Romance, Dreams and the Gothic

A Gossip of Romance

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Daniel Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Galahad at the Ruined Chapel (1855)

Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2001
Re: "A Gossip of Romance"

To Trollope-l

Dear all

So far we've been reading spooky Gothic tales over the Christmas break, but this week it's something a bit different - two pieces by Robert Louis Stevenson, 'A Gossip on Romance' and 'A Chapter on Dreams,' which both discuss some of the reasons why Gothic and romantic stories are so popular. Unfortunately I haven't managed to track down a copy of a book which contains both these pieces, but I did buy 'Memories and Portraits', a collection of pieces put together by RLS in 1887, which includes 'A Gossip on Romance'. My copy of this is a paperback published by Richard Drew Publishing of Glasgow in 1990, and it includes a short introduction by Jenni Calder, who also wrote a biography of Stevenson, but sadly no footnotes.

In 'A Gossip on Romance', written in 1882, Stevenson looks back to the romantic stories he loved as a child, full of highwaymen and pirates, and suggests that for young readers the adventure is the all-important thing rather than the characters.

"Eloquence and thought, character and conversation, were but obstacles to brush aside as we dug blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig in truffles."

He mentions four different passages which have stuck in his mind from his childhood reading, all creating vivid pictures in the mind, but he doesn't know where some of them come from - now this is where I really miss footnotes to identify the authors concerned! Stevenson says the first one is the opening of 'What will he Do with It', but I haven't heard of this - he says one of the others, of a poet witnessing a shipwreck, is from Charles Kingsley, and he doesn't know the authors of the other two passages he mentions. Does anybody have footnotes which can answer this question?

Anyway, the point really is that all these passages stuck in Stevenson's mind because, as he puts it, "they all have a touch of the romantic". One of the passages, "about a tall dark house at night, and people groping on the stairs" sounds rather like one of the most dramatic/romantic incidents in his own 'Kidnapped', where the young David Balfour is ordered by his uncle Ebenezer to climb a flight of crumbling stairs in the dark, and has to grope upwards to find the next step.

Later in the article Stevenson suggests that adults too look for pictures which will stay in the mind, moments where somehow a story freezes into a tableau.

"The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time into some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration. Crusoe recoiling from the footprint, Achilles shouting over against the Trojans, Ulysses bending the great bow, Christian running with his fingers in his ears, these are each culminating moments in the legend, and each has been printed on the mind's eye for ever."

Reading this, it struck me that the Gothic tales we have been reading each seem to lead towards a moment like this where everything "makes a picture in the web". In 'Green Tea' there is the moment where Jennings first sees the monkey's eyes gleaming in the dark of the coach - somehow this seems to be at the core of the story. There is a similar chilling discovery in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', where Haynes first feels the carving of the cat coming alive beneath his fingers and twisting round to bite him. Often in these stories, though, the most memorable picture tends to come at the end - Maria hanging from the hook in 'The Shadow in the Corner', the two ghosts floating away across the snow, hand in hand, in 'The Lost Ghost' .

Stevenson also discusses the importance of the setting for romance, and many of the scenes he describes sound very Gothic. "Certain dank gardens cry aloud for murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck."

Again, thinking about the stories we have been reading, I suppose all of them do have these suggestive settings. Sometimes the story starts very quietly before the horror unfolds, as Ellen said about the James stories, but we still have that ancient setting. About the least likely setting I can think of for a ghost story is in Dickens's 'The Signalman', which we read last year. A steam railway station would have seemed modern at the time (although of course it doesn't now and there have been many ghost stories in such a setting since), but Dickens's description of the darkness and isolation makes it sound like another scene crying aloud for death and haunting.

Stevenson has a bit on Trollope in this essay, which at first sounds as if he is about to criticise. He says: "English people of the present day are apt, I know not why, to look somewhat down on incident, and reserve their admiration for the clink of teaspoons and the accents of the curate. It is thought clever to write a novel with no story at all, or at least with a very dull one."

However, almost in the next breath, he makes it clear that Trollope is not dull at all (the Oxford Companion to Trollope quotes a letter from RLS where he describes Trollope as his favourite author at one time), and that his novels do contain the sort of memorable pictures he has been describing. Stevenson writes:

"Mr Trollope's inimitable clergymen naturally arise to the mind in this connection. But even Mr Trollope does not confine himself to chronicling small beer. Mr Crawley's collision with the Bishop's wife, Mr Melmotte dallying in the deserted banquet-room, are typical incidents, epically conceived, fitly embodying a crisis."

Can anybody think of other moments like this in Trollope's novels, where the main threads of the novel seem to come together into a memorable tableau?

I'll send a separate posting about 'A Chapter on Dreams' later today or tomorrow.

Bye for now
Judy Geater

Re: A Gossip on Romance

I too had trouble locating this one in book form. I own an edition of Stevenson's essays on fiction and the imagination which I bought in France (so it's in French -- and reads very well), and I assumed I would find a translation of "A Gossip on Romance" there. It wasn't :(

A couple of other books I have which are anthologies of Stevenson and also have sections devoted to Stevenson's remarks on fiction and the imagination lacked this one too. Everyone seemed to have "A Humble Remonstrance" and "A Chapter of Dreams". I wonder if "A Gossip on Romance" is underrated because of the word "gossip" and because it's theme is misunderstood. I finally found a copy in a three volume set I bought when I was writing my book on Trollope (on the Net, used, and not overly expensive): it's called A Victorian Art of Fiction and is filled with all sorts of essays and commentaries and simply "pieces" by Victorian writers which appeared in magazines of the day, which, taken together, really show us how 19th century readers read, saw, justified and talked about fiction -- as well as what in it they enjoyed. "A Gossip on Romance" is in there -- as well as some very good essays by G. H. Lewes.

As Judy suggests, while "A Gossip on Romance" begins as a meditation whose argument seems to be to justify the kind of pictorial/adventure narrative we find in those books which have long been thought of as "boys'" or adventure stories (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow), it goes on from there to discuss the centrality of the pictorial imagination -- the picture. Stevenson argues that the picture -- the pictorial imagination, the intently dramatic scene which somehow epitomizes and brings together feelings, thoughts, psychological presences in one irresistible suggestive mixture -- is far more important than any moral lesson, however appealing, any psychologized character, however susceptible to "analysis", and any pattern or theme in the work. He begins this proof by exemplifying it himself in his opening paragraph:

If anything fit to be called by the name of reading the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears, like the noise of breakers, or the stroy, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye.

Absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat, be rapt clean out of ourselves, rise with our mind filled with dances of images. I like to use the word "reverie" for this state and think it essential to the experience of novel writing and novel reading shared by a writer and his reader when they are deeply congenial.

In my French book of Stevenson, the editor opens by saying that Nabokov insisted that it was Stevenson who made "the most intelligent remarks ever written on literature" (that's a literal translaton of the French); William James said "nothing more beautiful and profound" was ever written about fiction and the imagination than what we find in RLS; Borges said that he "placed above all else "The Chapter on Dreams" as a revelation of what goes on in the mind of a novelist. I'll pick that one up when I respond later on to "The Chapter of Dreams". Right now I'll say that "A Gossip on Romance" shows why Henry James so respected Stevenson:" James repeatedly talks of the importance of "picture" in reading fiction, of the pictorial imagination. I tell my students they must read not only to hear the tones of the characters; they must work their minds to see the pictures evoked. (One reason movies are so popular is film-makers do this for people, although in the process they make a wholly different kind of work of art.)

Judy brought out some of the details of the argument beautifully and related them to our gothic/ghost stories. I'll just add to hers by talking more of Stevenson's central argument. He is trying to explain why certain books have power and others don't and in what this power resides. Trollope does this too and he signals out the pictorial imagination though he calls it "the sensational" moment and talks of his scenes between Mary Lady Mason and Sir Peregrine Orme in Orley Farm, Scott's scene in Ivanhoe where Rebecca describes for Ivanhoe the scene of battle, and of Jane Eyre as a whole (according to Trollope it has many such dramatic or sensational epitomizing moments). (All this is found in Trollope's An Autobiography in the section on fiction.) But Trollope only describes hesitantly; Stevenson is trying to make us and himself relive how we fall into a state of reverie, how we are drawn into forgetting where we are sitting, who we are (for the moment) so that if someone should come and hit us on the shoulder, they "bring us back" and we are bothered by the "interruption" of our state of absorption.

In effect Stevenson equates novels with dramatic daydreams. They come from the nightmare world of the novelist; he refits these in socially acceptable ways (in "A Chapter of Dreams" he says, ever so delicately, you must omit "unmarketable elements") and then works upon the reader to share this dramatic daydream. And like a dream, it must inhere in a picture. He says the power of a book turns not "on the turns and plays o f human conscience"; that's what you can spin your story line from, 'the passionate slips and hesitations of the conscience'. You use this for your poetry of conduct; what the characters are said to be doing and saying. He says many people say that's three-quarters of a book. He begs to differ:

'There is a vast deal in life and letters which is not immoral, but simply a-moral; it's simply there, brute life like the mountains, the roads (the mud), the given of a character's personality set on working, the appetite we feel for things, for our surroundings.

What's needed is to make this appetite enter into some epitomizing picture.

You can measure a critic's rightness by the specific passage he uses -- this is Matthew Arnold's touchstone used for literary criticism. For Trollope Stevenson uses the Rev Crawley's encounter with the Bishop and Mrs Proudie in The Last Chronicle of Barset, a deeply memorable moment, one which shatters forever the Proudie's false facade of a relationship and from which Crawley emerges as a paradoxical winner. It's a distilling moment. Stevenson calls this "the right kind of thing ... falling out in the right kind of place"; with "the right kind of thing" following: "not only the characters talk aptly and think naturally, but all the circumstances in the tale [at that moment] answer one to another like music:

The threads of the story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web; the characters fall from time to time in some attitude to each other or to nature, which stamps the story home like an illustration ...

Examples beyond Trollope: Achilles shouting over the Trojans; Ulysses bending his great bow: "'Mr Crawley's collison with the Bishop's wife, Mr Melmotte dallying in the deserted banquet-room'"(from The Way We Live Now). Also Rawdon's blow at Steyne in Vanity Fair; were this blow "not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art. that scene is the chief ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon's fist is the reward and consolation of the reader" For us in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale" it may be the moments the cat materializes, the wild ferocious cat with claws; what would it be in Braddon's "Shadow in the Corner"; for Le Fanu's "The Green Tea", Judy is surely right to quote the moment in the carriage where the red eyes emerge from the chill mists of the air. Last year in Oliphant's "Library Window" it was surely when the heroine saw the library window emerge and looked into it to see the male figure at his desk, sitting by the fireplace reading.

Does Stevenson overdo it? Surely Rawdon's fist is not the whole of Vanity Fair? Surely the poetry of conduct, the psychologized presences, the narrator's meditations in all we have been reading count too. Maybe though he overstates his case since it is usually ignored -- the pictorial imagination is not simply which lends itself to socializing and normalizing exegeses which are relatively easy to imitate for critical writers seeking to produce reviews and critical essays.

Cheers to all,
Ellen Moody

Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2001

To Judy

What will he do with it? seems to be a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, published under the remarkable pseudonym of "Pisistratus Caxton". It was a part work, published in "Blackwood's Magazine" between June 1857 and January 1859. My source of information is my favourite search engine, Google, which turned up about 150 references to What will he do with it in under a second. There doesn't seem to be anything which will tell you what it is about, although some research into the materials shown may give you an idea. Advanced Book Exchange shows about 39 copies available, mostly in North America, from US$3.30 upwards. The cheapest UK version was about 65.

No doubt some of the more widely read list members can give you a great deal more information

Regards, Howard

Date: Mon, 31 Dec 2001

1) Darker darkness

Stevenson's short story "The Sire de Maletroit's Door' opens with a nice description of the young Denis de Boileau trying to regain his inn at night in a small French town in 1429:

"It is an eerie and mysterious position to be thus submerged in opaque blackness in an almost unknown town. The silence is terrifying in its possibilities. The touch of cold window bars to the exploring hand startles the man like the touch of a toad; the inequalities of the pavement shake his heart into his mouth; a piece of denser darkness threatens an ambuscade or a chasm in the pathway; and where the air is brighter, the houses put on strange and bewildering appearances, as if to lead him farther from his way."

It's also a good illustration of how Stevenson writes prose like poetry, carefully choosing words, creating patterns of sound, as does

2) A Gossip on Romance.

Which is a delight to read aloud and sweeps us along with it just as much as any of the pictorial incidents he talks about. We don't notice how loosely structured it is because we get involved, I think, in the great and infectious *gusto* displayed by the writer and the poetic rhythms and those wonderful formulations ('The threads of a story come from time to time together and make a picture in the web... which stamps the story home like an illustration', 'when we read a story, we sit wavering between two minds', 'Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child' etc.)

This essay and the others Stevenson wrote on the art of writing have been largely ignored by critics. Perhaps because they are suspicious about this style which is a pleasure to read in itself (unlike much critical writing...). Also because Stevenson deals with things that they don't usually deal with: the *pleasure* of reading, the experience of reading in time, the memory of stories that stays with us, reading as play or reverie, the reason we may return to read again, the haunting 'poetry' of stories that have some of the qualities of myth or epic.

Stevenson rather backgrounds such narratives as those of Trollope (while saying that Trollope has elements of picture-making romance too, and despite that letter that Ellen told us about in which he says Trollope is his favourite writer of the moment) I think because this essay is written at the time he was writing *Treasure Island* (begun August 1881) - in fact, as an Italian colleague Richard Ambosini has said, 'A Gossip on Romance' could be seen as 'how to read Treasure Island'.

Richard Dury

A Gossip on Romance

To Richard and all,

I don't remember saying any thing about a letter in which Stevenson said Trollope was his favorite writer of the moment; if something I wrote gave that impression, I regret it. I was only quoting from what Stevenson said about Trollope in "A Gossip of Romance" which I supported from something Trollope said in his An Autobiography. If anything, as Judy said (and I didn't repeat it because she said it), at first Stevenson appears to lump Trollope with the boring dull writers of the school of clergyman fiction and diurnal tedium; but then he turns around to chose a scene from Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset and say a bit more about it than one would expect as carrying this quintessential charge and movement into reverie. I expect he chooses Trollope to make his point: even Trollope (so the argument runs) resorts to pictorial narrative to epitomize and make memorable and effective a fiction, even Trollope's genre is fundamentally romance. The "even" is not emphatic, not explicit, but it's there.

"The Sire de Maletroit's Door" is one of Stevenson's great short tales, no?


Elizabeth Siddal Lady Affixing a Pennant to a Knight's Spear (1858)

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