Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Philosophy of Umbrellas"

Robert Louis Stevenson
"The Philosophy of Umbrellas"
from The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays

I stumbled across an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson some time ago which surprised me.  I was most familiar with his fiction and wasn't aware that he had also written a number of essays.  I searched around and found a collection of a number of his essays, The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays.  "The Lantern-Bearers" was the essay that I had encountered, so I decided to invest some money and, now, some time in the book.  My tentative plan is to work my way slowly through the book and occasionally report on an essay that strikes me fancy.  It turns out that this, the very first essay in the collection, is one that does so.  The following is the first paragraph of the essay.

"It is wonderful to think what a turn has been given to our whole Society by the fact that we live under the sign of Aquarius, -- that our climate is essentially wet.  A mere arbitrary distinction, like the walking-swords of yore, might have remained the symbol of foresight and respectability, had not the raw mists and dropping showers of our island pointed the inclination of Society to another exponent of those virtues.  A ribbon of the Legion of Honour or a string of medals may prove a person's courage; a title may prove his birth; a professorial chair his study and acquirement; but it is the habitual carriage of the umbrella that is the stamp of Respectability.  The umbrella has become the acknowledged index of social position."

While reading this I couldn't help but think of the Avenger's John Steed, the epitome of respectability, even though he is a secret agent.   The leather-clad Mrs. Peel presents a somewhat different image.

The remainder of the essay follows along the course set by the  first paragraph--a mock solemnity with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  Stevenson tells us that Robinson Crusoe, instead of rigging up a belfry and "a mimicry of church-bells," shows that "Crusoe was rather a moralist than a pietist, and his leaf-umbrella is as fine an example of the civilised mind striving to express itself under adverse circumstances as we have ever met with."

However, Stevenson also warns us that the umbrella isn't an infallible sign of one's civilized or respectable status for "...alas! even the umbrella is no certain criterion.  The falsity  and the folly of the human race  have degraded that graceful symbol to the ends of dishonesty.  .  .(some umbrellas) from certain prudential motives, are chosen directly opposite to the person's disposition.  A mendacious umbrella is a sign of great moral degradation . . . Might it not be said of the bearers of these inappropriate umbrellas that they go about the streets 'with a lie in their right hand?'

All in all, "The Philosophy of Umbrellas" is a fine, worthy, and instructive effort with which to begin this assemblage of reflections on the human condition.


  1. It all sounds so-o-o-o British. Stevenson was so much more diversified in his writing than most people realize. Your posting now will have me rummaging through backrooms and boxes for my copies of other Stevenson books. If I cannot find those copies, there is always Amazon Kindle Free. BTW, back to Stevenson, I think that Jekyll/Hyde tale is so-o-o-o much more complex and interesting than most people understand, and the book is really much better than film versions. Now, with clouds obscuring the sun here today, I must find my bumbershoot! Onward!

  2. unfortunately i've given away several volumes of stevenson essays and now i can't remember their titles; he was a fairly prolific essayist, though, in part to support his family. his letters, especially the ones from the south seas, also offer some interest...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I was completely unaware of this. I guess there's more out there that I need to explore after I finish this collection.

  3. R.T.,

    Yes, definitely veddy British. As I said, I was surprised to find he was an essayist.

    I've seen several of the Jekyll/Hyde films, and they turned the novel into a typical monster flick--very disappointing. There's so much more to the story. The internal hidden dark side reminds me of a similar theme in many of Hawthorne's tales.

  4. I'm not much of a one for essays, but, of course, I had to go to Project Gutenberg to see what was available. The collection you cite isn't listed, but a quick count reveals about four other collections.

    1. madamevauquer,

      Apparently he wrote a lot of essays, a well-kept secret, at least as far as I was concerned. I wonder why this one isn't listed.

      Since this was a collection of essays, I decided to buy my own copy from abebooks.

      I wonder if there is a complete collection of his essays.

  5. Stevenson wrote some extraordinary essays. "The Lantern-Bearers" is one of his greatest masterpieces. I believe when I was writing about Stevenson I called it the third best thing he ever wrote. The ranking was to some degree meant as a joke, but mostly not.

    1. Amateur Reader (Tom),

      As I mentioned earlier, "Lantern-Bearers" so impressed me that I bought a copy for my already over-stuffed shelves.

      What are the top two things he wrote?

  6. Five years ago, there was no complete collection of the essays. Maybe that has changed.

    My #1 was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. # 2 was a piece of nature writing, "The Sea Fogs," a chapter of The Silverado Squatters, Stevenson's travel book about his honeymoon in Napa Valley.

  7. Amateur Reader (Tom),

    I checked the RLS website and no complete collection is mentioned. "The Sea Fogs" sounds interesting.