Celebrating #RLSDay2021 with a little poetry from the great man!


Robert Louis Stevenson Day is celebrated annually on the great author’s birthday, 13th November, and I always try to remember to take part in this. For 2021, I had intended to read a recent acquisition about RLS and his relationship with his cousin, Katharine de Mattos (thanks to the influence of Lizzy!)

However, time has been against me, and I’ve failed to get to the book; so instead I though I would share a poem that RLS wrote to his cousin. It’s a moving verse, and from what I’ve picked up to far, the two were close during their lives until Stevenson’s wife caused an estrangement and literary theft got in the way. Such a shame…

Lovely RLS things brought back from Edinburgh…

Here is the verse, anyway, which I read from my lovely “Selected Poems”, picked up in Edinburgh four years ago, Happy RLS Day! 😀

To Katharine de Mattos

With a copy of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde’

Bells upon the city are ringing in the night;
High above the gardens are the houses full of light;
On the heathy Pentlands is the curlew flying free,
And the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie.

It’s ill to break the bonds that God decreed to bind,
Still we’ll be the children of the heather and the wind.
Far away from home, O, it’s still for you and me
That the broom is blowing bonnie in the north countrie!

On the biographical trail of great authors… #footsteps #richardholmes #romantics


As a reader, random bookish serendipity is one of my favourite things in the world; that accidental stumbling across a book or author which turns out to be an utterly brilliant read and sends you off down several rabbit-holes exploring other books and authors. A recent and stunning example of this was my discovery of “Footsteps” by Richard Holmes; the author and his writings made repeated appearances in Sarah LeFanu’s “Dreaming of Rose”. Her recounting of Holmes’s experiences on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson sounded irresistible, and when I looked a little more deeply, the other writers making appearances in the book ranged from Mary Wollstonecraft through Shelley and co to Gerard de Nerval. Needless to say, obtaining a copy became essential and so I did, and picked it up as soon as it arrived – it didn’t even get the chance to say hello to Mount TBR…

Richard Holmes is a name I thought was new to me (more of which in a future post); an esteemed biographer, winner of numerous awards, and Fellow of the Royal Academy, he certainly seems to have had a very illustrious career. “Footsteps” is subtitled “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer”, and many of Holmes’s biographies have indeed been members of that group; Coleridge and Shelley have had individual works about them, and he’s also written books about the Romantics as an entity. This book, however, was published in 1985, and in it Holmes looks back on four pivotal years in his own life; periods where he began his journey towards becoming a biographer and followed the trail of some of the characters who fascinated him the most.

So the first section, “1964: Travels” covers the time when the young Holmes followed the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes with his poor donkey (I wrote about that here). Holmes is obviously still feeling his way towards what he wants to do with his life, and as he travels he attempts to write poetry, reflects on Stevenson’s travels and writing, and meditates. Part two, “1968: Revolutions” finds Holmes witnessing the rioting in Paris and casting his mind back to the French Revolution; searching for an eye-witness, he discovers the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft who saw much of what happened, and he sets out to explore her life.

Section three, “1972: Exiles” finds Holmes in the post-sixties decades trailing Shelley and his cohort through Europe to Shelley’s final resting place in Italy. Here, Holmes is particularly drawn to Claire Clairmont and her relationship with the poet; and he’s becoming more adept at digging into the past and exploring it deeply, using his biographer’s skills to uncover things others might have missed. Finally, part four “1976: Dreams” deals with the tragic French author Gerard de Nerval; Holmes is particularly drawn to consider Nerval’s friendship with Gautier, his apparent madness and the times through which he was living. This section did make particularly powerful reading…

Needless to say, I was absolutely enthralled from the start of “Footsteps” to the final words; what a wonderful and truly engrossing read it is. It’s actually also quite a hard book to classify, as it encompasses so much. There’s the autobiographical element, where Holmes looks back at these important times in his own life, which are fascinating in their own right. Then there’s the biographical angle, with the stories of the various authors he’s tracking relayed through the prism of Holmes’s interpretations. And finally, of course, there’s the whole subject of the art of biography; how to write it, how to get inside your subject’s head, how to interpret past events when crucial documentation is missing, and whether to stand back and be objective or use your imagination to ‘see’ the life story of your subject, almost stepping into fiction. All of these elements are brought together quite brilliantly into a dizzying piece of writing which is quite unforgettable.

As I mentioned, “Footsteps” is from 1985; and although I’m no expert on the art of biography, I imagine Holmes’s approach was very groundbreaking at the time. With our current fad for following in the footsteps of the Brontes, or tracing Jane Austen’s trail, Holmes really can be said to be ahead of the game with his search for those authors he loved, immersing himself in their landscapes to give him a better understanding of their lives. His methods are perhaps unorthadox (or certainly may have been at the time), but he captures quite brilliantly the frustration at not being able to pin down the past; having glimpses when it almost seems as if the boundaries between then and now are dissolved; but they aren’t of course and this can leave the biographer bereft.

… all these inward emotions were concentrated and focused upon one totally unforeseen things: the growth of a friendship with Stevenson, which is to say, the growth of an imaginary relationship with a non-existent person, or at least a dead one. In this sense, what I experienced and recorded in the Cevennes in the summer of 1964 was a haunting.… an invasion or encroachment of the present upon the past, and in some sense the past upon the present. And in this experience of haunting I first encountered – without them realising it – what I now think of as the essential process of biography.

The book also demonstrates how partisan and personally involved a biographer can be, particularly in his determination to find out the truth about the Shelley/Clairmont relationship! “Footsteps” is also a book which is as much about the times Holmes is living through and their resonances with the past; the line back from 1968 to 1789 is often drawn nowadays, but I don’t know how much it was at the time. Holmes is an engaging narrator, not afraid to reveal his fears and doubts, and the book is a self-portrait of him as a proto-biographer, feeling his way into his craft.

I found “Footsteps” to be an absolutely fabulous read; a heady blend of autobiography, biography, travel and meditation, it’s haunted me for days after finishing it. It’s also had a very bad effect on the TBR, unfortunately; the first casualty is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose “Travels With a Donkey…” I already own in multiple copies…

Multiple Stevensons…

But as “Footsteps” reveals, there is also a published copy of the actual journal Stevenson kept, from which Holmes quotes liberally. A quick online investigation revealed a reasonably-priced copy and I sent off for it – with some trepidation, as it was incredibly cheap, and the seller was one who’s provided tatty books in the past. Lo and behold, it arrived and was in marvellous condition – so that was a result!

A bargain at £3.79 including postage…

As for the other dangers; well, the Romantic authors are ones already well represented on my shelves, although frantic searching after finishing “Footsteps” revealed some unpleasant gaps. But this warrants a separate post, which will follow in a day or so when I get a little more organised! In the meantime, I will just say that “Footsteps” is an absolutely magnificent book which will definitely be amongst my reads of the year. If you have any interest in biography, autobiography or any of the authors covered I highly recommend it – and thank you to Sarah LeFanu for pointing me in its direction! 😀

Thrilling tales of derring-do for #RLSDay :D



As I think I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, 13th November is designated as an annual Robert Louis Stevenson day, in celebration of the great author on his birthday. I do love RLS’s writing, and I try to mark the day if I can – although I do have a tendency to often leave it a little late… However, this year I’ve been slightly more organised than usual, and I’ve been dipping into some of the stories in “New Arabian Nights”; it’s a collection of shorter works I picked up moons ago, and it makes wonderful reading!

November being a bit packed with challenges and the like, I’ve only managed to read the suite of stories collected under the titles of “The Suicide Club” and “The Raja’s Diamond”. This consists of six linked tales, joined with commentary by a storyteller (much in the way of the original Arabian Nights, apparently), and they focus on the lively, dramatic and picaresque adventures of Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful sidekick, Colonel Geraldine. Interestingly, the publication of these stories pre-dates slightly the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, and yet the relationship between the two men is very much in the mould of Holmes and Watson! RLS and Conan Doyle were friends and contemporaries – intriguing…

The first three stories feature dark deeds by the proprietor of the club of the title; it’s an unpleasant organisation, designed to help troubled people end their lives. After an initial adventure in the first story, where Florizel and Geraldine encounter the villain in question, they then pursue him through the other two stories with lively and exciting adventures . The second suite of stories sees Florizel and Geraldine solving the mysteries associated with the theft of a fabulous diamond, as well as observing the effect that the jewel has on people’s morality.

The stories are wonderfully entertaining, and of course RLS writes so marvellously; I really enjoyed following the tales of derring-do, and Florizel and Geraldine make a wonderful pairing of heroes. It’s interesting how Bohemia threw up so many fictional characters in the past… However, what struck me too was Stevenson’s mastery of the form; each tale ends with a little bit of narration, leading into the next one, and then the focus changes with the following story introducing us to a character who’s either new or hasn’t taken the main stage previously. All the threads eventually link together, and it’s an ingenious way of telling a tale and keeping the reader interested and on their toes. What a really great author RLS was!

So I loved reading these short works by RLS to celebrate his day this year; and I still have treats to come in the book, including a story reckoned by no less than Arthur Conan Doyle as being the first short story ever written! As you can see from the image above, I do have a few of Stevenson’s titles lurking on my shelves, and could happily spend many a winter night engrossed in them. Every time I revisit RLS I find more to love and admire in his books, and if you’ve never read him you could do no better than to give his works a look; certainly, these short stories would be a great introduction to a really great author!


For further information about RLS Day, there is a lovely site here which gets updated annually:


There’s also an excellent website all about Stevenson here:


2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)


When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉


I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…


I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

A love-hate relationship #Edinburgh #RobertLouisStevenson @RLSonline


Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just over a year ago, I took a trip north with my Aged Parent; our road (or, rather, train) trip was to revisit the city of our birth, the very beautiful and atmospheric Edinburgh. My mum had been back more recently; I hadn’t visited for decades; and it was an emotional visit for both of us.

However, one thing I wanted to do while up there was to connect with the cultural aspects of the city, and in particular her famous son, Robert Louis Stevenson. It took a while, but I eventually tracked him down via the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, as well as passing by his childhood home in Heriot Row. I came back with a collection of his poems, which I dip into regularly; and of course I’ve followed his journeys through the mountains of France with a hapless donkey… However, a browse online earlier this year reminded me that I wanted to read his little book about our home city, “Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes“, although getting a nice edition was not quite as straightforward as you might expect – more of which later…

… for after a hospital, what uglier place is there in civilisation than a court of law?

Anyway. RLS’s book was published in 1878 and was actually his second work to make it into print. Drawn from a series of essays, it takes a look at the city of Edinburgh and although described as a paean, RLS is not always complimentary about the place – which actually makes entertaining reading! There are ten chapters, focusing on different aspects, and RLS delves into the history and legends of the city, the famous characters who’ve passed through, the customs of the people – and of course, the weather, which is a recurring issue… When ruminating on the effects the climate has on the populace, driving them to either hearth or drinking establishment, RLS is very funny:

To none but those who have themselves suffered the thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions there is something almost physically disgusting in the bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so short that a man does much of his business, and certainly all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the wind whistles through the town as if it were an open meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man’s inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one who has been long struggling with the seas.

Stevenson was only 28 when this book was published, but he’d already started to display the restlessness that would lead him to travel for the latter part of his life. It’s clear that he had a complex relationship with Edinburgh, and his continuing ill-health must have had a lot to do with this (hence the constant grumbling about the weather!) He can be forgiven for being snarky about that, after all, and he obviously still had a great affection for the place which does show through. His writing about Edinburgh is often lyrical, he knows its history well and is happy to share to share stories and opinions on the city, the Scots and their habits. I had to laugh at his asides about the horrors of eating Black Bun, and his pithy commentary on the gruesome architecture of Scottish churches and graveyards was a joy.

Setting aside the tombs of Roubiliac, which belong to the heroic order of graveyard art, we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change; and even around country churches you will find a wonderful exhibition of skulls, and crossbones, and noseless angels, and trumpets pealing for the Judgment Day. Every mason was a pedestrian Holbein: he had a deep consciousness of death, and loved to put its terrors pithily before the churchyard loiterer; he was brimful of rough hints upon mortality, and any dead farmer was seized upon to be a text.

And yet, he’s always a thoughtful observer. He’s realistic about the hardness of life in the Old Town, and even-handed in his discussion of the New Town. It’s worth remembering that the building of the New Town, a long and complex process, was only really completed around the time of Stevenson’s birth, and Princes Street, with its Gardens constructed on the bed of the drained Nor’ Loch, was still a shiny new thing. Stevenson was therefore writing about relatively recent changes to the city, which had not always been popular, and it’s fascinating to read his take on it.

View of the Pentland Hills – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anthony O’Neil – geograph.org.uk/p/5835135

However, it was the final chapter, “To the Pentland Hills”, that spoke to me most personally. The southern edge of Edinburgh is bordered by that range, and I grew up in a house overlooked by them. When we returned to it last year, mum and I stood and studied them, and she recalled looking out of our home’s window at the hills all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of hills and mountains to this day… The area we lived in was the Colinton Mains one, and that of course is a very recent development – in fact, mum revealed to me that my great-uncle’s building firm constructed the house we lived in, which she had lived in with my nana, so I learned a new bit of family history. Anyway, in Stevenson’s time the area was of course undeveloped country, but the following passage caught my eye:

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters’ Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters’ Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.

We got about by bus while in Edinburgh (the Lothian Bus app is amazing!) and frequently jumped aboard conveyances with “Hunters’ Tryst” on the front (the number 27 – our favourite one!). I checked out Wikipedia and the inn is still there and in use – so that was a lovely little case of synchronicity and I felt rather happy about discovering another connection with RLS.

Edinburgh Castle from the illustrated Seeley edition

This post seems to be drifting off in a weirdly autobiographical direction, which wasn’t quite what I intended. However, it was inevitable that I’d have a deeply personal response to this book, and I loved following Stevenson round my home city while he shared his thoughts on it. It’s a wonderful city and what a marvellous writer he really was!


As a coda, I do feel I need to have a word about editions! When I decided I wanted to read this book, I did a bit of an online search as I couldn’t find anything in a bricks and mortar shop. As I’ve grumbled about before, if you go on Amazon there are all sorts of odd and nasty-looking editions; if a book is old and out of copyright, I guess people think they can produce random copies all over the place, and there’s no real guide to what they’re like. But I could see no decent, modern edition, so I turned to the rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Club (who can be found here) and dropped them a message asking for advice.

The cover of the illustrated Seeley edition

Their very helpful Duncan Milne confirmed that there was no decent modern volume, so I followed his suggestion of picking up a pretty second-hand one. He recommended the Seeley edition of 1903; mine is actually from 1910 and alas lacks the illustrations. However, archive.org to the rescue with a scan of the 1903 Seeley complete with lovely engravings and etchings! So I had the pleasure of reading a pretty vintage edition obtained at a Very Reasonable Price, and looking at the illustrations I’d found online. Which just goes to show it’s worth researching a bit to find a nice copy which makes the reading experience so much better!

Tramping with a poor beast of burden… plus some musings on different editions


Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson

When I was casting around for what to read after “Flights” it somehow seemed inevitable that my gaze fell on a travel book! 😀 I keep meaning to pick up another Robert Louis Stevenson volume, and his books about his trip through the Cevennes with a long-suffering donkey has been on the radar for a while. And I seem to own three copies…

*Why*, you may ask, do I have three copies? Well, I bought the Penguin copy first (I think). The Everyman edition was from a charity shop for 90p and as it had different stories included from the Penguin I thought I would have it as well. The Stanfords Travel Classics edition came as part of a set of three which came from The Book People with some book points I had amassed. All have points to commend them, which I’ll get onto later. But what of the content?

First published in 1879, “Travels…” was Stevenson’s third work to go into print and it tells the tale of his trip the previous year over the Cevenne mountains in the South of France with only a donkey for company. The eponymous ass, one Modestine, is purchased by Stevenson to carry his luggage while they stroll over the mountains, sleep under the stars and see what adventures life will bring them. Of course, RLS has a choice in the matter; the poor donkey does not, which I expect is why her behaviour is often so bad… This was not the first bit of travelling Stevenson had done, as the earlier publication “An Inland Voyage” was about a canoeing trip through France and Belgium in 1876. However, that trip had not been a solo one; this one was, apart from the donkey!

So RLS and Modestine head off through the mountains, encountering Trappist Monks, Catholics, Protestants, country folk and the great wide world. The writing is beautiful, with some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and also very funny in places. Stevenson has a dry wit, and despite his mostly genial good nature, he can’t resist the occasional snippy aside, like a little sideswipe at a book written about a notorious wolf that stalked the forests in one part of the region:

M. Elie Berthet has made him the hero of a novel, which I have read, and which I do not wish to read again.

He’s also very funny on the trials and travails of trying to steer a poor recalcitrant donkey the way he wants her to go!

In a path, she went doggedly ahead of her own accord, as before a fair wind; but once on the turf or among heather, and the brute became demented.The tendency of lost travellers to go round in a circle was developed in her to the degree of passion, and it took all the steering I had in me to keep even a decently straight course through a single field.

Interestingly, for a travel book, musing on religion occupies much of Stevenson’s time. Of the quiet of a religious Sunday, he observers: It is only a traveller, hurrying by like a person from another planet, who can rightly enjoy the peace and beauty of the great ascetic feast. The sight of the resting country does his spirit good. There is something better than music in the wide unusual silence; and it disposes him to amiable thoughts, like the sound of a little river or the warmth of the sunlight.

I found myself wondering about the motivation of this element of the book, but more of that later. It’s clear, however, that RLS loves to travel – his story could easily have fitted into “Flights”; with his eternal restlessness, searching for freedom from petty restrictions and a healthy climate for his tuberculosis, Stevenson could have stepped right out of its pages. He is, after all, the man who states in this book: For my part, I travel not to go anywhere but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied with our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting who can annoy himself about the future?

I enjoyed reading “Travels..” very much; Stevenson’s lyric and evocative writing appeals to me, and although only 95 pages the book brought alive the journey he made through the landscape in Southern France. However, as a vegan animal lover, I was less than comfortable with his attitude to the poor donkey. Whether factual or fictionalised, his treatment of her wasn’t very humane at time and I did get a little crabby at this element of the book.

The Everyman edition

As I said, I have three different editions of “Travels…” and it’s relevant to share a few thoughts on these for reasons which will become clear… Initially, I read the Stanfords Travel Classics edition, published by John Beaufoy Publishing Limited, and it really is very lovely. Although a paperback, it’s made up on three sewn signatures on very nice quality paper which are firmly fixed into the spine. I would recommend it wholeheartedly except for one slight issue – there is no extra or supporting material at all.

You might argue that the book should stand on its own as a travel classic and not need notes etc, and to a certain extent that might be true. However, I think because of its age, “Travels…” needs some context and the introductions/notes in the Everyman and Penguin edition provide that. Coyly, the back cover of the Stanfords edition declares that Stevenson was pining for a lost love when he undertook his journey, but the other editions give much more information, and necessary detail at that. RLS had fallen in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married women 10 years his senior, who had returned to America and whom he had no idea if he would ever see again. The journey in “Travels…” was undertaken to produce a book to sell and make enough money for the impoverished author to pursue his lost love (they did eventually marry and were together till Stevenson’s death).

The Penguin

Additionally, the Penguin supporting material is particularly useful in placing the religious material in context. RLS had majorly fallen out with his father over the son’s declaration of atheism; however, when faced by a predominantly Catholic society he found himself defending his Scots Protestant upbringing, and knowledge of this certainly helped this reader understand Stevenson’s musings.

Stevenson, looking rather elegant and fancy

I found myself pondering the whole historical context of the journey itself, in a France of less than 10 years after the Paris Commune. The country had entered its Third Republic and yet still was a country riven; here it was by religious differences as much as anything else, and RLS spends much time musing on the history of those differences. As a plain-speaking Protestant he’s wary of the Catholics although willing to waive conflicting beliefs in the pursuit of peace and harmony. Of course, the world of country France is very different from the northern capital city and even the variations between two different areas of his route was profound.

So “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes” is really much more than an account of a jaunt through some mountains with an ass. It reveals much, I think, about Stevenson himself; his beliefs, his convictions, his search for meaning and companionship; as well as the world he was moving through. And much as I loved the look and feel of the Stanfords edition, if I was recommending one I would really have to suggest going for the Penguin. The notes and introduction are superior, it is of course a nice-looking edition, and having read all the supporting material after reading the actual book I did get so much more from it. However, I shall no doubt be holding on to all three of my copies, because one is pretty and the other two have additional stories in them. That kind of attitude isn’t going to help with my attempts to declutter, is it??? 😀

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)


Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

Imps and Immortals – treats from an independent publisher @AmpersandPubLtd


Tree-based publishing has had something of a resurgence recently, despite rumours of its demise at the hands of e-reading; and much of this, to my mind, is down to the increase in smaller, independent publishers. They excel in producing unusual, innovative and unexpected works, and many of these are classics – lost or forgotten ones, previously untranslated ones, or just plain unusual ones. Needless to say, I’m a fan; I blog regularly on books from the indies, so I was excited to see a name new to me on Simon’s blog recently – Ampersand Press.

Aren’t they cute?????

Ampersand are truly independent, in that they have their own printing press (shades of the Hogarth Press there!) and it was their classics imprint which particularly caught my eye. They have an intriguing range of short works available and were kind enough to provide two titles for me to have a look at – both of which turned out to be excellent reads! The books are dinky little editions, about 5 inches square, and with striking cover illustrations; and I particularly like the colour of the paper they use; it’s off-white so easier for my slight astigmatism! So here are some thoughts on the two I’ve read.

Fagu Malaia by Robert Louis Stevenson

You might have noticed that I’ve developed a thing about RLS recently (not helped by my visit to Edinburgh) and I have several of his works on the shelves that I’m intending to read. However, this short work really hit the spot! “Fagu Malaia” is more commonly known as “The Bottle Imp” and it’s one of Stevenson’s best-loved tales (as well as the name of an online Scottish literary magazine). As the introduction reveals, though, the story was written in Samoa and originally published in the Samoan language. The Samoan title given here is most directly translated as “The Cursed Bottle” and this little edition is complemented by two Hawaiian folk songs.

RLS image c. the lovely National Library of Scotland

So what of the story? Well, it’s a gripping and intense read: the tale is of Keawe, a man with no money but who craves a beautiful house. He buys the titular bottle, and the imp it contains who will grant his every wish. He does indeed get the luxurious lifestyle he wanted, as well as a beautiful wife he adores. However, the bottle comes with a catch – if the owner dies in possession of the bottle, they will burn eternally in hell, and the bottle can only be sold on at a price less than was paid for it. The scene is set for an emotional tale of love and loss, the bottle changing hands hither and thither, and a race against time to see who will actually possess the bottle when the value is so low that it can’t be sold on any more…

Stevenson was a hell of a storyteller, that’s for sure! “Fagu Malaia” is dark, entertaining and exciting and made compelling reading – ideal for something enjoyable to be read in one sitting. Now I *really* want to read more RLS!!

The Mortal Immortal by Mary Shelley

As with RLS and his wonderful “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, I’ve read Shelley’s most famous work – “Frankenstein”. However, despite having other works by her on the shelves I’ve never picked them up (do you sense a pattern here?) So this collection of three short pieces was just the ticket.

The collection is introduced by Dr. Tabitha Kan, who is fierce in her defence of Shelley as actual author of “Frankenstein” (I had obviously missed that there was any kind of controversy…) and interestingly, all of the stories featured have a common thread with that work – the concept of life after death. Not for nothing is the book subtitled “and other tales of monstrous animation”. The title story deals with a mortal man who has drunk a mysterious elixir which extends his life; “The Reanimated Englishman” has apparently been frozen in suspended animation for a century and a half; and we never find out how “Valerius: The Reanimated Roman” came back to life; but like all of these characters, he’s not that happy…

Because although we might all dream of living forever, Shelley takes on the realities behind that dream and shows how it would become a nightmare. Our loved ones would age and die while we wouldn’t; we would age mentally and be out of keeping with our times; or we would come back to a world that had changed beyond all recognition, to spend our time lamenting the loss of the life we once knew.

Death! Mysterious, ill-visaged friend of weak humanity! Why alone of all mortals have you cast me from your sheltering fold? O, for the peace of the grave! the deep silence of the iron-bound tomb! that thought would cease to work in my brain, and my heart beat no more with emotions varied only by new forms of sadness!

All of these dark, haunting and yet beautiful stories prove how unsuitable humankind is for immortality; and they also prove that Mary Shelley was not just a one trick pony and that I really *should* get one of her other books down off the shelves…

I seem to have developed a tendency for reading short works lately (which may be as much to do with being in the middle of a hideously busy phase at work as anything else); and despite their brevity, these little classics have much to say about human beings and the human condition, as well as being exceptionally pretty and very entertaining. I can see that there may well be future Ampersand Classics featuring on the Ramblings and there is serious risk of another collection building up…

‘To become what we are capable of becoming is the only end in life’ – #RLSDay 2017!


I discovered recently – lord knows where, but I think it had something to do with moustaches…. Anyway, as I was saying, I discovered recently that there is a rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Day, celebrated every year on his birthday which happens to be today, 13th November. So I thought I would join in a little, as RLS is an author who I’m keen to explore more of, having loved what I’ve read so far!

On my recent jaunt to Edinburgh (his home city) I was keen to look for traces, as I mentioned, and fortunately the very lovely Writers’ Museum had a whole room dedicated to him. The Museum itself was a beautifully atmospheric place, and I really felt the presence of RLS in the room – here are a few pictures from the visit:

The lovely Writers’ Museum

Way into the RLS room

One of the exhibits

Another exhibit!

I also discovered that the walk down the long hill from Henderson’s Salad Table to our holiday rental took me past Heriot Row, and it was at number 17 that Stevenson grew up. On my last night in Edinburgh I had a quick peep at the place (which is apparently a family home, but used for RLS events).

Heriot Row picture c. Scotiana

You can read more about the place here:


Finally, I have been dipping randomly into the book of Selected Poems by RLS which I picked up at the Writer’s Museum and I wanted to share one rather poignant verse which really struck me:


I saw red evening through the rain
Lower above the steaming plain;
I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.

Thought is driven out of doors tonight
By bitter memory of delight;
The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips.

I heard the hour strike small and still,
From the black belfry on the hill.
Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread monstrous town.

The sharp constraint of finger tips,
Or the shuddering touch of lips,
And all old memories of delight
Crowd upon my soul tonight.

Behind me I could still look down
On the outspread feverish town;
But before me, still and grey,
And lonely was the forward way.

If you want to read more about the RLS Day, there is a site devoted to it here:


and of course there is masses more online. I’m just wondering to myself why it’s taken me quite so long to explore the work of this great Scottish writer more deeply! Happy RLS Day! 🙂

Time for some bookish confessions…


Yes. Good intentions. Not to buy more books, to read from the stacks and to try to downsize the amount of volumes in the house. Unfortunately, as OH observed a little fretfully recently, even more seem to be arriving on a regular basis (and he hasn’t actually seen all of those that have made their way in…) I seem to be destined to acquire books, however hard I try, so I though I would share the latest fruits of my addiction with you… 🙂

First up, some titles have arrived courtesy of Very Kind Fellow Bloggers:

The very lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working at home kindly passed on to me the Alexei Sayle autobiographies when she’d read them. I’m looking forward to them very much, as he’s so funny and of course staunchly left-wing, so they should be a fab read.

“Rupture” arrived from Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and I’m also really looking forward to that one, as I haven’t read any Icelandic crime for a while and this one comes highly recommended. So kind!

So I can’t take the blame, can I, when lovely people send me books? Or, indeed, when lovely publishers send me books like these!

The top two titles are ones I’m covering for Shiny New Books and probably should be read next. Then there are a couple of lovely titles from the British Library, which are very exciting – particularly the collection of translated crime shorts. Below them are two titles from the excellent Michael Walmer that sound marvellous; and finally at the bottom an intriguing book from OUP on scent in Victorian literature…

And then – ahem – there are the books I’ve been buying, and here they are:

I should say that this has been over a period of several weeks but even so, it’s not good for the rafters… To be specific:

I bought these two online – “The Cornish Trilogy” because of Kat’s excellent review and because I felt I really should read Robertson Davies; and “Grand Hotel Abyss” because it sounded marvellous and Verso sent one of those rotten emails with substantial discounts (they do this regularly and it’s Very Bad for the TBR!!)

These three are from charity shops. The two on the outside were £1 each so there was no question about picking them up. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a must, and Saramago is an author I want to read. The Orwell was more expensive (thanks, Oxfam) but, hey – it’s Orwell so no contest.

This, of course, was inevitable… Although I picked up a copy of Stevenson’s poems in Edinburgh I wanted more. I’ve been rummaging through bookshelves all week to try to find my copy of “Jekyll” and having failed, I picked up a copy for £1 in a charity shop last weekend. The other two came from an online source, and in particular I was keen to get “New Arabian Nights” after Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git waxed so lyrical about it recently.

And finally – with all my reading around the French Revolution and (shhhh!) iconoclasm recently, I came across recommendations for these two books. Well, they were cheap – although to be honest, it’s not the cost that is ever the issue with book buying, as I tend to go for the bargains. It’s whether I can shoe-horn any more into the house… Ah well – carpe librum, as they say!!

In mitigation, I should direct your attention to the heap waiting to be removed from the house in one way or another (not the Dickens books, I hasten to add – they’re on my Dickens shelf and they’re staying there….):

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