The Weekly Machen

The following article is taken from Odd Volumes, Machen’s irregular series of book reviews for the Evening News. Below, are several sections dedicated to books which have nearly all fallen into obscurity with their authors. Yet, the opener gives us an opportunity to read brief opinions by our correspondent on Robert Louis Stevenson. This is interesting because RLS was clearly an influence on Machen’s early fiction. For example, Machen’s The Lost Club (1890) shares striking characteristics with Stevenson’s The Suicide Club (1878). The same can be said of Machen’s The Three Impostors (1895), yet it would be easy to overstate this influence. While both of the cited works by Machen bear resemblances to RLS, at their core, each are purely the creation of their author. Like The Suicide Club, The Three Impostors employs an episodic structure to chart the adventures of the book’s main characters, yet it is impossible to imagine Stevenson creating that weird saga! Afterward, Machen would shed any imitation and forge a bold new course in his writing.


Odd Volumes:
Some Thoughts on Robert Louis Stevenson
by
Arthur Machen
May 20, 1911

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In little more than a year’s time it will be possible for lovers of Robert Louis Stevenson to possess the complete works of their favourite in twenty-five neat volumes for the moderate price of £7 10s.

The new edition, which is called the “Swanston Stevenson,” is to be issued by Messrs. Chatto and Windus. The type is clear and pleasant and the size (crown 8vo) quite the handiest that could have been chosen. Big books and little books are alike unfit for common uses and everyday reading, though each has its place and pride: the one in grave and learned shelves, the other on a lady’s pretty drawing-room table, beside her snuffboxes and miniatures.

It will be interesting to read Mr. Andrew Lang’s elaborate preface to the Swanston Stevenson, for it is sure to be full of good things. {Read Lang’s RLS Intro – ed.}

Personally, I have always been of the opinion that the best criticism of R. L. S. was penned in the leading columns of the Pall Mall Gazette on the day on which Stevenson’s death was announced. The leading article spoke of the dead author as among the greatest of “The Little Masters”; and as I say, it seems to me that no juster verdict could possibly be given.

And if the Stevenson enthusiasts call this a damning with faint praise, let them remember that it places their hero in the rank of Herrick; that it awards him the merit of a charm which is not short of exquisite.

Stevenson handled his materials beautifully and perfectly; but his figures are figurines, not godlike statues of the heroic mould.

It would be difficult to distinguish exactly in precise words between little and great master, minor poet and major; but perhaps the difference is this, that the great artists’ emotions are felt with the utmost degree of intensity possible. Major and minor tend the same flame; but Herrick’s fire is a ruddy glow, while Milton’s aspires in pure white heat.

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Letters from Finland

There is something odd and a little startling in being confronted by a language which has absolutely no relationship to one’s own tongue.

For if one thinks of it, one can go a long way linguistically and yet see here and there a friendly and familiar face – that is, word. There is a gulf between Wales and Spain, but as a travelled Welshman once observed to me, the Spanish call a horse “caballo,” which is like the Welsh word for the animal, “ceffyl.”

So an Englishman can find familiar sounds in such outlandish tongues as Greek and Sanscrit; there are old root-words common to all.

But what is one to make of “yski, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuusi, seitsemän, kahdeksan, yhdesksän, kymmenen”?

These strange words, we are informed in “Letters from Finland,” by Rosalind Travers (Kegan Pail), are the first ten numerals in Finnish, and the look of them is enough to tell us that the Finnish language is altogether outside the great Aryan pale.

How to Begin a Story

There are some very noteworthy things in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s essays on the art of beginning a story. The first words, according to Poe, should be vital, suggestive, giving the keynote of what is to come, ringing up the reader’s attention.

How far do the novelists of to-day follow Poe’s precept?* Here are a few examples of first sentences taken from current novels:­–

The School of Love,” by Priscilla Craven (Laurie):

It was a tearful April day.

The Ascent of the Bostocks,” by Harold Storey (Paul):

Mrs. Rawson’s verandah was a pleasant extension of the drawing-room, and overlooked a pretty garden of flower-beds, gravelled paths, and miniature lawns.”

The Torch of Venus,” Leslie Mortimer (John Long):

The bungalow was a very beautiful and special creation, designed for a very beautiful and special person.

The White Owl,” by Kate Horn (Paul):

Between sleeping and waking, Persephone Bellairs heard her death warrant.

Clearly the last “opening” best satisfies the test proposed by Poe.

With a Motor in Italy

When you have read “Through the Alps to the Apennines” (Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.), you must have come to the conclusion that the only way to know a country is to motor through it.

Certainly the Italy of the author, Mr. P. G. Konody, is a very different Italy from that of the ordinary tourist, dependent on the railway. Mr. Konody and his friends – one would like to know “Pomponius” – explored villages where a motor-car had never been seen, and they met the real Italian peasant, unspoiled by contact with the guide-book visitor, who must get the impression that, after all, Italy is only an enlarged Saffron Hill.

Mr. Konody is a critic of great distinction, and his book is largely concerned, naturally, with the art treasures of the country; but merely as a record of amusing – and sometimes disturbing – adventure it would be well worth reading.

The work is lavishly presented, and has nearly a hundred illustrations, the photographs being particularly good.


NOTE

How does Arthur Machen stand up to Poe’s precept?

From The Three Impostors:
And Mr. Joseph Walters is going to stay the night?” said the smooth clean-shaven man to his companion, an individual not of the most charming appearance, who had chosen to make his ginger-colored mustache merge into a pair of short chin-whiskers.

From Hill of Dreams:
There was a glow in the sky as if great furnace doors were opened.

From The Terror:
After two years we are turning once more to the morning’s news with a sense of appetite and glad expectation.

From The Secret Glory:
A heavy cloud passed swiftly away before the wind that came with the night, and far in a clear sky the evening star shone with pure brightness, a gleaming world set high above the dark earth and the black shadows in the lane.

From The Green Round:
It was at the end of a dreary spring day when Mr. Lawrence Hillyer came to the uneasy conclusion that something was amiss, and that it was time to pull himself together.

The Weekly

Previous: The Book of Common Joys

Next: The War Behind the War


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. I suppose Mr. Konody explained how the automobile was kept supplied with gas while operating in rural areas where a car was a strange sight. His book sounds like it could be a pleasant read, and I’m glad to learn of a critic whom Machen approved — evidently primarily a critic of art rather than of literature.

    The matter of Machen’s possible interest in architecture and the fine arts has perhaps not been much explored. By the way, Schakel’s book from 20 years ago about Imagination and the Arts in the thought of C. S. Lewis was a real pleasure to read. We are pressed hard by images if we use a computer, watch TV, etc. We might do well to make a conscious effort to push back against that situation by consciously selecting pictures to see daily that will suggest better things. There’s the Russian Orthodox idea of the “beautiful corner” with icons in the east of a room. Among relatively recent artists, the works of the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer may be mentioned.

    Naturally, we usually ask what are Machen’s most Stevensonian writings. This inquiry is a bit inhibited because most of us (certainly myself) are not well read in Stevenson’s essays (and perhaps not always even in Machen’s!).

    Well, it might be worth a few minutes to think about which writings by Stevenson are most suggestive of Machen’s. Certainly The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has an affinity with familiar tales of Machen’s. But Stevenson’s “Olalla” should be read too, a weird tale set in Spain, written about the same time as the better-known novella.

    Dale Nelson

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    1. Although literary criticism and his stint in the performing arts are better documented, Machen did have an interest in the fine arts and architecture. From the bits I’ve read, he favors classic forms vs modernism in the fine arts and has a particular fondness with Gothic architecture. He also wrote a little on music and admitted a fondness for Bach. I agree that this area should be better explored.

      Off the top of my head, I’d add Stevenson’s Arabian Nights collection and Markheim, which can be read here: https://darklybrightpress.com/markheim/. Though darker in tone, this latter story is a forerunner to Machen’s The Young Man in Blue Serge Suit. This would be a good topic for a future study!

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    2. Did RLS write essays? If so, I wonder if there is an in-print collection available. I must admit I know little about his work outside the fantastic stories.

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      1. RLS wrote several books of essays. J. R. Hammond’s Robert Louis Stevenson Companion mentions these books —

        1.Virginibus Puerisque (“Young Men and Maidens”)
        2.Familiar Studies of Men and Books
        3.Memories and Portraits

        Hammond classes some or all of Stevenson’s travel writing with his essays:

        1.An Inland Voyage
        2.Travels with a Donkey
        3.Across the Plains — the original edition, at least, contained a number of essays as well as a travel narrative
        4.In the South Seas

        Hammond mentions essays such as “A Plea for Gas Lamps,” “Walking Tours,” “Memoirs of an Islet,” “Talk and Talkers,” “A Gossip on Romance” [“he argues that romance (defined as ‘the poetry or circumstance’] is a fundamental human need”), “A Humble Remonstrance,” “The Lantern-Bearers,” and “A Chapter on Dreams” (“discusses the genesis of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”).

        There’s a Stevenson book called Essays on the Art of Writing, which might gather some of the items mentioned above. I guess it would be a good idea to poke around the Internet a bit for clarification about Stevenson’s essays, but maybe this will get us started.

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      2. Stevenson’s essay “A Gossip on Romance” might be a good one to start with, in that its argument has some affinities with Machen’s point in Hieroglyphics about fine literature vs. fiction that may be excellent (Jane Austen’s novels, etc.) but that lacks “ecstasy.”

        Stevenson makes a remark that reminds one of something in Machen’s story “The Children of the Pool.” Stevenson writes, “Some places speak distinctly. Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.”

        Stevenson tells a fine anecdote about an illiterate Welsh blacksmith who happened to hear someone reading out loud, in a farm kitchen, a translation of Robinson Crusoe. He set himself, “painfully,” to learn Welsh so that he could read it. But when he was ready to read it, he could no longer acquire the Welsh translation of Robinson Crusoe. So he went and learned English, “and at length, and with entire delight, read Robinson.”

        Stevenson writes about “day-dreams” in the essay, but I’m not sure he really means the familiar self-pleasing kind of (often ignoble) reverie usually indicated by that term. I think he’s at least approaching Machen’s idea of “ecstasy.” Stevenson indicates the kind of novel that lacks “romance” yet may be impressive in its way with Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, rather than Jane Austen and Thackeray.

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    3. I’m now reading More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, by Stevenson and his wife, and am amazed by how much like The Three Impostors it is (minus the supernatural horror). I’d read that Machen was indebted to Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, but never suspected how much indebted he was. The first “Nights” book seems markedly less proto-Machenian.

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      1. Thanks for posting this observation. The Three Impostors is the climax to Machen’s Stevensonian period, a trend in his fiction of which he was self-aware. Afterward, Machen’s writing developed a independent and personal style.

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  2. Machen’s Konody review got me thinking about a Stevenson book I have not yet read, but which has a title which seems somehow very familiar: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. Might it, and 30 years from donkey to motor-car, have played in the back of his mind? My mind now on motor-cars, I checked the date of The Wind in the Willows – less than three years before this article. Thank you for the Konody link – following it, and clicking on his name there – what a lot of art books (including two Great War-related ones)!

    Fascinating note on “caballo” and “ceffyl ” – I often wonder (without trying to do my homework) when Latin loan-words are likely to have entered Welsh – in ‘monastic’ times? or perhaps even already in P-Celtic in ancient Roman times? But I never recall being aware of “ceffyl” – a nice ‘low’ or ‘vulgar’ Latin borrowing, I suppose… (contrast the ‘equus’ of the Vulgate Bible) – might that mean likely to be early?

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  3. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes — That’s a good read, by the way — warmly recommended.

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