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

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RLS in the Spectator

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The following post is contributed by Lesley Graham, editor of Uncollected Essays 2

Spectator archive

The full Spectator archive has just become available online. http://archive.spectator.co.uk/. I did a quick search for “Robert Louis Stevenson” and came up a number of interesting items, including  the following.

22 December 1894, p. 875

On Monday, a Reuter’s telegram from Auckland announced the death of Mr Robert Louis Stevenson

[…] We have dealt elsewhere with Mr. Stevenson’s contribution to literature, and will only say here that, in spite of the extraordinary charm and vividness of his romances, and of his power of humour, his work as an essayist far more nearly approaches the ideal standard than his achievement in the field of fiction. […]


22 December 1894, pp. 881-82


[clearly written before the announcement of Stevenson’s death]

WHAT is it that makes Mr. Stevenson’s literary work never wholly satisfying ? What is the something in which his books fail to content, even when they most excite, the emotions ? His romances are full of charm and of fascination. Nothing could be more vivid or more taking. The art is perfect, and dullness is banished from his page. And yet as one reads there grows the sense of some latent imperfection, some intangible fault of commission or omission which perplexes and astonishes. What can it be? Whence comes this sense that in the last resort we are cheated of the full glory of letters? [First paragraph of a longer article]


20 MAY 1911, p. 761


STEVENSON coined the word ” opinionettes’ when he was twenty-one, and applied it to the obstinate little conclusions which the Edinburgh University students brought with them to college. [We quote the word from a small volume lately brought out by Messrs. Chatto and Winans (Lay Morals [and other papers], by R. L. Stevenson, 6s.) which with other matter reprints some of his earliest essays.) [First paragraph of a longer article, discussing the 1871 Edinburgh University Magazine essays and ‘Lay Morals’]


9 August 1934, p. 202

Gramophone Notes

SCHUMANN’S music, like the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson, suffers today from that kind of neglect which does not often permit us to make any effort to study it, even though, when by some chance we do, we seldom fail to find enjoyment in it. Stevenson’s neglect (except in schools, where the little innocents, unaffected by literary fashion, are still offered up to his cult) is probably the more general, because there is no literary substitute for a new set of gramophone records to provide the necessary incentive. So Stevenson remains unread, while a new recording of the Third Symphony —an excellent one, by Piero Coppola and L’Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire (H.M.V. DB 4926-8, 18s.)—makes us turn our attention once more to Schumann….


26 January 1974, Page 5


Sir: Inevitable misprints apart, exactitude is almost everything. Mr Benny Green in his review on January 5 of Professor Daiches’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His World, refers to Stevenson’s use of the word ‘horologist’ in Markheim, where what Stevenson said was — “and now, and by his act, that piece of life had been arrested, as the horologist, with interjected finger, arrests the beating of the clock.”

This sentence, I suggest, is an instance of a skill which — whatever differing views there may be about its worth — Stevenson developed to a high degree and over a wide range. I can only call it an onomatopoeia not of sound alone, but of sight, action and process as well.

The quoted sentence, especially in its context, suggests the regular rhythm of a pendulum and escapement brought abruptly to a stop. (Was ‘horologist’ quite so antique a word in even Crane’s time?) “. . in my precipitous city” (dedication to Hermiston) and “wilderness of tumbled boulders” (Fontainebleau) picture in sharp or rounded vowels the scenes which they describe. The “brutal instant of extinction” (Hermiston) tells the jerking fall of a hanged man. “The sea bombards their founded towers” marks out the surges which still, as then, wash against the Bill Rock and Skerryvole. “The rain erases and the rust consumes” the inscriptions and fittings of a family tomb.

One cannot deny that there is much in the criticism of Stevenson’s use of antique words, but it is not the whole  story.

W. H. McCulloch

2 Trinity Grove, Edinburgh

Written by rdury

11/06/2013 at 4:54 pm

Essays Top Ten

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A bit of trivia.
As part of the essays edition we have logged the essays in all the anthologies with an essay by RLS that we could find (66 so far), so that we can get an idea of what were the popular or typical essays in various periods. Here are some results:

Ten most anthologized RLS essays to 1949

1. Aes Triplex
2. An Apology for Idlers
3. Truth of Intercourse
4. Books Which Have Influenced Me
5. On Falling in Love
6. Pulvis et Umbra
7. Walking Tours
8. Virginibus Puerisque [I]
9. The Morality of the Profession of Letters
10. Child’s Play

Seven of the top ten from one collection: Virginibus Puerisque!

Ten most anthologized RLS essays from 1950

1. A Gossip on Romance (^)
2. An Apology for Idlers (=)
3. Books Which Have Influenced Me (^)
4. A Note on Realism (new entry)
5. The Lantern-Bearers (new entry)
6. A Humble Remonstrance (new entry)
7. The Morality of the Profession of Letters (^)
8. A Chapter on Dreams (new entry)
9. On Style in Literature: Its Technical Elements (new entry)
10. A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured (new entry)

‘Idlers’ the only VP title still in the top ten; new entries mainly about literature and the imagination.

Written by rdury

28/09/2012 at 5:14 pm

Colvin and the Edinburgh Edition

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In the Beinecke Library (GEN MSS 664 box 51, B 7273) there is an interesting undated document signed by ‘H.D. Nash’ headed ‘Stevenson’s Fables’ with a blue-pencil note at the top ‘Opinion I’ initialled CN (though the second letter is smudged and it might not be ‘N’).

Nash had been shown the Fables and asked if they should be published. His first reaction, he says, would be to publish,

were it not for the information given me as to the severely (though no doubt properly) critical spirit in which the selection of his works for republication in a permanent form is being made.

He then goes on to appraise some of the fables (referring to them by Roman numeral) and ends

On the whole, though it might be too much to say these fables would “detract from his reputation”, I should be disposed myself to exclude it from a collection which is to contain only Stevenson’s best work.

The Fables were first published in 1896 in an edition with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and they were included in vol 22 of the Edinburgh Edition published in 1897.

What is interesting about the letter are the comments about the intended ‘severely critical spirit’ of the selection of only Stevenson’s best work. It does seem at first sight to be correspondence concerning the Edinburgh Edition.

Does anyone know anything about H.D. Nash?

Written by rdury

31/08/2012 at 3:07 pm

Bottle Imp – Stevenson number

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The Bottle Imp, the well-designed “Scottish Studies ezine” published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, is planning a Stevenson number for November 2012.

Provisional contents:

Scott Hames: views of Stevenson’s style, past and present

Julia Reid: “borders” in the essays

Barry Menikoff: on the South Sea tales

Penny Fielding: the new EUP Edition

Alisdair Braidwood: later writers influenced by Stevenson

David Wingrove: on “Olalla”

Richard Dury: shifting viewpoint in the essays

Written by rdury

19/05/2012 at 5:44 am

Talks by the EdRLS Essay Editors

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The Literary 1880s: James, Stevenson and the Literary Essay

As part of the Literary 1880s workshops, the editors of the new EdRLS edition of Stevenson’s essays were invited to present aspects of their work on 23rd March 2012, in the Conference Room of David Hume Tower, in the University of Edinburgh.


James and Beerbohm

First, we heard from two people on other 1880s essay topics. Workshop-organizer Andy Taylor explored the changing position of Henry James in his 1883 essay on Trollope. This enters the 1880s area of debate over Realism, French Naturalism, and the art of fiction to which RLS made important contributions in essays such as “A Note on Realism” and “A Humble Remonstrance”, but the focus here was on James’s shifting attitude to Trollope and his position in the cultural rivalries of Britian and the USA.

Then Sara Lodge talked on Max Beerbohm and “camp aesthetics”, in which she made many points of interest to our exploration of Stevenson’s essays, starting with her thoughts about the essay as a literary genre, identifying it as a performative form associated with the creation of a persona, and so related to the dramatic monologue.

This she saw as developing from the 1820s onwards, citing Lamb and Hazlitt — though my view of Stevenson’s essays is that he revives this tradition after it had disappeared under the oratorical and earnest emphatic style of the mid-Victorian monthly magazines. So in what way was the obvious “performance” of the high-Victorian sages different from that of Lamb, Hazlitt and Stevenson? Perhaps readers of this blog would like to comment.

The essay, Sara continued, is also like a confession — and here she referred to Adam Phillips, who the essay editors had seen speaking on this very subject (the affinities of the essay with the psychoanalytic narrative) at the Literary Essay conference at Queen Mary in London a few months before.

In any case, the essayist keeps a distance between the apparent and the real object of the writing, and this can be seen as either deliberate and artful, or unintended. The same can be said of performing in general: we are always performing, but we don’t realize it most of the time. One form of very self-aware performance, is “camp” behaviour.

(Sara sees the origin of “camp” in a distancing from aestheticism and as being created by Wilde. I feel that, although “camp” as “homosexual codes of signifying behaviour” is very probably modelled on Wilde, it has, however, a wider and non-homosexual meaning, deriving, as Susan Sontag suggests, from “the eighteeth-century pleasure of over-refinement”. Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights can be seen as a camp text, and was written in the 1870s before Wilde appeared on the London scene, and the reported behaviour and the discourse of RLS, Bob and Simpson also have, to me, clear campish aspects.)

Sara then illustrated self-mocking camp “failed seriousness”, the celebration of the absurdity of things, in the early essays of Beerbohm, such as “1880” and “An Infamous Brigade”.


The Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert-Louis Abrahamson opened the session on Stevenson’s essays with an overview of Stevenson’s career as an essayist. He made the point that the 1879-80 journey to California was not an immediate turning point. His essay-writing career falls into two main periods 1874-82 (with one essay in 1873) and 1883-88 (with one final essay in 1894).

His first essays were aesthetic, to fit their destination, the fine-art magazine Portfolio; and a focus on the visual arts also marked his group of essays for Henley’s Magazine of Art in the early 80s. Sidney Colvin steered him away from heavy subjects (the essays on Knox and Savonarola he had planned), seeing him as an irreverent ally in the Darwinian cultural wars. He also introduced him to Leslie Stephen’s Cornhill Magazine, which became his “home” for twenty essays  in the first part of his career, including most of those collected in Virgninibus Puerisque in 1881 and in Familiar Studies in 1882.

The magazine associated with later part of his career was the New York Scribner’s, where he published thirteen essays, including the monthly series published in 1888. These twelve essays have, strangely, never been published together in a sequence before, but will be so in our edition.

Alex Thomson then talked about Memories and Portraits (1887), the collection of essays that he is editing, characterizing it as an “Edinburgh book”, significantly placed in 1894 in volume 1 of the Edinburgh Edition, together with Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes.

The “Memories” of the title can be seen in the context of a Scottish tradition of “reminiscences” (for example, Ramsay’s Reminiscences of Sottish Life and Character) and of commemoration, linked to the desire to preserve the memory of a disappearing culture. The “Talk and Talkers” essays can also be seen in a Scottish Enlightenment tradition of conversation and sociability. “Portraits”, on the other hand, suggests more a London-based tradition of aestheticism (e.g. Pater’s Imaginary Portraits).

Examples were given of the changes between 1871 and 1887 in “An Old Scotch Gardener”, showing how Stevenson mostly deleted, allowing anecdotes to stand on their own without the earlier chatty interpretation.

These essays are self-reflexive (both about memories and the reflecting subject, as RLS admits in the prefatory “Note”), and so have interesting affinities to the romantic lyric poem. They also reveal a subject that is both detached from his culture, attracted to a wider cultural context outside Scotland, distrustful of nostalgia, yet desiring to get back into contact with his own cultural identity (a quandary suggested by the key concept of “the foreigner at home”).

Richard Dury: I talked on style and its important persuasive and relation-creating function in the personal essay. An indication of  its prominence is the way commentators illustrating Stevenson’s style in general have taken most of their quotations from the essays. His was a new voice in the 1870s, a reviver of Montaigne’s scepticism and an essayist who broke with high Victorian seriousness and emphasis.

I then went on to charactize Stevenson’s essay style through six broad characteristics: lightness, enthusiasm, variousness, playfulness, strangeness and “charm” — used merely as tools to understand an elusive and mobile set of features, and as a way to understand why reading these essays is a source of pleasure.

The playful, complex and unexpected linguistic form of Stevenson’s essays can be seen in terms of Stevenson’s own concept of the “knot”: a slight delay in understanding, and also an interweaving of strands. This form is interwoven with an equally fascinating play of thought, both of them working together in the exploration of a world that has no centre or essence, where language is mobile and malleable. The effect of “a lot going on” in form and meaning is to make the reader more aware of text as performance and reading as an event in time. Stevenson’s essays are works of great value in themseves: elusive, fascinating and memorable reading experiences.

Lesley Graham ended the afternoon with an overview of the history of the reception of the essays. Often appreciated above all as a brilliant essayist in his lifetime, in the early years of the twentieth century the essays were quarried for quotations (collected in slim self-help volumes), especially those emphasising on happiness and friendship and the importance of courage to face the struggle of life. These very aphorisms were then used to condemn the essays after the First World War.

In the USA, where the teaching of literature was associated with the teaching of writing, essays were a privileged genre and Stevenson’s  widely used as models. Then, however, there was a turn away from the literary essay in both Britain and the USA, “the death of the essay”, reinforcing Stevenson’s general decline in critical favour.

With perhaps the single exception of Furnas in 1951, critics then continued to mainly criticize and downplay Stevenson’s essays, including Daiches in 1947 and Saposnik in 1974. A significant moment of change comes in 1988, a year which saw the publication of three anthologies of Stevenson’s essays by Treglown, and (in translation) Le Bris and Almansi.