Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad, Book review., Books, Edgar Allan Poe, Edinburgh, Fanny Vandegrift, Flaneur, G. K. Chesterton, History, Literary criticism, London, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, One Thousand and One Nights, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scheherazade, Shahrazad, The Arabian Nights, The Man of the Crowd
When writing to his cousin and near namesake Bob Stevenson in 1882, Robert Louis Stevenson reminisced about how they had hatched their New Arabian Nights together in their drawing room at St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea. He added, with a nonchalance which will today infuriate fans of his fiction, that there were “several more now forgotten. I must try to start ‘em again.”
Parodic of Orientalism from the get-go, the Stevensons’ Arabian Nights were not painstakingly hunted down by questing scholars in far-flung cities, but pulled randomly out of the air. For Victorian readers, of course, the journeys of Oriental stories from medieval manuscripts into Western print had been seldom as swift and precise as Bedridden Hassan’s leap between Cairo and Damascus. Literature’s jinn were rarely this reliable. Successive Western editions of the One Thousand and One Nights story anthology had deleted as much as they had added, to respectively avoid giving offense and to satisfy their readers’ cravings for Oriental allure. As the scholar Marina Warner observed in Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (2011), “the tales mirrored Arab civilisation and mentalite for the west, but at the same time communicated a fantastic European dream of Araby.”
Sometimes these stories were not merely contaminated but manufactured outright. Whenever this occurred, nobody in the West had an eye for telling authenticity from imitation. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” one of the most famous stories from the One Thousand and One Nights, was first written down in French, rather than Arabic, by the eighteenth-century translator Antoine Galland. During a 1709 visit to Paris, Youhenna Diab, a Christian from Aleppo, had told the tale and Galland had put it into words. No manuscript edition has ever emerged to corroborate “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and some historians have inevitably accused Galland of devising it himself. According to the scholar Robert Irwin, Stevenson’s contemporary Joseph-Charles-Victor Mardrus, who had published stories from the Nights between 1899 and 1904, may have flatly invented some of his “translations.”
In 2007, the researcher Aboubakr Chraibi carefully took “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” to pieces to show that, “the majority of components in the tale… are old and generally relate to Pharaonic Egypt.” It might not be feasible to similarly reclaim Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights for Middle-Eastern literature. Indeed, it might appear to be ludicrous to contemplate defining “Arabian” tales that are set in nineteenth-century London and Paris as anything other than crudely sarcastic. Yet the One Thousand and One Nights have been added to throughout their history and so how can Stevenson’s contribution be logically excluded? “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Suicide Club” can be located within the same spectrum: “the majority of components” in both stories are borrowed from older, Middle Eastern sources; and Stevenson is, beneath his clowning, as sincere as Galland in adhering to the narrative requirements of an Arabian story. Stevenson’s stance therefore both stretches and weakens the model of the Nights. It is devout and mischievous in equal measure.
Rather than delving into detail, however, I am bobbing up into an altitude of analysis which is so general that it might seem overly thin. I wish to argue that the most vivid setting in Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights is always inescapably under the auspices of Scheherazade’s imaginative empire. Those labyrinthine London streets, with their infinity of available adventures, are drawn to a perfect Arabian pattern.
London was, by the mid-nineteenth century, the largest city in the world. The city’s population had grown threefold between 1815 and 1861 and it had surpassed 4.2 million inhabitants by 1875. Rome in the days of Augustus had almost certainly housed over a million inhabitants, though the extent to which Victorian writers could identify with this tumultuous, post-imperial capital was always placed under natural limits. The comparison tended to be made more in Edinburgh than in London and only as a repercussion of flatteringly styling the former “the Athens of the North.” Ninth-century Baghdad was similar in size to imperial Rome (some historians put the former’s population during this period at well over one million), and Baghdad may have provided the aptest conceptual framework through which to view Victorian London. Rome, Baghdad and London were each the largest cities of their day and the seats of the richest empires in the world, but Baghdad and London bore the supplementary connotations of nocturnal glamour and the dark freedoms of an urban underworld.
Rome was conventionally associated within Victorian thought with a kind of powerful but sterile daylight: the clear-mindedness of Rome’s rigid philosophies; the pre-Christian virtues that were renewed during the Enlightenment by “infidels” such as David Hume and Edward Gibbon. “Augustan” literature, so named after the Roman emperor Augustus, was tidy and calm in its prose. The One Thousand and One Nights would be carried aloft in the vanguard of the Romantics’ reaction to this cut-glass neoclassicism. You were supposed to admire the anthology’s stupendous, playful disorder. As one of the novelist Ronald Firbank’s characters would later murmur exquisitely, “if only Oriental literature sprawled less, was more concise.”
The way in which the Nights sprawls, with its stories crisscrossing in and out of each other like networks of maddeningly similar streets, came to replicate the labyrinthine atmosphere of Abbasid Baghdad. And this model would prove equally applicable to the task of representing nineteenth-century London. With the city walls of her own vast mind housing a voluminous maze of short stories, the storyteller Scheherazade far exceeded the powers of Tyche and Fortuna, the particular Greek and Roman goddesses of the city.
In 1908, the scholar Martha P Conant crowned the One Thousand and One Nights “the fairy godmother of the English novel,” which is true, if perhaps inappropriately twee. To us, the representations of Baghdad in the Nights may appear to foreshadow to a remarkable extent the London that is encountered within Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Nevertheless these representations in fact constitute the most significant example in literary history of nostalgia for a metropolis. The Nights was repeatedly padded out by storytellers who had never seen Baghdad in its Abbasid heyday.
For the Victorians, the subtle modelling of London upon a mythical Oriental original was of a piece with the broader influence of the arabesque during this period. As the scholar G.R. Thompson has asserted, when accounting for the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, “the infusion of Eastern art, architecture, landscape gardening, literature, religion, and philosophy into the West during this time was massive.”
Poe referred to his own horror tales as “of the… Arabesque.” Of course, the genealogy of Poe’s fiction cannot be pinned down to anything more specific than an unfathomably interwoven jumble of German Gothicism, British Romanticism, American “tall tale” humour, and the priority given to “sensation” by contributors to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. For the purposes of our analysis, one can locate a distinctly Oriental seam within Poe’s 1840 tale “The Man of the Crowd.”
The setting is London. The “man of the crowd,” who the narrator aimlessly trails throughout the London night, is reckoned to be a criminal who cannot be left alone with his own conscience. This story is modelled upon Henry Thomson’s 1823 short story for Blackwood’s, “The Night Walker [misattributed in the link],” possibly via similar literary excursions by Charles Dickens, but Poe’s nocturnal London is bigger, darker, and altogether more lurid. He has started out with largely journalistic precedents and gently ripened them into the semblance of a nightmare. You are stunned by the magnitude of the human masses that are swarming and jostling on these streets. As the narrator classifies the different subspecies within the crowd (e.g. merchants, clerks, pick-pockets and gamblers) by their markings, he grows akin to the sorceress in the Nights who had transformed a whole city into differently coloured fishes.
Was this one of the most realistic accounts of urban life yet to be written in 1840 or is it instead a phantasmagorical rendering of the Victorian city? Poe had little more personal experience of London, or of any huge city, than he had of ninth-century Baghdad. When he first visited New York in 1831, its population had only recently exceeded 200,000. At the climax of his story, the man of the crowd arrives at “one of the huge suburban temples of Intemperance – one of the palaces of the fiend, Gin.” Temples – palaces – fiends – jinn – a veritable itinerary for one of Scheherazade’s adventurers! Poe can, in other words, only access this mysterious city through some hackneyed Orientalist lingo.
The 1840s saw the publication of various detective novels that were derivative of Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris (1842-3). As the historian Stephen Knight has noted, the assumed task of these writers was to represent cities that were “growing beyond comprehension or control.” Poe and Stevenson both subscribe to the proposal that was submitted by this line of fiction, a view of the city as a kind of monstrous, ever-invading fungus. Stevenson’s vision still seems the purer. In Poe’s and Sue’s cities, the swarming chaos is inevitably criminal; by Stevenson’s time, anyone can share in the adventure of the city streets.
For Stevenson, the aesthetic of modern London had been essentially perfected within the One Thousand and One Nights and simply repeated from thereon in. His hero Prince Florizel of Bohemia first roams the night streets in disguise and accompanied by trusted subordinates, like the fifth Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), the questing night-walker from the original Nights. Whithersoever he walks, Florizel retells London as Baghdad, superimposing the glamour of the Arabian night on to the neoclassical grandeur of the London day.
The population growth of Victorian London was fuelled, like that of a caravan city in the Nights, by an influx of immigrants and travellers. London’s newcomers were predominantly arriving from the English countryside and from across the Irish Sea. Like the heroes of the Nights, every immigrant is on the adventure of a lifetime. You might automatically add Stevenson to their ranks – after all, the young writer had gravitated to London in search of fame and fortune and he could surely not help looking upon this city through the eyes of a migrant. But this assumption might be actually unhelpful when it comes to interpreting the representations of London in his own fiction.
For a start, Stevenson had found London expensive and its sociability oppressive. He experimented with life in Hampstead for a month in 1874 but he otherwise never settled in the city. On his periodic visits to London, usually to pester doctors, he lodged in clubs and hotels. Admittedly, for a man who seems to have spent most of his life in bed, an urban location was in all practical respects indistinguishable from a rural one. In his 1927 study Robert Louis Stevenson, G K Chesterton had fun with the “paradox” that the author was “like somebody travelling the wildest roads of the world in a covered wagon… He could only be carried from sight to sight; or even from adventure to adventure.”
I am not certain if Stevenson’s undeniable childishness, the cringing reflex that recurs throughout his letters, is a fault or merely a feature of his outlook. Rather than embarking upon a swashbuckling literary career in London and adventuring in the high Arabian tradition, he remained financially dependent upon his parents even into his thirties. Yet he did not simply linger in immaturity, instead idealising the intense devotion of children to imaginative fiction almost to the point of making it a political principle. In an 1882 essay entitled “A Gossip on Romance” he effectively defined romance, “the poetry of circumstance,” as a still-habitable relic left over from child’s play.
Bizarrely, but not inconsistently, “romance” emerges from Stevenson’s claims for it as both the definitive characteristic of a child’s private world and as a phenomenon natural to the streets of a city. Romance is fundamentally “pictorial” and satisfies a “demand for fit and striking incident.” It may be suggested by “certain dank gardens… certain old houses,” but Stevenson’s eye for romance is also thoroughly at home marauding through mysterious and unpredictable city streets:
The effect of night, of any flowing water, of lighted cities, of the peep of day, of ships, of the open ocean, calls up in the mind an army of anonymous desires and pleasures. Something, we feel, should happen: we know not what, yet we proceed in quest of it.
This is the very philosophy of Stevenson’s ersatz-Arabians Prince Florizel and Paul Somerset. And, despite its innocuous appearance, it is a philosophy. I am aware that amongst intelligent people, that tiresome old postmodern bogeyman, the flâneur, has long outstayed his welcome. He is a veteran from interminable academic studies of Poe, Baudelaire and Benjamin: the city walker, who looks to modern eyes suspiciously like a Shoreditch hipster, as he struts and poses, detached and analytical, in front of the passing shop fronts of the arcades. Nonetheless, Stevenson’s own flânerie (my friends, I am sorry!) comes qualified with something authentically claustrophobic that lifts it out of the arid wastes of literary theory.
The streak of childish whimsy that is evinced by Prince Florizel tilts him into becoming a costumed caricature of the author. The Prince declares in “The Suicide Club” that he and his manservant “pass our lives entirely in the search for extravagant adventures,” but the pair can do this largely without risk because the Prince is a prince. His bodyguard and servants will whisk him away from any looming danger. Stevenson was likewise an urban adventurer, but a detached one who remained almost as sheltered as a child from the dangers and uncertainties that people usually face when they set out to make a new life for themselves in a strange city.
In a broader sense, a remote and uninvolved view of the city was already part of Stevenson’s vision. Stevenson’s 1993 biographer Frank McLynn reports that:
…there were many occasions when RLS prowled the mean streets and narrow entries of the city alone, marvelling at the bewildering variety of architectural styles… His favourite time was when the lamps began to glitter along the streets at twilight; he felt that Edinburgh then was like a fairyland ruin and that real people, trams and trains were out of place.
This may call to mind JG Lockhart’s famous description of the city from 1819:
Edinburgh… could never be merely a city. Here there must always be present the idea of the comparative littleness of all human works.
It might take some stretch of the imagination to think that Auld Reekie, tyrannised as it is in Stevenson’s eyes by “bleak winds and plumping rain,” could ever match the glamour of a city from the One Thousand and One Nights. Lockhart may have cloaked Edinburgh in mystery, lauding the “majestic gloom of this most picturesque of cities,” but nineteenth-century Edinburgh was far from being the “humming labyrinth” that so electrifies the adventurer Somerset in The Dynamiter. It was too poky, too provincial, and simply too inclement.
Still, Lockhart’s account of the “littleness” of Edinburgh refers to the way in which it is overshadowed by “free and spacious nature herself,” or the crags and hills which appear to squint down upon the city from every angle. The detachment from Edinburgh that would allow Stevenson to envision it as a “fairyland ruin” was already incorporated into the standard view of the city anyway: the distance with which you look down upon it from its lonely hillsides or up at the towering tenements from amongst its deserted wynds.
And when eyes that had looked upon Edinburgh came to look on London, perhaps they brought with them the same practised alienation, the same blur of mist and the faraway, and the same predilection to observe the city from afar. Of Stevenson’s 1879 visit to London, McLynn recounts that:
By day he was the rising litterateur, clubbable at the Savile, renewing his acquaintance with George Meredith… Yet by night RLS wandered the streets of London in ragged clothes, hoping to be arrested as a tramp…
In his Edinburgh, Picturesque Notes, Stevenson reasons of his home city that “Beautiful as she is, she is not so much beautiful as interesting” and he relates how one can be dazzled by its “clashing of architecture.” The flâneur in Stevenson is here already alert. The city is something that is not experienced foremostly through human encounters, but it is instead seen, admired, and explored, usually at night when the working population has retired to rest. The Picturesque Notes often seem to be narrated from some overhanging hillside, where Stevenson is looking gigantically down upon Edinburgh’s “Egyptian and Greek temples, Venetian palaces and Gothic spires.” The book was published in 1878, the same year as “The Suicide Club.” The Arabian gaze which falls on London and Paris in these stories is thus conceivably enhanced by an Edinburgh perspective.
Part of the alienation of Edinburgh for Stevenson was that its fairy appearance was always out of sync with its routine reality. This urban duality is quite distinct from, if also maybe less compelling than, the stark gulf between light and darkness in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. From a distance the city was a “dream”; in detail, its realism could not be avoided.
…the feeling grows upon you that this also is a piece of nature in the most intimate sense; that this profusion of eccentricities, this dream in masonry and living rock is not a drop-scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of everyday reality, connected by railway and telegraph-wire with all of the capitals of Europe, and inhabited by citizens of the familiar type, who keep ledgers, and attend church, and have sold their immortal portion to a daily paper… these citizens with their cabs and their tramways, their trains and posters, are altogether out of key.
Chesterton discerned exactly the same incongruity within the New Arabian Nights, “woven,” as he put it, into “a singular sort of atmosphere, which is not like anything else.” Only these Arabian stories reverse the distinctions that Stevenson had observed in Edinburgh. The urban backdrop becomes unremarkable and industrial, whilst the detail of its passing life becomes dreamy and fantastic. Chesterton recounts that:
It is partly like the atmosphere of a dream; in which so many incongruous things cause no surprise. It is partly the real atmosphere of London at night; it is partly the unreal atmosphere of Baghdad… This double mentality, like that of the true dreamer, is suggested with extraordinary skill without loading with a single question the inimitable lightness of the narrative.
Flânerie should not be a mere indulgence of dreaminess, or the laziness of “an idle child” that Stevenson’s “A Gossip on Romance” had condemned in Sir Walter Scott. The man of the crowd is always a scholar of the smallest and driest details. When accompanying Edward Challoner, one of the urban explorers in The Dynamiter, Stevenson confides that, “the reader, if he has ever plied the fascinating trade of the noctambulist, will not be unaware that, in the neighbourhood of the great railway centres, certain early taverns inaugurate the business of the day.” This is useless knowledge, other than for a night worker who has just clocked off, but the noctambulist’s mind will be naturally an encyclopaedia of such minutiae.
The knowledgeable detachment of Stevenson’s night-walkers is not merely a reflection of their circumstances or the mentality of a certain historical period. It is potentially the ultimate in modern consciousness. It might not necessarily be a plausible outlook, but it is one of the purest idealism. Somerset commands that, “the next adventure that offers itself, embrace it in with both your arms; whatever it looks like, grimy or romantic, grasp it.” He and his friends are about to plunge into a city of infinite adventure and, in this moment, Stevenson has isolated the truest essence of the One Thousand and One Nights.