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

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New Edinburgh Essays I published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers ed. by Robert-Louis Abrahamson, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Published October 2018. £80 (and for around £77 from Amazon).

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Writing Explanatory Notes

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I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a new annotated edition I go straight to the explanatory notes—the salted peanuts of the volume as far as deliciousness and difficulty of stopping are concerned. Unlike salted peanuts, however, they are all different: more like a series of entries in that fascinating publication Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. It would seem that we are hard wired as a species to like random information—which might explain, to a puzzled observer like myself, the addictive nature of mobile phones.

When it comes to writing such notes, however, you are immediately aware of a series of problems, and it was to share ideas about this that Prof. Burkhard Niederhoff kindly invited fellow essay-editor Lesley Graham and myself to speak for a morning in June this year at the University of Bochum. This gave us an opportunity to think about our experience in writing notes; what follows are a few notes about what was said, followed by a summary of a recent article and information about a conference on this very subject.


General considerations (Lesley Graham)

1. What we annotate. 1. literary, biblical and historical allusions; 2. words that are not immediately understandable; 3. words in a foreign language; 4. proper names; 5. cross-references to themes covered by Stevenson elsewhere; 6. biographical details; 7. facts that can be checked.

2. The imagined reader. Someone a little like ourselves. Not a school child, but not a literary expert either. Not an expert in either essays, history, philosophy, the life of Stevenson or 19th Century philosophy, but someone with a curious mind. Not necessarily a Westerner, but someone with at least a basic knowledge of the Western literary canon. Not a fluent speaker of French or Italian or Scots, or German, nor a reader of Latin, but someone that knows what voilà and al fresco mean. And probably someone who will occasionally like to take some of these notes a little further.
[RD: 1. For the essays in particular, we imagine a range of readers: the notes here, apart from as a way of understanding the text, are going to be read for a wide range of documentary reasons, so, for example, it’s a good idea to provide relevant background biographical information.]

3. Wouldn’t digital annotation be better? Hyperlinks can be detrimental to a profound reading experience; the affect is engaged in different ways when we see an essay as a whole self-standing thing with its own current and internal logic rather than an organic, pulsing jump off point. Our job in the volume is to accompany the reader, without allowing him/her to go off on long detours, in a reflective reading experience, to facilitate the reading of the work, to accompany the reader’s understanding and appreciation of it but doing some of the hard work of establishing context, definition, and allusion but none (or very little) of the joyful, heuristic work.

4. Restraint. There are so many fascinating facts to be found and that may seem highly relevant but when you step back and look at the whole thing again, you realize you have to cull the extraneous material if you want to preserve the joy of discovering the essay for the reader.

5. Some problems found while annotating the essays.
1. Stevenson writes either two or three parish churches: should we supply information where the author is deliberately vague? (in this case, no).
2. Obscure terminology, e.g. travellers, and headers, and rubble, and polished ashlar: should we define terms that Stevenson did not expect his readers to know? (we decided, yes in this case).
3. Avoid self-indulgent additional information, e.g. Turnberry Point: should we mention the Trump golf-course there now? (no; restraint required). Dunfermline, in whose royal towers the king may be still observed (in the ballad) drinking the blood-red wine: in supplying the allusion to the ballad should we add historical information about royal connections of the town (we thought not).
4. And a lord he was (reading a Greek New Testament on the beach of Fair Isle): do we need to identify him? (yes;  Stevenson does so in his letter from Fair Isle).
[RD: Item (iv) is a case of Stevenson’s use of allusions that are known to only a small number of readers or often only by himself. The essay editors in their discussions have called these ‘bald allusions’ and Barry Menikoff, with reference to Kidnapped, has called the phenomenon ‘subtextual meaning’: ‘Stevenson actually defies rather than helps his real readers. He forces them to uncover the allusions for themselves, but nothing is lost if they do not. For the surface prose is sufficient unto itself; the literal meaning of the text can be followed with no difficulty whatever’ (Narrating Scotland, 60; see also 59-60, 91-2, 109). I think it’s clear that the reader of an annotated edition will want to have these allusions explained.]
5. My business lay in the two Anstruthers: do we provide date and Stevenson’s reason for being there? (yes: the essays will be used by those interested in Stevenson’s biography.)
6. Shell House: should we supply more information about this place? (yes: the essay will be used by those interested in local history, so we need to explain the ‘snatches of verse’ and to point out that its location as an ‘outpost’ to Anstruther Wester is the result of a confusion with another shell-decorated house).

6. Excluded from Explanatory Notes in the essays.
1. any analysis of the structure of the essay, of its internal logic.
2.the editor’s personal reading, irrelevant in a scholarly edition. This is at once frustrating (I would love to tell you about how I believe ‘An Education of an Engineer’ is really about the difficulty of communication and the risk of miscommunication, but also humbling and affords freedom for follow up studies and analyses.)

7. Lightness (RD). 1. put first the most important and the relevant things; 2. put things in chronological (and other ‘natural’) order; 3. don’t use complicated series of subordinate clauses etc.; 4. give the most probable explanation without too much hedging.


Writing definitions (Richard Dury)

1. Place the gloss or definition first.
Scots law the legal system of Scotland: under the 1707 Act etc. [more information]
A medlar the fewer on the three-legged medlar-tree! one rotten fruit the fewer on the gallows tree; medlar: etc. [glosses and commentary on ‘medlar’ and ‘three-legged’].

2. Make the gloss syntactically equivalent to the lemma. Examples: check-string cord etc (not ‘a cord’); doubled … with played by the same actor as. The definition should ideally be able to replace the lemma in the text.

3. Don’t copy-and-paste the OED definition. This is difficult in our edition anyway, where the note starts with a lower case letter if preceded by an elided ‘is’ or ‘means’ (e.g. ‘Scots law [is] the legal system of Scotland’) and OED definitions always start with a capital letter; difficult anyway because you will often be glossing a noun or verb not in the dictionary citation form, so the ‘lemma’ followed by the OED definition would not make a coherent sentence (see previous item). Other reasons for adapting the OED definition or writing your own definition are given in the following points. [LG It may be useful to compare the OED definition with other dictionary definitions]

4. Make OED definition clearer and more concise if necessary. OED definitions will cover many cases, for the Explanatory Notes only the relevant parts should be included. You may also be able to make the formulation less wordy than in the OED: e.g. : check-string a string by which the occupant of a carriage may signal to the driver to stop (OED) / cord inside a carriage, pulled to tell the driver to stop.

5. Look critically at OED definitions and the citations. The OED, like all sublunary things, is not perfect; you may need to write a definition not found there, e.g. the entry for hold the candle does not mention its use (from French) of ‘assist in a love affair’, though Stevenson uses the phrase alluding to this meaning on at least a couple of occasions. In other cases, reading the citations carefully will reveal a meaning not listed. [LG: When the citation is the very sentence you seek to elucidate, give yourself a clap on the back]

6. Look elsewhere for help in defining a word or phrase. 1. Look elsewhere in Stevenson’s works, e.g. a puzzling use of motive may be resolved by finding that he sometimes uses the word to mean ‘motif’ (for this you will need a corpus of Stevenson’s writings; I’ll try and provide this asap). 2. Look in related entries in the OED, e.g. a reference to Henry James and his humorists of ordinary life may be solved by looking at ‘humour’ meaning ‘a particular disposition, inclination, or liking’. 3. Search internet (including using Google Advanced Book Search) so that, instead of the general OED definition, sinnet, for example, can be defined with relevance to its use in the text: ‘braided, rather than twisted, cordage, (here) the typical flat, plaited coconut-fibre cords of the Pacific islands’. 4. Take into account what the reader needs to understand, phenomena possibly assumed as known by the OED, e.g. aspects and connotations of vanished Victorian domestic life such as pass-key and area. 5. Inspect the cognate word in French (see next point).

7. Be aware that Stevenson often invents new uses of words. The context is of more importance than the OED in determining Stevenson’s ‘nonce’ meanings, e.g. a generic in the following: ‘Boswell’s is, indeed, a very special case, and almost a generic’. After studying the whole context very carefully it seems clear that Stevenson is using ‘a generic’ to mean ‘a case apart, i.e. a genus on its own’, not found in the OED. Stevenson’s nonce-words or -uses are often calques from French: checking in the online Trésor de la lange française is a good strategy in doubtful cases. Check with Google Advanced Book Search to confirm a suspected original use by Stevenson.

8. The OED may only provide negative information (show what is not possible). For example blowing in the key cannot mean ‘thrusting in the key’ as there are no examples of ‘to blow’ as a verb derived from (the etymologically unrelated) noun ‘a blow’ (it means ‘blowing to remove any dust from the key before inserting it’).


3. An article on annotation

Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirke (2017), ‘Explanatory Annotation of Literary Texts and the Reader: Seven Types of Problems’, International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, 11.ii (2017): 212-232.

The second part of the article describes a model of layered annotations for digital editions, but the following notes are only on the first part, which examines seven ways that existing annotations  do not take into account readerly needs. The comments there are of interest to both print and digital annotation.

The authors propose not to attempt guidance by an imagined readership but to provide annotations that are of use to a variety of readers and do not think that interpretation should be discarded from annotations altogether. They then analyze a series of actual annotations by asking two questions: (A) What knowledge does the annotation presuppose? (B) What knowledge does it provide? Here are the seven types of annotation problems.

1. Stating the obvious: explaining something that any potential reader will know already or can gather from the text itself.

2. Inconsistent assumptions and unclear functions: where the explanation assumes lack of knowledge in an area but uses unexplained terms from the same area; or provides information which does not have a clear function in understanding the text.

3. Presupposing (expert) knowledge: the assumption of knowledge that is never made explicit, as for example in a quotation from the same author that supplies a wider context (an enriching rather than explanatory annotation), when this is not clearly related to the text being annotated (just introduced by something like ‘Compare’).

4. Sending the reader on the wrong track: for example, using a general definition from the OED that omits important contextual meaning in the text being annotated or meanings supplied by the author’s personal use elsewhere.

5. Delimiting interpretation: giving one definition/explanation where more than one is plausibly present.

6. Offering intuitions without evidence: giving personal reactions (in an essay-like fashion)—the text annotated ‘becomes an occasion to think about one’s experiences and feelings’

7. Missing annotations: a missing annotation tells us either that nothing is to be explained or that explanation is impossible—in the latter case the difficulty should be dealt with in a note anyway.

The second half of the article gives information about digital annotation using the ‘Tübingen Explanatory Annotation System’ (TEASys), using three levels of information and eight categories that classify the content. As NEd is not using digital annotation, this part is less directly relevant to us. But here are the eight categories of annotation content which could well be of interest:

A   linguistic (lexicon, syntax etc.)
B   formal (verse, narrative structure, iconicity etc.)
C   intratextual (motifs, recurring structures etc.)
D   intertextual (relations to other texts)
E   contextual (biography, history, philosophy, theology, etc.)
F   interpretative (synthesis of A–E)
G   textual (variants relevant to the understanding of the text)
H   questions (items that require annotation; comments on research already done relating to an item).


A conference on annotation

‘Understanding (through) Annotations’ (15th International Connotations Symposium): July 28 – August 1 2019, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen (Germany).

We invite papers that are concerned with annotations to specific literary texts written in English and address their functions. Papers may also reflect on the speakers’ own  annotation projects, analyse existing annotations, offer suggestions as to a more systematic approach to the practise of annotating texts, and/or discuss historical and theoretical dimensions involved, such as the relation of lemma and context, part and whole, the envisaged reader of annotations, etc.

Please send an abstract (300 words max.) to the editors of Connotations by October 15, 2018 at symposium2019@connotations.de








Written by rdury

27/09/2018 at 1:55 pm

Stevenson’s nonsense poem

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In a previous post I suggested that the nonsense poem ‘A Legend’ in the issue of London for 3 August 1878 was by Stevenson.

This is now confirmed by the last item on Andrew Lang’s ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ column in Longman’s Magazine, 7 (Apr 1886): 664-5:

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Lang gives the definition supplied by Stevenson ‘to tap hurriedly with crutches’ but the rest is his; and ‘or a stick, like the blind man, Pew, in “Treasure Island”‘ is his winking acknowledgement that he knows the identity of the author. This fits into the  custom of playful allusions to fellow writers by periodical writers at the time, perhaps especially by Andrew Lang. This is then followed by ‘This useful word, “unknown to Keats” etc.’—a mock-philological comment and quotation invented by Lang entering into the spirit of the game.

Written by rdury

16/07/2018 at 10:36 am

New Edinburgh Amateur Emigrant published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, The Amateur Emigrant ed. by Julia Reid, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

Published May 2018. £80 (and for around £65 from booksellers associated with Amazon).

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Written by rdury

17/06/2018 at 8:36 am

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley Quarrel

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‘A Christmas Sermon’ was one of those essays by Stevenson that were very popular and much quoted in the twenty-odd years after his death but since then have disappeared from view, rarely mentioned, not included in collections and anthologies.

The reason is obvious: it’s one of his ethical essays which appealed to early readers as a guide to how to live well but for some reason seemed less interesting to later readers—with the notable exception of Borges and C. S. Lewis, of course. Yet it is still an interesting essay: Stevenson always writes well and some of the essay’s brief ethical guidelines, simply and elegantly formulated, stimulate thought—in fact, I copied some of them into my commonplace book when I first read the essay:

To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation – above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.

And the kingdom of heaven is of the child-like, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure.

Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect

But the essay is also interesting biographically: it is inextricably intertwined with a traumatic event in Stevenson’s life, his quarrel with his former close friend and collaborator, W. E. Henley in the spring of 1888.

Composition and publication

It was written in the spring of 1888. On 21 May he wrote to his friend Charles Baxter: ‘I still have two articles [of the monthly Scribner’s Magazine series] which must be done in eight days [before leaving for San Francisco and his first Pacific cruise], a feat I know not how to accomplish’ (Letters 6: 192). Assuming he wrote the twelve Scribner’s essays in their published order, these ‘two articles’ were those for November and December: ‘The Education of an Engineer’ and ‘A Christmas Sermon’.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was published in Scribner’s Magazine in December 1888 and then collected in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays in 1892.

What it’s about

The essay, in four sections, basically debates how to live a good and moral life.

I. It starts by saying we can be satisfied at the end of life if we are undishonoured and  have ‘served’ (probably: endured and contributed to the well-being of others). People nowadays have unrealistic ideals and then impose them on others. Morality shouldn’t be centred on not committing sins. We should just try to be kind and honest—not an easy task and with failure inevitable.

II. We should be child-like, easy to please, gentle and cheerful and give pleasure to others. People condemn pleasures enjoyed by others, especially natural appetites (not wrong in themselves),  and overlook really evil things. We should make ourselves good and our neighbours happy.

III. But when should we correct our neighbour and resist evil? —When our neighbour injures another person. (Though patience and sympathy will solve many cases.)

IV. We have many rewards and pleasures in life but all things pass—a process of detachment from life. Our epitaph will be that we have tried a little and failed much. As a parting word, here is a fine poem [identified as by Henley in a footnote] about a peaceful evening and a wish to die in such peace.


In his Preface to Across the Plains, Colvin warned readers that the essays at the end of the volume (i.e. including ‘A Christmas Sermon’, the last in the volume) were ‘less inspiriting’ because ‘written under circumstances of especial gloom and sickness’.  Reviews of Across the Plains in 1892 either ignored the  essay or briefly agreed or disagreed with Colvin’s judgment.

Richard Le Gallienne in the Star (14 April 1892) admired its fine stoicism.  The Piccadilly Magazine (28 April) commented on its ‘out-of-door philosophy’, ‘instinctive morality’ and ‘kindly pessimism’. In contrast the critic of the Saturday Review (possibly Gosse; see Letters 7: 326n) calls it ‘the one mistake in this stimulating volume’ and found ‘highly distasteful’ its ‘chapel-round-the-corner Christianity’. The most negative comments came from the critic of the National Observer—but, as this was probably Henley, we will quote that below.

Stevenson’s ethics of kindness, gentleness and cheerfulness clearly appealed to those in the years after his death who saw him as a guide on how to live well. Unsurprisingly, it is much referred to by John Franklin Genung in Stevenson’s Attitude to Life (1901) and by John Kelman in The Faith of Robert Louis Stevenson (1903), both quoting mainly from sections I and II against negative morality and in favour of a simple positive morality.  George E. Brown, in A Book of R.L.S.: Works, Travels, Friends, and Commentators (1919), says that ‘No other paper perhaps so well represents Stevenson’s broad and positive conception of goodness’ (p. 58).

The important given to the essay is shown by the fact that, unusually, it was printed as a separate slim volume, in 1901 and 1906

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and again in a limited edition in the style of William Morris—with gilded title, rules and  initial capitals—by John Henry Nash in San Francisco in 1928;

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and then along with Prayers at Vailima in 1948:

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It was also included in collections of Stevenson’s essays by Francisco José Castellanos  (Robert Louis Stevenson, Ensayos, 1917), Hugh George Rawlinson (Selected Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1923) and Malcolm Elwin (The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1950).

But since 1950 it has not been included in any other essay anthology or collection of Stevenson’s essays.


One reason for the decline in interest in this essay is probably connected with a modern embarrassment about kindness: our ideal is for self-sufficiency and autonomy, forgetting our basic dependence on others, and our psychology has little place for compassion and altruism:

[W]e have come to suspect that the whole notion of kindness is a cover story—for ingeniously ruthless self-interest. […]  Religious people may still attach great significance to it, but among the secular-minded the case for kindness tends to be made only skeptically, with a knowing wink about the realities of human egoism. (p. 52)

And the apparent realism of all the self-interest stories—the accounts of human nature as essentially self-seeking and self-satisfying—have made the kindness stories sound soppy, or wishful, or simply the province of the religious. (p. 54)

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (2009).

Another reason might be that the essay as a whole does not share the serene wisdom of the sentences I copied into my commonplace book. Indeed, the essayist seems to be wrangling with a sense of personal failure:

we have been a long time dying, and what else?

dissatisfaction with our life’s endeavour springs in some degree from dulness

A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness

To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven and to what small purpose

In the third section in particular the writer seems in two minds about right conduct, and this is the section that seems to reflect most on his violent quarrel with his old friend Henley.

‘A Christmas Sermon’ and the Henley quarrel

‘A Christmas Sermon’ was written during the terrible epistolary quarrel with Henley, which had begun in the March and still continued to obsess Stevenson in May (Letters 6: 129, 190–1). Several years of resentment and frustration on both sides mixed with friction between old friend and new wife came to a head with Henley’s suggestion that Stevenson’s wife Fanny might be guilty of plagiarism; Stevenson violently defended his wife, yet was doubtless aware that his own over-reaction might owe something to his own frustration and annoyance with an overbearing friend.

Echoes of the quarrel are visible in the essay: the dissatisfaction with conduct over the past year in sections I and IV (‘how every day and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness’); the unhappiness felt because we ‘feel a sneer or an aspersion with unusual keenness’ in section III; and in the same section the justification for causing unhappiness when reacting to a wrong done to another (‘in the quarrel of our neighbour, let us be more bold […]: the defence of B is our only ground of action against A’). At the same time he realizes that ‘[i]ll-temper and envy and revenge’ can assume ‘pious disguises’ and that ‘the knot that we cut by some fine heady quarrel scene […] might yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy’, something he has been unable to do in the case of Henley. The praise and insertion of the complete poem by Henley at the conclusion of the essay can be seen as a private message of understanding.

The poem (as the footnote states) is from Henley’s A Book of Verses, which was published in May 1888, so Stevenson writing in that month must have had an advance copy. With the quarrel still at its height, it must have been poignant reading for Stevenson, as it contains Henley’s sketch of Stevenson in ‘Apparition’ and the Envoy to the ‘In Hospital’ sequence dedicated to Baxter and celebrating the friendship of ‘You, I, and LEWIS’ (dated March 1888).

Stevenson’s quoting of a whole poem from the volume was a private message of appreciation, of the poem if nothing else. It seems that in the late nineteenth century  it became a custom for writers to include playful allusions to fellow writers (often rivals) in their essays and magazine articles: Stevenson refers to ‘another novelist’ in the last paragraph of ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ and goes on to tease W. D. Howells: Lang and Howells duelled over the romance in contemporary literature in their monthly columns in Longman’s Magazine and Harper’s Magazine. Henley used his review of Across the Plains for no playful joust but to to reject Stevenson’s concluding olive branch.

Henley’s reaction

The most negative comments on the essay in the 1892 reviews of Across the Plains came from the critic of the National Observer (23 April), and this must surely be its editor W. E. Henley:

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Monterey, Stevenson House, Scrapbook III, p. 114

He judges the essay as the worst in the book and the confidence of its ethical pronouncements as ‘unseemly’ and questions their validity; says that ‘Mr. Stevenson makes some confusion between living by a hard law and imposing hard law upon others’; and ends by saying ‘We may not thrust a law upon our brother; but our own relation to our brother—shall not this be ordered by delicate negatives? Shall not Beatrice be mistress of her gravity? Beatrice refused her smile to Dante when he had been bowed to by a courtesan’.

Here he apparently says that we are free to behave how we think towards another. And then, is he really suggesting that he refuses to smile to Stevenson because of the latter’s sign of solidarity with an inferior woman? The opinion of other readers of this blog would be welcomed here: can he possibly be saying that he is like Beatrice offended by the courtesan’s attentions to Dante? Is it possible he is calling Fanny Stevenson a courtesan?

This was clearly some quarrel.


Written by rdury

11/06/2018 at 9:52 am

Posted in News

Prince Otto: ten sentences that give pleasure

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I thought I would gather here the ten postings on Facebook I made in 2014 on the publication of Prince Otto in the New Edinburgh Edition. (Next week I will post information about the latest publication: The Amateur Emigrant). Enjoy!

Sentence No. 1.

The hour, the season, and the scene, all were in delicate accordance. The air was full of birds of passage, steering westward and northward over Grunewald, an army of specks to the up-looking eye.

The accordance is ‘delicate’, like the words themselves that form structures and then pass—I think of the ephemerality of things. The next sentence, shows how a single sentence can take things apart and keep them together: I am aware of the global movement of birds passing over a map-like country, a mere human institution, and then from this perspective near that of the birds, we move to an individual standing on the ground, myself perhaps, looking up and seeing them as distant, fleeting. Such sentences seem so easy to write—they are syntactically simple—yet clearly the work of great ability and are, I say it again, a pleasure to read.

Sentence No. 2

Holding his feet, he stared out of a drowsy trance, wondering, admiring, musing, losing his way among uncertain thoughts.

Otto is sitting on a rock in the middle of a stream, that’s why he’s holding his feet—a nice reminder of the centrality of the body; and I recognise that state of losing my way among uncertain thoughts.

Sentence No. 3

At a quarter before six on the following morning Doctor Gotthold was already at his desk in the library; and with a small cup of black coffee at his elbow, and an eye occasionally wandering to the busts and the long array of many-coloured books, was quietly reviewing the labours of the day before.

— this is a brilliant presentation of a character without the need for the descriptive paragraph (Stevenson never uses this conventional device). We learn by indirect means that Gotthold is an diligent employee of the Palace, an early riser, an orderly person, someone who savours simple pleasures, is of a contemplative nature, and perhaps more.
— And what about that wonderful aside ‘and an eye occasionally wandering to the busts and the long array of multi-coloured books’, which concisely sketches in the Library (which I immediately imagine as a long room, a pleasant space, with a planned rather than an accumulated decor) and also gives us an idea of Gotthold’s contemplative nature, his present good humour, his habit of appreciating the world around him, and the relaxed rhythm of his careful work.
If only I could write like that! And if only my work experience could be like the one that Stevenson so brilliantly describes

Sentence No. 4

‘If you come to think of it,’ said Otto, ‘I am not a popular sovereign.’ And with a look he changed his statement to a question.

—Otto is talking to his cousin Gotthold in the Library. The second sentence is very simple, but how could you say it better? At the same time, it effortlessly tells you much about the intimate understanding between the two men.

Sentence No. 5

‘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.

—I chose ‘The Prince waited…’,  not because it is particularly well-formed, but because it is a good example of Otto’s amusingly camp behaviour.
This is a text full of references to the theatre and Otto is a master of style, with perfect manners, an artist with words (as the waspish first sentence shows) (the attention to style and form is a central part of camp humour) and also behaves in a stagey manner, putting on a humorously exaggerated performance. Drawing a handkerchief slowly (but I like ‘quietly’) through the fingers must have been a well-known piece of stage ‘business’. I could imagine the part being played by Rowan Atkinson or Donald Sinden.

Sentence No. 6

The council waved like a sea. There were various outcries.

For me this is from the most enjoyable chapter: Book 2, chapter 7 (is it part of the joke that the three ‘books’ are a mere 35, 90 and 35 pages?)—Otto’s confrontation with the Privy Council, summoned by Baron Gondremark (in alliance with the Princess) to declare war without telling Otto. These two short sentences come just before Otto’s entrance, after Gotthold has unexpectedly objected to the measure being passed unread and undiscussed: as a result, the council is set in commotion and ‘there were various outcries’. The contrast between the metaphor of the sea and the stark annotation of ‘various outcries’, between the regular rhythm of the first sentence and the awkward rhythm of the second, suggests the confusion, the discord created, and the disconnected nature of the cries.

On the stage this chapter would undoubtedly be the end of Act 1. And look how it ends: “And he bowed and left the apartment, followed by Greisengesang and the secretaries, just at the moment when the Princess’s ladies, summoned in all haste, entered by another door to help her forth.” A typical moment for “Curtain”. I think Stevenson is all the time encouraging us to see the story as a play.

Sentence No. 7

So without more delay, the Prince leading, the pair proceeded down through the echoing stairway of the tower, and out through the grating, into the ample air and sunshine of the morning, and among the terraces and flower-beds of the garden.

—OK, this is an easy construction that anyone can write: the sentence with expanding phrases that corresponds to an expansion of spirit or space. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 we have: ‘Haply I think on thee, and then my state, / Like to the lark at break of day arising / From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate’ where the enjambement and unexpected expansion of ‘at break of day arising–From sullen earth’ corresponds to an expansion of both space and spirit. The same here: (after the admirable concision of ‘the Prince leading’) we get the short phrases and transitional movement of ‘down through… out through’ (the grating is probably a small iron-bar gate), and then the paired ‘ample air and sunshine of the morning’ (in airy contrast—in meaning and in the assonance of ‘ample air’— with the material ‘stairway’ and ‘grating’) and then the unexpected addition of another pair of nouns: ‘the terraces and flower beds of the garden’.

I said anyone can write this: just string together ‘and… and… and… and’ and if you’re skillful you evoke your epiphany. Notice, however that Stevenson has a balanced pair of pairs, not a romantic or impressionistic potentially endless list, so we also have that feel of orderly, controlled eighteenth-century prose as well (only too appropriate for the orderly formal gardens that we can imagine). Just sit back and relax: Stevenson knows how to drive.

Sentence No. 8

A shaving of new moon had lately arisen; but it was still too small and too low down in heaven to contend with the immense host of lesser luminaries; and the rough face of the earth was drenched with starlight. Down one of the alleys, which widened as it receded, he could see a part of the lamplit terrace where a sentry silently paced, and beyond that a corner of the town with interlacing street-lights.

— Otto is waiting for the Countess von Rosen in the palace gardens. Saying two stressed syllables together requires more than usual muscular effort and so slows you down, that’s why I think ‘i-MMENSE HOST’ sounds so appropriate (slow, effortful enunciation is mapped onto a meaning of large size and difficulty of ‘comprehension’); then we get contrasting quick unstressed syllables of ‘LESS-er LUM-i-nar-ies’.

The ‘rough’ earth has all its irregularities brought out by the light and shade, and is ‘drenched in starlight’—full of darkness and small, faint patches of light: so that the trees and bushes are like the sky above.

And then we have the brilliant ‘tracking shot’ with that fascinating alley ‘which widened as it receded’ (an effect that language can make us imagine, but would be difficult to make clear on the screen), a section of terrace (one imagines: between the silhouette of two groups of trees) and the sentry’s movement on a path at 90° to our axis of vision, and beyond that the glimpse of the interlacing street-lights of the town beyond, which remind us, in their distance and and small size, once again of the stars.

Sentence 9

The day drew its first long breath, steady and chill; and for leagues around the woods sighed and shivered.

—this from the flight of the Princess in the woods in Book III chapter 1 which has sometimes been printed by itself as a virtuoso piee of writing, so any number of sentences cold have been chosen. The first half of the sentence presents a universe both personified and also independent of human concerns in the ‘steady and chill’ dawn wind.

The second half is a typical added-on final comment after ‘and’, with a turn towards things more concrete or visible, which we find in Sir Thomas Browne but also in Montaigne. The sound of the wind in the trees (this is the more concrete or immediate sensation here) is suggested by the alliterative ‘sighed and shivered’ (which of course also brings us back to the idea of an animate universe—of Serafina’s feeling that she is surrounded by living things.)

Sentence 10

‘Rightly looked upon,’ mused Gotthold, ‘it is ourselves that we cannot forgive, when we refuse forgiveness to our friend. Some strand of our own misdoing is involved in every quarrel.’

One of the genres that Prince Otto plays with is the eighteenth-century philosophical novel with its structure of chance meetings and conversations with a variety of people (and is reminiscent of S’s own short stories with debates –‘Markheim’, ‘Villon’ and ‘The Sire de Malétroit’s Door’). Perhaps the most illuminating of the resultant ideas is this surprising psychological insight from Gotthold in conversation with Otto in the coach taking them to their Felsenburg prison.

But for playfulness, the last two pages of ‘Bibliographical Postscript’ can’t be beaten: the following years of Otto and Serafina are summed up in precise bibliographical references, actual publishers and booksellers, quotations from books by and about them—all amusingly and skillfully convincing until the very last sentence, which reveals the artifice by references to ‘Buttonhole’, ‘Lord Protocol’ and ‘Admiral Yardarm’.

Written by rdury

20/05/2018 at 10:55 am

Posted in News

New Edinburgh Weir of Hermiston published

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Robert Louis Stevenson, Weir of Hermiston, ed. by Gillian Hughes, The New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson  (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Published 5 June 2017. £80 (and for around £62 from booksellers associated with Amazon)


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See also Gill Hughes’s thoughts on working from Stevenson’s manuscripts in the preparation of this volume: Following the author’s hand

Written by rdury

05/01/2018 at 3:40 pm