Robert Louis Stevenson created the words and illustrations for his Moral Emblems while he was staying in the mountain resort of Davos in Switzerland. Stevenson was feared to be dying from tuberculosis of the lung ('consumption') at the time. The family was struggling financially, and the printing, making and hawking of the chapbooks kept Stevenson’s young stepson Lloyd Osbourne busy.
The mock simplicity of Stevenson's verse is a knowing imitation of the many moral tales that were to be found in religious chapbooks. One verse accompanies a woodcut showing a boat putting out to sea despite atrocious weather, and someone watching from the shore; it reads:
With storms a-weather, rocks a-lee,
The dancing skiff puts forth to sea.
The lone dissenter in the blast
Recoils before the sight aghast.
But she, although the heavens be black,
Holds on upon the starboard tack.
For why? Although today she sink
Still safe she sails in printers' ink.
And though today the seamen drown,
My cut shall hand their memory down.
Another story, 'Robin and Ben', not printed until after Stevenson's death, concerns the murderous rapacity of a greedy medical man and his lack of concern for human life, which is revenged by the moral indignation of a pirate.
These original works demonstrate in their versification, their crude illustrations, and the crafted manner of their manufacture – they were hand-typeset, carried hand wood-engraved images, were printed/folded/assembled by hand – the simplicity of Stevenson's own childhood reading matter, and his comedic love of traditional chapbooks.
Text contributed by Ruth Richardson, independent scholar
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Popular culture, Reading and print culture
Chapbooks were small, affordable forms of literature for children and adults that were sold on the streets, and covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster. Dr Ruth Richardson explains what this literature looked like, its subject matter and the ways in which it was produced.