Prince Otto: A Romance by Robert Louis Stevenson

Yesterday on my lunch hour I completed my first book of the new year. (I have a couple more ‘in progress’ that should be done in a week or so, so I’m not off to as slow of a start this year as that sounds.) I wrote earlier that I picked this book in part because of its brevity and the name of the title character, but there are other things to recommend it.

The title character is the monarch of an imaginary European “country” (Grunewald – by which Stevenson’s descriptions is painted as a classic, idyllic setting) at an undetermined point in history. Prince Otto is a pleasant enough fellow, and somewhat easy for the reader to like. His problem is that he hasn’t much interest in his princely duties and would rather spend his days hunting and leaving the matters of state in the hands of his beautiful wife, Seraphina, and his scheming minister, Gondremark.

My favorite character in the story, however, was the courtier, Madame Von Rosen – a veteran in the ways of courtly intrigue AND manipulations of the male of the species. Indeed, it was unclear to me for most of the book just “whose side she is on.” I admit also that I didn’t find the first half of this book especially gripping, BUT when the intrigue steps up the novel becomes quite the page turner.

If there is one theme of the book that struck me, it is that many of the characters are deluded in how they think they are viewed by others, and much of the book is a series of revelations and realizations by these characters. I think Stevenson wraps it up nicely, though, and I’d like to think the characters have settled into their true natures (and awareness of them) by the end of the book.

I’m contemplating an additional post on this book relating to some of the additions to and strengthening of my vocabulary which it wrought. That’s another great thing about older works – you are introduced to, or reminded of, so many great words that have fallen out of common usage.

I’ve also written before about how much I enjoy visiting these “lesser known” (to us non-scholars anyway) works of famous authors. If you’ve read them and enjoyed them, it’s almost as if you have a “secret friend,” and that you are one of only a select few who have known the pleasure of their company. But you know others would like them too if only they were introduced. So, readers, may I present to you “Prince Otto of Grunewald…”. 🙂

This book is in the public domain and can be found free on the Internet in many places. One of which is below:

Now Reading: Prince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a lesser known work by RLS, and I admit I’m reading it for a couple rather silly reasons: first, it’s a short work (only 181 pages in my edition), and I’ve promised myself to read a few more ‘shorter’ books this year to inflate my total count; second, I was intrigued by the title. “Otto” is a nickname and “handle” of mine in the Buzztime Trivia Network, so I figured I couldn’t NOT read this book when I heard of it.

I’m not quite 25% of the way into it thus far, and I must confess that – although as always I am enjoying RLS’s writing style – not enough is actually “happening” in this book to recommend it. At least not thus far…

What about you? Have you heard of or read this (relatively) unknown book? What about other books by Stevenson.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I was reading over on Jade’s blog, Chasing Empty Pavements, that she is about to read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for her Brit Lit class.  It reminded me of one of the most chilling murder scenes I have read to date.  He describes a maid servant’s witnessing of Hyde’s attack on one Sir Danvers Carew, an aged MP.

“Although a fog rolled over the city in the small hours, the early part of the night was cloudless, and the lane, which the maid’s window overlooked, was brilliantly lit by the full moon.  It seems she was romantically given, for she sat down upon her box, which stood immediately under the window, and fell into a dream of musing.  Never (she used to say, with streaming tears, when she narrated that experience), never had she felt more at peace with all men or thought more kindly of the world. And as she so sat she became aware of an aged beautiful gentleman with white hair, drawing near along the lane; and advancing to meet him, another and very small gentleman, to whom at first she paid less attention.  When they had come within speech (which was just under the maid’s eyes) the older man bowed and accosted the other with a very pretty manner of politeness.  It did not seem that as if the subject of his address were of great importance; indeed, from his pointing, it some times appeared as if he were only inquiring his way; but the moon shone on his face as he spoke, and the girl was pleased to watch it, it seemed to breathe such an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.  Presently her eye wandered to the other, and she was surprised to recognise in him a certain Mr. Hyde, who had once visited her master and for whom she had conceived a dislike.  He had in his hand a heavy cane, with which he was trifling; but he answered never a word, and seemed to listen with an ill-contained impatience.  And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on (as the maid described it) like a madman.  The old gentleman took a step back, with the air of one very much surprised and a trifle hurt; and at that Mr. Hyde broke out of all bounds and clubbed him to the earth.  And next moment, with ape-like fury, he was trampling his victim under foot and hailing down a storm of blows under which the bones were audibly shattered and the body jumped upon the roadway.  At the horror of these sights and sounds, the maid fainted.”

Wow.  What a passage, and truly disturbing.  I think maybe what was most disquieting to me when I was younger was it was a kind of summit meeting of the civilized and the barbarian.  And the barbarian utterly destroys him. I guess we could argue that this conflict is, naturally, the theme of the novel as a whole, but this little scene zooms in on it in a terrible way.  The words “a storm of blows under which the bones were audibly shattered” was burned into my brain and has never left me.  I can just hear the bones “audibly shattering” still.

I love some of the other language in this short passage as well:  The description of Carew as having “an innocent and old-world kindness of disposition, yet with something high too, as of a well-founded self-content.”  Well-founded self-content.  That’s great. Also, how Hyde seemed to listen with “an ill-contained impatience” and suddenly “broke out in a flame of anger” – all great stuff.

One other memory just came back to me, which I’ll share briefly.  When I was young my brothers and I had a collection of old comic books.  Some were of the normal, kid-stuff subject matter, but there were also many of a series named “Classics Illustrated,” and I swear I gained a nice head start in literature appreciation from reading these comics – probably dozens of times each.  Of course we also had one of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and I can still see the grotesque face of the latter in my mind’s eye… (the cover image below does not do justice tothe pictures within the comic book)

Many readers know of Stevenson more from other books such as Treasure Island, and Kidnapped, but of the novels I have read, this one was my favorite.  I also read Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae – a good story of revenge – as an adult, but it doesn’t come close either.  I also just learned – during my ‘research’ for this post – of another novel, Prince Otto, which would be a perfect read for me.  “Otto” is also my handle when I play the “buzztime trivia” game in the bars all over Bibliophilopolis – er, I mean Indianapolis.