Lost Robert Louis Stevenson masterpiece discovered

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Hair Trunk while in his early 20s. Picture: Getty
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Hair Trunk while in his early 20s. Picture: Getty
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The story was written more than 130 years ago by a writer who would go on to become one of Scotland’s greatest literary legends.

But Robert Louis Stevenson’s comic novel The Hair Trunk was created when he was a complete unknown, well before he found fame with Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The work was never published after the author decided to abandon the story, despite penning more than 30,000 words over two years.

Now the book, which has been described as Stevenson’s “missing masterpiece”, has finally seen the light of day after being rescued from obscurity following dogged work by an American expert, Roger G Swearingen.

And The Scotsman today publishes a lengthy, exclusive extract from the satirical book, which charts the exploits of a group of university graduates who decide to try to set up an “Ideal Commonwealth” in Samoa – where Stevenson would go on to spend the last years of his life.

Only a handful of Stevenson scholars were aware of the existence of The Hair Trunk, the manuscripts of which are held by Huntingdon Library, in San Marino, California. They were originally snapped up at auction in New York in 1915.

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Stevenson’s story of the former Cambridge students, which experts believe was intended to reflect the Bohemian age in 19th-century Britain, follows their adventures as they set off on the trail of a trunk of gold and jewels.

An extract of The Hair Trunk is printed by The Scotsman today as part of The Write Stuff, the newspaper’s weekly series devoted to Scotland’s best writing. The complete story has just been published by the small Ayrshire firm Zeticula after painstaking work to transcribe and annotate Stevenson’s original hand-written notebooks by the California-based Stevenson expert, who has written a number of books on the author’s work and was responsible for the discovery of Stevenson’s first ever short story, An Old Song, which RLS published anonymously in 1877.

Stevenson is thought to have started writing The Hair Trunk the same year, when he was just 27. He makes mention of the unfinished work in letters to a friend, Fanny Sitwell, which themselves were published in a collection in 1899, five years after the author’s death in Samoa. It was not until 1883 that Stevenson managed to have his first novel, Treasure Island, published.

In his introduction to The Hair Trunk, Mr Swearingen states: “Stevenson had been writing stories, and projecting collections of his stories, since he was a teenager. But it was not until these works of his mid‑twenties, in 1877, that he felt any of them strong enough to submit for publication.

“The Hair Trunk is an engaging and memorable snapshot of Stevenson in his mid-twenties, enjoying to the fullest the very beginning of his success as a writer of fiction.”

He told The Scotsman: “There is lots of good, entertaining stuff in The Hair Trunk.

“It is not up to the standards that Stevenson eventually reached, but darn good for when he wrote it. I had fun reading it, and I think others will, too. It shows a side of Stevenson that most people don’t realise exists: a sceptical, humorous side willing to poke fun even at himself.”

Ian Campbell, professor emeritus of Scottish and Victorian literature at Edinburgh University, said: “Very few people are aware of this unfinished book’s existence. It really is like a brand new Stevenson title. It is intriguing for its use of exotic locations, the adventure story and the way a group of different characters interact with each other.”

• Read the exclusive extract from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Hair Trunk

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