Book review: Robert Louis Stevenson: La Malle en Cuir, ou La Societe Ideale

An unfinished Robert Louis Stevenson novel, now completed by a biographer, is a rollicking read. It's a shame it's only available in French…

Robert Louis Stevenson: La Malle en Cuir, ou La Societe Ideale

Translated from the English by Isabelle Chapman, edited and completed by Michel Le Bris

Gallimard, 303pp. e21

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THIS IS a curiosity: an unpublished and unfinished novel by Stevenson, discovered by his French biographer, Michel Le Bris in the Huntingdon Library in Pasadena, California, translated into French by Isebelle Chapman, completed, according to Stevenson's presumed intentions by Mr Bris, and now published by Gallimard, most famous of French publishing houses, before any publication in English.

One's first thought: do we have here a fraud or hoax of almost Ossianic proportions? It is an unworthy suspicion, soon discarded. We know, after all, that Stevenson was indeed working on this novel in 1877. He outlined it in a letter to Fanny Sitwell, saying that it was the story of a group of young Cambridge graduates who, rejecting careers and commercial life, decide to found a new society, one free from duty and convention; they will head for the South Seas. This, of course, was what RLS himself would do ten years later.

Stevenson's title was The Hair Trunk ("hair has become "leather" in French – I don't know why) or "the Ideal Society". The trunk was to play an important part in the story – "everybody steals it", he told Mrs Sitwell; this is a bit like the theme of that later comic masterpiece The Wrong Box, even though the first draft of that novel was written by his stepson, Lloyd Osborne, and after Stevenson took it in hand it was published as a work of joint authorship, like The Wrecker and The Ebb-Tide later.

That The Hair Trunk was left unfinished is not really surprising. Like many authors Stevenson was inclined to start books, then set them aside for a while, not always returning. St Ives, for instance, was another novel he failed to complete, the final chapters being written by Arthur Quiller-Couch after Stevenson's death. Weir of Hermiston is a different case, of course, since it was the author's own death which cut it off in midstream.

Le Bris in an admirable introduction calls The Hair Trunk "a bohemian novel", the product of his time spent in Paris and in the artistic colony of Grez-sur-Loing in the forest of Fontainebleau, perhaps the happiest time of RLS's life, certainly the most carefree. It was there that he met and fell in love with Fanny Osborne, and it was his pursuit of her across the Atlantic and the United States that brought an end to his Bohemian period. He might still think like a wandering gypsy but he had assumed the responsibilities of a married man. This was doubtless one reason he never picked up The Hair Trunk again.

The idea of the novel is simple. It grew out of that Bohemian world and the idea and speculations of the young men who were his friends and associates there.

His novel, Le Bris writes, "would give a form and a style to their effervescence, to their mixture of impulses and poses, their discontents and hopes, their impatience and disenchantment, and would express their refusal to engage in the universal dullness of an imbecile society, devoted only to the idea of profit." Young men – young women too, if more rarely -– have experienced similar feelings in all ages. Few writers have been better suited than Stevenson to give voice to them. He had already rejected the two respectable careers to which he had been directed – as engineer, and advocate at the Scots Bar, and cultivated a Bohemian disdain for the bourgeois morality – a disdain he would revise and to a great extent abandon in maturity.

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The novel opens in Cambridge – Stevenson catches its flavour well, perhaps because the town's vile climate with its dampness rising from the Fens and its bitter east winds recalled the "penitential" – his word – weather of the Edinburgh he loved and sought to escape from.

The early chapters are a sort of conversation piece, wild ideas floated by self-consciously disillusioned young men. There is a splendid extravagance to their opinions and the poses they adopt. All respond, with varying enthusiasm, to the proposal of an ideal society – such as RLS, his cousin Bob and other friends had proposed in their own LJR (Liberty, Justice, Respect – "why the devil 'respect'?", Stevenson asked). So where should it be planted? In the South Seas, of course: a visitor to Heriot Row in 1875 had expatiated on the glories and abundant freedoms of "Navigators' Isle" – that is, Samoa.; a memory which presumably gave impetus to the idea.

They are agreed, but the problem of finance immediately arises. One or two have some capital, but it is either not enough or it is tied up or they are – shamefully? – reluctant to cut the bonds that will secure their own future. So should they turn to crime and steal the money they need?

Some shrink from casting off the shackles of conventional morality ,but the most intellectually daring of our adventurers, Blackburn, makes a cogent speech distinguishing between civic and international morality. In a settled community, many things, such as theft, are forbidden. Such morality has no place in international affairs. Empires are won by force and theft. "We have signed a Declaration of Independence," he says. "So our attitude towards our compatriots is no longer civic, but international" – and he knows where a treasure is to be found, where there is a trunk of gold.

So the scene is set, the adventure is on. It takes them first to the West Highlands, in search of the trunk. It is all light-hearted, inventive and agreeably absurd, with splendid descriptions of eating and drinking and finely romantic scenery. Concessions to probability are few. The novel is in the vein of his New Arabian Nights, with the wild fancy of The Suicide Club, quite irresistible. What makes it so is the exuberance of the fancy married to the perfect poise of the prose, admirably caught by Isabelle Chapman in her translation.

Stevenson, for long neglected by academic critics in England, and even in Scotland, has always been well-regarded in France, not only because he was a Francophile and steeped in French Literature, but also because his prose has the elegance and lucidity of French writers such as Anatole France and Andr Gide.

The Hair Trunk would always have been a minor work in the Stevenson canon, as I suppose the New Arabian Nights and The Wrong Box are to be considered minor works in comparison with Kidnapped, Catriona and The Master of Ballantrae.

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It is nonetheless delightful, and one should add only that the continuation of the story by Michel Le Bris is itself pleasing, the work of a writer steeped in Stevenson and therefore capable of sounding a convincing echo.

In any case, we owe him a debt of gratitude for having so unexpectedly brought this lost work to light. It is to be hoped that an English version of the book will now appear, and that its publishers finds a translator of the last chapters as capable of producing pastiche Stevenson as Le Bris has shown himself to be.