Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mr. Archie would never be eating sweeties in the kirk - mature Stevenson

Weir of Hermiston – I keep wanting to call it THE Weir, but Weir is a person, a surname, not a title or object or ghost – is a story of a struggling father and son.  The father is a Scottish judge, the son a student; they differ on the death penalty, among other things.  The first page warns the reader that dark deeds lie ahead, but the novel is cut short by Stevenson’s death before anything too ‘orrible happens.  Friends of Stevenson claimed that he told them the plot; it sounds exciting and absurd.

The novel we have gives us the story of the hero’s family, the story of the heroine’s family, a couple of father-son encounters, including a dull debate about capital punishment, and a superb scene of the first meeting of the love interests which by itself is a reason to regret the early loss of this writer.  He was maturing.  This post, in fact, should be rated PG for late Victorian sexual content.

Archie and Christina have heard of each other, but not met.  They both know that the other is single, attractive, of the right age, and so on.  In Chapter VI, “A Leaf from Christina’s Psalm-book,” they spend a church service checking each other out.  I’m modernizing the language in the interest of clarity.  It’s also a perfect Scottish spring Sunday, so sensibilities are heightened.

Hmm, so many good sentences in this scene, even better than any I’m going to include, lovely wandering, intricate things.  I’ll start here, with part of the page or two on Christina’s clothes:

According to the pretty fashion in which our grandmothers did not hesitate to appear, and our great-aunts went forth armed for the pursuit and capture of our great-uncles, the dress was drawn up so as to mould the contour of both breasts, and in the nook between, a cairngorm brooch maintained it.  Here, too, surely in a very enviable position, trembled the nosegay of primroses.

And there’s more of this – a hat of “chipped straw” and so on.  How does Stevenson know so much about clothes?  “Archie was attracted by the bright thing like a child.”  What thing?  A cute ambiguity there.  He admires her breasts; she knows he’s doing so, and actually begins to panic, reaching for a handkerchief, her psalm-book, a piece of candy:

Last she put a ‘sugar-bool’ in her mouth, and the next moment repented of the step. It was such a homely-like thing! Mr. Archie would never be eating sweeties in the kirk; and, in a palpable effort, she swallowed it whole, and her colour flamed high. At this signal of distress Archie awoke to a sense of his ill-behaviour. What had he been doing?

Now both parties are flushed and uncomfortable, but at least “[i]t seemed to [Christina] that she was clothed again.”  The really deft thing Stevenson does here is slipping from character to character, giving us their solipsistic conversation, imaginary in some sense, real in another.  They’re not looking at each other, but might; then they are; then they’re not; and how can we meet again after church?  All in six or seven pages.  Not all of Weir of Hermiston is so clever.  I have a suspicion that a couple of the chapters are less finished than others.  This one was ready to go.


  1. This is adorable, and "eating sweeties in the kirk" awfully musical. Not that I don't have plenty of Stevenson left to read (nearly all of it!), but I must say I'm already feeling a bit disappointed this was unfinished. Ah well.

  2. It is adorable. It's a kind of "meet cute" scene, although one with some real psychology behing it. If he'd lived forty years later, Stevenson would have written screenplays.