The Double Life of Robert Louis Stevenson

His books still live for children and, the author argues, for adults as well
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My principal qualification for writing about Robert Louis Stevenson is affection. He is the only author of whom I can say that I have been reading him all my life. Kidnapped was the first book I read that had chapters, and I can still recall the maroon binding and the weight of the book in my hand. At that time I lived with my parents in the valley of Glenalmond, at the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps Stevenson knew of that place, for Lord Glenalmond plays a role in his last work, Weir of Hermiston. I had only to look out the windows of our house to see the stark hills, the heather, and the bracken, the landscape so bare of hiding places, over which David Balfour and Alan Breck made their way. And in those years of genderless reading it never occurred to me that I could not go with them.

Besides being the first full-length book I read, Kidnapped was the first book whose author's name I knew. Indeed. I hadn't previously known there was such a thing as an author. Books had fallen from the bookshelves like leaves from the trees. I did not question their origins; they were absolute in themselves. But in the case of the maroon book the music of Stevenson's name impressed me. I also owned a copy of A Child's Garden of Verses. "My Shadow." with its mixture of observation and mystery, was one of my favorite poems.

Such early recognition might seem like a good thing for an author's reputation, but it is in fact part of the long process by which Stevenson's work has been devalued. That I and so many others came to his work so young has made us consider him a children's author from whom we have little to learn as adults. This opinion is one that his contemporaries would not have shared, either in his particular case or as a general rule. Victorian adults felt free to embrace so-called children's books without apology. Stevenson's father often reread The Parent's Assistant, a volume of children's stories, and Virginia Woolf records being taken to Peter Pan on her twenty-third birthday with no signs that this was a childish treat.

Like the shadow in his poem, Stevenson's reputation has waxed and waned at an alarming rate. The blaze of hagiography in which he died seems to have incited critics to special fury. F. R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, dismissed Stevenson as a romantic writer guilty of fine writing, and the critical community in general has designated him a minor author not worthy of the serious admiration that we accord his friend Henry James. People comment with amazement that Borges and Nabokov liked his work. This year marks the centenary of Stevenson's death, and I am not alone in believing that it is time to reconsider his reputation.

Two obvious factors in Stevenson's fall from grace are quantity and fashion. The list of his publications is much longer than most people realize, but the few works by which we remember him do not constitute a recognizable oeuvre. And literary taste has swung in a direction that Stevenson disliked and did his best to avoid-namely, pessimism. While admiring the early Hardy, for instance, he hated Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and he took James to task for The Portrait of a Lady. John Galsworthy commented memorably on this when he said that the superiority of Stevenson over Hardy was that Stevenson was all life, while Hardy was all death.

There are, of course, more-crucial reasons why Stevenson's shadow has dwindled. He often falls short of our expectations of a serious novelist; his plots tend to be too simple in psychological terms and too fantastic in terms of events. The former problem stemmed partly from his theory of fiction; the latter he knew to be a fault and blamed on the tales of his childhood. Typically he worked on several projects at once, a sign of his natural prolixity but also of the difficulty he had in reaching conclusions. History, which gave him so many of his plots, was not so generous with endings, and in trying to invent them, Stevenson often either overreached the bounds of credibility, as in The Master of Ballantrae, or fell into flatness, as in Kidnapped.

The most complete account we have of his theory of fiction is contained in "A Humble Remonstrance," the essay he wrote in reply to James's "The Art of Fiction." Here we see him rebutting James's view that art should compete with life:

Man's one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality .... Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, selfcontained, rational, flowing, and emasculate .... The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material . . . but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant.

In fact many of his critics have brought just this charge against Stevenson: that in the pursuit of significance he departed too far from life.

I would argue that in his best work—most notably Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Weir of Hermiston—Stevenson, perhaps in spite of himself, failed to emasculate his art. He opens his eyes, and ours, to the confusion of reality, and what he shows us is something that the modern reader is vitally concerned with: the inescapable duality of our existence.

Shortly before his death Stevenson wrote,

I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.

He dramatized this spectacle with lyrical specificity and, as his work matured, increasing subtlety. And no one has ever described better what I saw from the window of my first bedroom.

HOW Stevenson grew to be preoccupied with duality can be seen in even a brief examination of his life. He was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. His father, Thomas, came from a line of lighthouse engineers. His mother, Margaret, was the youngest of the thirteen children of the Reverend Lewis Balfour. Louis, as the boy was called, had a formidable Scottish nanny, Cummy, who he later claimed was a major influence. By the time he was seven, the family had moved to 17 Heriot Row in the New Town of Edinburgh, a highly respectable address from which Stevenson later ventured forth to explore the more salacious neighborhoods of the city.

He began writing at an early age, dictating "A History of Moses" to his mother when he was six. Unlike me, he knew about authors and referred to himself as one. He read widely, not least history, and grew up vividly aware that Scotland was divided by both politics and temperament. The natural enmity between the cold, proper Lowland Scots and the fiery Highlanders informs much of his work.

His parents were proud of his precocious literary endeavors, but it never occurred to them that their son would be a writer, he was destined to be a lighthouse engineer. To this end Louis studied engineering at Edinburgh University—very lackadaisically, by all accounts—and accompanied his father to remote lighthouses, trips he later made use of in his work, especially Kidnapped. His parents seem to have tolerated his lack of studiousness, but in 1873 there was a terrible crisis when they discovered that Louis had lost his faith. Fortunately, they do not seem to have been aware that he also was involved with prostitutes. Partly as a result of these quarrels Louis collapsed and was sent to recuperate in the south of France. There, in a determined effort to improve his writing, he continued to play "the sedulous ape," as he described it, imitating Wordsworth, Defoe, Hawthorne, and Baudelaire, among others.

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