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

Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Mehew

Mehew Library comes to Edinburgh

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We are pleased to publish here the following press release from Roger Swearingen and Nick Rankin.


(1) The National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh Napier University have jointly agreed to accept, as a donation, the Ernest and Joyce Mehew Archive of Books and Papers Related to Robert Louis Stevenson and a number of other books from their extensive collection, built up over 50 years. Exact partitioning and other details of location and access are to be arranged.

(2) The donation was proposed by Nicholas Rankin, Administrator of the estate of the late Dr Ernest James Mehew, FRSL, editor of the eight-volume Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, (Yale, 1994-95), who died last October, aged 88, and agreed by Maxine Barnes, the lawyer soon to be appointed by the Court of Protection as Deputy of his widow, Mrs Joyce Elizabeth Mehew, who now lives in a care-home in England.

(3) The process was helped by a detailed descriptive and photographic catalogue of the collection that was prepared by the American Stevenson scholar Roger G. Swearingen, a friend of the Mehews for more than forty years, during a one-month survey trip to England during January and February 2012.

(4) The Ernest and Joyce Mehew Library consists of more than 40 boxes of papers and some 2000 books by and relating to Robert Louis Stevenson and his friends and associates in the late nineteenth century. The Mehew papers include a wide range of articles, cuttings, diaries, ephemera, notebooks, page-proofs and extensive scholarly correspondence, as well as material from the now defunct Robert Louis Stevenson Club of London. They will complement the National Library of Scotland’s holdings of Graham Balfour (Stevenson’s first biographer) and Janet Adam Smith (editor of Stevenson’s poems).

         The Mehew collection of books is a comprehensive library of Stevensoniana that has few rivals in the world. It includes first editions, rarities, biographies, collections of letters, reference books, critical studies and bound copies of the magazines where Stevenson’s work first appeared, including Cornhill, Century, Scribner’s, Black & White, etc, as well as background works on Scotland, America and the Pacific. In addition, there are books by and about Edmund Gosse, W.E. Henley, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, all of which will increase Edinburgh Napier’s importance as a locus for RLS and late 19th century research.

(5) Ernest Mehew’s interest in Robert Louis Stevenson began when he was at Huntingdon Grammar School before the second world war. He began by collecting the thirty-five blue volumes of the Tusitala Edition and by 1950 had made himself such an authority on Stevenson’s manuscripts and handwriting that he could help Janet Adam Smith with her edition of Stevenson’s poems. She introduced E.J. Mehew, now beginning his career as a civil servant in the Ministry of Food, to her publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis, who, recognizing his research talents, put him and his new bride, Joyce Wilson, to work on The Letters of Oscar Wilde.

In 1964, Yale University Press asked Mehew to look over an early draft of The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, prepared in the USA by Professor Bradford A. Booth.  His critique was so cogent that they invited him to become assistant editor. When Booth died in 1968, Mehew became the sole editor and carried the whole project through to fruition.

Working as an independent scholar, with only his wife Joyce as his assistant, and never using a computer, Ernest Mehew located, sorted, transcribed, dated, annotated and linked some 2,800 letters, many of which had never been published before.

When the eight volumes were published in 1994-1995, they were met with universal acclaim and Mehew’s editing was recognised as a model of clarity, concision and good sense. The Letters elevated and enhanced Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary and personal reputation, as well as transforming the factual basis of Stevenson studies. As a result of his lifetime’s dedication, Ernest Mehew was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Edinburgh University in 1998.

24 May 2012 – RGS, NR

The Library and Papers of Ernest and Joyce Mehew

Description by Roger G. Swearingen
March 2012


The Library and Papers of Ernest and Joyce Mehew consist of somewhat more than 1,000 books by and about Robert Louis Stevenson; another approximately 1,000 books on other late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century writers including Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Graves, and many others; and perhaps another 1,000 books of lighter reading, including hundreds of early Penguin Books. The papers are now stored in approximately two dozen archive boxes and, unpacked, would occupy 20-25 linear feet (approximately 7.5 metres). There are also approximately 100 off-the-air audio and video tapes mostly from the 1980s on or showing works by Robert Louis Stevenson and many others.

The Stevenson items in the collection – books and papers together – make up an incomparable research archive on every aspect of the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson. The other books are complementary and in addition to their reference value show the wide range of literary projects in which the Mehews were involved over the span of fifty years.

This is a working scholarly collection, used above all in the creation of the eight-volume edition of Stevenson’s letters published by Yale University Press in 1994 and 1995. As a result there are only a few books of much monetary or collector value, the value of the collection lying instead in its usefulness to scholars.

Written by rdury

26/06/2012 at 7:15 am

Ernest James Mehew (1923-2011)

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Ernest James Mehew, editor of the Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson

23 September 1923 – 24 October 2011

by Roger G. Swearingen

Ernest James Mehew, the world’s pre-eminent authority on the nineteenth-century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, died peacefully in his sleep on 24 October 2011, a month after his eighty-eighth birthday. For approximately the last year, he had resided with his wife of more than fifty years, Joyce, in an Edgware, Middlesex, nursing home to provide her with support and companionship in her progressive and losing struggle with advanced-age dementia. She survives him; the Mehews had no children.

Ernest Mehew was born on 23 September 1923 at Bluntisham, Huntingdon and educated at Huntingdon Grammar School. In June 1942, at the age of eighteen, he joined the British Army and served with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the UK, France, Belgium, and India. Already fond of Stevenson from his school days, it was Janet Adam Smith’s 1938 biographical study, Mehew later recalled, that in 1942 made him a serious student of the author. After his time in the army, Mehew joined the Civil Service in 1947 and served in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Food, and (for most of his distinguished thirty-year career) the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food. He retired in 1983 at the level of Principal (G7).

He took advantage of his hour-long commute on the Bakerloo Line of the London Underground to and from his home in Stanmore to read not only everything that Stevenson himself wrote but practically everything that Stevenson himself had read and everything that had been written about him or about his family, his friends, and his times – whenever possible, from primary sources. Mehew’s knowledge was, as a result, encyclopaedic, not narrow, and besides frequent visits to second-hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road, he and his wife Joyce (herself a keen student of the period, and of the English author Maurice Baring) spent many a weekend searching bookshops for still more about Stevenson – notably in Peter Eaton’s sprawling establishment at Lilies near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire and, later, in the many bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. The collection of books, periodical versions, reminiscences, and much else, soon filled every available corner of the house and attic.

From the early 1950s, in part from his letters to the Times Literary Supplement correcting errors and omissions and setting the record straight, often for the first time, Mehew became recognized not only for his knowledge of Stevenson but of the late nineteenth-century literary scene generally. Forming life-long friendships in the process, he helped with Janet Adam Smith’s editions of Stevenson’s Collected Poems (1950, 1971), with the British edition of J. C. Furnas’s biography of Stevenson, Voyage to Windward (1952), and with Rupert Hart-Davis’s major edition of Oscar Wilde’s letters (1962). ‘Mr. Mehew has unearthed several dozen letters unknown to me’, Hart-Davis wrote in his introduction, ‘besides doing the most acute detective work on behalf of the footnotes: any of them that seem particularly ingenious, amusing or recondite can safely be attributed to him, while Mrs Joyce Mehew’s extensive knowledge of the Bible has proved invaluable’. He was a mentor, too, to a younger generation of scholars, notably the Stevenson bibliographer Roger G. Swearingen, whom he first met in 1969 when Swearingen was in graduate school and with whom he maintained an active friendship and correspondence for more than forty years, practically to the day of his death.

In 1966, Mehew was asked by Yale University Press to comment on an edition of Stevenson’s letters then in preparation by Professor Bradford A. Booth. Mehew submitted a commentary so lengthy, useful, authoritative, and detailed that he was asked to become assistant editor of the Yale letters – a task which became his alone when Professor Booth died suddenly on 1 December 1968.

The eight volumes of The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, published twenty-five years later in 1994 and 1995, included more than 2,800 letters, almost two-thirds of them never before published. Mehew’s careful transcriptions, dating, and detailed and incisive annotations, together with his introduction and linking commentaries, not only placed the study of Stevenson upon a whole new foundation of fact, but also set a standard for the scholarly editing and accessible presentation of such material that will never be surpassed. It is a testimony to the thoroughness and completeness of Mehew’s work that in the fifteen years since the publication of the Yale Letters fewer than a dozen new letters have come to light, none of them of any great importance, and that the physical locations of only a dozen or so other letters, then untraced, have now become known.

Mehew’s Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (1997) is an engaging and balanced selection illuminated throughout by Mehew’s introduction, annotations, and linking commentary. The result, in effect, is an authoritative and highly readable short biography. Another masterpiece of compression and detail is Mehew’s entry on Stevenson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).

In addition to his work on Stevenson’s letters, Mehew also – somehow – found time to respond positively and in detail in the TLS, 13 November 1970, to Graham Greene’s observation that Stevenson’s comic novel written in collaboration with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box (1889), had never been published correctly. This was indeed the case, and the book was a special favourite of Mehew’s. He was an enthusiastic, contributing member of The Wrong Box Club that dined annually in London for some years in the 1960s – and his definitive edition of The Wrong Box appeared in 1989.

Mehew’s thoroughness and passionate commitment to accuracy earned him, at times, an undeserved reputation for irascibility. All he ever wanted was that people get things right. He was disappointed when they did not, and took great pains to correct errors wherever he found them. A striking example was his meticulous, detailed riposte to Frank McLynn’s biography of Stevenson in an article, 2 July 1993, and subsequent correspondence in the TLS. Like Stevenson himself, Mehew had an unlimited respect and thirst for knowledge – and no patience at all with prejudice, errors or with what RLS called ‘Bummkopfery’, whether in the form of laboured pedantry or its flourishing modern counterpart, academic ingenuity. Scholars worldwide benefited from Mehew’s never-failing willingness to answer questions and to suggest improvements, however disconcerting to one’s self-esteem his helpful comments might occasionally have been at first. The only goal was to get things right.

In recognition of his life’s work, in July 1997 the University of Edinburgh awarded Mehew an Honorary Doctor of Letters, noting in the citation that with no academic affiliation Ernest Mehew ‘has achieved . . . a contribution to literary studies which would be the envy of many a university-based academic, and has done so with a generosity to others and a self-effacing modesty which are the marks of a true scholar’. In 1999, Dr Mehew was elected as one of the 500 Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature.

Scholars and friends worldwide mourn his loss while celebrating his lasting and extraordinary achievements.

Written by rdury

05/11/2011 at 8:42 pm