Selected Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

26 October 2012

The French short story writer Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (b.5 August 1850) was a close contemporary of Robert Louis Stevenson (b.November 13 1850).

The comparison immediately highlights Maupassant’s seriousness as an artist against Stevenson’s delittantism, Maupassant’s subtle explorations of war and human relations contrasted with Stevenson’s boy’s own stories. The difference is typified by Maupassant’s adult depiction of sex compared with the almost complete absence of believable women in Stevenson’s fiction.

Love Contrast the improbable ‘love affair’ at the heart of Stevenson’s ‘Olalla‘ (1885) – the visiting English officer falls immediately head over heels in love with the beautiful daughter of the ‘degenerate’ Spanish family – with the themes  of human sexuality, bourgeois morality and the corrupting influence of military occupation in Maupassant’s first published story, ‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880).

France and Britain Hard to avoid the conclusion that 19th century French culture was adult while British Victorian culture was somehow deeply childish: Flaubert and Maupassant, Zola and Mallarme versus Stevenson and Haggard, Conan Doyle and Kipling.

Workrate The success of Boule de Suif inaugurated an amazingly productive decade. In the 1880s Maupassant wrote six novels and over 300 short stories, became well-known as a reporter and columnist, travelled widely and wrote accounts of his journeys; he bought a yacht, had numerous affairs and became celebrated for his parties. The nearest comparison for workrate and stories might be Kipling. Not for the affairs or parties though.

Thirty of the ‘best’ short stories are collected and translated by Roger Colet in the 1971 Penguin edition I’ve had since school.

Sex, treated frankly and openly, just is a major theme of French fiction in a way it isn’t among the more repressed English. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels because of the intense criticism he received over the alleged immorality of ‘Tess of the Durbevilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’. In the first five stories in this collection, three are about prostitutes, one about an unfaithful wife and one about a man prevented from chatting up a pretty girl on a riverboat.

‘Boule de Suif‘ (1880) is the nickname of a prostitute. The carriage in which she and a crew of bourgeois is fleeing a town occupied by the invading German army of 1870, is held up at a hotel on the border by a German officer who refuses to let it proceed unless Boule de Suif sleeps with him. Her bourgeois companions, gentlemen and ladies all, are initially scandalised – but as the days pass, slowly begin to put pressure on her to relent and be screwed by the enemy. After a week-long siege of her feelings she finally gives in, she is laid, and the officer lets the coach continue – at which all her high-minded companions promptly treat her like an immoral slut. This perfectly naturalistic story – on the face of it an ironic commentary on the self-righteous hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie – is at the same time a wonderfully subtle parable of the mental collapse of a nation conquered in war. Maupassant was just 20 and a soldier in the army when France underwent the humilation of defeat in war to Prussia.

In ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment‘ (1881) all the prostitutes of a friendly brothel in a small Normandy town decamp en masse 50 miles to attend the First Communion of the brothel-keeper’s niece. The village festivities and the church ceremony are wonderfully described – as is their return after many days away to be welcomed and partied by the leading men of their small town who had missed them so badly!

In ‘The Graveyard Sisterhood’ a man sees a beautiful widow weeping at the grave of her husband, a gallant officer killed in the recent war. He offers to buy her a tea and cheer her up and one thing leads to another and they go to her apartment and become lovers. After a while the affair dwindles, they lose touch. One day he feels nostalgia for her and goes to visit the cemetery again where he is flabbergasted to see her picking up another distinguished gent in the way she picked him up. She is a prostitute who has figured out that graveyards bring out something amorous in some kinds of men!

A Ruse‘ is told by an old doctor who once attended a young married woman whose lover has collapsed and died in her bed. And her husband is due back in half an hour! Together they come up with a ruse to save her… ‘

Happiness Ironic and knowing his stories may be but they are mostly happy. Madame Tellier’s Establishment made me beam with content all the way through. The punchline of ‘A Ruse’ made me burst out laughing. Even when the protagonists of ‘Two Friends’ are shot dead by the swinish Germans, their deaths have less impact than the preceding sunny description of the spring countryside and their happy fishing.

The ‘implied author’, the ambience created by these texts, is of a relaxed, amused, worldly-wise man with an amazing gift for selecting just the right details, snatches of dialogue and incidents to lay bare the soul of a character or the essence of a situation. Effortlessly charming. And economical. they never outstay their welcome. His stories have tremendous good manners.

Guy de Maupassant

The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887) is a collection of memorably dark and haunting short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, comprising:

  • The Merry Men (1882)
  • Will O’ the Mill (1878)
  • Markheim (1885)
  • Thrawn Janet (1881)
  • Olalla (1885)
  • The Treasure of Franchard (1883)

It is significantly darker and deeper than his previous collection, the More New Arabian Nights, with its shallow and contrived plots. These stories have much more psychological depth and reach. The Arabian Nights are cluttered with a pell-mell of incident, each as silly as the last. In these stories there is little incident, but a tremendous sense of brooding fear, horror and strange psychological states.

The Merry Men of the title story are nothing to do with Robin Hood but is the nickname given to the clashing waves created by treacherous reefs off the small island of Aros in the western Highlands of Scotland. There’s a reference to Jacobites so it’s set in the first half of the 18th century. Here the narrator, Charles, a young man, his parents dead, returns to the wild island where his strict Calvinist uncle, Gordon Darnaway, offered him a home between his studies at university. The text is oddly packed with themes none of which quite predominate enough to comprise an actual story. Charles is in love with his uncle’s daughter, Mary Ellen, but she wishes to stay and look after her father. Charles has learned of a wreck from the Spanish Armada full of the gold which was going to pay for the invasion, and he sets off to find it, stripping and diving into the rough sea in the probably location of the wreck. Among the seaweed he finds first a shoe buckle and then, gruesomely,  a human bone, and flees the sea. Meanwhile Charles’s uncle  behaves more and more oddly until one wild night he is found drinking heavily and greedily watching a schooner just off the island which is being pushed by the tide onto the rocks. The narrator realises he has gone mad and neither he nor the family servant, Rorie, can catch him as he bounds cackling over the island away from them, until one final attempt ends in tragedy.

This is a mash-up of typical RLS themes, but none of them fully developed to a conclusion. The story very well conveys a sense of wild foreboding, but its ultimate failure is, I think, revealed by its overwrought style, closer to the willful melodrama of the New Arabian Nights than to the lean, thrilling, dynamic style of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

“When at length I fell asleep, it was to be awakened shortly after by a dream of wrecks, black men, and submarine adventure; and I found myself so shaken and fevered that I arose, descended the stair, and stepped out before the house.  Within, Rorie and the black were asleep together in the kitchen; outside was a wonderful clear night of stars, with here and there a cloud still hanging, last stragglers of the tempest.  It was near the top of the flood, and the Merry Men were roaring in the windless quiet of the night.  Never, not even in the height of the tempest, had I heard their song with greater awe.  Now, when the winds were gathered home, when the deep was dandling itself back into its summer slumber, and when the stars rained their gentle light over land and sea, the voice of these tide-breakers was still raised for havoc.  They seemed, indeed, to be a part of the world’s evil and the tragic side of life.  Nor were their meaningless vociferations the only sounds that broke the silence of the night.  For I could hear, now shrill and thrilling and now almost drowned, the note of a human voice that accompanied the uproar of the Roost.  I knew it for my kinsman’s; and a great fear fell upon me of God’s judgments, and the evil in the world.  I went back again into the darkness of the house as into a place of shelter, and lay long upon my bed, pondering these mysteries.” (Part V – A Man Out Of The Sea)

This seems to me good – it is clear powerful description – up until the sentence starting “They seemed…” at which point the style becomes melodramatic indicating the willed nature of the plot and the forced horror which RLS, it seems to me, is imposing on the scene. It doesn’t arise naturally from events. The more RLS editorialises, the less powerful the impact.

Still, the climax when it comes is swift and genuinely terrifying.

Will O’ the Mill (1878) is a strange, dreamy, allegorical tale. It tells the story of young Will, brought up in a mill in a high valley somewhere in Germany, in some vague middle ages. Maybe it’s a spin-off from RLS’s medieval novel, Prince Otto. Its style is completely different from the Merry Men, being cast in an opulently romantic style which reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories.

[Will] was like some one lying in twilit, formless preexistence, and stretching out his hands lovingly towards many-coloured, many-sounding life.  It was no wonder he was unhappy, he would go and tell the fish: they were made for their life, wished for no more than worms and running water, and a hole below a falling bank; but he was differently designed, full of desires and aspirations, itching at the fingers, lusting with the eyes, whom the whole variegated world could not satisfy with aspects.  The true life, the true bright sunshine, lay far out upon the plain.  And O! to see this sunlight once before he died! to move with a jocund spirit in a golden land! to hear the trained singers and sweet church bells, and see the holiday gardens!  ‘And O fish!’ he would cry, ‘if you would only turn your noses down stream, you could swim so easily into the fabled waters and see the vast ships passing over your head like clouds, and hear the great water-hills making music over you all day long!’  But the fish kept looking patiently in their own direction, until Will hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

There is a surprisingly science fiction moment where a romantic traveller chats to young Will about his desire to leave the mill and go down to the big city:

‘Did you ever look at the stars?’ he asked, pointing upwards.
‘Often and often,’ answered Will.
‘And do you know what they are?’
‘I have fancied many things.’
‘They are worlds like ours,’ said the young man. ‘Some of them less; many of them a million times greater; and some of the least sparkles that you see are not only worlds, but whole clusters of worlds turning about each other in the midst of space. We do not know what there may be in any of them; perhaps the answer to all our difficulties or the cure of all our sufferings: and yet we can never reach them; not all the skill of the craftiest of men can fit out a ship for the nearest of these our neighbours, nor would the life of the most aged suffice for such a journey. When a great battle has been lost or a dear friend is dead, when we are hipped or in high spirits, there they are unweariedly shining overhead. We may stand down here, a whole army of us together, and shout until we break our hearts, and not a whisper reaches them. We may climb the highest mountain, and we are no nearer them. All we can do is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats; the starshine lights upon our heads, and where mine is a little bald, I dare say you can see it glisten in the darkness. The mountain and the mouse. That is like to be all we shall ever have to do with Arcturus or Aldebaran.’

Will hung his head a little, and then raised it once more to heaven. The stars seemed to expand and emit a sharper brilliancy; and as he kept turning his eyes higher and higher, they seemed to increase in multitude under his gaze.

Will decides to stay at the mill and lives to a ripe old age, an odd, self-contained man, respected by tourists to the riverside inn he sets up, for his wisdom and solidity. The ending of the tale, when it comes, is beautiful and moving.

Markheim (1885) is often paired with Jekyll and Hyde as a tale of a divided soul. On Christmas day a 35 year old man, Markheim, visits a pawnbroker, for an episode which reads like late Dickens, intimate and fraught with undercurrents. He abruptly stabs the pawnbroker to death and sets off to ransack his office but full of a fear so intense it gives hallucinatory power to his senses.

Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age; others garrulous and hurried.  All these told out the seconds in an intricate, chorus of tickings.  Then the passage of a lad’s feet, heavily running on the pavement, broke in upon these smaller voices and startled Markheim into the consciousness of his surroundings.  He looked about him awfully.  The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water.  The inner door stood ajar, and peered into that leaguer of shadows with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger.

And then, exceeding the murderer’s fears, he does hear a real actual step on the stairs and a voice in the hallway and someone enters the room to find him. Is it real or a hallucination? Is it the devil? Or an avenging angel? What follows is a rather high-minded theological exchange, in a completely different register from the heavy Gothic tone which has preceded and which leads the murderer, hitherto depicted chillingly as if he had multiple personalities, to reveal a taste for high minded Calvinist sermons.

‘I will lay my heart open to you,’ answered Markheim.  ‘This crime on which you find me is my last.  On my way to it I have learned many lessons; itself is a lesson, a momentous lesson.  Hitherto I have been driven with revolt to what I would not; I was a bond-slave to poverty, driven and scourged.  There are robust virtues that can stand in these temptations; mine was not so: I had a thirst of pleasure.  But to-day, and out of this deed, I pluck both warning and riches—both the power and a fresh resolve to be myself.  I become in all things a free actor in the world; I begin to see myself all changed, these hands the agents of good, this heart at peace.  Something comes over me out of the past; something of what I have dreamed on Sabbath evenings to the sound of the church organ, of what I forecast when I shed tears over noble books, or talked, an innocent child, with my mother.  There lies my life; I have wandered a few years, but now I see once more my city of destination.’

As twitchily psychopathic as it began, as gruesomely hallucinatory as it proceeded, Markheim ends as a sweet tale or repentance almost as anodyne as another Christmas Carol, written 40 years earlier.

Thrawn Janet (1881) is a ghost story set in 1712. It is told mostly in Scots dialect, imagined as a local peasant telling a passerby who’s bought him a few drinks, why the minister of the village of Balweary is so lonesome and eccentric. It is because of a strange and terrifying haunting of the corpse of poor thrawn Janet. This poor possessed woman hangs herself only for a devil to bring her back to life and make the body stalk towards the terrified minister.

“By this time the foot was comin’ through the passage for the door; he could hear a hand skirt alang the wa’, as if the fearsome thing was feelin’ for its way.  The saughs tossed an’ maned thegether, a lang sigh cam’ ower the hills, the flame o’ the can’le was blawn aboot; an’ there stood the corp of Thrawn Janet, wi’ her grogram goun an’ her black mutch, wi’ the heid aye upon the shouther, an’ the girn still upon the face o’t—leevin’, ye wad hae said—deid, as Mr. Soulis weel kenned—upon the threshold o’ the manse.”

Olalla (1885) concerns an English army officer in Spain and quartered for his health with a faded Spanish family. The family have degenerated from their former glory but this is no metaphor. They really have become degenerate cretins, the son a simpleton, and the mother a placid cow. But when the officer meets the daughter, Olalla, he falls immediately and preposterously in love with her.

In my own room, I opened the window and looked out, and could not think what change had come upon that austere field of mountains that it should thus sing and shine under the lofty heaven.  I had seen her—Olalla!  And the stone crags answered, Olalla! and the dumb, unfathomable azure answered, Olalla!

He cuts himself on his window and goes to the placid mother for help who amazes him by leaping at his wrist and biting it to the bone! He is rescued by the son and spirited off to a nearby village to recover, where he hears more and worse things of the family. Olalla joins him by a roadside crucifix and persuades him, for everyone’s good, to leave. And so he tearfully leaves her there, praying to Our Lord

Like a lot of the minor Stevenson this story contains themes or ideas which somehow emerge more fully in other later works. The mother’s completely unexpected bite is vampirism, linked to the idea of degenerate families. Bram Stoker was to win immortality with the idea 12 years later. Hereditary decline, or degeneracy, was a real fear at the end of the 19th century, brought on by populist misunderstandings of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Interesting themes apart, the story shows Stevenson’s power at describing natural scenery, his ability to create an atmosphere of suspense – but  then degenerates into the romantic melodrama of the Arabian Nights.

The Treasure of Franchard (1883) is the longest and best humoured of the stories. Set in rural France it concerns a pompous failure of a country doctor who loves the sound of his own voice who takes in an 11 year old orphan he encounters whose frank dullness fascinate him. Over a number of ‘chapters’ Dr Desprez tries to educate young Jean-Marie but to no avail. The boy is particularly struck by the doctor’s repeated protestations that he is happy vegetating in rurla idiocy and would never ever be dragged back to corrupt Paris – so that when the doctor accidentally discovers treasure – long-lost plate from a ruined abbey – Jean-Marie is driven to take desperate measures!

The story contains lovely descriptions of rural France.

Doctor Desprez always rose early.  Before the smoke arose, before the first cart rattled over the bridge to the day’s labour in the fields, he was to be found wandering in his garden.  Now he would pick a bunch of grapes; now he would eat a big pear under the trellice; now he would draw all sorts of fancies on the path with the end of his cane; now he would go down and watch the river running endlessly past the timber landing-place at which he moored his boat.  There was no time, he used to say, for making theories like the early morning.

The story – and the collection – conclude with a Happy Ending completely unlike the troubled psychological melodramas of the all the previous tales.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Machine Stops by EM Foster (1909)

E.M. Foster isn’t a name you associate with science fiction, middle class gels in Florence or Surrey being more his milieu. And yet his short story, The Machine Stops (1909), regularly appears in lists of top sci-fi stories. In the preface to his Collected Short Stories, Forster sardonically commented that ‘The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells.’ Maybe he’s referring to Wells’s ‘A Modern Utopia’, published in 1905, though it’s an odd comment because Wells was just as capable of portraying dystopias as utopias, The Time Machine (1895) being the first in a long line which portray the future as not at all idyllic.

I was surprised how little I was surprised by The Machine Stops. In the future all humanity lives in cells under the ground, cocooned in complete isolation from each other and content to communicate via telescreens. Every need and want is provided by The Machine.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Now, what would you expect to happen next? I’d expect someone to realise how unnatural this life is and want to rebel, to escape, just as in Brave New World or 1984 or The Matrix. I’d expect this revolt to highlight the depths of pitiful dependency into which humanity has fallen, to assert some deep, spiritual need for people to feel the sun on their faces and the fresh air in their lungs etc. I’d expect their nearest and dearest to be scandalised, to try and protect them from themselves; I’d expect there to be set-piece debates between defenders of the Machine, emphasising how it has ended war and conflict and brought ‘peace’, and the young rebel to spit “Peace? You call this life without colour and passion, peace?” I’d expect the act of rebellion to lead to the sudden collapse of the System, the end of the Machine, the death of the old life, but a consoling sense that the future belongs back with dwellers on the earth’s surface, ‘real’ people, ‘authentic’ humans, who will have to start again, to build a new, truer civilisation.

And that is exactly what does happen.

“But Kuno, is it true ? Are there still men on the surface of the earth ? Is this – tunnel, this poisoned darkness – really not the end?”

He replied:

“I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. Today they are the Homeless – tomorrow —— “

“Oh, tomorrow – some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow.”

“Never,” said Kuno, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

For some readers these may come as completely new ideas and wherever you meet them for the first time, I guess that’s where you’ll attribute their biggest impact, that book or film will always have power for you. But at my age and having read hundreds of sci-fi books and seen scores of sci-fi films, these feel like platitudes and cliches. I didn’t find the story remotely interesting, I was only interested in how Foster handled it, in his prose style, and in the sidelight it cast on the ideas of his time.

TV adaptation

There’s a fabulous 1966 b&w TV adaptation. Surprisingly faithful, with wonderful early Dr Who sets and special effects, complete with mechanical worms!

Related links

A Gossip on Romance by Robert Louis Stevenson (1882)

Stevenson published essays throughout his career. One of his earliest books was a collection of essays published in various magazines in the late 1870s – Virginibus Puerisque (1881). They are surprisingly light and gay and playful, oozing defiance at the Gradgrindish restrictions of Victorian Philistinism. The following year he published a short essay, A Gossip on Romance, which is a useful insight into his aims as a writer and amusingly useful in thinking about fiction in general.

‘In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.’

In it Stevenson draws a simple distinction between the active and the passive – between what we actively do in life – which requires conscience and morality and discretion – and what happens to us – which requires we manage and cope with circumstances thrust upon us. The first is the stuff of serious novels and drama, emphasising serious analysis of character and the weightiness of making balancing motives and deciding how to act; the latter is romance, emphasising incidents which somehow feed our deeper longings and dreams.

‘Conduct is three parts of life, they say; but I think they put it high. There is a vast deal in life and letters both which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; which either does not regard the human will at all, or deals with it in obvious and healthy relations; where the interest turns, not upon what a man shall choose to do, but on how he manages to do it; not on the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience, but on the problems of the body and of the practical intelligence, in clean, open-air adventure, the shock of arms or the diplomacy of life. With such material as this it is impossible to build a play, for the serious theatre exists solely on moral grounds, and is a standing proof of the dissemination of the human conscience. But it is possible to build, upon this ground, the most joyous of verses, and the most lively, beautiful, and buoyant tales.’

Stevenson suggests English fiction has become too fond of the sound of tinkling teacups, and mentions Anthony Trollope (who died in 1882, the same year this essay was published). Stevenson anticipates a Freudian view of literature, of art in general, that it feeds our subconscious desires and drives:

‘The desire for knowledge, I had almost added the desire for meat, is not more deeply seated than this demand for fit and striking incident. The dullest of clowns tells, or tries to tell, himself a story, as the feeblest of children uses invention in his play; and even as the imaginative grown person, joining in the game, at once enriches it with many delightful circumstances, the great creative writer shows us the realisation and the apotheosis of the day-dreams of common men. His stories may be nourished with the realities of life, but their true mark is to satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and to obey the ideal laws of the day-dream.’

Fiction which engages our intellect, demanding moral and aesthetic judgement is fine. But what always goes further, penetrates our minds, makes us engage and lose ourselves in a fiction, is just the right set of circumstances and incident; a profounder type of fiction which feeds our deepest wishes and dreams.

‘In character-studies the pleasure that we take is critical; we watch, we approve, we smile at incongruities, we are moved to sudden heats of sympathy with courage, suffering or virtue. But the characters are still themselves, they are not us; the more clearly they are depicted, the more widely do they stand away from us, the more imperiously do they thrust us back into our place as a spectator… It is not character but incident that woos us out of our reserve. Something happens as we desire to have it happen to ourselves; some situation, that we have long dallied with in fancy, is realised in the story with enticing and appropriate details. Then we forget the characters; then we push the hero aside; then we plunge into the tale in our own person and bathe in fresh experience; and then, and then only, do we say we have been reading a romance.

‘It is not only pleasurable things that we imagine in our day-dreams; there are lights in which we are willing to contemplate even the idea of our own death; ways in which it seems as if it would amuse us to be cheated, wounded or calumniated. It is thus possible to construct a story, even of tragic import, in which every incident, detail and trick of circumstance shall be welcome to the reader’s thoughts. Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life; and when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance.’

Paradoxically, Stevenson argues, the light adventure stories – Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Jekyll – so often dismissed as books for boys, feed something deeper in our imaginations than indisputably more grown-up, serious and analytical texts can provide. They have certainly lasted, endured and prevailed in the popular culture in which we all swim in this year of 2012.

Jacket illustration of 'Treasure Island'

Jacket illustration of ‘Treasure Island’


A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Happy Thought

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the very simple poems collected in A Child’s Garden of Verses between 1881 and 1884,  in between work on Treasure Island and severe bouts of illness. It was originally meant to include illustrations by the (then) famous book illustrator, Randolph Caldecott, but he died in 1884 and the book was published unillustrated.

Numerous editions have been published since then, illustrated by various artists. My Penguin edition is illustrated with lovely black and white line drawings which it claims are by Eve Garnett (1900-91) whose work is sort of relaxed and scatty in a 1940s and 50s way. Except they’re not by her. Research on Google Images reveals they’re by the much more precisely drawn (and old-fashioned and twee) Millicent Sowerby (1878-1967).

Reviewers on Amazon suggest the optimal age of the audience for these poems is four. Sounds about right.

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills.

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain
The pleasant Land of Counterpane.

Millicent Sowerby Illustration to 'A Child's Garden of Verses'

Millicent Sowerby illustration to ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

My Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Kidnapped was published in the same year as ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, 1886. It is funny to think that these two stirring tales, one set in smoky London, one in the Scottish Highlands, were both written in a comfortable suburban house in Bournemouth.

Plot It is 1751, Scotland, in the years after the failed Jacobite rebellion. Young David Balfour, his parents recently dead, sets out to see his only blood relative, Uncle Ebenezer. Who sells him into slavery on a boat bound for the West Indies. Which collides with a rowing boat off the Isles, carrying the notorious Jacobite fugitive, Alan Breck Stewart. Who along with David, fights off the entire ship’s crew. The ship is then shipwrecked and David and Alan make it ashore, to spend weeks on the run from English troops, hiding in the heather and among poor Jacobite sympathisers. The plot is gripping, fast-moving and creates a continuously exciting sense of jeopardy.

Style Over and above the story, though, what gives bottomless pleasure is the easiness of Stevenson’s prose, its accuracy, its crisp vividness, its pace in moving from one telling detail to the next.

“Country folk went by from the fields as I sat there on the side of the ditch, but I lacked the spirit to give them a good-e’en. At last the sun went down, and then, right up against the yellow sky, I saw a scroll of smoke go mounting, not much thicker, as it seemed to me, than the smoke of a candle; but still there it was, and meant a fire, and warmth, and cookery, and some living inhabitant that must have lit it; and this comforted my heart.”

18th century Setting it in the 18th century liberates Stevenson, liberates his prose from the fussy, upper class English and melodramatic straitjacket it was trapped in for the New Arabian Nights. It runs lithe and free. The description of Alan Breck is a compact, typical example.

“He was smallish in stature, but well set and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark, and heavily freckled and pitted with the small-pox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming; and when he took off his great-coat, he laid a pair of fine silver-mounted pistols on the table, and I saw that he was belted with a great sword.”

The cabin boy is murdered by a drunk crewman. Note the detail:

“As he spoke, two seamen appeared in the scuttle, carrying Ransome in their arms; and the ship at that moment giving a great sheer into the sea, and the lantern swinging, the light fell direct on the boy’s face. It was as white as wax, and had a look upon it like a dreadful smile. The blood in me ran cold, and I drew in my breath as if I had been struck.”

Psychological descriptions like that follow immediately and directly from the physical action and from Stevenson’s genius for the telling detail. His imagination is fully engaged by the characters and the scenarios with the result that everything is described with a wonderful immediacy. As Davey and Alan are about to be attacked in the roundhouse:

“I do not know if I was what you call afraid; but my heart beat like a bird’s, both quick and little; and there was a dimness came before my eyes which I continually rubbed away, and which continually returned. As for hope, I had none; but only a darkness of despair and a sort of anger against all the world that made me long to sell my life as dear as I was able. I tried to pray, I remember, but that same hurry of my mind, like a man running, would not suffer me to think upon the words; and my chief wish was to have the thing begin and be done with it.”

Scots “Like a man running.” Strange and wonderful phrasing. Imagining an 18th century voice allows Stevenson to experiment with diction, wandering far from Standard English, creating wonderful phrasings. The text is given extra saltiness, tang and savour by Stevenson’s obvious enjoyment of the Highland Scots dialect used by so many of the characters:

“Captain,” says Alan, “I doubt your word is a breakable. Last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple-wife; and then passed me your word, and gave me your hand to back it; and ye ken very well what was the upshot. Be damned to your word!” says he.

Manliness The virility, the energy of Stevenson’s style perfectly matches the manliness of the tale. Unencumbered by feminine concerns the novel explores and depicts a wide variety of male types, all revolving round the sometimes ludicrous but always winning masculinity of its hero, Alan Breck.

“Do ye see me?” said Alan. “I am come of kings; I bear a king’s name. My badge is the oak. Do ye see my sword? It has slashed the heads off mair Whigamores than you have toes upon your feet. Call up your vermin to your back, sir, and fall on! The sooner the clash begins, the sooner ye’ll taste this steel throughout your vitals.”

“I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body” by Howard Pyle (1895)

“I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body” by Howard Pyle (1895)


A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886. It’s a novella ie very short, just 60 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Reams have been written about the notion of the Double in Stevenson’s fiction. It’s easy to associate it with ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, serialised just four years later, and claim there was a Victorian fascination with the dark underbelly of their world (and particularly of London, where both novels are set). Maybe. Though remember Gray was heavily criticised on its magazine publication, so much so that Wilde had to tone down the book version.

Best bit For my money the early chapters (some only a few pages long) suffer from the same shortcomings as the New Arabian Nights ie a lack of detail and a lack of narrative drive. The horror is told but not really described. It feels loose, until the fairly scary letter left by the dead Dr Lanyon describes witnessing Jekyll’s transformation – and then the whole thing is pulled together by Jekyll’s harrowing written confession. This last section could have stood on its own, frankly, and would have been one of the most powerful short stories in the canon.

Style The style is much tauter than the New Arabian nights. Tighter, each phrase packing meaning.

“The scud had banked over the moon, and it was now quite dark. The wind, which only broke in puffs and draughts into that deep well of building, tossed the light of the candle to and fro about their steps, until they came into the shelter of the theatre, where they sat down silently to wait. London hummed solemnly all around; but nearer at hand, the stillness was only broken by the sounds of a footfall moving to and fro along the cabinet floor.”

Dream Apparently the inspiration for the story came to Stevenson in a dream. He wrote a draft and showed it to his wife who said it’s more an allegory than a story. So he burned that version and rewrote the whole thing from scratch in six days. Impressive.

London Like the New Arabian Nights, the setting is London, London, London. Not by accident but as a pre-requisite, London being the biggest city in the world, one which struck all visitors as so vast that a man could be anonymous, have multiple identities, seek out strange adventures, get away with murder.

Freud Freud was 20 when this was published. Unlikely he ever knew about it. He was led to his ‘discoveries’ by the persistence of patients with compulsive, neurotic or hysterical symptoms which appeared to be the result of conflict and suppression. Ie the ‘civilised’ part of the mind trying to suppress or control damage done to, early memories of, or lusts arising from, the more ‘primitive’, base personality. I was struck that the scientist Jekyll speculates that there are more than just two sides to a personality.

This is more in line with Freud – with his tripartite system of id, ego and superego – but also with modern neuroscience which suggests the mind is a congeries of interlocking systems. Either way it undermines the simplistic ‘Doubles’ debate.

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.”

Darwin and science In the OUP introduction it explains how Darwin’s works (On The Origin of Species 1859, The Descent of Man 1870) had led to a widespread cultural anxiety about the possible degeneration of humanity to a baser state ie there is no Providence guiding human affairs inexorably upwards. There is no necessary reason why Evolution should work in what we puny mortals consider a more moral direction. For me the interesting aspect of Jekyll isn’t the religious one – the anxiety of the Scottish Calvinist tradition going back through Hogg and beyond etc; it’s the connection it makes between scientific experimentation and degeneration. Rather than linking back to a Scottish religious past, for me Jekyll links forward to a science fiction future. HG Wells and his anxiety that science could unleash the Beast – eg The Island of Dr Moreau, 1896.

Adaptations There are umpteen movie versions. The 1941 one stars Spencer Tracy and gives him Ingrid Bergman as a completely factitious love interest.

Trailer for the Spencer Tracy version of Jekyll on YouTube


A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885)

Stevenson followed the New Arabian Nights (1882) with More New Arabian Nights (1885), a set of intricately (and preposterously) interlinked stories, beginning with a man walking blandly home through London and then taking us to the American mid-West, to Paris, Glasgow and beyond with tales of murder, extortion, starvation and survival, grand deceit, escapes from the police, disguises and terrorism. I struggled with New Arabian Nights and have to confess I abandoned reading this book.

Conan Doyle and Stevenson The Story of the Destroying Angel is set among trekking Mormons in the 1860s and 70s. The religion is portrayed as a sinister cult, with its members liable to extortion and even murder at the hands of its terrifying leaders whose revenge extends even overseas. This is exactly the same setting Conan Doyle uses for the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, which he wrote the year after MNANs was published, 1886.

London-centric For all that Stevenson is thought of as a historical novelist or a Scottish novelist, the core setting of all these stories is London, and they are based on a kind of core assumption that London – the largest city in the world with over 4 million inhabitants – the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen – offers endless opportunities for adventure and excitement. The word ‘London’ occurs 24 times, its roar and fogs as omnipresent as in Sherlock Holmes.

Structure Three men down on their luck bump into each other near Leicester Square. One of them takes the others to the comfy cigar shop run by the down-on-his-luck hero of the New Arabian Nights, Prince Florizel. Over a puff they vow to each go out of their way to have an adventure; they leave the shop and – surprise – each then has an adventure. Not so subtly these adventures turn out all to be interlinked.

  • “Prologue of the Cigar Divan”. Three down at heel gentlemen meet and take a cigar and discuss having adventures.
  • “Challoner’s adventure: The Squire of Dames”. Challoner is walking through a quiet London street in Putney when he hears a bang and smoke escaping from a house quickly followed by two men and woman running out. He follows the woman and tries at tedious length to get her to tell her story…
  • “Story of the Destroying Angel”. The woman tells a long cock-and-bull story about how her father trekking West in America comes across a party of Mormons escaping persecution; rescuing them he becomes a respected member of the settlement they found. But Mormon tyranny eventually leads him to be persecuted and then assassinated. The young lady flees Utah to England, Liverpool and London helped by the loyal doctor who has always been a friend of the family. He promises his son will rendezvous with her in London. Instead she is amazed when the doctor himself arrives and announces he is working on an Elixir of Eternal Youth: once he has completed it and drunk it he will be as young as a son and a worthy suitor for her. He calls her to witness him adding the finishing touches to the potion but instead of becoming the Elixir it explodes in a cloud of smoke. This is the explosion she claims Challoner saw as he walked past the house in Putney…
  • “The Squire of Dames (Concluded)” She says Challoner must immediately catch a train to Glasgow and meet the only man who can rescue her. With misgivings he goes, knocks on the door to find a terrified man who reads the letter he is bearing, runs round the house then exits with a slam of the door. Challoner finds the letter he’d been carrying which describes him, Challoner, as a foolish oaf whose sole purpose is to warn the inhabitant of the house that the police are on their track. At that moment the police knock on the door! and, terrified, Challoner flees into the garden where he finds a ladder, leans it against the wall, climbs up and over to find himself received by conspirators who whisk him off to a safe house. He is caught up in some kind of dastardly conspiracy!
  • “Somerset’s adventure: The Superfluous Mansion” the narrative cuts to another of the loafers who had met in the cigar shop, Somerset who, walking home, encounters an old lady who takes him to her house. There she tells him the following story:
  • “Narrative of the Spirited Old Lady” As a young lady she rebelled against her parents and arranged to elope with a family friend, so she fled to London but the friend bottled out and never appeared. Thus flung on the world she took rooms but quickly found herself in debt. She tries to sneak out of her rented rooms with a heavy case and luckily finds a dashing young man to help her. They take a cab to a house where he reveals himself as an immensely rich aristocrat who proposes to her on the spot. They are happily married for years and have a daughter who, however, gets involved with political causes and runs away. the husband passes on. The old lady inherits her husband’s wealth and the house where they are now talking…
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)” She tells him a further long account of how she was once loitering near her house, which she had rented out to strangers, when she noticed some odd behaviour. A man approaching, then going away from, then again approaching her house. She sneaks in the back way and discovers an assassin with a bomb in the pantry (and locks him in) and then a young man in colloquy with Prince Florizel (for it is he!). the young man realises his plot (whatever it is) has been found out and promptly swallows poison but the old lady is swift and administers an emetic (lots of vinegar). there is a muffled explosion from below where the other young man, realising his plot has been foiled, shoots himself!…
  • “Zero’s Tale of the Explosive Bomb”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)”
  • “Desborough’s Adventure: The Brown Box”
  • “Story of the Fair Cuban”
  • “The Brown Box (Concluded)”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Concluded)”
  • “Epilogue of the Cigar Divan”

Silliness There’s probably lots to say about how Stevenson’s use of interlinking narratives, of contrasting point of view and so on claim him as an early Modernist or post-Modernist. But from the reader’s point of view this elaborate structuring has a fatal flaw: I don’t care about the stories. They are so obviously made up, padded out, and badly written, they are such wretched examples of Victorian melodrama at its worst, that I gave up being interested in any of the characters or what happened to them, and eventually abandoned reading the book altogether.

Stage melodrama The word ‘terror’ occurs 23 times, often with no justification. It is used to assert the thing, not to create it through narrative. And to create stagey moments of arch melodrama:

‘Thank you a thousand times!  But at this hour, in this appalling silence, and among all these staring windows, I am lost in terrors—oh, lost in them!’ she cried, her face blanching at the words.  ‘I beg you to lend me your arm,’ she added with the loveliest, suppliant inflection.  ‘I dare not go alone; my nerve is gone—I had a shock, oh, what a shock!  I beg of you to be my escort.’

Rubbish.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

New Arabian Nights by Robert Louis Stevenson (1882)

I didn’t know that some critics consider Stevenson the father of the English short story. I can almost understand why from the stories in this collection. They each create an exciting sense of mystery and intrigue, although they do unfortunately then tend to peter out…

It was with a short story – A Lodging for the Night – published in 1877, that Stevenson made his fictional debut, aged 26. He gathered it and his other short stories into the 1882 collection New Arabian Nights which was very well received. The book is divided into two volumes:

Volume one Seven stories published by London Magazine in serial format from June to October 1878, composed of two story groups, or cycles:

The Suicide Club – three linked tales about a gentleman’s club which ‘helps’ its members do away with themselves. The character of the bored, drawling Prince Florizel, given to disguises and mingling with London lowlife, and who resolves the situations set up in each story, reminded me of Oscar Wilde heroes, and that Stevenson himself cultivated a reputation as a dandy. Then again, the langorous aristocrat was a stereotype of late Victorian fiction. The prose is stately, with nicely balanced pairs of subordinate clauses.

During his residence in London, the accomplished Prince Florizel of Bohemia gained the affection of all classes by the seduction of his manner and by a well-considered generosity. He was a remarkable man even by what was known of him; and that was but a small part of what he actually did.
(The Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts)

In the second set of four linked stories, The Rajah’s Diamond, a woman and her brother conspire to steal her husband’s famous jewel (Story of the Bandbox); by a series of coincidences a trainee priest finds the famous jewels and promptly abandons his studies to flee to Paris, in the company of the original jewel-owner’s desperado brother (Story of the Young Man in Holy Orders); a young bank assistant from Edinburgh is called to Paris where he gets involved in the machinations between the characters of the previous stories (Story of the House with the Green Blinds); and Prince Florizel, the hero of The Suicide Club, reappears and resolves the fate of the great jewel (The Adventure of Prince Florizel and a Detective).

They are a cross between Oscar Wilde’s adventures among the upper classes and Conan Doyle’s crime yarns – but not as finished as either of them. The attitude is clever-young-man, cavalier. The prose is serviceable, sometimes stylish, without the sparkle or crispness of Treasure Island:

Not long after, the marriage of Francis Scrymgeour and Miss Vandeleur was celebrated in great privacy; and the Prince acted on that occasion as groom’s man. The two Vandeleurs surprised some rumour of what had happened to the diamond; and their vast diving operations on the River Seine are the wonder and amusement of the idle. It is true that through some miscalculation they have chosen the wrong branch of the river. As for the Prince, that sublime person, having now served his turn, may go, along with the Arabian Author, topsy-turvy into space.

Volume two The second volume is a collection of four unconnected stories, previously published in magazines:

  • The Pavilion on the Links (1880) told in nine mini-chapters. Arthur Conan Doyle described this as the best short story in the world. It certainly starts with great mystery and vivid description of its setting on the bleak Scottish coast, and with the mysterious figure of the wandering vagabond narrator. But, like the stories above, it gets less interesting as it goes along. All the mystery built up so well in the early sections disappears in a puff when we learn the mysterious men are just protecting a thieving old banker from the vengeful Italian carbonari he has cheated. I see Penguin published it as one of their mini-paperbacks. I wouldn’t be in any rush to read it.
  • A Lodging for the Night (1877) His first published effort, not really a story at all, just an imagining of a vivid night in the life of the famous lowlife French medieval poet, Francois Villon.
  • The Sire De Malétroits Door (1877)
  • Providence and the Guitar (1878)

1001 The title is obviously an allusion to the Arab classic, One Thousand and One Nights, which was very popular around this time. John Payne’s translation from the Arabic in nine volumes began publishing in 1882, and Richard Burton’s translation was published in 1885. Stevenson uses the name because his stories are interlinked, as in the original; but also uses its fictionality to justify his cynical, rather throwaway attitude to the stories and the abrupt cuts between them.

The mystery-solving Prince Florizel It’s interesting to see the way the langorous prince Florizel figure is used to tie together all seven of the stories in volume one, and to note the way the device nearly but not quite works; there’s something unsatisfactory; he kind of sorts out the mysteries raised so interestingly at the start of each story, but randomly as it were. There is no compelling logic to the tales themselves, which are mostly just sequences of accidents.

Did Prince Florizel influence Sherlock Holmes? It’s interesting to speculate how much Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by the recurring figure of Prince Florizel. Did he see the value in having a recurring character introducing or starring in mystery stories but recognise that he needed some kind of mechanism or device to really justify his ubiquity? That the figure needed real tools to solve mysteries, not just Prince Florizel’s gentlemanly attitude? Did this train of thought help lead to the creation of the freelance detective who would solve each one of his numerous cases by forensic insights bordering on magic? Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet, just four years after New Arabian Nights was published.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

%d bloggers like this: