ROBERT Louis Stevenson (1850-94) is one of Scotland’s best-known and most-loved authors, but some of his less familiar immediate contemporaries are worth our attention.

Among them, the lasting value of Charles Mackay (1814-1889) is probably as an essayist. It’s salutary to look at the preface to the 1852 edition of his curious works, Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841) and The Madness of Crowds (1852), especially in the context of the mass media and political priorities of early 20th-century Britain: “In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

The National:
Charles Mackay

Such follies seem “to defy the progress of knowledge to eradicate them entirely from the popular mind”. Mackay concludes: “Men [and we should add women, too], it has been said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

READ MORE: Renaissance Women: Alan Riach on three uniquely powerful 20th-century writers

Mackay was a lexicographer, a man simply fascinated by words. He compiled The Poetry and Humour of the Scotch Language (1882) and A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch (1887) and edited anthologies of Jacobite and Cavalier songs, but of his poetry, a few titles are indicative: “Cheer, Boys, Cheer!”, “To the West! To the West!”, and “England Over All”. He was clearly not immune to delusion himself.

Another significant man of letters and friend of Stevenson was Andrew Lang (1844-1912), an antiquarian; translator of Homer; literary archaeologist; critic; essayist; poet; editor of the Waverley novels; and, most extensively, a folklorist. Lang was small-c conservative and backed off from Stevenson at his most flamboyant, sharp-eyed and adventurous. Not for Lang was Stevenson’s velvet jacket, bright shirts, “every impulse of his heart and mind flashing out in the play of eye, feature and gesture,” as Sidney Colvin put it. But their affection grew. After Stevenson’s death, Lang wrote in an elegy:

Once we were kindest, he said, when leagues of the limitless sea
Flowed between us, but now that no wash of the wandering tides
Sunders us from each, yet nearer we seem to be,
Whom only the unbridged stream of the river of death divides

Lang himself is not easily categorised: he never wrote extensively in fiction, his poetry is neglected and his prose style is often pedantic and laborious, yet his “Fairy Books” (there were 12, each given a different colour in their title, The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, and so on), published from 1889 to 1910 (The Lilac Fairy Book), were popular retellings of traditional stories from international sources, some literary, some based on folk tales.

Lang was an enthusiastic friend of Henry Rider Haggard and co-wrote an affectionate parody of Haggard’s famous novel She (1886), entitled He (1887), but he was a gentle critic, as his biographer Roger Lancelyn Green puts it: “For the lesser writers of adventure stories Lang made no exaggerated claims, and was among the first to remonstrate with the uncritical admirers of SR Crockett who were placing that worthy on a level with Scott. But Crockett, as well as Doyle […] owed much to Lang for the praise and encouragement which he bestowed on them.”

As an essayist, anthropologist and travel writer, Lang’s Letters to Dead Authors (1886), Myth, Ritual and Religion (1887), How to Fail in Literature (1890), The True Story Book (1893), including tales about Casanova, Prince Charlie after Culloden, Rorke’s Drift, Cervantes, Cortéz, Montezuma and the Aztecs, Historical Mysteries (1904) – which includes discussions of Allan Breck Stewart, Kaspar Hauser and the history of the Kirks in Scotland – and Adventures Among Books (1905) remain fascinating curiosities, as does Highways and Byways on the Border (written with John Lang, 1913).

Lang’s introduction to Alexander Mackenzie’s Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (1899) introduces the Seer, Kenneth Mackenzie or Coinneach Odhar of Uig on the Isle of Lewis, supposedly born in the early 1600s, and Alexander Mackenzie (1838-1898), author of the influential The History of the Highland Clearances (1883, revised 1914). Mackenzie’s account of the Seer’s prophecies gripped the popular imagination and comparisons were made with Nostradamus.

Lang was a distinctive kind of writer, a phenomenon of his time, perhaps similar to George Eyre-Todd (1862-1937), travel writer, literary historian, critic and editor, and general populariser of early Scottish literature, author of Byeways of Scottish Story (1900), Scotland for the Holidays (1910) and Through Scotland by the Caledonian Railway (1906). These were contemporaries who might be ranged on Stevenson’s more conservative flank. The herald of a very different disposition and philosophy was Thomas Common (1850-1919), the first translator of Friedrich Nietzsche into English. He lived near Corstorphine, just outside Edinburgh, and in the mid-1890s was involved with a project to publish Nietzsche’s collected works, translating Thus Spake Zarathustra (1909). This was the version Hugh MacDiarmid read, which informed his thinking when he was writing A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926). Common’s study of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet and Prophet (1901) was praised by George Bernard Shaw and apparently read by WB Yeats, who, like MacDiarmid, responded eagerly. From 1903 to 1916, Common attempted to spread Nietzsche’s ideas through the production of a quarterly periodical, Notes for Good Europeans (later titled The Good European Point of View).

The National:

JG Frazer

Also widely influential was JG Frazer (1853-1941), author of The Golden Bough (1890). He was a social anthropologist and authority on folklore and comparative religion, but might fairly be considered alongside Thomas Carlyle, Hugh Miller, Charles Mackay and others in the rapidly changing Victorian era as it moved inexorably towards modernity. His conviction that human belief systems were progressive, evolving through stages from primitive magic towards organised religion, which in turn would ultimately be replaced by science, had the effect of instating the recognition that all three stages had a contemporaneous existence in a world of cultural relativism.

READ MORE: Alan Riach examines the work of Caithness writer George Gunn

A MAJOR influence behind the paradigm of modernist poems, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Frazer’s work is also related to the imaginative travels of George MacDonald and the literal world-travelling of Stevenson himself.

In the realm of the imagination, Frazer’s understanding also links back to the writings of Charles Mackay’s daughter, Mary Mackay (1855-1924), who was born in London and whose mother, Elizabeth Mills, was Mackay’s servant. Mary was sent to a convent in Paris in 1866, returned to Britain in 1870, and started working as a musician, giving piano recitals under the name by which she became famous, Marie Corelli. Her novels include A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), which weaves together supernatural and science fiction themes as a young woman suffering from illness and suicidal thoughts is given an addictive potion by the mysterious “Raffell Cellini”: she has hallucinatory visions and awakens to meet a guardian angel, who guides her through unknown solar systems and questions the nature of religion and human destiny. She decides that she must not be under the tutelage of an angel but take charge of her own life and retreats to a monastery to seek further spiritual exploration.

Ideas about biological evolution and the priorities of the immaterial spirit confront each other in the novel. It was clearly attuned to its era: it became a bestseller. Marie Corelli was the most popular author of her day, collected by Winston Churchill, the royal family, and innumerable “common readers” while literary critics scorned her. The theatre critic James Gate described her as combining Edgar Allan Poe’s imagination with “the mentality of a nursemaid”. Her companion

of 40 years was Bertha Vyvern and she seems to have been bisexual. In later life she moved to Stratford, where she campaigned to preserve the 17th-century buildings and their timber-framed façades. Mark Twain, who had been sceptical, visited her there and found her more sympathetic than he’d imagined.

The National:
William Archer

William Archer (1856-1924) was born and grew up in Perth, spending some of his youth with relatives in Norway, learning the language and becoming a strong advocate of Henrik Ibsen and later, George Bernard Shaw. Archer studied at Edinburgh University, wrote for the press, and after a year visiting his family in Australia, where they had emigrated, went to London and became a prominent and influential theatre critic. He translated Ibsen’s plays, including Peer Gynt and

A Doll’s House. His critical writings include Masks or Faces? A Study in the Psychology of Acting (1888), A National Theatre: Schemes and Estimates (1907), India and the Future (1917) and The Old Drama and the New (1923).

Archer is worth studying in his own right but he is most remembered because on April 23, 1900, he wrote to James Joyce passing on Ibsen’s compliments about the piece Joyce had written for the Fortnightly Review of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. Joyce was 18 and this was his first published work. The play was to be Ibsen’s last: he was now in his 70s. Ibsen had written to Archer about Joyce’s review, appreciating its kindness and describing it as “velvellig” (benevolent). Joyce replied to Archer thanking him for his kindness and promising to treasure Ibsen’s words. When Joyce visited London in May 1900 he and Archer dined together (on wild duck) at the Royal Services Club. Joyce sent Archer his first play, A Brilliant Career, and the Scot replied firmly but gently criticising; Joyce then sent him some poems, which received similar careful criticism. When Ulysses was published in 1922, Joyce was grateful enough for Archer’s guidance and kindness to have a copy sent to him.

Charles Mackay, Andrew Lang, George Eyre-Todd, Thomas Common, JG Frazer, Mary Mackay or Marie Corelli and William Archer: six contemporaries of Robert Louis Stevenson who remain under-researched but whose lives and works tell us a great deal about the era Stevenson lived through and pointed forward from. They take us from the late Victorian era to the early modern world.

One of the authors Andrew Lang thought highly of, Rudyard Kipling, became Lord Rector of St Andrews University in the same year the name Hugh MacDiarmid was first seen in print; the same year Ulysses and The Waste Land were published; and the same year a British colonial court sentenced Gandhi to six years in prison for sedition after a protest march led to violence in Bombay. These facts overlap modernism with the legacy of the British Empire and colonial struggles for independence in a chronology that disrupts the security of firm divisions.

The influences of these writers and the world they inhabited continue to extend in subterranean ways or in dream-like imaginations, for better and worse, well into the 20th and 21st centuries.