Book review., Books, Edgar Allan Poe, Fanny Vandegrift, Feminism, History, Literary criticism, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter, One Thousand and One Nights, Robert Louis Stevenson, Scheherazade, Shahrazad, Stylometry, The Arabian Nights
I have heard, O fortunate reader, that once the Sasanian king Shahryar was betrayed in love. In his heartache and humiliation, he chose to visit his wife’s punishment upon all of his capital’s young women. Every name was now down to die. Every morning Shahryar would marry a virgin, he would deflower her in the evening, and he would send her to the executioner’s mat at dawn. Finally, the vizier’s daughter Scheherazade, whose name means “city freer,” married this femicidal king with the aim of driving a spoke into his wheel. Every night she would tell a story to Shahryar and she was always careful to break it off before dawn, so that he would have to spare her life, and those of the city’s remaining virgins, in order to obtain the ending.
Scheherazade duly became the all-knowing, all-controlling narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights. She would bring the whole world into Shahryar’s bedroom – all of its recorded history and places – just as her own story would take the drama within Shahryar’s bedroom to all around the world. She is, in the words of the novelist AS Byatt, “one of the strongest and cleverest heroines in world literature.” Prior to the nineteenth-century, she is perhaps the most resourceful woman to be found within Western fiction.
The previous instalment of this series had considered the influence that the One Thousand and One Nights exerts over Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiter (1885). Western literature has often pined after the glamour of Araby, with fictions such as The Dynamiter being set in labyrinthine city networks that appear to be beamed straight from the heyday of the Arabian Nights. Victorian writers characteristically relished the atmosphere of the Nights, but rarely, if ever, could they abide the brilliance of their narrator. I am not sure that Western literature has ever equalled the figure of Scheherazade. I am not sure that it has even done justice to Scheherazade herself.
In their Arabian Nights Encyclopaedia (2004), Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen explain that Scheherazade “became the heroine of a large number of literary pastiches and Oriental stories in all kinds of creative writing, including music and the cinema… In European literature, film, and art she is usually represented as an attractive and lascivious femme fatale.” The encyclopaedists protest that “the Arab sources… describe her as a learned and intelligent woman.” The “femme fatale” imagery typically ramps up the sex in order to do down the scholarship.
This was never terrain upon which Western authors felt especially confident. During the course of “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” (1845), an otherwise charming satire upon the Nights, Edgar Allan Poe fields as his Scheherazade a gibbering, bird-brained chatterbox. In one sickly submission to an 1866 edition of London Society, the anonymous poet selects as his own Scheherazade a tearful nurse whose storytelling “cheers my drooping heart the while.” The parodic exercises in Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1877-) have fun with the Nights without any help from their narrator. There is a cursory attempt to pretend that the tales have been translated from an Arabian original but Stevenson’s “erudite Arabian” is a “he.”
So the setting of nineteenth-century London is actually the least of it. The gaping absence in Stevenson’s stories, the incompletion which seems almost to mark them out as coming from a straightforwardly inferior culture, lies in their failure to evoke that most delectable of Arabian components, the knowledgeable female storyteller.
In Stevenson’s first two story-cycles, “The Suicide Club” and “The Rajah’s Diamond,” the crime-busting Prince Florizel is rifling through a world of sexless young men. Women are conspicuously absent, aside from Lady Vandeleur and the thoroughly undistinguished (at least by Oriental standards) daughter of the Dictator of Panama. Both are accorded roles far more modest than would have been the case had their stories had been narrated by Scheherazade. Both women are inserted sparingly, at points where they can best humiliate the male characters. Perhaps the implications of these femininely understocked adventures are deliberately comic. The men have been left to their own devices and they are naturally making a complete hash of everything. But as with Poe, you are still left with the sense that Stevenson was not yet ready to handle the dynamite of an authentic Scheherazade. Indeed Poe and Stevenson appear to be alumni of the same parodic school, in not just turning the Nights into a farce but rendering their original aesthetic silly and strangely unsexy.
If The Dynamiter proceeds with a newfound sense of the feminine, this might have been because there was a Scheherazade on hand from the very beginning. Stevenson’s New and More New Arabian Nights were all told stories before they were written narratives. “The Suicide Club” and “The Rajah’s Diamond” were first hatched with his cousin Bob in their Chelsea drawing room. With The Dynamiter, Stevenson’s storyteller-accomplice was his wife Fanny Van de Grift, who had concocted stories for him on the French Riviera in 1883, to entertain him whilst he was recuperating from sciatic rheumatism. By day she would go out walking and at night she would return to recount the stories that she had invented on her travels. Fanny later described how the two of them had created “a sort of Arabian Nights Entertainment where I was to take the part of Scheherazade and he the sultan.” Her testimony was quoted by the Stevensons’ crony, Edmund Gosse, in his introduction to The Dynamiter in The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (1907).
Gosse reports that, “Mrs. Stevenson was responsible for ‘The Destroying Angel’ and ‘The Fair Cuban.’” A remarkable website, which was set up in 2015 at Edinburgh University, uses stylometry to try to untangle the Stevensons’ different hands. Stylometry is a traditional subject of mirth on Tychy and the Edinburgh University team do not manage to reimpose seriousness when entitling one blog post, “An Archive Adventure Trail in Search of Fanny.” The six students analyse word patterns in order to generate an “authorial fingerprint” for each of the Stevensons.
Their findings square largely with my own, non-scientific analysis of The Dynamiter. I think that the prose of “The Destroying Angel” and “The Fair Cuban” is weirdly flat and that Stevenson’s full weight was probably not behind these stories. The Edinburgh University team judge that, “‘The Story of the Destroying Angel’ and ‘The Fair Cuban’ are likely to have been written by Fanny,” though her husband’s “hand in the editing process could have obscured and, ultimately, overpowered Fanny’s stylistic features.” “Improved” is apparently unavailable as an option. Nonetheless, they cannot rule out the possibilities that Stevenson had written the entire book himself or that Fanny had been responsible for the other sections.
In The Dynamiter, the “Arabian author” of Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights is now confined to the dungeon of the stories’ “footnotes” along with some rather aimless humour. So much for him. The Dynamiter’s acquisition of its own Scheherazade elsewhere comes with a renewed dedication to the strictures of the original Nights. The portmanteau novel is no doubt truer to the original format than the brief magazine short stories that Stevenson had previously deployed. A novel’s length allows for a greater unpacking of boxes within boxes, the storytelling device that is most characteristic of Scheherazade. The Utah desert and Mormon conclaves in the “The Destroying Angel” innovatively locate the Nights’ own deserts and harems within a modern setting. The train that carries the heroine Asenath hurtling over the desert also wittily updates the Arabian djinn.
Readers of a twenty-first century mind-set will be liable to view Fanny as a repressed voice who has to be rescued from the traditional neglect of patriarchal scholarship. The feminist Dangerous Woman Project have an obvious and transparent need to retrieve a Fanny who is asserting female agency and giving “a public voice to marginalised groups.” The wish is self-evidently patriarch to the thought when they claim to “recognise the distinctive energies Fanny brought to the novel.”
In truth, the manic desire of Doctor Grierson in “The Destroying Angel” to be transformed into a youth again reads like either a gentle parody or a pastiche of themes that are humming already within Stevenson’s fiction. A wobbly Peter Pan precursor, Grierson wants simply to regain the appearance of youth. He cannot see that it is impossible to be ever restored in spirit, not least because, in his own instance, he has been cast as the generically megalomaniacal old villain. Is Fanny teasing her husband with her portrayal of this “detested and unnatural changeling”? Or is Grierson just the synthetic result of Fanny’s own striving to replicate the materials within her husband’s storytelling?
The most straightforward interpretation of The Dynamiter would surely judge it to be characteristic of Stevenson’s love of Arabian glamour and his ruefulness about the shortcomings of romance. Anything else to the story, any distinct agenda that Fanny might have brought to the table, is so mild a flavour as to be undetectable. She possibly allowed Stevenson a new inroad into Oriental storytelling, refreshing the aesthetic of his New Arabian Nights, but the few short stories that she wrote independently of him are workmanlike and unambitious when compared to his fiction. I am all for acknowledging Fanny, but more as an inspiration than as a creative factor. One is likely to grow frustrated when trying to trace a separate literary personality within The Dynamiter that Fanny had never cultivated within her own writing. Her status as a handmaiden to The Dynamiter is in fact clearly mirrored in the role that Clara Luxmore, her alter-ego, is accorded as the henchwoman of the Dynamiter himself, the redoubtable Zero.
Stevenson’s biographer Frank McLynn has made reference to how Fanny possessed “a mannish aspect… which manifested itself most clearly in the pistol she took with her wherever she went.” Max Banfield, another of Stevenson’s biographers, recounts the time that she had “got it into her head that an epidemic of plague had hit the French Riviera, that people were dying like flies and being buried unidentified in mass graves for sanitary reasons, and that Louis had succumbed to just such a fate… In her hysteria Fanny cabled Louis’s friends in England that he was dead or dying.” These antics conceivably provided the model for Miss Luxmore, a reckless hot-head who spins fanciful stories that lead men to run off on harum-scarum errands on her behalf.
If Clara is an overflowing Scheherazade, there is still something vaguely housebound to her sensibility. Unlike the male adventures, she does not venture out into the city to discover new stories. When befriending Challoner she shows scant curiosity towards him and she instead peoples the passing streets with fictional characters:
Before every house she paused, invented a name for the proprietor, and sketched his character: here lived the old general whom she was to marry on the fifth of the next month, there was the mansion of the rich widow who had set her heart on Challoner…
You might categorise this invention as passive, when compared to the active urban exploration of the story’s three adventurers, Challoner, Desborough and Somerset. Yet the first two of these young men meet a character who is played by Miss Luxmore, whilst Somerset falls into the hands of her mother. Nobody comes across an adventure that is not invented by Clara or implicated in her role-playing.
Miss Luxmore can spin entire worlds out of anything to hand. She is no doubt concocting “The Destroying Angel” whilst she is walking with Challoner, weaving a desert out of the early morning London stillness and watchful Mormons out of the city’s constabulary. Later, the narrator of “The Fair Cuban” claims to be descended “through the maternal line, from the patriot Bruce,” a detail that Miss Luxmore has obviously taken from her last victim, Challoner, who had told her that he was “through my mother… a lineal descendant of the patriot Bruce.”
Something has changed by “The Fair Cuban” – we are now well aware that Miss Luxmore’s narrative is gibberish. Everything is henceforth more jolly – the story is on holiday from the routine responsibilities of storytelling. It is unclear whether the sketchy telling of this story, a brusqueness that makes its moments of apocalyptic melodrama seem shoddy or flippant, is meant to parody unrealistic Victorian adventure writing or instead capture the no-nonsense, flying-carpet promptness of the original Nights. Miss Luxmore ransacks through a treasure hunt, an alligator peril, a scandalous Hoodoo ritual and a tornado. All of them are too glib to be as enjoyable as they would have been had Stevenson authored them as normal.
So Cuba is strangely lacking in any spring and yet somehow the anti-climax still wields the perfect punch. Clara is at last forced to admit that, “I am a dangerous and wicked girl… I was never nearer Cuba than Penzance.” A story which we have had to patiently sit through – and which it takes literally over an hour to read – is unceremoniously wiped away like a spot of soup. I cannot think of any examples of equivalent surprises within Victorian literature, aside from William Maginn’s short story “A Tale of Terror,” which was published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1838. This riveting tale of travellers who are pursued by wolves is ended abruptly when the narrator complains that, “I have not time… to write any more, for I am going out to shoot with your brother Dick.”
I am still not sure that I agree with McLynn’s assessment that in The Dynamiter “the women are much better at telling stories than their men are at making bombs.” For a start, Clara’s Cuban romance collapses in the same scene that Zero’s primed bomb fails to detonate, whilst Challoner never believes Miss Luxmore’s story: “…the more judicial functions of his mind refused assent. It was an excellent story; and it might be true, but he believed it was not.” Challoner is impervious to Scheherazade and if he was Clara’s Shahryar, she would be for the chop. Desborough, for his part, falls in love largely with the teller rather than the tale.
Something less than revolutionary is conveyed by the pathos and sentimentality of Miss Luxmore’s narratives. Their power is the very opposite of a bomb. Her story involves a theatrical performance of the damsel in distress that is at odds with her far more spirited and controlling reality. In her stories she is constantly dependent upon others; in real life she is an energetic manipulator.
Clara’s storytelling is therefore significantly askew from Scheherazadean precedent. Scheherazade had told fabulous stories with the axe virtually resting on the back of her neck; Clara makes up extraordinary whoppers to protect colleagues who are bent on murder. Unlike Scheherazade, Clara is never in any immediate danger from the authorities and she more resembles a compulsive liar than a bewitching scholar. M’Guire terms her “a madwoman, who jests with the most deadly interests.” A fantasist, she is attracted to anarchism, we might suspect, simply because it is irresistible as a storyline.
The ending of Stevenson’s tale is inevitably problematic and it puts Clara in an awkward spot for a revolutionary. When defending her anarchism before Prince Florizel, she demands, “Has your own heart never leaped within you at some story of oppression? But, alas, no! for you were born upon a throne.” She is the one, though, who is applying for patronage and no longer from a Prince but from a self-made shopkeeper.
Miss Luxmore will be duly reconciled with her family’s wealth. Stevenson partly obfuscates her hypocrisy by ensuring that she marries for love. She is drawn to the lovey-dovey and impoverished Desborough over the newly enriched but peevish Challoner. In addition, he makes her a repentant anarchist and one whose heart was always in the romance of anarchism rather than in its dogma. She maintains that, “I never abused myself with the muddle-headed fairy tales of politics… I may have been a criminal, in short; but I never was a fool.”
If we wish for a more revolutionary Clara then perhaps Scheherazade had never offered the firmest of shoulders to stand on. The censurers say that Scheherazade is nothing other than a good memory, that she merely recites a load of stories and poems that she did not herself create. Male scholars, or so the censurers allege, had dreamt up this figure to function as an unthreatening maternal presence who can temper autocratic excess. Scheherazade is thus Magna Carta in a frock, a reformer rather than a revolutionary. The virtues that she is intended to convey are duty and an ingenious passivity before horrendous, exploitative injustice. Her stories freeze the king into an enchanted statue, as inactive almost as any modern constitutional monarch, but with nothing to put him permanently out of action.
Clara was as far as the conservative Stevenson would allow a revolution to go. He favoured a music-hall revolution that was all a bit of a song and a dance, without any ultimate sincerity. He was happier to wind up his story with a traditional Victorian arrangement in which an inheritance is settled. The humour is safety-first and Scheherazade’s spiritedness is donned only as a splendid costume. Clara, like the rest of the dynamite in this story, seldom blows the roof off.