New Arabian Nights, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Preface to the Biographical Edition

IT seems incredible that a genius so unusual as that of Robert Alan Stevenson should pass out of existence, leaving nothing more for posterity than a single brilliant volume and a few desultory papers on music and painting; but he was a dreamer of dreams, without ambitions, who dwelt alone in a world of fantasy, from which he would sometimes emerge to dazzle his friends with wild theories, sound philosophy, unexpected, learning, and whimsical absurdities, all jumbled together and presented with such pertinent reasoning and certainty of the truth of his premises that his hearers would be swept off their feet.

Running through the contradictory tangle of his mind was a consistent thread of religion, an inheritance from a long line of pious ancestors. Expatiating on the glories of the future world, he once led his listeners to the very gates of heaven. If they knew, he continued, that this enchanting region lay in the next county, free to all who chose to expend a few shillings, who would refuse to accompany him? Why shrink from using the equivalent of a railway ticket, just a few pennies’ worth of prussic acid? How exhilarating for several friends say the present party to make the journey in company, and hand in hand embark on a voyage that would end in paradise! As no one responded to this invitation, he went on to describe the advantages of a suicide train, where persons weary of life might engage compartments. There would be no depressing preparations necessary; only the choice of a route either quick or slow, and the companions, if one cared for companions, suited to such an enterprise. The subject, thus begun, was taken up again by Robert Alan and Robert Louis, resulting in the invention of The Suicide Club, Robert Alan figuring in the beginning as the young man with the cream tarts, while the Prince of Wales was taken as the model for Prince Florizel.

A further talk between the cousins developed the plot of The Hansom Cab, which was followed by The Rajah’s Diamond that completed the series of New Arabian Nights. Whenever my husband wished to depict a romantic, erratic, engaging character, he delved into the rich mine of his cousin’s personality. Robert Alan served, not only for the young man with the cream tarts, but as Paul Somerset in The Dynamiter and appeared in certain phases of Prince Otto. I remember, in those days of wild discussions that embraced everything known and unknown in the universe, some one advancing the theory that Robert Alan and Robert Louis were the component parts of one individual somehow disrupted by a cataclysm of nature.

A journal called London, edited by Mr. W. E. Henley, had just been launched by Mr. Robert Glasgow Brown. It was foredoomed to failure, as Mr. Brown was not possessed of sufficient means to carry the venture far, and about a year after his death it ceased to exist. Meanwhile Mr. Henley was performing prodigies to keep it afloat. His own salary was small, and the limited funds at his disposal allowed him to pay next to nothing to contributors. Both his and my husband’s friends helped so far as they could, but a weekly publication made too heavy a drain on their good nature. It often happened that an entire number of London was written by Mr. Henley and my husband alone. As something in the way of light fiction was required for the inside sheets of the paper, The Suicide Club and The Rajah’s Diamond were used for the purpose. The circulation of London was extremely small, and very few persons could have been aware of the young man with the cream tarts, or of Prince Florizel and his factotum, Colonel Geraldine.

There were occasions when the journal presented the odd appearance of being almost wholly composed of verses. This occurred when the too sanguine editor found himself disappointed in hoped-for contributions, and had to make up his pages at the very moment of going to press. Verses filled space more readily than prose, and were easier to do; in such emergencies poem after poem would be dashed off by Mr. Henley and my husband until the blanks were filled. “Hurry, my lad,” Mr. Henley would shout; “only six more lines now!” My husband would scratch off the six lines, hand them to the printer’s devil, who stood waiting with outstretched hand, and the situation was saved for another week.

For some five or six years the New Arabian Nights lay hidden between the covers of the defunct journal. Mr. Keegan Paul advised against their republication, thinking the tales too fantastic, and likely to injure the reputation of their author. There was not a single story, poem, article, or novel written by my husband that was not similarly condemned by some one of his friends and literary advisers.

F. V. DE G. S.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00