Saturday, May 7, 2011

Virginibus Puerisque

by J.S. Holland

Some years ago I found this peculiar little book (literally little, measuring about 5x3 inches) whilst browsing Crazy Daisy antique mall in Butchertown. Yesterday, it floated to the surface of the ocean of my life's accumulation of crap during one of my periodic attempts to bring order to my storage units. I've been packing it around and reading it like the Bible, you know, opening it to any random page and happily jumping in.

The book in question is Virginibus Puerisque, consisting of a bound collection of four essays written by Robert Louis Stevenson across the years 1876 to 1881. Written in that florid, lurid, illucid, hypnotically verbose Victorian style I've come to adore, it's Stevenson's advice on love and marriage. I finally read the whole thing cover to cover this morning over my morning coffee and found myself in chuckling solidarity at his observations.

A choice example:

"Marriage, if comfortable, is not at all heroic. It certainly narrows and damps the spirits of generous men. In marriage, a man becomes slack and selfish, and undergoes a fatty degeneration of his moral being.... Twenty years ago this man was equally capable of crime or heroism; now he is fit for neither. His soul is asleep, and you may speak without constraint; for you will not wake him."

But lest you mistake his gender-candor for misogyny:

"Of the misbegotten changelings who call themselves men, and prate intolerably over dinner-tables, I never saw one who seemed worthy to inspire love - no, nor read of any, except Leonardo da Vinci, and perhaps Goethe in his youth. About women I entertain a somewhat different opinion; but there, I have a misfortune to be a man."

My copy of the book, in fact, was originally owned by a woman; one "Ethel M. Panter" inscribed her name on the front page in 1904 with an ill-functioning fountain pen.

There are other editions of Virginibus Puerisque out there that include many other of his essays, appended onto the original four treatises on romance, that my copy does not. One of these essays is called "A Plea For Gas Lamps", wherein Stevenson, most ironically from our standpoint in our own present context in which I recently find myself incapable of shutting up about the subject of light, looks back at the days of oil lamps and looks ahead to the approaching age of electricity, and decries them both. Instead, Stevenson beseeches mankind to embrace the gaslight as that most perfect of all photonic options:

"The conservative, looking before and after, draws from each contemplation the matter for content. Out of the age of gas lamps he glances back slightingly at the murk and glimmer in which his ancestors wandered; his heart waxes jocund at the contrast... The work of Prometheus had advanced by another stride. Mankind and its supper parties were no longer at the mercy of a few miles of sea-fog; sundown no longer emptied the promenade; and the day was lengthened out to every man’s fancy. The city-folk had stars of their own; biddable, domesticated stars. It is true that these were not so steady, nor yet so clear, as their originals; nor indeed was their lustre so elegant as that of the best wax candles. But then the gas stars, being nearer at hand, were more practically efficacious than Jupiter himself.

But the conservative, while lauding progress, is ever timid of innovation; his is the hand upheld to counsel pause; his is the signal advising slow advance. The word electricity now sounds the note of danger. In Paris, at the mouth of the Passage des Princes, in the place before the Opera portico, and in the Rue Drouot at the Figaro office, a new sort of urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime, or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror. To look at it only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance fit to eat by."

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