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

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Following the author’s hand

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A post contributed by Gill Hughes
editor of Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston in the New Edinburgh Edition

Screenshot 2017-08-09 10.42.58

A series of speculations

It is in working on a manuscript that an editor comes closest to the author, and in the case of Weir of Hermiston the manuscript record is unusually rich and full, comprising a wealth of draft material in Stevenson’s own hand as well as a final (though not finished) manuscript dictated by him to his step-daughter and amanuensis, Belle Strong. Following the author’s progress exerts an irresistible charm.

Stevenson himself, that great collaborator, plainly understood the attractions of watching the writer at work, for he invites the reader close to the narrator in the final text of Weir of Hermiston. The narrator’s account of the unpopularity of Frank Innes at Hermiston, for example, proceeds as a series of speculations, a gradual approach to the most plausible explanation.

Firstly the narrator posits that Frank’s technique of depreciation by means of a confidential conspiracy fails because of the admiration felt by the estate folk for both Lord Hermiston and Archie himself. Subsequently he reconsiders, deciding that in Frank’s condescension as displayed to Dand Elliott, ‘we have here perhaps a truer explanation of Frank’s failures’.

The reader is invited to participate in the narrator’s working out of the situation, the gradual evolution of an accurate apprehension.

A succession of drafts.

This process forms a curious parallel to the way in which Stevenson’s draft manuscript revisions operate. A situation envisaged by the author is reiterated and reassessed in a succession of drafts until he is satisfied with his representation and only then does he move forward again in his story. None of the draft material for Weir moves very much past the point at where the final manuscript breaks off, but there are multiple surviving attempts at earlier key passages—at least five, for instance, for the start of the first chapter where Stevenson was getting his narrative underway, and several for subsequent key points in the narrative that required peculiar care.

Chief among these are the interval between the execution of Duncan Jopp and Lord Hermiston’s confrontation of his rebellious son, and the forming of a bond between Archie and the younger Kirstie after their initial sighting of one another in Hermiston kirk. Stevenson’s revisions show how very far he is himself from the leisurely speculations of his narrator. He moves always from the explicit to the implicit, cutting out details that would make any writer of realist fiction proud. His draft description of Archie’s motherless childhood in the house in George Square, for instance, sticks in the memory:

That was a severe and silent house; the tall clocks ticked and struck there, the bell rang for meals; and beyond these periodic sounds, and the clamour of an occasional deep drinking dinner, it was a house in which a pin might be heard dropping from one room to another. […] When my lord was at home, the servants trembled and hasted on noiseless feet, the child kept himself trembling company in the tall rooms, and had but one concern—to avoid his father’s notice. (Morgan MA 1419, f. 17)

The child’s isolation in the tall rooms of a house could not be more vividly portrayed and yet Stevenson ultimately judged it inessential to the novel.

An editor’s experience

In editing Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston one is brought close to a narrator who can seem prolix and provisional, an amiable and indulgent fellow-traveller through the story, but standing close beside him is a most painstaking and most uncomfortably ruthless artist. ‘That’s wonderful!’ I wanted to say to Stevenson of this passage in his draft material and of that. ‘Couldn’t you have left that bit in?’ But he pared back his own imaginative fecundity with an unsparing hand, and here and there in the editorial material I’ve tried to indicate where he has done it.