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

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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—-
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.
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.
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.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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  1. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) « Books & Boots

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