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A Gossip on Prince Otto

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In 2008, Robert-Louis Abrahamson, Richard Dury and others agreed to read through Prince Otto and share our thoughts about it on the online discussion group ReadingRLS (topics 282, 293, 294, 296, 314).    What follows are a few strands of that conversation, a conversation with no pretence to academic rigour, copied out and re-arranged.


book_likeRLA: The distanced tone and reference to Florizel of Bohemia make us think we’re back with the New Arabian Nights. The Shakespearean references to Perdita and the Bohemian seacoast suggest a world of parody and playfulness.

The playfulness continues when we’re told the precise year doesn’t matter and is “left to the conjecture of the reader”. This feels like it’s going to be a comic tale, a game of some sort, where, in fact, we’re encouraged to take part in the creation.

YOU shall seek in vain upon the map of Europe for the bygone state of Grünewald. […] On the south it marched with the comparatively powerful kingdom of Seaboard Bohemia, celebrated for its flowers and mountain bears, […]; and the last Prince of Grünewald, whose history I purpose to relate, drew his descent through Perdita, the only daughter of King Florizel the First of Bohemia. […]

The precise year of grace in which this tale begins shall be left to the conjecture of the reader.

Then at the beginning of Book II ch. 11, we get the precise time reference, but only after a playful ‘feint’:

AT a sufficiently late hour, or to be more exact, at three in the afternoon

Toy Theatre

Screenshot 2014-05-28 21.16.56RD: The story opens with two minor characters fililng us in about the situation: naturally we think of the stage convention. Their dialogue is of the type found in a play-script, requiring us to fill in the details; part of the first dialogue could be re-written as follows with stage-directions:

There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. What’s that? No, nothing—no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. That for your Otto!’

This could be rewritten as

First Huntsman: There goes the government over the borders on a grey mare. [Sudden noise] What’s that? No, nothing – no, I tell you, on my word, I set more store by a good gelding or an English dog. [snaps his fingers] That for your Otto!’

The reader is clearly being asked to recognise these conventional bits of stage ‘business’; the reading experience here depends if you want to enter the game or not. I’m reminded of Roxy Music’s LP Avalon with a cover of an Arthurian knight seen from behind and a misty lake: there’s no sign that this is ironic—you are supposed to think ‘This can’t possibly be serious. Or is it?’ and enjoy the artful way you are left in doubt.

The stage-play effect continues with the farcical dramatic irony of Otto in disguise in conversation with the people in the farmhouse about Prince Otto – for example, the following would be a splendid opportunity for a good actor to ‘milk the pause’ before ‘Indeed?’:

‘Not what you might call disliked,’ replied the old gentleman, ‘but despised, sir.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Prince, somewhat faintly.

RLA: Of course, Prince Otto started out as a play [as Bob irvine’s Introduction reminds us (added comment)]. In Book II, the chapter titles (‘Act the First’ etc.) explicitly take us into the theatre. And then there are continual allusions to theatre, acting etc.: ‘with a man like me to impersonate’ — ‘come buskined forth’ — ‘puppet’ — ‘Hoyden playing Cleopatra’ — ‘this gentleman, it seems, would have preferred me playing like an actor’ — ‘a scene of Marriage à la Mode’ etc. etc.

RD: Much of the exaggerated staginess reminds us of grand opera [and Bob Irvine’s Introduction to the New Edinburgh Edition comments on several direct influences from operas (added comment)], and the story in a way becomes an opera at one point, when (Book III, ch. 3) the Countess von Rosen sings the Handel aria ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ outside Otto’s door in the Felsenberg. (This reminded me of Becky Sharp singing ‘Remember me’ in Andrew Davies’s BBC adaptation of Vanity Fair from 1988.)

Elsewhere we are reminded of the conventions of (campy) melodramatic acting:

‘It is very strange, Herr Cancellarius, that you should so persistently avoid my questions,” said the Prince. “You tempt me to suppose a purpose in your dulness. I have asked you whether all was quiet; do me the pleasure to reply.’ […]
The Prince waited, drawing his handkerchief quietly through his fingers.’

Drawing a handkerchief slowly (but I like ‘quietly’) through the fingers must have been a well-known piece of stage ‘business’.

‘Philosophical novel’

rasselasRD: Apart from being reminiscent of a play, the work also has the structure of chance meetings and conversations with a variety of people of the 18th-century philosophical novel (and is reminiscent of S’s own short stories with debates –‘Markheim’ and ‘Villon’).

RLA: One of the central moral issues concerns the possibility of forgiving. Otto says of Seraphina ‘I can, of course, [forgive her], and do; but in what sense?’  And Colonel Gordon replies ‘I will talk of not forgiving others, sir, when I have made out to forgive myself, and not before; and the date is like to be a long one”—in other words, the question of ‘not forgiving’ is not even to be put.

Gordon then links this to wider considerations to Otto and Gotthold:

And as for this matter of forgiveness, it comes, sir, of loose views and (what is if anything more dangerous) a regular life. A sound creed and a bad morality, that’s the root of wisdom. You two gentlemen are too good to be forgiving.

It is not by morally judging ourselves that we achieve greatness.

RD: Gordon also associates ‘this matter of forgiveness’ with ‘a regular life’ (=ruled by conventions?) and (we infer) a so-called ‘good’ morality (=conduct governed by fixed rules).

RLA: The meaninglessness of ‘forgiveness’ is also touched on  in ‘Truth of Intercourse’: ‘so far as I have gone in life I have never yet been able to discover what forgiveness means’.

RD: Other ‘philosophical’ discussions in the text centre on Otto’s ‘manly’ or ‘gentlemanly’ behaviour: his honesty, understanding of others, awareness of his own faults, sense of justice, lack of assertiveness.

Bibliographical postscript

RLA: At the end, just as he did in the New Arabian Nights, Stevenson undermines his whole narrative, this time during a summary of the later life of Otto and Seraphina based on close citation of printed sources.

RD: The Postscript starts with lots of real and probable names , then in the last few lines we get ‘Buttonhole’, ‘Lord Protocol’ and ‘Admiral Yardarm’ – S doesn’t pretend any more and says ‘it’s all a fiction’. I don’t know about anyone else, but I found that reading the first part I am lulled into the literary joke and enjoying the clever imitation documentary evidence – so when these last absurd names are produced, one feels the author is showing that he can still surprise us and that he’s in control.

RLA: This reminds me of formulaic ways of ending fairy tales in some cultures, where the storyteller adds a long jesting closing formula to bring us back to normality. Even the fairy-tale ‘Pretty Woman’ film ends with the crazy guy on the Hollywood sidewalk saying ‘This is Hollywood – the land of dreams’. A final twist – the last trick of the storyteller.


Written by rdury

29/05/2014 at 11:07 am

New Edinburgh Prince Otto published

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Screenshot 2014-05-23 17.22.10.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Prince Otto, ed. by Robert P. Irvine, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

Published 28 April 2014. £70 (and for around £50 from booksellers associated with Amazon)


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Written by rdury

23/05/2014 at 6:20 pm

Prince Otto: Bob Irvine asks about Otto’s unusual appearance

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I am currently writing the notes for our edition of Stevenson’s 1885 novel Prince Otto. This work turns up all kinds of surprises. When Sir John Crabtree, an English traveller, is detained in Otto’s palace, he is accommodated in ‘the Gamiani apartment’. Gamiani; ou, deux nuits d’excès is a famous French erotic novel published anonymously in 1833, often attributed to Alfred de Musset! A little in-joke for Stevenson’s louche gentleman Imagefriends, perhaps. A note can simply cite this text and leave the reader to make of the connection what they will.

More difficult to annotate are those passages which evoke a discourse or way of thinking specific to the period, without (it seems) alluding to a specific text or texts. The case of Sir John again provides us with an example. The scathing description of Otto’s court which he has prepared for publication describes the prince as follows:

He is not ill-looking; he has hair of a ruddy gold, which naturally curls, and his eyes are dark, a combination which I always regard as a mark of some congenital deficiency, physical or moral …

And although his opinion of Otto improves after the prince challenges him to a duel in defence of the princess’s honour:

‘…I still mistrust your constitution; the short nose, and hair and eyes of several complexions; no, they are diagnostic; and I must end, I see, as I began.’

Several nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences provide the concepts that the learned Sir John is using to interpret Otto’s features here. ‘Physiognomy’ had been instituted on a formal basis in the eighteenth century by Johann Kaspar Lavater in his Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–8), which encouraged the idea that moral traits and habits of mind could be read off the facial features of an individual, and this idea remained in circulation. That what strikes Sir John is the incongruity of Otto’s red-blonde hair and dark eyes suggest that he is thinking in the specific terms of a later development, mid-nineteenth-century racial theory. This interpreted such features, not in the first instance in terms of moral traits in the present generation, but as an inheritance from distant forebears. The important texts here are French: Prosper Lucas’s Traité philosophique et physiologique de l’hérédité naturelle (1847) and Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité de races humaines (1853–5). This racial theory provided the framework within which anthropologists collected data under the rubric of ‘anthropometrics’. So, the ‘Final Report of the Anthropometric Committee’ to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1883 was able to observe that the combination of dark eyes and light hair was especially common in the south-west of England, because in this region ‘the light and dark races meet and overlap each other’. Such ‘hybridity’ of races was picked out for examination in works such as Paul Broca’s Recherches sur l’hybridité animale en général et sur l’hybridité humaine en particulier (1760).

But Sir John does not only identify an incongruity between his hair- and eye-colour: he reads this as ‘a mark of some congenital deficiency’. That suggests a third conceptual context for Sir John’s comments. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species of 1859 had described a natural order in which races of organism were changing all the time; the possibility was therefore raised that, while human beings had evolved into a higher form from their primate ancestors, they could also, over time, degenerate back into a lower form. Even before Darwin published, B.A. Morel had brought out Traité de dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine (1857). So the phrase ‘congenital deficiency’ might have evoked, for the readers of Prince Otto in 1885, this concern with the decline of the species as a whole.

What I have been unable to find is any particular text which links the ‘racial’ mixing suggested by Otto’s mis-matched hair and eyes with ‘congenital deficiency, physical or moral’. Theories of hybridity seem predominantly interested in the fertility or infertility of racial ‘mongrels’ and the degree to which they are capable of stabilising into new ‘races’, rather than with their moral or physical strength more generally. Theories of degeneration, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly concerned with the lower social classes, with criminals and slum-dwellers, and not with decadent royalty like Otto (the idea of the ‘higher degenerate’ such as the decadent artist seems to be very much a product of the 1890s). If any readers of this posting can point me towards sources that anticipate Sir John’s connection between hybridity and degeneration, I would be very interested to hear from them.

There is another context for Sir John’s comments that may be worth mentioning in conclImageusion. In his moral decay and loss of power to his prime minister, Gondremark, Otto perhaps resembles, speculates Sir John, ‘the last Merovingians’. The later kings of this Frankish dynasty are remembered as powerless figureheads, their empire ruled by their hereditary chief stewards. The last Merovingian king, Childeric III, was deposed by his steward; his red hair, till then uncut as a symbol of his royalty in the fashion of his clan, shorn to symbolise his loss of power. Here is that event as imagined in a nineteenth-century painting by Évariste-Vital Lumais. A rather more humane exile awaits Otto: but in Childeric’s face, apart from the misery of dispossession, are we also being shown ‘marks of congenital deficiency’ that made it inevitable? A parallel, perhaps, for Sir John’s diagnosis of disaster in the physiognomy of Stevenson’s prince.

Written by pennyfielding

21/05/2012 at 6:23 pm

News from the volume editors: Prince Otto

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by Robert Irvine

Editing a Stevenson novel can involve some very small matters as well as some big questions. Robert Irvine describes how one of the smallest points of all—the hyphen—raises questions about historical usage.

First choices
I have been working recently to establish a ‘copy text’ of Stevenson’s 1885 novel Prince Otto. A ‘copy text’ is a particular instance of a text which is taken as a base-line by the editor, against which variations in other versions of the text can be listed, and variations from which in the final published version must be justified. We have chosen the first book edition to perform this function for the New Edinburgh Edition. So my first task as editor is to ensure that the electronic copy text on my screen conforms in all aspects to the text published by Chatto and Windus in 1885. In principle, no editorial decisions are to be made at this stage: where there are mistakes, even an obvious printing error like the omission of a quotation mark, those remain in the copy text, to be corrected when the text is edited and the correction noted.

That pesky hyphen
No editorial decisions to be made in principle at this stage: but one set of editorial decisions is, in fact, unavoidable. In transcribing prose, we pay no attention to line-endings in the text from which we are transcribing, line-endings in prose being dictated by space available on the page, and nothing more. To preserve the line-endings in the transcription of a prose text irrespective of the size of your new page would be to turn it from prose into verse. But to make the most efficient use of the length of line available to him the type-setter of the printed text will sometimes split words at the end of a line with a hyphen. Usually the transcriber of the copy text can ignore these hyphens and restore the complete word. The problem comes when the word that has been split across two lines might have been hyphenated to start with. Deciding whether or not to preserve the hyphen in the copy text in such cases is no longer a case of simply preserving what is on the page in front of you, but requires reference to other sources of information: requires, that is, an editorial decision. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by pennyfielding

13/07/2011 at 9:32 pm

Prince Otto contracted

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Robert Irvine’s edition of Prince Otto has been approved by the Press Committee of Edinburgh University Press.  It will be among the first volumes to be published in EdRLS, and is the first scholarly edition of this important and neglected novel.

Written by pennyfielding

03/10/2010 at 4:23 pm