Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes - who wrote that? Who wrote The Ebb-Tide?

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Ebb-Tide with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.  Stevenson was forty-four, and would soon die; Osbourne was twenty-six.  The Ebb-Tide was the pair’s third novel, and Stevenson’s last completed book

I was poking around in a university library, curious about what scholars were doing with Stevenson.  What was hot, if anything.  Stevenson’s Polynesian books are hot, it seems, or at least lukewarm, as part of the strong current interest in colonial literature.  That’s how I was led to The Ebb-Tide, a novel with minimal previous reputation.  Didn’t hurt that the book is only 130 pages in the Edinburgh edition.

The Ebb-Tide turned out to be so good, comparable to Stevenson’s Scottish novels, that I wonder why it is not better known.  Does the co-authorship hurt it?  Co-writing is a sign of hackwork, right?  A violation of the Romantic principle of the autonomy of the artist or some such thing?  Stevenson was a great writer, however narrowly, while Osbourne was a non-entity.  The other Stevenson and Osbourne novels, The Wrong Box (1889) and The Wrecker (1892), seem to have retained their low stature, for now, as has the book Stevenson co-wrote with his wife, Fanny.

The co-authorship may introduce all sorts of complications to the usual tools of analysis.  Students of early modern literature, though, have to be used to this by now.  The Age of Shakespeare features the only “name” team in the English canon, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the detailed linguistic analysis of every scrap of Elizabethan dramatic writing suggests that co-writing was as common as not.  Who knows what hefty chunk of the lines in my fat volume of Shakespeare are by someone else. 

Still, confronted with this:

He aspired after the realisation of these dreams, like a horse nickering for water; the lust of them burned in his inside. (119)

or this:

Upon the Sunday each brought forth his separate Bible - for they were all men of alien speech even to each other, and Sally Day communicated with his mates in English only, each read or made believe to read his chapter, Uncle Ned with spectacles on his nose; and they would all join together in the singing of missionary hymns. (48)

I have a pretty good idea who wrote those, and ‘tweren’t  no one named Lloyd.  That last one especially, that’s pure Stevenson, not just in the clear but unfussy details, or the keen wit of “made believe,” but the flow of ideas in the clauses in the complex sentence.  By the end of his short life, Stevenson’s instrument was supple.

How about a sample of Kurtz, I mean, Attwater:

'What brought you here to the South Seas?' he asked presently.

'Many things,' said Attwater.  'Youth, curiosity, romance, the love of the sea, and (it will surprise you to hear) an interest in missions.  That has a good deal declined, which will surprise you less.  They go the wrong way to work; they are too parsonish, too much of the old wife, and even the old apple wife.  Clothes, clothes, are their idea; but clothes are not Christianity, any more than they are the sun in heaven, or could take the place of it!  They think a parsonage with roses, and church bells, and nice old women bobbing in the lanes, are part and parcel of religion.  But religion is a savage thing, like the universe it illuminates; savage, cold, and bare, but infinitely strong.'

And say these are somehow from the pen of Lloyd Osbourne.  What do I care?  I can still read the book in front of me.

Oddly, the New York Times Book Review just featured another Stevenson and Osbourne collaboration, The Wrecker, on the grounds that it was the favorite Stevenson novel of Jorge Luis Borges.  Note that Rivka Galchen does not even mention Lloyd Osbourne’s name, which is one way to deal with the problem.  Also note the hilarious, preposterous goo of the last paragraph, which Borges seems to bring out in a lot of people; I’ve been guilty of it myself.


  1. Very interesting, and I'm looking forward to reading this one myself now. Funny you mention the Rivka Galchen piece; I'd seen it myself and thought it coincidental. And it seems to have had some effect—when I was checking Amazon for The Ebb-Tide, The Wrecker came up as a search autocomplete for "Stevenson." So it must be "trending," or whatever. At least lukewarm.

  2. The print-on-demand outfits have almost destroyed Amazon's usefulness as a source of information about old books. Just thought I'd get that off my chest.