ARTHUR RANSOME'S Long-lost Study of ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Edited by KIRSTY NICHOL FINDLAY
ISBN 978 1 84383 672 8 - Published by BOYDELL & BREWER LTD.
Yes the title really is that long! This fascinating book, published on 15th September 2011, really starts with the discovery of Arthur Ransome's (AR's) 1914 draft manuscript about Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) in 1990 in the strong room of a firm of city solicitors. Discoveries of this nature are more in the province of thriller writer and solicitor, the late Michael Gilbert. However the reviewer has been present in strong rooms, following a client's death, when a half sheet of unused penny black stamps was unearthed; also a heavy box with German WW1 pistols and live ammunition was located, so perhaps we should not be unduly surprised at what comes to light.
This manuscript was written on loose pages in AR's own hand, it was obviously a first draft and much hard work had to done by the late David Sewart and Christina Hardyment to produce an understandable text. This work was aided by the use of an exercise book, compiled by AR in Russia, which gives an outline of his plan for the finished book. The text of this exercise book is given in full in appendix A1.
The Editor has provided valuable information about AR's time in Edwardian London pre WW1. This is almost a story in itself with a ferment of literary talent in which authors such as Edward Thomas, PG Wodehouse and AR thrived with prodigious disciplined outputs for magazines and other ephemera whilst writing a variety of commissioned books.
Among these books, Martin Secker had commissioned AR to write a series of critical studies of authors. AR's works on Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde had been published, the latter leading to a libel action by Lord Alfred Douglas which had been decided in AR's favour. Interesting to read that AR had considerable support from Daniel Macmillan during the Wilde book libel trial, yet no work was given to the publishing family until, many years on, they took over the later part of the production of the US hardback Swallows & Amazons series from the JB Lippincott Company of Philadelphia.
It should be noted that when AR's work failed to materialise, Secker commissioned Frank Swinnerton to write the critical appreciation. AR's unsigned review of this work was unfavourable. This rivalry is briefly but well handled in the book.
AR had admired RLS ever since childhood. Indeed his first hand written novel, written at the age of 8 and reproduced in Appendix B1, was based on Treasure Island.
They had a common interest in folk tales, with RLS concentrating on those of Scotland and the South Sea Islands whilst AR was interested in those emanating from Russia. This is a theme that might have been developed more by the Editor in the surrounding commentary.
AR was well suited to write about RLS as examination of AR's approach as a fellow artist craftsman to the collaboration between writer and reader, (or story teller and listener overhearing the story as AR later phrased it) with the former firing the imagination of the latter. This recognition of this type of style leads to the conclusion that AR ahead of time as literary critic.
AR considered that his text really could be made into two books, one dealing with the life of RLS and the other as a commentary on the style and achievement of RLS. We are fortunate that the Editor has provided many footnotes which provide a path back to the scholarship of the day. The advantages of seeing AR's work at first draft stage are discussed with its immediacy and even autobiographical overtones are discussed.
AR was trying to provide a balanced criticism of RLS's work in contrast to the adulatory work of other contemporary writers. However it is a first draft and AR would usually redraft several times until the work took some polish. In addition the RLS work is written in an earlier style and before his writing underwent other formative experiences during his self-imposed exile in Russia. In particular having to file newspaper stories by telegraph did develop a "make every word count philosophy" which led to the readability of the Swallows & Amazons series.
The manuscript provides a valuable insight into the work of RLS who is tied to AR and AR's parents though a bond of a shared time frame in history, this common time experience is nearly impossible to replicate by later writers. The Editor has surrounded the manuscript with much valuable information on AR's life and his way of working both in the text and appendices.
The appendices also include other writings by AR on RLS including reviews of books on RLS, AR's research lists for his manuscript and immediate family tree charts for the Stevenson and Ransome families and also the Collingwood's – this latter chart must be for AR enthusiasts only.
There is an interesting balance of pictures, many in colour, in the illustration section. Of the 16 pictures, 13 relate to the manuscript and AR. whilst only 3 relate to RLS. Perhaps this is down to the lack of available material from an earlier era.
In dealing with effectively 3 books in 1, AR's literary & domestic life in Edwardian times, the RLS manuscript and the story of the manuscript; the Editor has used the rope makers' skill of weaving the three strands into an effective result.
This book is an essential for the serious student of either writer and is particularly revealing about AR's early writing style. With the continual reassessment of RLS in the 21st Century, this book will add much weight to any future evaluation.
The book is easily obtainable in America, as well as the UK, through the US office of Boydell & Brewer in Rochester NY and is available worldwide through good booksellers.
Reviewed by Owen Roberts, September, 2011
This article is ©2011 by Owen Roberts, and posted on All Things
Ransome with permission.
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