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Stevenson’s “Wide and Starry Sky”

ISSUE:  Winter 1997
The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew. Yale. Eight volumes; $45.00 per volume.

How nice and fresh this frosty day is! The air here is quite still and clear and quite exhilarating to breathe. That’s a very hard word to spell—a very hard word indeed: you can alter my spelling of it to suit your own taste—Stevenson to his mother, December 1872

The publication of some 2,800 letters written by Robert Louis Stevenson (more than half of which appear in print for the first time) is a stunning achievement that greatly enhances the literary legacy of one of Scotland’s most famous authors. This new eight-volume edition published by Yale University Press undoubtedly will greatly influence our understanding of the author’s life and work in the coming decades. A gifted and prolific letter writer, Louis, as he was called by those who knew him, chronicled his all too brief life in a charmingly witty and often dramatic manner. The record of his early squabbles with his parents and of his infatuation with Frances Sitwell, a married woman more than a decade his senior and subsequently regarded by him as a Madonna figure, reveal a confident young man in search of his place in the world. Although he was iconoclastic to a degree, Stevenson’s nature tended toward humility and reasonableness, a fact easily discerned in his fiction and amply evidenced in this collection of letters. The accounts of his life-long struggle with very poor health and his exhaustive (and ultimately futile) meandering across the globe in hopes of finding a climate agreeable to his delicate constitution are a literary pathos in itself. Taken as a whole, his telling of his own life story through these letters casts a spell as magical and as wonderful as any produced by his delightful century-old fictional prose or verse. What was long ago written to describe Stevenson’s fiction can be applied as well to his letters: “He had known how to stamp all he wrote with the impress of a vivid personal charm.”

Louis Stevenson, an only child of two prominent Edinburgh families (Stevenson and Balfour), was destined to suffer from chronic bronchial afflictions. His stern but loving father, Thomas Stevenson, a distinguished Edinburgh engineer and meteorologist, wanted nothing more from his sickly son than for him to follow his footsteps by joining the family’s civil engineering firm. Louis’s rejection of this expectation was of course a serious blow to the family, all the more so since his father had achieved some reputation for inventing the azimuthal condensing system of lighthouse illumination, a system universally adopted in the second half of the 19th century for improving the construction and illumination of lighthouses. However, the disappointment engendered by Louis when he turned his back on the family engineering dynasty paled in comparison to the ire that he roused when he exchanged the Scotch Calvinistic faith of his parents for the uncertain beliefs of the agnostic (or even worse, the atheist). Family relations were strained severely for a time as Louis flirted with some of the excesses of bohemianism, but a complete break never took place, partly because of the father’s anxiety about the constant ill health of his son, and partly because of Louis’s diplomacy in communicating with his parents. To please his father Louis studied law and won admission to the Scottish bar, but neither his temperament nor his health permitted him to practice the profession; instead he decided to earn his living by writing fiction. The vicissitudes of a career that during the Victorian era was still held in low esteem extended Louis’s pecuniary reliance on his parents even after he had married Fanny Osborne, a divorced American 11 years older than he. Ironically, Stevenson’s father as a young man had expressed more than a cursory interest in the Latin and English classics and tried his own hand at writing fiction until his father, Robert Stevenson (Louis’s namesake), in an infuriated rage brought the activity to an abrupt halt. Tom Stevenson’s literary pursuits henceforth were confined to the subjects of engineering and meteorology, although he published a treatise on the evidences for Christianity about 10 years before his death.

In addition to the specific personal matters of health and family, these volumes of correspondence are filled with allusions to Stevenson’s preoccupation with the perplexing questions about the essential qualities of man’s existence, notably the dual nature and character of man, or what Stevenson after St. Paul described as the “war within my members.” His exploration into the moral ambiguity of good and evil in the world (and especially within man himself), a subject that has plagued many a former Calvinist, is often masked with graceful and timely humor. Although he could never quite shake off the stark depravity inherent in the logic of his father’s Calvinism, Stevenson continued to grapple with the difficulty until the end of his life; the fascination reoccurs time and again in both his correspondence and his artistic work, culminating, of course, in the 1886 publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekytt and Mr. Hyde. Jenni Calder has argued convincingly in Robert Louis Stevenson: A Life Study (1980) that Stevenson exposed two of the most contradictory elements of his own nature in what is probably his greatest literary effort, Kidnapped, also published in 1886. Calder interprets the courageous yet proud and rash characters of David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart as two “irreconcilables” of Louis himself: Stewart, the cavalier “bonny fighter,” and Balfour (Louis’s third given name which he dropped), the youthful “rational innocent,” neither of whom are capable of weathering life’s storms without the other, who spend much of their time alone bickering with each other.

At the heart of the modern scholarly edition, whether it be literary or historical, is a coherent and well formulated editorial policy that sets forth consistent and dependable rules for document selection, transcription, annotation, and presentation. Ernest Mehew’s introduction in the first volume (Bradford Booth died in 1968) contains exactly what it should: a discussion of the history of the documents being printed and the editorial procedures governing the edition; a passing glimpse at earlier editions of Stevenson’s letters, including Letters to His Family and Friends, edited by Stevenson’s literary mentor and close friend, Sidney Colvin; and biographical descriptions of Stevenson’s main correspondents (nearly half of the correspondence is addressed to Louis’s parents and four close friends, Sidney Colvin, Frances Sitwell, W.E. Henley, and Charles Baxter). The printing of the documents in chronological order, which has become standard procedure for documentary editions, works well for a correspondence collection of this size. It would be uncharitable to complain that in selecting the documents the editors did not print enough letters written to Stevenson when they present some 1,700 hitherto unseen letters written by him. Introductory head-notes that are meant to divide the large numbers of letters into sections and provide context and continuity for the documents are so brief that they may as well have been dispensed with altogether, however. The annotation is adequate without being burdensome; obscure persons are identified, and the literary focus of the notes is especially interesting and useful. The printing of footnotes at the bottom of each page rather than behind each document, presumably a publisher’s decision, at times produces ludicrous back to back duplications of note numbers.

The major weakness that permeates this edition, unfortunately, is the transcription of the letters. The editors were rightly incensed at the truncated and expurgated versions of many of the letters printed in the earlier editions of Stevenson’s letters. To their credit the editors print letters in full but an editorial policy more in line with the modern scholarly editing community would have given the transcriptions more creditability. Specifically, the new edition suffers most from the editorial decision not to keep the transcriptions as literal as possible. I do not refer to the standardization of salutations, datelines, closings, superior letters, and etc., which have to do with form and which is perfectly acceptable, or to the standardization of contractions, abbreviations, titles, quotes, and foreign words, which, though questionable, conceivably could be defended. But the regularization of initial capital letters where the author’s “practice seems to have no significance,” the reparagraphing of “some long letters,” and the admission by Mehew that “I have not scrupled to add or delete an occasional punctuation mark without comment, for ease of reading” is anything but sound editorial policy. (Stevenson in 1881 angrily declared to Henley that “Your printer is a bloody insolent dog, whom I could smite on the mouth. Who is he to alter all my punctuation.”) More serious than these intrusions, though, is the editorial decision to correct the “misspellings” of this literary giant; indeed, Sidney Colvin declared of Stevenson that to “spell in a quite accurate and grown-up manner was a thing this master of English letters was never able to learn.” Owing to the unstandardized spelling of the period in which he worked as well as to his personal idiosyncracies, Stevenson apparently tended to double the letters “1” and “t” and to hyphenate words beginning with “dis” or “mis”; he also never bothered to memorize the “proper” (i.e., accepted) spelling of many “ei” words. “To perpetuate such misspellings,” writes Mehew, “would merely distract the reader’s attention and I have silently corrected them. Misspellings deliberately used for comic effect have been retained, as have a few deliberate archaic spellings.” Given the scope of Stevenson’s fertile imagination and the prevalence of humor in his correspondence, one cannot help but wonder how many of the author’s deliberate misspellings have been corrected in the editorial quest not to “distract the reader’s attention.” Other editorial changes and insertions seem to follow no established rules whatsoever, such as setting off within single quote marks words which appear naked in the text. In defense of Mehew, however, it must be stated that he is not a professional scholar but a civil servant who completed this work as a labor of love.

Robert Louis Stevenson worked in a multiplicity of styles—moral, critical, sentimental, romance, parable, mystery, drama, adventure, humor, historical, memoir, and verse. The publication of this new edition of Stevenson’s letters certainly complements the author’s vast literary corpus and the central themes that emerge from the letters will inform and probably transform Stevensonian studies. The edition for the most part can be recommended without serious reservation.


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