  Most of the essays in the volume were written during Stevenson’s mid to late 20s, though the voice we hear sounds older and wiser. He proposed to his publisher a series of disparate essays on “aesthetic contentment and a hint to the careless to look around them for disregarded pleasure” to be taken in the things of this world. So among the “Other Papers” we find such topics as “Child’s Play,” “An Apology for Idlers” and “Walking Tours.” (The last should only be taken by oneself.)  Stevenson’s style is undogmatic, playful, both charming and intellectually penetrating. Herbert Tucker, Amherst classmate of Abrahamson and now an eminent Victorian scholar, recalls that, upon first coming upon the book, courtesy of RLA, he was blown away by “the urbane energy that drives the essays unpredictably forward and sideways.”

Abrahamson’s Introduction and the comprehensive discussion of “Stevenson as Essayist” (an article in its own right), along with the copious notes, make it easy to understand and enjoy reading Stevenson in his historical and literary contexts. The whole book is meticulously edited and sets a very high standard for further volumes in the series. In fact, in 2020 the press will publish Essays II: Familiar Studies of Men and Books, ed. Robert-Louis Abrahamson and Richard Dury.

2. from Alan Sandison, in The Bottle Imp, 25 (2019):

The reaction to the appearance of this volume of the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson has, first and foremost, got to be one of gratitude. As the finer distillation of humane sentiment is remorselessly adulterated with every day that passes, we are given another opportunity to listen to the voice which once gave it such eloquent expression; and if we are to take this volume as a fair example of the promise the new edition holds for us, we (and Stevenson) shall be very well served.

There is a pleasing briskness about the opening formalities, though that briskness might have been modified just a little when it resulted in the heading ‘Note on the Text’ losing its indefinite article; but that is an insignificant matter of personal taste. More important is the entirely adequate (as well as economical) defence of the copy text adopted, thus side-stepping a multitude of editorial entanglements.

What the editors cannot escape is an engagement with the definition of the essay – particularly when the exponent can be respectful of the conventions at one moment and at another apparently quite cavalier. The editors are, of course, well aware of just how Protean this writer can be. Yet, though his readiness to exploit different anatomies for the essay-form might have resulted in a random miscellaneity, it doesn’t: to define the nature of the disentropic glue which gives order to his literary world is therefore to define the character of Stevenson the essayist.

So he can refer to these works sometimes as ‘Familiar’ essays, sometimes as ‘Studies’ and sometimes even as ‘Gossips’; and include within these categories further sub-sets. Thus they can sometimes appear in letters as does ‘Night outside the Wick Mail’ in a letter to his cousin Bob, or as ‘essayistic passage’ as in some of his early letters to Fanny Sitwell. ‘The lack of clear literary status for the essays’, write the present editors, ‘is reflected in the arrangement of the Edinburgh Edition proposed by Colvin and accepted by Stevenson: the essays were placed in a series of volumes entitled Miscellanies’.

Confronted by such a various essayistic universe, the editors sensibly invoke Montaigne (a seminal influence on Stevenson) on whose model ‘a collection of essays can be quite varied and built up by accretion’. Hybridity of the sort they encounter allows for some pragmatic interpretation of the rules, a necessity which they turn to advantage so that while their discussion of the essay and of Stevenson as essayist is appropriately discriminating, it is also not too prescriptive, allowing room for Stevenson’s own mutable, iridescent literary persona. Stevenson well knew that he was breaching certain formal boundaries, that his inclination ‘to enter into dialogue with readers “and wander […] into a little piece of controversy”‘, was, as the editors say, not consistent with the typical essay. It was, however, consistent with his ethical and aesthetic principles which emerge from a world-view the editors rightly associate with Montaigne’s scepticism and relativism.

Written by rdury

05/10/2019 at 7:28 am

Posted in News

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