Saturday, November 13, 2010

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894
The best loved literary figure of his time as much for his personality as for his authorship of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson was born today in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. He described his childhood in detail in his autobiographical essays and vividly recalled its emotions and pleasures in A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). Kidnapped was chosen by the Edinburgh City of Literature as their first "One City, One Book" title.

He wanted to become a writer at an early age; he compromised to study Law (instead of engineering at University of Edinburgh, as his family had been involved in building lighthouses for years). He was admitted Advocate in 1875 but never practiced. During these years he rebelled against the conventions of respectable Edinburgh society and there were bitter quarrels with his father (a devout Presbyterian) about religion.

In 1873 he met the critic Prof. Sidney Colvin who became his lifelong friend and literary mentor. With Colvin's help he began to achieve a reputation with his essays and short stories (collected in Virginibus Puerisque, (1881) and New Arabian Nights, 1882). Another close friendship was formed with poet and critic WE Henley, writing 4 unsuccessful plays (including Deacon Brodie, 1880).

The closest friend of his youth was his painter cousin RAM (Bob) Stevenson, and he spent much time with him in France. His early travels were undertaken so that he could write books about them. A Wand Voyage (1878) described a canoe journey, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1878; a classic account of the city whose climate he hated but which always haunted his imagination).

In the art colony of Grez (1876) he fell in love with Fanny Vandegrift Osboume, an American 10 years older than himself who was estranged from her husband. She returned to California in 1878 for divorce. In 1879 Stevenson followed, travelling cheaply by immigrant ship, then by train across America, recording his experiences in Amateur Emigrant (1895) and Across the Plans (1892). The hardships of the journey and the poverty wrecked his health and he suffered the first of the haemorrhages which plagued the rest of his life.

Stevenson and Fanny were married in May 1880, following a telegram from his father assuring them of financial support. They returned to Edinburgh. Stevenson's illness, diagnosed as tuberculosis, meant that he spent much time in bed, his life undoubtedly prolonged by Fanny's nursing. The next 7 years were spent in the vain search for health: two summer in Scotland, 2 winters in Davos, Switzerland, 18 months in the South of France, then Bournemouth for 3 years One rainy summer afternoon, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson, and in a single month, he wrote his first great novel, Treasure Island(1883). He wrote it in Braemar (1882), one of the best children's stories. It's been in print for over 125 years.

He's also the author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal. Wider recognition came with this allegorical thriller on the dual nature of man, and then Kidnapped (1886) a skilful evocation of 18th century Scotland. He then produced The Black Arrow (1888), an historical potboiler for children. Stevenson made no claim to be a major poet, but Underwoods (1897) showed him to be graceful and original in both English and Scots. He developed a warm and lasting friendship with Henry James.

At the death of his father, the family traveled to America, spending the winter 1887/8 at Saranac Lake, Adirondacks. He wrote a series of essays and began his tragic novel The Master of Ballantrae (1889) set in 18P century Scotland and America. In June 1888 they chartered a yacht and sailed from San Francisco to the South Seas, describing the journeys in South Seas (1896), and The Wrecker (1892). The climate suited, he regained some health for outdoor activity so they settled in Samoa in 1890. However, Fanny had mental health issues and he overworked himself to earn money needed to maintain the estate.

Catriona (1894), the sequel to Kidnapped, was followed by work on the unfinished St Ives (1897) both set largely in Edinburgh during the Napoleonic wars. He was working at the height of his mature powers on his unfinished masterpiece Weir of Hermiston (1896), set in early 19th century Edinburgh and the Lammermuirs, its main character based on Robert MacQueen, Lord Braxfield, when he died suddenly and unexpectedly of cerebral haemorrhage on 3 December 1894.

The romantic legend created by sentimental admirers has helped obscure the recognition of Stevenson as a serious writer, and academic critics have largely ignored or patronized him. Those readers exploring beyond the popular works that made him famous will find a wealth of 'good things'.

The Works: Tusitala Edition, 3 5 vols. 1923 –4; Collected Poems, ed JA Smith, 1971.
Life. G Balfour, 1901; Voyage to Windward JC Furnas, 1952; RLS A Life Study, J. Calder, 1980.
Check out for additional information and titles.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606), belonged to a group of Roman Catholic restorationists from England who planned the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Their aim was to displace Protestant rule by blowing up the Houses of Parliament while King James VI and I and the entire Protestant court, and even most of the Catholic aristocracy and nobility were inside. The conspirators saw this as a necessary reaction to the systematic discrimination against English Catholics.
The Gunpowder Plot was led by Robert Catesby, but Fawkes was put in charge of its execution. He was arrested a few hours before the planned explosion, during a search of the cellars underneath Parliament in the early hours of 5 November prompted by the receipt of an anonymous warning letter. This search is still performed over 400 years later before the opening Parliament. The conspirators were executed.

Guy Fawkes Night (or "bonfire night"), held on 5 November in the United Kingdom and some parts of the Commonwealth, is a commemoration of the plot, during which an effigy of Fawkes is burned, often accompanied by a fireworks display. The word "guy", meaning "man" or "person", is derived from his name.

In 18th-century England, it became a tradition for children to display a grotesque effigy of Fawkes, termed a "guy", as part of the Bonfire Night celebration. As part of the tradition, they would often stand on streetcorners begging for "a penny for the guy". The "guy" would be burned on a bonfire at the end of the evening. As a consequence, "guy" came to mean a man of odd appearance. Subsequently, in American English, "guy" lost any pejorative connotation, becoming a simple reference for any man.
Antonia Fraser's 1996 book The Gunpowder Plot is excellent!
There is also some fun/excellent poetry concerning this event, a tradition that continues to today.

B McIver (2004, in progress)

Remember, remember
The 5th of November,
For Gunpowder, Treason and Plot......
Guy Fawkes, the offender,
Tried on evidence slender,
Was sent to the dungeon to rot.

His aim? To be sender
Of the message: "Surrender!
"King James and his troops will be shot!
"That Protestent bender
"Is doubtful of Gender,
"And the True King cannot be a Scot!"

But the erstwhile offender
To jailors was rendered,
And here are the orders they got:
"His body dismember
Then throw on the embers
Of a fire stoked up, burning hot."

So this 5th of November,
While in joy you remember,
By burning the effigy's bot;
The price you may render
To be "freedom's defender",
Is to burn in Hell if you're caught!

Monday, November 1, 2010

All Hallows Mas, All Hallows Eve (Hallowe'en)

Today is All Saints Day, the morning after the night before!
Halloween is one of the oldest CELTIC holidays (the festival of Samhain, original spelling Samuin, meaning end of the summer or light) in the Western European tradition. It is sometimes regarded as the "Celtic New Year". The ancient Celts believed that the border between life and death became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits, ghosts, faeries, and goblins (both good and bad) to pass through. The family's ancestors were honoured and invited home (with food and wine at the doorstep) while harmful spirits were warded off by the wearing of costumes and masks. Their purpose was to disguise oneself as a harmful spirit and thus avoid harm. In Scotland the spirits were impersonated by young men dressed in white with masked, veiled or blackened faces. Halloween is not celebrated in all countries and regions of the world.

Samhain was also a time to take stock of food supplies and slaughter livestock for winter stores. Bonfires played a large part in the festivities. Black and orange are the traditional Halloween colors and represent the darkness of night and the color of bonfires, autumn leaves, and jack-o'-lanterns. In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals, large turnips or rutabagas were hollowed out, carved with faces, and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. In North America pumpkins are carved being available and much larger, easier to carve.

The name 'Halloween' and many of its present-day traditions have been expanded on from the British traditions with contemporary North American (USA and Canada) ingenuity. The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows-Even ("evening"), that is, the night before All_Saints/All Hallows Day (November 1st). Up through the early 20th century, the spelling "Hallowe'en" was frequently used, eliding the "v" and shortening the word.

American historian Ruth Edna Kelley wrote the first history in the US; The Book of Hallowe'en (1919), and references souling in the chapter Hallowe'en in America; "The taste in Hallowe'en festivities now is to study old traditions, and hold a Scotch party, using Robert Burns poem Hallowe'en as a guide; or to go a-souling as the English used."

Imagery of Halloween is derived from many sources, including national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature (such as Frankenstein or Dracula), and classic horror films (such as Frankenstein (1931 film) and The Mummy (1932 film), and local harvests (corn husks, pumpkins, scarecrows, straw, etc.)

Trick-or-treating is part of the celebration for children. Children go in costume from house to house, asking for treats (mostly candy but sometimes money, often for UNICEF, with the question, "Trick or treat?" The word "trick" refers to a (generally idle) "threat" to create mischief on the homeowners if no treat is given. The child performs some sort of trick, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats. In some parts of Scotland children still go guising (this is normally on Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November.

Halloween costumes are traditionally modeled after monsters such as ghosts, skeletons, witches, and devils. Over time, the costume selection included popular characters from fiction, celebrities, presidents, athletes, and archetypes such as ninjas and princesses. Costuming became popular for US Halloween parties in the early 20th century, as often for adults as for children. The first mass-produced Halloween costumes appeared in stores in the 1930s. Ghost stories and horror films are common fixtures at Halloween parties. Halloween-themed television series and specials are commonly aired at the end of October; new horror films are often released theatrically to take advantage of the Halloween atmosphere.

Some games traditionally played at Halloween include divination. A traditional Scottish form of divining one's future spouse is to carve an apple in one long strip, then toss the peel over one's shoulder. The peel will land in the shape of the first letter of the future spouse's name (I always wondered if it was first or last name). You would also twist the core of an apple a, b c, d, e, f, etc, revealing the letter of the future spouse's name. Unmarried women sat in a darkened room, gazed into a mirror on Halloween night, hoping to see the face of their future husband. Viewing was not without risk; if they were destined to die before marriage, a skull would appear.

Halloween also coincides with the apple harvest. At one time, candy or caramel apples were commonly given to children, but the practice rapidly waned in the 1970s. One custom that persists in modern-day Ireland is the baking (or more often nowadays, the purchase) of barmbrack, a light fruitcake, into which a plain ring, a coin and other charms are placed before baking. The person who receives the ring will find their true love in the ensuing year, similar to the traditional king cake at the festival of Epiphany.