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

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Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 3

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part 1 | part 2

Stevenson’s markings and comments

Entering a ‘Rare Books’ room is a privilege: the Library’s first-class compartment, away from the crowds, there you are, entrusted with precious volumes, acquiring a new-found elegance as you turn over manuscript leaves; maybe someone will take me for a real scholar…

The four volumes of Stevenson’s Montaigne had so many markings that I was unsure how to combine this elegant slowness with noting down all the information in the short time available. In the end, I decided just to note the special markings: not the single vertical marks in the margin but only the double lines, then the underlinings and finally the added comments. Even so, listing them all will not have much meaning, so here I’ll group them into rough categories according to what makes them interesting. Rather than give the French text I have given Cotton’s translation of the passages, using blue for Montaigne’s text (or translation of it) and red for Stevenson’s added comments.

1. Endpaper annotations

Screenshot 2013-12-15 12.21.24

The dispassionate Shakespeare of one character : himself .

Here, on the recto page of the inside front cover of volume 4 is Stevenson’s concise characterization of Montaigne. Above it is ‘p 44’ which seems to refer to the following marked passage on p. 44 in the essay ‘Of Cripples’ (III. 11):

I have never seen greater monster or miracle in the world than myself: one grows familiar with all strange things by time and custom, but the more I frequent and the better I know myself, the more does my own deformity astonish me, the less I understand myself.

The only other flyleaf annotation is at the back of vol. 2, a list of 11 names all but one crossed through. They are written very faintly, but they are possibly all place-names as the only one I was able to decipher was ‘Abbotsford’. This is a mystery which someone else will have to solve.


2. Marginal comments: a personal dialogue with the text

Most of the marginal comments are in vols. 3 and 4, in Montaigne’s Book III, which, as we have already seen, was the part Stevenson seems to have read most intensely.

2.1 Disagreements

Some of the comments show Stevenson’s disagreement:

Vol. 2, p. 205 (Apology for Raymond Sebond): here Montaigne says (probably following here Sebond’s Fideistic arguments, which he is subtly undermining), concerning ancient predictions from the flight of birds ‘That rule and order of the moving of the wing, whence they derived the consequences of future things, must of necessity be guided by some excellent means to so noble an operation: for to attribute this great effect to any natural disposition, without the intelligence, consent, and meditation of him by whom it is produced, is an opinion evidently false.‘ This clearly doesn’t square with the normal skepticism of Montaigne and Stevenson and the latter adds ! an exclamation mark in the margin.

Vol. 2, p. 598 (Of Presumption): against the passage ‘It is very easy to accuse a government of imperfection, for all mortal things are full of it: it is very easy to beget in a people a contempt of ancient observances; never any man undertook it but he did it‘, RLS (probably thinking of how resistant established orders were to change) has added ‘false‘.

Vol. 3,p.  207 (Of Profit and Honesty): the footnote translation of “Dum tela micant etc.’ is introduced by the editor in these words ‘De Jules César, qui, en guerre ouverte contre sa patrie, dont il veut opprimer la liberté, s’écrie dans Lucain, […]’—RLS comments on this fiercely Republican interpretation of the editor with: ‘O! O!‘.

2.2 Glosses

On several occasions Stevenson complained about translations that were accurate but dull, and here in Vols. 3 and 4 we have a good number of his own translation glosses on about twenty separate pages. Some of these show his preference for telling translations: for the French translated by Cotton as ‘Rough bodies make themselves felt’, he has ‘knotty surfaces are sensible‘ (Vol. 3, p. 33), where Cotton has ‘crowd‘ he has ‘ruck‘ (vol. 4, p. 35). Where Montaigne talks of childhood games ‘aux noisettes et à la toupie‘ (vol 3, p. 269), Stevenson is clearly pleased to see the long survival of games with which he was familiar and writes ‘huckle bones and tops!

2.3 Other comments

Vol. 2, p. 197 (Raymond Sebond, II, 12):  Montaigne says that nightingales while learning to sing ‘contention [i.e. they compete] with emulation‘. Here RLS has added in the margin ‘I have observed this in blackbirds‘.

Vol. 3, p. 186 (Of Profit and Honesty): In the passage translated by Cotton as ‘for even in the midst of compassion we feel within, I know not what tart-sweet titillation of ill-natured pleasure in seeing others suffer‘, Stevenson glosses ‘au milieu de la compassion‘ as ‘in the very midst of pitying‘;  ‘aigredouce poincte de volupté maligne‘ as  ‘prick of malignant pleasure‘  and then adds an additional note at the foot of the page: ‘ay, & cruelty also, that so unnatural defect‘.


3. Markings: echoes of Stevenson’s ideas

Not all the markings (underlinings and vertical lines in the margin) remind one of Stevenson’s writings: he marks the passages that perhaps strike every reader of Montaigne: the passage where Montaigne talks of his cat playing with him (‘When I play with my cat who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me?‘, Vol. 2, p. 177-8); Montaigne’s frankness about sex and the differences between men and women (in ‘Upon some verses of Virgil’ in Book III) receives a predictable number of markings (a double line for ‘the pleasure of telling [about sex] (a pleasure little inferior to that of doing)‘ is accompanied by ! an exclamation mark in the margin, Vol. 3, p. 304); his openness about other bodily functions (‘Both kings and philosophers go to stool, and ladies too‘, Vol. 4, p. 133—a single line and an ‘x‘ in the margin); and his ability to focus on the moment and ‘just be’ (‘When I dance, I dance; when I sleep, I sleep.  Nay, when I walk alone in a beautiful orchard, if my thoughts are some part of the time taken up with external occurrences, I some part of the time call them back again to my walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of that solitude, and to myself‘, Vol. 4, p. 174, ‘Of Experience’).

However, a good number of the markings do remind us of Stevenson’s own thoughts and writings. Here follow a few that struck me.

3.1 Courage

Stevenson’s idea that in an inevitably tragic life one should act courageously clearly has affinities with the stoicism of Montaigne. We saw in a previous post that the acceptance of a kind gradual death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ has affinities in an unmarked essay in Stevenson’s Vol. 1—but it also has an affinity with a double-marked passage in Montaigne’s last essay, ‘Of Experience’, which talks of how death ‘weans thee from the world‘ and how thanks to its frequent reminders accustoms you to the idea of death and ‘thinking thyself to be upon the accustomed terms, thou and thy confidence will at one time or another be unexpectedly wafted over‘ (Vol. 4, p. 144).

The idea that life must be faced with the joy and courage of a soldier in war (L6, 153, and Abrahamson in  Persona and Paradox, 2012) is also echoed in another marked passage from the same essay: ‘Death is more abject, more languishing and troublesome, in bed than in a fight: fevers and catarrhs as painful and mortal as a musket-shot.  Whoever has fortified himself valiantly to bear the accidents of common life need not raise his courage to be a soldier‘ (Vol. 4, p. 152).

3.2 Modesty

I think we can detect a basic modesty in Stevenson’s world-view, and he seems certainly to have been struck by that of Montaigne as we see from the following marked passages.

Vol. 2, p. 473 (Of Presumption): ‘I look upon myself as one of the common sort, saving in this, that I have no better an opinion of myself; guilty of the meanest and most popular defects, but not disowning or excusing them; and I do not value myself upon any other account than because I know my own value.’

Vol. 3, p. 193 (Of Profit and Honesty): ‘keeping my back still turned to ambition; but if not like rowers who so advance backward.’

Vol. 3, p. 392 (On the Inconvenience of Greatness) (with three vertical marks): ‘I would neither dispute with a porter, a miserable unknown, nor make crowds open in adoration as I pass.’

3.3 Instability, constant change

Stevenson frequently expresses the idea of a world in constant change (‘Times and men and circumstances change about your changing character, with a speed of which no earthly hurricane affords an image’, ‘Lay Morals’) and this will explain his double-line marking of the following passage in Montaigne:

Vol. 3, p. 209 (Of Repentance): ‘the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own.  Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion‘ (this is Cotton’s translation cited here for convenience; For ‘un branle‘ which Cotton translates ‘motion‘, Stevenson suggests in the margin: ‘tottering?‘).

3.4 Laws and civil society

Roslyn Joly has recently shown the importance of Stevenson’s legal education in his world-view (‘The Novelist as Lawyer’ in Robert Louis Stevenson in the Pacific, 2009), and we can see this interest behind a series of other markings:

Vol 3, p. 212 (Of Repentance): ‘I hold for vices (but every one according to its proportion), not only those which reason and nature condemn, but those also which the opinion of men, though false and erroneous, have made such, if authorised by law and custom.’ (And here RLS unusually translated the whole sentence: : ‘I hold then this for vices (but each according to its measure) not only which reason and nature have condemned, but which the opinion of men has most erroneously forbidden in their laws and usages.’)

Vol 3, p. 332 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘Thou dost not stick to infringe her universal and undoubted laws; but stickest to thy own special and fantastic rules, and by how much more particular, uncertain, and contradictory they are, by so much thou employest thy whole endeavour in them: the laws of thy parish occupy and bind thee: those of God and the world concern thee not.’ (This idea of the importance of ‘les regles de ta parroisse‘ may be linked to a discussion in ‘On Morality’ (an unfinished essay of 1888) of how ‘Crime is a legal, a merely municipal expression’.)

3.5 Style

Naturally Stevenson is attentive to what Montaigne says about literary style:

Vol 2, p. 119 (Of Books): ‘and the ladies are less put to it in dance; where there are various coupees, changes, and quick motions of body, than in some other of a more sedate kind, where they are only to move a natural pace, and to represent their ordinary grace and presence‘ (i.e. a plain style requires more ability than one full of ‘changes, and quick motions’—though we might think the latter characterizes some of Stevenson’s own earliest writings).

The following two marked passages close together remind me of Stevenson’s own intense work of thought in his his essays and how he says in ‘Walt Whitman’ ‘style is the essence of thought’:

Vol 3,p.  321 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘When I see these brave forms of expression, so lively, so profound, I do not say that ’tis well said, but well thought.  ‘Tis the sprightliness of the imagination that swells and elevates the words.’

Vol 3, p. 322 (Upon some verses of Virgil): ‘The handling and utterance of fine wits is that which sets off language; not so much by innovating it, as by putting it to more vigorous and various services, and by straining, bending, and adapting it to them. They do not create words, but they enrich their own, and give them weight and signification by the uses they put them to, and teach them unwonted motions, but withal ingeniously and discreetly.’

And Stevenson’s own preference for concision can be seen as motivating the following underlining concerning Cicero’s style:

Vol 2, p. 121-2 (Of Books): ‘whatever there is of life and marrow is smothered and lost in the long preparation‘.


4. Markings: some closer affinities with Stevenson’s works

These categories of markings are only intended to make the matter a little more understandable; clearly this and the previous category are closely connected. Here are some echoes (interesting echoes, not provable influences) of works I am familiar with:

‘Crabbed Age and Youth’—Vol 3, p. 223-4 (Of Repentance): ‘When I reflect upon the deportment of my youth, with that of my old age, I find that I have commonly behaved myself with equal order in both according to what I understand‘; and Vol 4, p. 186, an underlined passage: ‘Old age stands a little in need of a more gentle treatment.  Let us recommend that to God, the protector of health and wisdom, but let it be gay and sociable.’

‘Ordered South’: I have already remarked on a passage that reminded me of this in 3.1

‘An Apology for Idlers’—an underlining in Vol 4, p. 172 (of Experience): ‘We are great  fools.  “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing to-day.”  What? have you not lived?

‘Something In It’ (where the missionary feels bound to his vow of abstinence)—Vol 3, p. 201: ‘what fear has once made me willing to do, I am obliged to do it when I am no longer in fear; and though that fear only prevailed with my tongue without forcing my will, yet am I bound to keep my word‘, Stevenson has in the margin written, ‘to prove sound the links of my honour‘.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—an underlining in Vol 3, p. 274 (Upon some Verses of Virgil): ‘A man must see and study his vice to correct it; they who conceal it from others, commonly conceal it from themselves‘.

‘Lay Morals’ (the first paragraph of Ch. III where he talks of the frailty of man ‘His whole body, for all its savage energies, its leaping and its wing’d desires, may yet be tamed and conquered by a draught of air or a sprinkling of cold dew’ etc.)—Vol 2, p. 214  (Raymond Sebond): ‘this furious monster, with so many heads and arms, is yet man–feeble, calamitous, and miserable man! […] a contrary blast, the croaking of a flight of ravens, the stumble of a horse, the casual passage of an eagle, a dream, a voice, a sign, a morning mist, are any one of them sufficient to beat down and overturn him. Dart but a sunbeam in his face, he is melted and vanished. Blow but a little dust in his eyes, as our poet says of the bees, and all our ensigns and legions, with the great Pompey himself at the head of them, are routed and crushed to pieces.’

The poem ‘Home, no more home to me, whither shall I wander?’ and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (‘a stranger in my own house’)—Vol 3, p. 248 (Of Three Commerces): ‘That man, in my opinion, is very miserable, who has not at home where to be by himself, where to entertain himself alone, or to conceal himself from others.’ We don’t know why Stevenson marked this passage, but it is possible that he felt that he did not possess such a space—Montaigne, however, is not complaining at all but talking about his own rule of living, which he had previously formulated in more positive terms: ‘we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat’ (‘Of Solitude’, I.38).


5. This edition used for quotations from Montaigne

Where there is a marking of a passage that is quoted in a letter or one of his works, then there is a good chance that this was the edition used. There are, however, only two or three possible cases, since Stevenson only quotes twice (I think) from Montaigne in French:

Vol 2, p. 13 (Of Drunkenness), an underlined passage: ‘and there are some vices that have something, if a man may say so, of generous in them‘ (‘il y a des vices, qui ont je ne sçay quoy de genereux‘), quoted in ‘The Character of Dogs’ (1883), “The canine, like the human gentleman demands in his misdemeanours Montaigne’s ‘je ne sais quoi de généreux'”. Here Montaigne’s spelling has been modernized, but that could have been done by Stevenson or the magazine editor.

Vol. 4 (‘Of Physiognomy’): Stevenson quotes a passage from the first half of this essay in his latter of October 1873 to Fanny Sitwell (L1, 339):

As Montaigne says, talking of something quite different: ‘Pour se laisser tomber à plomb, et de si haut, il faut que ce soit entre les bras d’une affection solide, vigoureuse et fortunée’ It argues a whole faith in the sympathy at the other end of the wire; and an awful want to say these things.

I did not note this down as a passage doubly-marked. It is possibly singly marked, but this will have to wait for another reader to open the volume.

The third case has already been discussed on Part two of this posting, under ‘Book III’: in ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (1877) Stevenson writes that while Calvin and Knox are reforming the church, Montaigne is ‘predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’—a possible allusion to ‘Of Experience’ (III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible‘, against which Stevenson has written in the margin Calvin?


Montaigne and Stevenson

Stevenson seems to have found in Montaigne a fellow-spirit, someone who distrusted dogma yet had a moral view of life, a modest and a tolerant person, a skeptic, someone who saw all things in constant change yet kept a calm, detached and ironic view of things. Both writers were constantly interested in exploring how to live life well.

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 2

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part 1 | part 3


Columbia University


Columbia University


La Città Ideale

Columbia University, situated on the upper west side of Manhattan, north of Central Park, has a campus of lawns and wide pedestrian avenues that has the feel of a garden suburb, while the calm spaces around the monumental buildings are reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s ‘Città Ideale’. One of these buildings (below) is the Butler Library, beaux-arts neoclassical in style, where I was headed in order to look at Stevenson’s copy of Montaigne.butler libraryUp on the top floor, in Rare Books and Manuscripts, I went through registration pleasantly enough thanks to a young lady with public relations skills, received a locker key on a large, slender iron ring (like that of an old-fashioned gaoler), stowed my things, entered the corridor-like reading room with a couple of dozen tables, handed in my request and was “all set”, waiting for the books to arrive.

Stevenson’s Montaigne: First impressions

The edition consists of four volumes in good condition (stoutly bound, well-printed, on good paper) that have been much marked by Stevenson: his typical vertical lines in the margin, occasionally double (very occasionally triple), some underlining, and a few comments written in the margin or (for translations) between the lines. I immediately realized there were too many markings to log them all, so decided to note only double lines, underlinings and comments.

I started on volume 1 (containing Montaigne’s Book I) and immediately finished it: there are just two markings: a double line marking of a passage of ‘To the Reader’ and one single marginal mark on the first page of the first essay.

Volume 2, containing about half of Montaigne’s Book II (including the very long ‘Apology for Raimond Sebond’), shows many signs of having been read: there are markings on 12 of the 18 essays.

Strangely, the second half of Montaigne’s Book II in the following volume has markings for only 2 of the 19 chapters. But this volume 3 contains the beginning of Montaigne’s Book III, every essay of which is marked, both here and in its continuation in volume 4 (which has the last four essays and then other matter).

From the evidence here, it looks as if Stevenson skipped his volume 1, carefully read volume 2, and then concentrated on Montaigne’s Book III. This squares with what he says about often reading Montaigne without any attempt to read him from cover to cover: in ‘A Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’ (1887), he confesses

I have never read the whole of Montaigne, but I do not like to be long without reading some of him, and my delight in what I do read never lessens.

He remains one of six ‘continual literary intimates’, his Essays among ‘the books that we re-read the oftenest’:

One or  two of Scott’s novels, Shakespeare, Molière, Montaigne, The Egoist,  and the Vicomte de Bragelonne, form the inner circle of my  intimates.

His ‘Ideal House’ (1883) has a ‘little room for winter evenings’ containing ‘three shelves full of eternal books that never weary starting’; the list that follows is longer, but starts ‘Shakespeare, Moliere, Montaigne…’.

Selective reading of Montaigne

Unmarked essays were not necessarily unread by Stevenson: he may have read them in the Cotton translation (which—I kick myself—was there in the Columbia Rare Books—overlooked by me); he could also have read them in another unrecorded edition, or read them without marking them. This said, marked essays certainly were read by him and found of interest.

Book I

The lack of markings in Book I is not totally surprising: Montaigne is here still groping for his method; the essays contain many classical exempla with an emphasis on stoicism (this evolution of Montaigne’s ideas—from the stoicism of the early essays to a position in the later essays that it is ‘in living happily, not […] dying happily that is the source of human contentment’—is one of the threads of Saul Frampton’s recent study When I am Playing with My Cat…).

It is a little surprising, however, to find no markings at all, given the affinity pointed out by Cinzia Giglioni (in European Stevenson, ed. Ambrosini and Dury, 2009) between Stevenson’s own ideas and interests and essays in Montaigne’s Book I with titles like: ‘Of Idleness’, ‘That to Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’, ‘Of the Force of the Imagination’, ‘Of Pedantry’, ‘Of the Education of Children’, ‘Of Friendship’, ‘Of Cannibals’ (containing the epigram ‘Chacun appelle barbarie ce qui n’est pas de son usage’, which must surely have inspired Stevenson), and others.

The Stoic acceptance of death at the end of ‘Ordered South’ (1874) does indeed seem very close to one of these essays:

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
nature, leading us by the hand, an easy and, as it were, an insensible pace, step by step conducts us to that miserable state [death], and by that means makes it familiar to us, so that we are insensible of the stroke
Stevenson, from ‘Ordered South’ (1874):
in this dulness of the senses there is a gentle preparation for the final insensibility of death. And to him the idea of mortality comes in a shape less violent and harsh than is its wont, less as an abrupt catastrophe than as a thing of infinitesimal gradation, and the last step on a long decline of way


Perhaps if I had looked Stevenson’s copy of  Cotton I might have found that passage marked… [But see Neil Brown’s comment to this post.]

The same essay by Montaigne contains a call to live life without regard to death, a theme of ‘Æs Triplex’ (1878). Here the possible influence is less direct. Montaigne’s humble image of planting cabbages is perhaps transformed to the more noble writing of a folio, and it may have inspired the striking reference to everyday objects elsewhere in the essay: umbrellas, salad, cheese and ginger-beer bottles.

Montaigne, from ‘To Study Philosophy is to Learn to Die’ (I.19):
I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished
Stevenson, from ‘Æs Triplex’:
It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sick-room. By all means begin your folio, even if the doctor does not give you a year

That he had certainly read and knew Book I is shown by the quotation here in ‘John Knox’ (1875) to ‘the “two or three children” whom Montaigne mentions having lost at nurse’ , which is a reference to Montaigne’s Book I essay (with a long title) ‘That the relish for good and evil depends in great measure upon the opinion we have of them’.


Book II

In Samoa Stevenson reports that he is reading the second book of Montaigne and ‘This morning I have read a splendid piece of Montaigne’ (L7, 179; Oct 1891). We know that this was a book already familiar to him:

  • ‘The English Admirals’ (written late 1877) incorporates a long quotation from Montaigne’s ‘Of Glory’ (Book II.16) in Cotton’s translation.
  • In a letter of 1885 he alludes to a passage in ‘An Apology for Raimond Sebond’ (Book II.12): ‘as Montaigne says it [literature] is a pot with two handles, and I own I am wedded to the technical handle’ (L5, 91-2), a passage marked by by two vertical lines in vol 2 of this edition.

Book III

The markings on every one of the essays in Montaigne’s Book III after sparse markings in the second half of Book II shows that he read this Book through from start to finish. It is probable that this was what wanted to read (divided as it is between volumes 3 and 4 in his edition) when he wrote to his parents from Bournemouth in December 1884 to ‘bring […] my Montaigne, or, at least, the two last volumes’ (L5, 45). To be more exact, this was the section he wanted to re-read:

  • In the letter of October 1873 in which he tells Fanny Sitwell he has been reading Montaigne as he dined alone, he quotes in French from ‘De la Physiognomie’ (Book III.12) (L1, 339).
  • In ‘François Villon, Student, Poet and Housebreaker’ (written April-May 1877) ) he quotes from ‘De ménager sa volonté’ (Book III.10),  using Cotton’s translation: ‘Shall we not dare to say of a thief,’ asks Montaigne, ‘that he has a handsome leg?’
  • In ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ (written just afterwards, July–August 1877) he writes: ‘While Calvin is putting everybody exactly right in his Institutes, and hot-headed Knox is thundering in the pulpit, Montaigne is already  looking at the other side in his library in Perigord, and  predicting that they will find as much to quarrel about in the Bible as they had found already in the Church’. This seems to be an allusion to a passage in ‘De l’expérience’ (Book III.13): ‘they but fool themselves, who think to lessen and stop our disputes by recalling us to the express words of the Bible: forasmuch as our mind does not find the field less spacious wherein to controvert the sense of another than to deliver his own; and as if there were less animosity and tartness in commentary than in invention’ (Cotton’s translation). Against this passage in this French edition, Stevenson has written ‘Calvin?’
  • He quotes from ‘De l’expérience’ again in ‘A Night Among the Pines’ in Travels with a Donkey (written December 1878–January 1879), using Cotton’s translation again: ‘We are disturbed in our slumber only, like the luxurious Montaigne, ‘that we may the better and more sensibly relish it.’  We have a moment to look upon the stars.’

This concentration is unsurprising: Book III contains Montaigne’s profoundest insights, in its affirmation of the value of experience, the unity of man and animals and nature, the need for toleration and sympathy, the relative nature of cultural norms. So, in his reading of Book III, Stevenson was concentrating on the most original and revolutionary aspects of Montaigne’s philosophy.

Part 3 of the posting

But this is getting over-long. A concise summary of markings will be the subject of a (I hope shorter) third posting.

Stevenson’s Montaigne, part 1

with 3 comments

part 2 | part 3


In October 2013 I made two trips from New Haven to Columbia University in New York City to look at Stevenson’s copy of Montaigne (recently located by Neil Macara Brown), curious about what markings and comments he may have made on the pages of a writer who was clearly very important for him.

Stevenson and Montaigne


Michel de Montaigne

R.L.S., c. 1871

R.L.S., c. 1871

As early as 1871–72, RLS placed Montaigne’s Essays in first place of his list of favourite books (‘Catalogus Librorum Carissimorum’, Yale B 6073). In October 1873 he writes to Fanny Sitwell that, alone in the house, he has been reading Montaigne at dinner and found him ‘the most charming of table-companions’ (L1, 335-6). He is still re-reading him with pleasure in 1891 in Samoa  (L7, 179).

As might be expected from Stevenson, a writer interested in creating reading pleasure, he often remarks on this aspect of Montaigne: the essays are ‘ever-delightful’ (‘Ordered South’; 1874), he is ‘the radiant Montaigne’ in 1882 (L4, 21), and ‘my beloved Montaigne’ in 1886 (L5, 226), and the ‘delight’ in re-reading him ‘never lessens’ in 1887 (‘Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s’). He remembers the pleasure of forgetting time while reading him at Swanston: ‘weel neukit by my lane, [on my own] / Wi’ Horace, or perhaps Montaigne, / The mornin’ hours hae come an’ gane / Abune [above] my heid’ (‘Ille Terrarum’, dated 1875).

The pleasure comes from style and an interesting revealed personality: Montaigne’s ‘apt choice and contrast of words’ and his ability, with other great writers, ‘to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness’  (‘On Style…’, 1885). As for the personality, re-reading him is like re-visiting a friend (‘Gossip on a Novel by Dumas’, 1887), like Pepys he presents himself to the reader with an admirable ‘fulness and such an intimacy of detail’ (‘Samuel Pepys’, 1881), he is one of the first of those ‘who have […] survived themselves most completely, left a sort of personal seduction behind them in the world, and retained, after death, the art of making friends’ (‘Charles of Orleans’, 1876).

Equally important is Montaigne’s thought and world-view: he gives a ‘temperate and genial picture of life’, exemplifying ‘heroism and wisdom’ (‘Books Which…’, 1887). It’s not difficult to imagine what appealed to Stevenson. In the 1870s, he would have been attracted by Montaigne’s skepticism, his dismissal of conventional ways of thinking, and his effort to understand others—all themes that we find in the early essays. In the 1880s, Montaigne would appeal to Stevenson’s new focus on tolerance and cultural relativism. And throughout his career he would have found an affinity in Montaigne’s morality of heroism: his acceptance of the difficulty of living a good life and his praise of modest virtues. He mentions Montaigne in fourteen of his essays, and quotes or closely alludes to him in six of them.

Stevenson’s copies of Montaigne

Stevenson’s principle copy of Montaigne is a four volume edition published in Paris by Garnier Frères 1865-66. We know he had this in December 1884, as he asks his parents to ‘bring […] my Montaigne, or, at least, the two last volumes’ when they come to Bournemouth (L 5, 45). This was the copy I went to Columbia to look at.

In addition to this French edition, we know that Stevenson had a copy of Cotton’s late seventeenth-century English translation and he quotes from this several times in the 1870s (in ‘François Villon’, ‘The English Admirals’ and Travels with a Donkey). His copy of this (in an 1869 edition) is also at Columbia University Library (Butler Library, PR5495 .M6), but I overlooked this fact on my visit, so it remains for someone else to look at the markings there.

The Vailima Library also had a presentation copy of The Essays of Montaigne done into English by John Florio (London: David Nutt, 1892), with an introduction by George Saintbury, in the series ‘The Tudor Translations’ edited by W. E. Henley. It is dedicated: ‘To Robert Louis Stevenson / This new fashioning of an / old and famous book is dedicated / by its contrivers’, but Henley’s original idea had been to dedicate it to ‘To the R.L.S. of of Virginibus Puerisque, Memories & Portraits, Across the Plains’ (4 May 1892, B 4633), which would have been quite an accolade to RLS the essayist.

Prepared with the help of the Stevenson Library Db and the Stevenson Allusions Db

Written by rdury

16/11/2013 at 4:51 pm