• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Found: Louis Stevenson’s missing masterpiece

More than 130 years after it was started, Robert Louis Stevenson’s abandoned first novel has been found, completed and poised to be published for the first time.

And fittingly for Scotland’s most international writer, not only was it finished after a transcontinental search for the original manuscript, stretching from Brittany to California, but it will make its print début in French.

Loading article content

Before the swashbuckling Kidnapped, before the sinister The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there was The Hair Trunk. Begun in 1877 when Stevenson was only 27 years old, The Hair Trunk was supposed to be the definitive novel of the bohemian age, drawing on his time in artists’ colonies in France.

However, within two years he had abandoned it. His first official novel, Treasure Island, would only appear in 1883.

The Hair Trunk has lain incomplete since then, considered a mere juvenile curio by Stevenson scholars. Few were aware of it. Even fewer have read it. It existed only on 140 parched pages in an American library.

That is, until now. French author and Stevenson scholar Michel Le Bris, 66, has rescued and completed the novel as part of a two-decade labour of love. “We are watching the birth of Stevenson the novelist here,” he said from his home in Brittany. “I think it shows wonderful invention.”

The Hair Trunk or The Ideal Commonwealth, to give it its full name, will be published in France next month by Gallimard. Of its 300 pages, Stevenson provides the first nine chapters, Le Bris the final seven.

The story concerns a group of young Cambridge students who decide to leave England to build a world more in tune with their bohemian philosophy. Where the mysterious hair trunk of the title – an oversized wooden chest – fits in, is unclear.

In a letter from 1877, in which Stevenson describes the novel as both absurd and very funny, he reveals the trunk “is the fun of it – everybody steals it”. As the students attempt to set up their ideal society they encounter sea battles, thievery, tempests, and the discovery of a desert island off the west coast of Scotland.

Stevenson began writing the novel at the same time as the New Arabian Nights, his first collection of short stories. However, he abandoned The Hair Trunk following an arduous trip to America and his marriage to Fanny Osbourne. It was a period of his life that transformed him deeply.

“This dramatic period abroad, where he was abandoned by almost everyone, came to be his farewell to his years of bohemia,” said Le Bris. “Once he came back to Europe there seemed to be no sense in continuing to write a novel, which was meant to be a novel of the bohemian age, whatever its literary merit. He had moved on.”

The story of the novel’s resurrection and completion began in 1990. Le Bris was working on a biography of Stevenson’s early years when he came upon a reference to The Hair Trunk on a microfilm of letters to his friend Fanny Sitwell. Upon further investigation he discovered an eight-page rough draft was kept in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in the US.

From there Le Bris found 140 pages of the manuscript had been sold by the Anderson Auction Company in January 1915 for $1400 to a collector of rare books, George D Smith. Smith in turn sold the pages to the Huntington Library in California, where Le Bris finally found it. “It was an unforgettable feeling,” he said.

With two thirds of the novel completed, Le Bris spent two decades attempting to resolve it. He has written several books on Stevenson and translated scores of his essays, travel writing and short stories.

Le Bris argues that Stevenson is appreciated more in France than in his native Scotland. There are more works by the Edinburgh author published in French than in English.

‘‘How is it that in 2011 Stevenson’s entire work has not yet been published in English? Why is there no current edition of The Wrong Box, revised and corrected by Stevenson, available in English? Graham Greene was already calling for it in 1950! The truth is Stevenson has been hailed as a genius by the greatest, but mostly foreign, writers: Henry James, Jorge Luis Borgès, Octavio Paz, Hermann Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Italo Calvino. The truth is America made him famous with the publication of Dr Jekyll, not Great Britain.”

The upcoming publication of The Hair Trunk has been broadly welcomed by Stevenson scholars.

Dr Penny Fielding is a general editor of the New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. She said: ‘‘I’m very pleased to hear that this early work will now be published in French,” she said. “The Hair Trunk was started when the young Stevenson was trying to work out what kind of author he wanted to be.”

Sunday Herald columnist Ian Bell wrote Dreams of Exile, a celebrated biography of Stevenson, in 1993. He congratulated Le Bris’s enterprise, but had doubts over The Hair Trunk’s quality. “Michel is perfectly entitled to make what can be made of Lou’s leavings,” he said. “But they are leavings or, in the pompous description, juvenilia.

“Le Bris makes one good point, though. The French do have a bit of a thing for our Louis. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if there is more Robert Louis Stevenson in print in France than here. And what does that say about us?”

There are no plans to publish Le Bris’s version of The Hair Trunk in English. He will, however, travel to Edinburgh in May for an event at the city’s French Institute.

Le Bris is also the director of the book festival Etonnants Voyageurs in the Breton town of Saint-Malo. As part of the French Institute’s year of cultural exchange, several Scottish authors will be appearing there in June.

Thanks to staff at the French Institute for their help in translation.

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

PARCH1.1091457