Posts Tagged ‘Sheridan Le Fanu’
The story so far
In January 2013, Robert-Louis Abrahamson and myself went to the Colindale Newspaper Library to try and identify possible unsigned articles by Robert Louis Stevenson in the weekly magazine London, edited by his friend W. E. Henley. We found a couple of possible candidates from early 1877 but didn’t have time to look through all the issues from 1877 to 1879, the period of the magazine’s short life.
It was only later that the significance of a list of 1878 publications made in the ‘Inland Voyage’ notebook became clear to me: four additional and unnamed ‘articles’ were listed along with payments for episodes of Stevenson’s ‘Arabian Nights’. Shortly after our visit, however, the British Library closed the Colindale Newspaper Library with no access to the collection for a year while it was moved to the new repository at Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
The new British Library Newsroom
The new Newsroom at the British Library is a pleasant, luminous space, extending down to the left of the first desks in the photograph (right), and looking down, on this long side, over a double-height lower level below. It wasn’t crowded, conditions were ideal, and at the end we made copies on a huge scanner ourselves: 45p each because we had paper copies, but even less if you copy onto a memory stick.
By an unfortunate chance, when preparing the trip I’d referred to a file of my calculations based on the supposition that all the ‘Arabian Nights’ payments were in the Notebook list and that the additional articles must be located between August (when RLS had returned from France with Fanny and family) and October (before the start of what became ‘Providence and the Guitar’—not included in the list—in November).
So we started working through this period, turning over the pages, ignoring articles on political, financial and sporting subjects and looking at the others: RLA read the beginning paragraph while I looked at the last one on the page. This seemed a good way to do things with limited time. We then consulted and gave a vote from 0 (definitely not by Stevenson) to 5 (definitely by Stevenson). In this way we spent the morning with no vote going above 1 or 2 (= almost certainly not Stevenson).
Then we had lunch on one of the pleasant British Library terraces overlooking the atrium, and afterwards, still at the table, we looked again at an image of the list of 1878 payments. It was then that the penny dropped: three of these articles are listed before ‘English Admirals’, published in the Cornhill in July 1878, and the fourth immediately after. So the period where we should be looking was June and July and perhaps early August. We returned to the Newsroom and started searching with renewed attention.
What we found
The first thing we found was a letter with the title ‘A Story-teller’ and signed ‘Rue Saint Jacques’, which we knew was Stevenson’s address in Paris at the time. It was in praise of a writer who we didn’t know Stevenson was familiar with, Sheridan Le Fanu. There is no mention of him in the letters or essays, and it is only in a letter of Henley to Colvin about 1885 that we learn that Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly was ‘a book for which R. L. S. had a profound respect’ and was the basis for the idea of the play ‘The Hanging Judge’. The article—not really a letter, as London had no regular correspondence column and this contribution was undoubtedy paid for (for which, see part 2)—also mentions a favourite character named ‘Jekyl’ and another book (Wylder’s Hand) which we know contains a minor character with the same name (and contains a troubling hand reminiscent of the hand of Hyde). An extract is given below.
We also found in the ‘Whispering Gallery’ section of short news items a series of notes about Paris and the 1878 Exhibition which are clearly also by Stevenson and are in fact referred to in a letter of Henley in this period.
And that was it: we found some other pieces to which we gave a vote of 3 or 4. One of them was ‘The Ethics of Lying’ which did not seem to me to contain any stylistic clues, but which RLA thought could have set Stevenson thinking about ‘Truth of Intercourse’ written shortly after.
So there are still two ‘articles’ unfound—though we looked through every possible candidate and debated their merits. There was also poem called ‘Choice of a Profession’, the title of an unpublished essay written by Stevenson shortly after. We didn’t think it was by Stevenson, but thought perhaps Henley wrote it as a joke after having heard of Stevenson’s idea to write something. (We had noticed on the previous visit a poem with the title ‘Virginibus Puerisque’, which we thought might be a similar joke or kind of indirect promotion.)
To construct a story, Mr. Editor, is no very commonplace accomplishment. To be able first to construct, and then to tell, a story, is to be a man among ten thousand. Now, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a man who could build up a fable on the eternal principles: not to irritate the mind for the first volume or so with a mystery which must sooner or later leak out and prove a disappointment, but to raise one picturesque and speaking situation on another, and to satisfy amply, as well as to suspend, the reader’s curiosity. His stories have a profile; he throws a sunset behind a situation with the hand of a master; the oddest things go on in the moonlight; and his old houses are filled with threatening whispers and events. Do you remember the fellow who was shipwrecked with the gold ring? or the butterfly of light that played over Lily Dogger as she lay half asleep in the cupboard off the kitchen? or Wylder’s hand appearing suddenly from the landslip? or the scuffle in the stable lane in Haunted Lives? I will hardily confess, Mr. Editor, and I call on you to confess, that this was a writer who had a mighty sensitive touch for the picturesque. I try all sorts of competitors against him in my mind; I try Wilkie Collins and his dry bones; I try Mr. Payn with his somewhat meagre execution. Again, I look on the other side of the water, and try Gaboriau, and try Féval, and try De Boisgobey, so skilful to begin, so incapable of finishing, his vast machines; and I say, without fear of contradiction, that Le Fanu possesses a sounder scheme of story-making and had better effects in his repertory than any man among the lot.
And then, after a fashion, he could write the things he fancied. He had a capital assortment of types; he had a young lady that was as good as new at the end of a dozen novels; he had an old lady with a temper who possesses all our sympathies from first to last; he was a dead hand with lawyers, clergymen, and horse-jockeys; and for the wicked squire he held a patent that has never been infringed. I am a cordial admirer of Le Fanu’s wicked country gentlemen. His temper is the genuine article; it is temper, and bad temper, too, and imposes on the respect of a timid man like me. And, then, he is never too wicked; he has always the raw material of goodness under his shooting-jacket; he is a true human being, and I do not find I weary of him after he has appeared under a dozen different pseudonyms and at a dozen different ages. All this without prejudice to the charming country houses, in which this luxurious writer makes a point of honour to instal him, and the admirable cigars with which he supplies him from the first page to the last.
Of course, Le Fanu’s writing is just where he sins. A man who could write so well ought simply to be well birched for not having written better. He was hurried, slovenly, unconscientious; positively dishonest to the public and the Smiling Providence who made him. And the man who could make Sir Jekyl Marlow converse so magisterially with his brother Dives, ought to have hidden his head in the nearest conduit whenever he remembered the disgraceful rubbish he suffered to escape his pen at other times. You must not judge Le Fanu from his foot, for it was of a very inferior sort of clay and carelessly prepared.