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

Archive for December 2019

RLS on his father

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Father and son relationships are often difficult, and the Stevenson family was no exception. For an idea of how this may have influenced RLS’s writings we need only think of the overbearing father figures in his fiction.

An interesting document in this regard is the record of his father’s ‘faculties’ (bodily and mental characteristics and aspects of personality) in the copy of Galton’s Records of Family Faculties in the library at Vailima and now at Yale, reproduced in Julia Reid’s Robert Louis Stevenson, Science and the Fin de Siècle:

Julia Reid, Robert Louis Stevenson, Science, and the Fin de Siècle (2006), pp. 66–7.

Reid says this is ‘in Fanny’s hand’ but it seems clear to me that it is by Stevenson himself. Take the word ‘dark’:

and compare it with the same word in ‘Memoirs of Himself’ written in 1880:

Here we see the very typical R-shaped ‘k’ and the inverted-v ”r’. Other typical features are the lead-in line to the ‘f’ rising to a spur and the same in the case of the ‘b’ but the ‘p’ starting with a hook. Having studied Stevenson’s handwriting for some time, my opinion is that this is written by him not Fanny. This only makes the entry more interesting.

An interesting description

The description of ‘Character and temperament’ begins ‘choleric, hasty, frank, shifty‘. The adjective ‘hasty’ must be used in the sense of ‘quickly roused to anger; quick-tempered, irritable’ (OED). It is interesting that we find the same adjective applied to a father in Kidnapped

his gillies trembled and crouched away from him like children before a hasty father.

Kidnapped, ch. 23

Hastie is the first name of the white-heaired Dr Lanyon in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and he is quick tempered in his outbursts against Jekyll (‘scientific balderdash’, ‘I am quite done with that person’), a habit of thoughtless and absolute rejection that makes him similar to Jekyll (who uses the same words as Lanyon when he twice repeats that he is ‘done with’ Hyde).

The last adjective is ‘shifty’. I don’t think that can mean ‘dishonest, not to be depended on’ etc. There’s no entry for the word in the Dictionary of the Scots Language but I can imagine it had a special use north of the border from two OED citations:

1859 […] The canny, shifty, far-seeing Scot
1888 W. Black [writer of the kaleyard school] In Far Lochaber xxiii She was in many ways a shifty and business-like young person

So it could have the positive meaning of ‘well able to shift for oneself’. But context is very important in determining meaning and here the other three adjectives are about the quality of interactions with others rather than such a practical ability, so perhaps we should search further. Some help comes from Stevenson’s use of the word in his essay on John Knox:

He was vehement in affection, as in doctrine. I will not deny that there may have been, along with his vehemence, something shifty, and for the moment only; that, like many men, and many Scotchmen, he saw the world and his own heart, not so much under any very steady, equable light, as by extreme flashes of passion, true for the moment, but not true in the long run.

Here ‘something shifty, and for the moment’ is associated with ‘vehemence’ and ‘passion’. It looks like a ‘shifty’ person is someone who changes position and beliefs as his passions dictate. Could this be the authoritarian person who can quickly justify any action?

Some more evidence of Stevenson’s use of the word is found in Weir of Hermiston (ch. 2), where the elder Kirstie has only the company of the maidservant

who, being but a lassie and entirely at her mercy, must submit to the shifty weather of “the mistress’s” moods without complaint, and be willing to take buffets or caresses according to the temper of the hour.

Here ‘shifty’ is associated with the changeable and unpredictable moods of an authoritarian person and this might fit Thomas Stevenson better.

Finally, in the company of the other three adjectives ‘frank’ probably doesn’t mean ‘open, sincere’ but more ‘candid, outspoken, unreserved’.