Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology

Robert Louis Stevenson, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares have more in common than membership of the subset of writers who use three names: both Borges and Casares were admirers of their predecessor and had included ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’ in Extraordinary Tales. This fable was also to be included in an anthology of Stevenson’s work which they planned and hoped to translate and publish. Unfortunately those plans never came to fruition, but now, thanks to Kevin MacNeil, we can finally read their selection, if only in English. The Anthology cannot be described as the perfect introduction to Stevenson as it contains nothing of his most famous works – neither of his bona fide classics, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, are represented, nor is anything of his historical novels, such as Kidnapped. Instead we have a selection of his essays, one of his best known short stories (‘The Bottle Imp’), ‘The Suicide Club’ (from New Arabian Nights) and a selection of fables.

Stevenson’s non-fiction is no longer well known, yet a quick glance at what he published in his lifetime will demonstrate it formed much of his output, including several volumes of travel writing. Even more neglected are the essays, many of which were collected in his lifetime, beginning with the publication of Virginibus Puerisque in 1881 (Treasure Island did not appear until two years later). Borges and Casares have chosen twelve of these to make up the first half of the Anthology, beginning with ‘Lay Morals’ from an unfinished treatise on ethics which was only published after Stevenson’s death. This highlights the way in which Stevenson was fascinated throughout his life by moral questions yet never found an easy answer in religion (it can be helpfully partnered with ‘Faith, Half-Faith and No Faith at All’). This is followed by five further essays which might be termed ‘moral’ ranging from the cosmic (‘Pulvis et Umbra’) to the everyday (‘On the Choice of a Profession’). The former contains some extraordinary writing:

“We behold space sown with rotary islands, suns and worlds and the shards and wrecks of systems: some like the sun, still blazing; some rotting, like the earth; others, like the moon, stable in desolation.”

Stevenson crafts his sentences, and, like any other craftsman, he has his favourite tool: the semi-colon. His longest sentence in this volume (I think) also features in this essay, coming in at two hundred and twenty-nine words. This is not to suggest he is long-winded; he can as easily deploy a deceptive simplicity:

“Education, as practiced, is a form of harnessing with the friendliest intentions.”

The remaining essays focus (perhaps unsurprisingly) on the art of writing, and include his famous manifesto, ‘A Humble Remonstrance’, as well as lesser known insights such as ‘A Note on Realism.’ The latter debates the qualities of realism (Zola’s Germinal was published the year before Jekyll and Hyde) versus those of what Stevenson terms ‘idealism’ (or what might be known in post-modern terms as ‘fabulation’). Stevenson, despite what some might see as his vested interest, is able to see both sides of the critical divide:

“The immediate danger of the realist is to sacrifice the beauty and significance of the whole to local dexterity, or, in the insane pursuit of completion, to immolate his readers under facts…The danger of the idealist is, of course, to become merely null and lose all grip of fact, particularity or passion.”

The Anthology’s second half is filled with Stevenson’s fiction, from his earliest (‘The Suicide Club’ published in 1883) to his latest (‘The Bottle Imp’ from 1893). (As the dates demonstrate, Stevenson’s writing life was brief) The former is written very much as entertainment despite its dark premise, with an emphasis on breathless plotting and central characters who are self-consciously heroic. The latter, despite its supernatural premise, is more ‘believable’, Stevenson having developed his ability in ‘realism’ without losing any of his skill in constructing a story. Both noticeably, though in different ways, grapple with moral issues, as do the seven fables that follow (from the posthumously published Fables), brief stories which make a moral point, written in the style of tales or legends.

The Anthology provides a welcome reminder, not only of Stevenson’s range, but of the regard he was, and is, held in by other writers. Though his work is now widely available electronically, critical editions from respected publishers of ‘classics’ are not. If you want to buy his complete short stories you will have to buy an American edition. Luckily Robert Louis Stevenson Day provides an annual opportunity to read his work – one that everyone should take.

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8 Responses to “Robert Louis Stevenson: An Anthology”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What an interesting post, Grant – I had no ideal Borges and Casares were fans. And you’re right to rue the lack of critical opinions – it seems to me on my (so far limited) acquaintance with RLS that he deserves a lot more serious intention than he sometimes gets. Where is the complete critical works???

    • 1streading Says:

      Edinburgh University were certainly working on that, though I don’t know how many volumes were published. Seems obvious for a classics imprint to then publish it in paperback!
      This comes with a great introduction by Kevin MacNeil which describes Borges and Casares’ plans.

  2. tonymess12 Says:

    Complete short stories in an American edition!!! ‘Tis absurd.

    • 1streading Says:

      The complete short stories are useful as it can be difficult to find all the different collections (unless you just want scanned originals). I hadn’t read any of his fables before this.

  3. Melissa Beck Says:

    I’ve always loved Treasure Island. I had forgotten he wrote essays, this looks like a great anthology. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Tredynas Days Says:

    Javier Marías, I seem to recall, is a fan, too. We need a good affordable English edition of the works

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, of course – he’s included in Written Lives. I like the way he describes him as “an elusive figure, as if his personality had never become fully defined.”

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