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Publishing Stevenson 1888-1894: David Balfour

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The publication of David Balfour/Catriona is an interesting example of the unusual circumstances surrounding the publication of Stevenson’s works from 1888 to his death in 1894. It is explored briefly in Barry Menikoff’s recently-published edition of the David Balfour manuscript (as mentioned in a previous post, section 3) and at length in a previous article by Menikoff: ‘Towards the Production of a Text: Time, Space, and David Balfour‘ in Studies in the Novel 27.3 (1995), pp. 351-62.

In this article Menikoff tells the story of the competing players involved in periodical publication and book publication in London and New York: the McClure syndicate, Cassells and Scribner’s, Baxter and Colvin, all with different interests and priorities.

McClure and magazine serialization

S.S. McClure had ‘signed agreements to provide a story [to Atalanta and newspapers] before he had a text’ (358), so had to ‘cajole Stevenson to produce the manuscript fast enough’. The manuscript, however, was sent to Baxter, who then forwarded it to Cassells who started preparing proofs and passing them to Robert McClure (S.S. McClure’s brother and London agent). Time was passing and in December 1892 serialization began in Atalanta, but McClure’s were still without the final chapters — Cassell’s, who had the whole manuscript, did not feel the same urgency about getting proofs prepared.

In addition, Robert McClure needed to correct obvious mistakes in the proofs, but he had no access to the MS (and he refused to do this checking in Cassell’s office). In part, this was because the MS was too precious, but also in part because of rather snooty distrust of McClure (p. 357), and a view of magazine publication as not important. In the end, Colvin corrected the Atalanta proofs himself (359-60).

Book publication

Stevenson had repeatedly asked for proofs for the book publication and on 2 March 1893, two complete sets of Cassell’s proofs were sent out to Samoa: one clean set for Stevenson, and one with Colvin’s many ‘suggestions and corrections’ (359).

At this point, Cassells and Scribner’s started to get a bit impatient—this was another delay of at least three months (the journey took one month each way), so there was a risk (as actually happened) of the serialized version ending before the book publication (and this, it was felt, would have an adverse effect  on sales). On 26 May 1893, the corrected proofs hadn’t arrived and Cassell sounded out Colvin as to whether he might correct the proofs in London so that the book could be got out quickly.

Colvin refused to do this, mainly, we might suspect, because he hoped not only for corrections but for revisions and improvements cued by his suggestions on the proofs. In June, Scribner’s accepted that they could not publish: ‘we must of course wait for Stevenson’s final corrections before publication’.

In July (over four months from dispatch of the proofs), Stevenson’s corrected proofs  arrived in London. Colvin was crestfallen: somehow, most of his suggestions had been ignored!—’for all the alterations he has made, the book might as well have been out two months ago’, he complained.

Another complication in the process of book publication that Menikoff points out is the fact that Baxter and Stevenson had decided to change their business relationship with Scribner’s and had asked them to bid for the US copyright of David Balfour, rather than sign a contract and pay royalties as before (360; Stevenson’s letter is in L8: 569). (Baxter’s rather insensitive attitude to Scribner’s has already been seen in Glenda Norquay’s post about St Ives).

Colvin tidies up the record

I can add an interesting further detail to Menikoff’s account.

Stevenson sent Colvin a letter in early April 1893 in which he listed his first reactions to a number of Colvin’s proposals. These comments are to be found in volume 8 of the Letters (pp. 36-8; Letter 2549), and also in Colvin’s edition of the letters (Tusitala 35: 17-18). We have seen in a previous post how Colvin actually physically cut out parts of another letter from November 1894 referring to differing views about changes to Stevenson’s text. In Colvin’s edition of the April 1893 letter he (less drastically) leaves out a number of Stevenson’s comments from his edited text. These are obviously points that Colvin still felt sensitive about. They are as follows:

— Symon in the trial!
Sow-gelding. I’ll try; but they had damnable tongues — (and have, ahem!)

— Dumkopf: all right: deleted.

— [Chapter XXX] […] About ‘no better than she should be’, you were wrong if you suppose Barbara would have stopped at that! You don’t know the brand as I do, and how they love the word that shocks.

— [slip 89.] O drew, drew! ‘see you naked.’

— [The end.] […] O come, I do not say that Alan kicked the sailor’s bottom; it is Alan who says so, and it is just the scornful word for him to use.
You seem to hint that Davie is not finished in the writing; which cuts me; and yet I think you deceive yourself.

Mehew identifies some of these in his notes, but now we have Menikoff’s edition of the manuscript text it shouldn’t be too difficult to identify them all. This, however, I generously leave to someone else.

The comment on ‘see you naked’ refers to the passage in the MS where Catriona says to David ‘I am thanking the good God he has let me see you naked’ (i.e. ‘undisguised’—see the post on Menikoff’s edition). But can anyone interpret ‘O drew, drew’?


Written by rdury

15/10/2016 at 2:19 am

New Light on Dark Women

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.


Song: ‘Dark Women’

Dark Women is a long poem in which Stevenson contrasts women of opposite hues, wonders at the shades of one particular woman’s nature and welcomes the consolation of her embrace.

Fanny is not mentioned by name in the verse, but in a letter to Colvin concerning the preparation of Songs of Travel (published in Scribner’s Magazine 75.iv, April 1924, p. 419), she says that in addition to the poem My Wife (”Trusty, dusky, vivid, true”), “There was another that Louis rather liked–I think it was called, ‘In praise of dark women’; what do you think of adding that? I only suggest the looking at it.”

Colvin chose instead to include in Songs of Travel only stanzas 2-3 of Dark Women:

Because of the poem’s personal nature Janet Adam Smith assumed that Colvin suppressed the remainder, which has since been published in varying six-stanza versions and by Lewis (2003) in an eight-stanza conflation of the various versions because no single manuscript represents the work in a clearly finished state.

 In 1890 Stevenson wrote to the editor of Scribner’s Magazine concerning poems he wanted to publish under the titles Ballads and Songs of Travel.In a following letter he mentioned that many of them were written to music, and that he thought it would be a good idea to include the voice parts:

image 2 page 2 to edward l burlingame

Booth, Bradford A. and Ernest Mehew. Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995

In addition to other items, Beinecke manuscripts 5865-9 contain four versions of a list of poems intended for Ballads and Songs of Travel.

The list headed Posthumous Verses (apparently intended for publication after his death) contains 48 titles divided into four sections: Vailima, Underwoods, Verses and Songs:

image 3 page 3 posthumous verses

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6896)

image 4 page 4 songs

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6896)




In the section “Songs,” number 43 has the title To You, Let Snow and Roses and is followed by a line count of 16 (which would seem to correspond to the version published in the Edinburgh Edition). It appears in the list together with titles such as Ditty, To an Air of Diabelli’s, To the Tune of Wandering Willie, and 16 others, 9 of which have been found to be associated with music and are listed in the index of the Music of Robert Louis Stevenson website.

Stevenson said on several occasions that he enjoyed the challenge of writing lyrics to music, and so it seems apparent that the reason To You, Let Snow and Roses appears in the section titled “Songs” rather than the other three sections is that it too was written to music.









image 5 page 5 dark women highlighted

Yale Gen MSS 664 box 43 folders 943-945 (Beinecke 6894)


A different (and clearly later) version of the list (B 6894) has 61 titles. Number 53 is Dark Women and has a line count of 24. RLS apparently considered To You, Let Snow and Roses complete enough to publish at the time but later expanded it to three stanzas and retitled it. Three varying six-stanza versions have been published (Strong 1899, Gosse 1908, Hellman 1925) and an eight-stanza (64-line) conflated version appears in Lewis’s Collected Poems (2003).







A song—with music

Stevenson’s musically inspired poems occasionally contain clues to the melody in the title, subtitle or body of the poem, but in this case the only clues are the rhythm and meaning of the verse. Identifying the tune for this particular work would be hopeless, except that many of the scores Stevenson acquired for his musical studies have been identified and most of his original manuscript musical compositions and transcriptions are available. The proper place to begin searching for music he might have used for a poem is in the scores he collected and the manuscript copies he made, and so it is not haystacks that need to be looked in for this particular needle but in “those great stacks of music,” as Lloyd Osbourne called them.

Out of Stevenson’s more than 140 manuscript transcriptions of music, only one fits the poem properly. He called it Mozart, but its actual title is Duettino from Clemenza di Tito, Act I, Scene 3. Although it is a duet, Stevenson generally copied only from the first part, simplifying some rhythms, changing a few notes, and shortening the whole by six bars.

image 6 page 6 mozart rls facsimile

University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, Melodies for the flute by RLS, CX 2

A recording using the first stanza of Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here. In the opera, Sesto and Annio sing these words:

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso, / Amico mio fedel;
E ognor per me lo stesso / Ti serbi amico il ciel.

Ah, let me embrace you dearly, / My faithful friend,
And may heaven ever keep / Your friendship constant for me.


The texts of the opera and poem share the theme of friendship, and Stevenson even seems slightly surprised that it is “her of duskier lustre whose favour still I wear.” Although To You, Let Snow and Roses is a song for one voice, its two stanzas comparing two kinds of women produce a duet of its own kind. That the poem fits so well with the opera melody and that the two works share a similar theme should be proof enough that Mozart’s music inspired the poem; however some small details in Stevenson’s transcription add further evidence.

image 8 page 7 larghetto

Transcription of RLS’s Mozart with the words of To You, Let Snow and Roses


RLS has written the expression mark “dolce” (sweetly) in the middle of the second line. The two bars of music that follow are alterations by Stevenson of Mozart. At this point in the opera the two voices sing separately and echo each other:

image 9 page 7 mozart duet section

Mozart’s version of the highlighted section changed by RLS

If Stevenson had chosen to copy Mozart’s music exactly, he would have written the following, which is a compilation of the two voices:

image 10a page 8a mozart




However, this particular line of the poem has too few syllables for too many notes, so he leaves some out and changes others. The result is a sweeter version of the melody which the lyrics implicitly dedicate to Fanny: “For her of duskier lustre.”Other changes RLS made in Mozart to accommodate his lyrics can be found in the last three bars of the song. To set the words “The rose be in her hair,” he added extra notes specifically for the words “be” and “her.” Because the first stanza of his lyrics finishes at this point, he ends his song and discards the remaining six bars of Mozart’s music:







In To You, Let Snow and Roses Stevenson fused the two melodies of the Duettino into one air on the themes of friendship and color, but later he seemed to realize that by leaving out the operatic image of the embrace, he expressed only half the meaning he intended. Long after the music is silent, verse after searching verse follows in praise of a multitude of shades and colors, but the poem can only end when once again Lou finally embraces Fanny.

The Duettino reads,

Ah, let me embrace you dearly,
my faithful friend,
and may heaven ever keep
your friendship constant for me

The last stanza of Dark Women reads:

The defeats and the successes,
The strife, the race, the goal,
And the touch of a dusky woman
Was fairly worth the whole.
And sun and moon and morning,
With glory I recall,
But the clasp of a dusky woman
Outweighed them one and all.

John F. Russell

Written by rdury

24/06/2014 at 9:41 am

Scribner’s and Weir: a premature ‘puff’

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This post is contributed by Glenda Norquay, presently working an edition of St. Ives for the Edition.


In my last few days at Princeton I found an interesting little twist to the tangled narrative of Stone & Kimball and Scribner’s and the competition for his late fiction.

So sure were Scribner’s that they were going to get the publication rights of Weir of Hermiston in the United States that their editor, E.L. Burlingame wrote to Sidney Colvin on the 5 September 1895:

Screen shot 2013-10-21 at 05.55.29

Edward L. Burlingame

There is one other great kindness that you could do us in this matter and that I think would be a great factor in the success of the publication. You have mentioned in your letters that both you and Henry James who had read “Weir of Hermiston” thought it beyond comparison the finest thing that Stevenson had done. If you were willing to let us quote you both as holding this opinion, and if you care to express it in words which imply a comparison, to let us quote you as saying that it reaches at least his highest level – I can think of nothing that would so quickly lead to the favorable recognition of our announcement of it.  “The Fables”, the paper of extracts from the “Vailima Letters”, and perhaps the beginning of “St Ives” all preceding it, and two of them being comparatively minor things (of course I do not speak of the “Vailima” book) it is most important for us to prevent in the public mind the idea that this is a small matter, and to make known the truth that it is really the one upon which his ambition was specially centred during his last two or three years.
(1894 November 15 – 1895 September 13; 1894 November 15 – 1895 September 13; Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Box 901; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

While the evaluation of the other works as ‘small’ may be questioned (especially by the editor of one of them), the publishers were clearly aiming to make as much of Weir as they possibly could.  Yet by the end of the year (9 December) Charles Scribner has this to communicate to Lemuel Bangs, their London representative:

There is nothing further to record about Stevenson’s story; it has been sold to the Cosmopolis and Stone & Kimball will publish it in this country. Baxter’s contract  with Stone & Kimball knocked us out … but it was a high price to pay for an incomplete story and all things considered perhaps we are well off without it.
(L. W. Bangs; 1893 February-1900 January; Archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Box 972; Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.)

As my earlier blog noted, however, this did not diminish Scribner’s eventual pleasure in gaining control of all Stevenson’s work in the U.S..

The Ebb-Tide, 1st ed., 1894, published by Stone & Kimble

The Ebb-Tide, 1st ed., 1894, published by Stone & Kimble

Weir of Hermiston, 1st ed., 1896, published by Charles Scribner's & Sons

Weir of Hermiston, 1st ed., 1896, published by Charles Scribner’s & Sons

Sandbox: can an editor use a new title?

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Titles and terminology are protected by a certain sanctity: they are labels used by society and (to confine ourselves to written language) contained in an unknowable number of documents that would become, with any change, inexact.

Yet one would still like to change some of them. Of inadequate terminology, the young Stevenson himself had something to say in his ‘Numbered Notes’ of 1873-74 (the, ahem!, new title that—in this sandbox anyway—I wish to use for the, let’s admit it, rather inadequate title ‘Selections From His Notebook’):

Scientific language like most other language is extremely unsatisfactory, as being a series of petitiones principii—as being committed from beginning to end to former and less perfect theories. Look at the degraded terminology of Mechanics—the very name being a misnomer with its so-called mechanical powers and other misleading and incorrect expressions. Any attempt, again, to talk scientifically about heat or the variation of temperature involves, on the now proved dynamical hypothesis, a series of misstatements—a string of verbal confusions.


In the first volume of Stevenson’s uncollected essays, there are a few titles I am tempted to tweak. I hasten to add: only with minor works that seem to have been given inappropriate titles by other editors. Perhaps the best way to proceed would be to look at them one by one.

1. Dunoon

a.k.a. ‘A Retrospect’ (Edinburgh Edition; Swearingen); ‘Dunoon. Encounter with a Fortune-Teller, 1870’ and ‘Dunoon. Visit at a House in 1870 where R.L.S. had Spent a Week in Childhood’ (McKay and Yale finding aid)

Here we have an early manuscript (B 6174): five sheets written on both sides numbered 5–13, i.e. missing pp. 1–4 and, since the text started on p. 13 is truncated at the end of the page, missing following pages too. It consists of several separate pieces: on Hazlitt (abandoned), on Dunoon (the contrast between impressions on a recent revisitation and memories of a distant childhood visit) (which reaches a conclusion), on Imagination (just a paragraph, though possibly finished—a pensée) and Obermann (continued on lost sheets). These pieces are separated by short centred lines: apparently a collection of essay ideas written out neatly, on both sides of the sheets to save paper.

Then we have a later manuscript (B 6173—McKay thought it was earlier, hence the lower number), written on the same paper, in which RLS decided to link together his thoughts on Hazlitt and his anecdote about childhood memory (perhaps they were always intended to be linked, as he talks specifically of Hazlitt’s ‘On the Past and Future’ and adopts Hazlitt’s points in that essay that the future is nothing, while the past is a ‘real and substantial a part of our being’). However, he also decides to insert another element before the second part: the telling of his fortune by a crazy Highland woman on the occasion of the same recent revisitation Dunoon. Clearly, Dunoon had become a crossroads of timelines and an appropriate place for thinking about past and future. Unfortunately, he abandons the project shortly after starting to rewrite what is now the third section, the one about childhood memories, though the anecdote can be be picked up on the earlier draft, in front of RLS as he wrote.

A more accurate title would be perhaps ‘Dunoon: a prophecy and a recollection’ (‘recollection’ occurs eight times in the later draft), as this is announced in a summary sentence of the later draft:

What led me to the consideration of this subject and what has made me take up my pen tonight, is the rather strange coincidence of two very different accidents—a prophecy of my future and a return into my past.

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 22.48.40

However, following a principle of least intervention, I propose to call the (fragmentary) essay ‘Dunoon’, which is a name used by McKay and is also contained in Colvin’s note placed under the title ‘(A Fragment: written at Dunoon, 1870)’. Colvin’s title ‘A Retrospect’ only refers to the anecdote about childhood memory and seems therefore to be based on a misunderstanding of Stevenson’s intentions as shown in the quotation above.

One might add that Colvin’s essay is also not exactly the same as the one we will publish, as he ends the anecdote of how childhood memories clashed with impressions on a return visit with a note ‘[Added the next morning]—’ and then continues with the pensée about, not memory, but the imagination, as if it were part of the same text, which it clearly is not.

Is the proposed title a legitimate intervention, or should I add the other title after it: ‘Dunoon (A Retrospect)’?

2. Scotland and England

a.k.a. ‘Differences of Country’ (Swearingen), ‘Differences of Country. Beginning of an Essay’ (McKay), ‘”Differences of country…”‘ (Yale finding aid, i.e. identifying it as an incipit rather than a title)

This, an unpublished fragment of an essay, starts with a series of notes to guide composition, each one separated by a dot with a space on either side (a sort of linear bullet-list):

Differences of country . The Channel & Tra los Montes . North and south
La verte Écosse et la bonne Italie . Skelts Dramas . Trees . Scotch Scene
Scotch & English houses . The Hill farm . &c.

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 18.47.50

Unfortunately the MS ends in mid-sentence at the bottom of p. 3, so continued in a section now lost. What remains is a paragraph and a bit covering the first two points ‘Differences of country . The Channel & Tra los Montes’:

(Para 1) The individuality of a country that we remember depends on significant physical differences (for instance, ‘A country with a long bare seaboard must leave a very different impression from one into which the bright sea enters deeply, and the firths run far inland and lie about the roots of mountains for all the world like lakes, and the islands are so thickly scattered that they make the sea-run between them look shrunken and tortuous like a firth’) and differences of landscape created by different cultures and tastes , basically unchanged for centuries (and he cites a medieval French illumination with features of the countryside still typical today).
(Para 2) The Channel has done much to influence English thought; in Gautier’s Tra los montes we read of how a traveller going south sees a gradual change from France into Spain… (And here the MS ends.)

On 14 January 1875 RLS writes to Colvin:

I shall have another PRTFL [Portfolio] paper, so soon as I am done with this story [‘When the Devil was Well’] […] The Prtfl paper will be about Scotland and England.

‘When the Devil was Well’ seems to be written on the same paper as this fragment (I’ll be checking this in the Beinecke), which (another clue to dating) makes reference to the typical landscape of Romney Marsh—undoubtedly showing the influence of Basil Champneys’ A Quiet Corner of England, which he read in Oct-Nov 1874 (cf L2: 79), his review being published in The Academy of 5 Dec 1874. The ‘Prtfl paper about Scotland and England’ also fits in well with the summary notes at the top of p. 1 of our MS, which seem to sketch out an introduction about differences of landscape between different countries before moving on to specific landscape differences between Scotland and England (an interest already present in the obvious evocation of Scottish lochs and islands in Para 1). The reference to Skelt’s Dramas must be to the memory he includes in ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’:

England, the hedgerow elms, the thin brick houses, windmills, glimpses of the navigable Thames—England, when at last I came to visit it, was only Skelt made evident: to cross the border was, for the Scotsman, to come home to Skelt; there was the inn-sign and there the horse-trough, all foreshadowed in the faithful Skelt.

So we have ‘Differences of country’, first item in a series of notes for the essay that is most probably the one ‘about Scotland and England’ referred to in the letter. I’d like to call it ‘Scotland and England’ Or should it be ‘Scotland and England (Differences of Country)’, or ‘Differences of Country (Scotland and England)’? Or no change at all?

3. Lay Morals (Man and Money)

‘Lay Morals’, an essay-treatise divided into four chapters, is a different case:  as it is a well-know work, changing the title is not advisable. However, RLS never refers to it with this title, written in pencil by another hand at the top of the 1879 MS.

The first two chapters seem to have been given the title ‘What We Teach’ (which covers the content of these chapters quite well) in an outline sketch in a notebook, and RLS refers in a letter to the whole project as ‘Man and Money’ (L2, 308; late March 1879) (and we find the following titles in lists of planned essays in the 1870s: ‘Morality and Money’, ‘Money’, ‘On Money’ and ‘Money and Morals’). Even though this latter title seems to apply most to Chapter IV, it also embraces Chapter II, sections 9 and 10 (the long personal anecdote and about living on unearned income and the explanation of how ‘stealing’ covers certain kinds of common economic behaviour), as well as the criticism in Chapter III of the conventional doctrine of profit.

The traditional title, apparently supplied by Colvin, provides a general title for a text that is occupied with more than money (criticisms of conventional moral education and hypocrisy, the impossibility of governing conduct by precepts because of the continually changing nature of life, the guiding of conduct by an internal sense of right, the importance of accepting bodily desires, and how the privileged classes should make service correspond to income and not waste money on undesired luxuries). The ethics of money is certainly a major interest but its development in ch. IV seems to be unsuccessfully attached to ch. I and II on moral education and ch. III on how conduct is to be judged in the absence of a divine moral guide. This latter is certainly a constant theme of the essay (making ‘Lay Morals’ an appropriate title), even if never explicitly stated.

Given Stevenson’s one explicit reference, I would like to use the title ‘Lay Morals (Man and Money)’.

This would also have the advantage of distinguishing the work from the untitled 1883 fragment, which incorporates parts of ch. III and seems to have the same aim of bringing together Stevenson’s thoughts on morality in the form of a guide to the young (and specifically states this in an Introduction) but does not mention money, a dominant element in the earlier work. It might possibly be referred to as ‘Lay Morals (Youth and Morality)’ using for the second part a title in a list of planned essay titles in a notebook of early 1882—but I leave this to the editor of the later volume.

4. At Sea, A Night in the South of France, Time

a.k.a 1. ‘A Note at sea’, 2. ‘A night in France’ (Mckay, Yale finding aid, Swearingen), ‘Fragment of an Essay on Time’ (Osbourne auction catalogue, 1914), ‘On Time’ (Swearingen)

These are three fragments (the third untraced since publication in the 1923 Vailima Edition). For the first, ‘A Note’ seems more of a description of the type of document, left over from the title in the auction catalogue, when ‘At Sea’ would be more elegant. It seems close in style to the 1875 ‘Prose Poems’.

The second, previously believed to be part of the ‘Forest Notes’ drafts (it was written in the same notebook) was actually written in Mentone and records thoughts of hearing a piano playing Scottish airs (also mentioned in a letter of February 1874). Various more accurate titles could be imagined, but a minimum intervention would be to add ‘the South of’ to the title.

The third, though only 309 words, could possibly be finished, and it looks very similar in topic and style to the 1873–74 ‘Numbered Notes’: thoughts on various mainly philosophical topics. ‘On Time’ suggests a longer treatise, while ‘Time’ would be a sufficient title for this short piece (and in line with the titles of the ‘Numbered Notes’). Indeed ‘Time’ is the title used in the 1923 Vailima Edition and the Tusitala Edition that derives from it. As Swearingen indexes the item as ‘Time, On’ it will cause minimum confusion to adopt the shorter title, the one used in previous editions that included it.

However, in the first two cases, I can see I am forcing matters. ‘A Night in France’ is perhaps a good enough title. If I am honest, I can also see that I want to call the first ‘At Sea’ because I want to make it like the Prose Poems. So, in the end I am inclined resist title tweaking and to keep these two titles unchanged. (Or does anyone think ‘At Sea’ would be permissible?)


Using this free area of play has been very useful: as I wrote I started to get second thoughts, to see matters from another side, started to suspect my own motives. Any helpful contributions to the debate will be welcomed.

Colvin steps in with vim

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Sidney Colvin, as we know, acted as editor of Stevenson’s works while he was in the South Seas and then after his death. It is a curious human frailty to regard our own point-of-view as having a higher status than that of others, and Colvin was no less human in this respect than any of the rest of us. It is not often, however, that we have an example of his feeling of being right pursued to the extent illustrated below.

Talk and Talkers

In ‘Talk and Talkers’ (1882) Stevenson, in a kaleidoscopic sequence of similes, brilliantly characterizes (and imitates) the conversational style of his cousin Bob:

He doubles like the serpent, changes and flashes like the shaken kaleidoscope, transmigrates bodily into the views of others, and so, in the twinkling of an eye and with a heady rapture, turns questions inside out and flings them empty before you on the ground, like a triumphant conjuror. […] I can fancy nothing to compare with the vim of these impersonations

After the essay was reprinted in Memories and Portraits in 1887, Colvin wrote to Stevenson, taking him to task for his Latin:

in another essay you have ‘with or by his vim‘, where equally of course it ought if anything to be vi, not objective but ablative. But the rule is that when you borrow a Latin word in an English sentence that way, you don’t decline it at all, but treat it like an English word, content yourself with the nominative for all cases alike, […] vis. Please have […] vim altered on the plates [i.e. on the stereotyped plates produced to print the volume]

But RLS wasn’t going to have any of this and replied (L6, 86; 24 Dec 1887):

vim is a good Scottish at least – if not (as I am tempted to think) a good English word; never a thought of Latin was in my mind; I used a current and a very general and definite colloquialism. Thank you for your explanations.

Edinburgh Edition

Despite that dismissal (‘Thank you for your explanations…’), Colvin was clearly not happy about ‘vim’ and in preparing the essay for publication in the first volume of the Edinburgh Edition he felt this and a series of other things ought to be changed. He either sent proofs or a series of points to RLS , to which RLS replied in early November 1894, clearly irritated at the liberties Colvin was taking  (L8, 384). Interestingly, two passages of Stevenson’s comments about Colvin’s changes, amounting to over seventy words, have been actually cut out of the letter. (Who could have done this? One suspects of course that it was Colvin himself, erasing Stevenson’s objections from the record.) What remains includes the following:

always make a reference to me before correcting. I should say as to vim that it is a word always used in my family — and I suspect always used in Scotland — and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears. Whether or not I shall be pleased with the substitution of vigour I cannot tell, not having the context before me.

Unfortunately, volume I of the Edinburgh Edition was published later that same month, undoubtedly before this letter could reach Colvin, so we don’t know if he would have made any changes as a result. The word printed in the essay there is ‘vigour’. (However, in the 1924 Tusitala edition it is once more ‘vim’; perhaps Colvin had a part in restoring it.)


Incidentally, the OED (in a fascicule published in 1917) says the word is ‘originally US’ and takes the side of RLS as to its non-Latin origin: ‘Commonly regarded as from Latin vim, accusative singular of vis strength, energy; but the early adverbial use […] suggests a purely imitative or interjectional origin.’

Citations start from the Yale Literary Review 1850 (where it seems to be presented as a Latin word), then two citations from Odd Leaves from the Life of a Louisiana “Swamp Doctor” (1850), and N.Y Herald (1875).

Google Advanced Book Search, however, reveals a use in 1876 in The Life of a Scottish Probationer by James Brown, Minister of St. James’s church, Paisley (the fiddler ‘whacked off’ a series of Irish dance tunes ‘with inconceivable vim and vigour’), the first UK use found so far, which suggests that the word may have been adopted early in Scotland — or even that it had an unrecorded history in Scotland before being taken across the Atlantic. (It is not in the online SND, however.) Indeed RLS’s comment (‘vim […] is a word always used in my family […] and is in consequence familiar and dear to my ears’) strongly suggests that he heard it in Edinburgh in the 1850s and 60s.

The one-volume Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English (1912, reduced from the earlier 7-volume Slang and its Analogues) defines the word as ‘Spirit, activity, energy’: orig. Univ. slang [Latin]. (1869)’, which suggests that one of the two editors, John S. Farmer or W. E. Henley, or one of their contributors, had heard the word in this (and presumably British) context about that year.

Written by rdury

24/05/2013 at 4:34 pm