Robert Louis Stevenson
A DOZEN years ago, more or less, and somewhere in that zone of forest landscape which lies near to the heart of Nature and of Paris, and is dear to artists, a company of pilgrims were come together in a little inn. The walls of the old dining-room, clad in color and charcoal by the exertions of successive guests, matched the gayety and extravagance of speech which rose from the table. Sometimes the meals were eaten in the arbor, to the rustle of June leaves and the flow of the Seine. There was an absence of formality extending a little beyond the exclusion of dress-coats ; costume went by caprice ; chaussure was not an absolute necessity. Cigarettes followed every course, and in some instances sat securely betwixt feminine lips. The guests were French, British, mostly Americans, including delegates from Puritan-Unitarian New England, from that farthest West which looks over towards the farthest East, and from the luxurious, impoverished South. Talk wandered hither and thither, strayed into shadow or loitered in sunlight. One night a new game was proposed : it was the hour of ghost stories.
“ Suppose it were fated — absolutely and inevitably decreed — that one of us should die before morning, and the choice had to be determined by vote of the company. How would the vote go ? ”
They began to take it, but fellowship blenched at the thought : it was too gruesome. Papers were torn up, the vote was not counted, and the company rose intact, and with no more than wonted procrastination, the next morning. A few bolder spirits compared notes. One had voted with a view to eliminating the small Philistine element ; another had chosen a slim, clear-eyed boy of seventeen, on the ground that he was the only one of the party fit to die ; a fair Southerner had aimed her arrow, not in malice, at a young Scotchman, handsome, unemployed, with a charming vein of talk, tinctured, it may have been, by something of the despondency of youth, whom she selected as having apparently very little to live for. A vote taken a a very few years later in the world at large would decidedly have reversed her judgment : the Travels with a Donkey was by no means the production of one who had nothing to live for, and a “ Suicide Club ” which should have dealt the wrong ace to the author of the New Arabian Nights would have been anything but a happy thought in literature.
But these are trifles, to dwell upon which is to lean upon grass blades. The little circle soon began to disperse, and the séance may have been forgotten by half its participants. The author of that blind judgment has since been claimed by Death, taking tribute in his own large way without reference to ballot, and lies fast in a Southern grave. Of the two Californians, mother and daughter, then art students both, and as near of an age as any two in the abovementioned relationship could well be, the elder is now Mrs. Stevenson, the writer per se of a few clever magazine articles, and the co-author, whose share has not yet been traced by internal evidence, of the incomparable Dynamiter. And year by year have come happy volumes, of essay, travel or romance, proving that the individual disposed of on that careless slip of paper had at least a literary career to live for, — one that ranks among the most fortunate and interesting of the day. It can hardly be out of place, now that we have followed this career in all its varied activities for nearly a decade, to count up what we have gained from it of pleasure and of stimulus, and to inquire if there may not be found in it something more than success as an answer to questions like Mr. Mallock’s. It would be futile to hope at this date to say anything new in the way of criticism of books so familiarly known as Mr. Stevenson’s ; but perhaps something may be done or attempted towards tracing certain qualities that pervade them, and finding the thread of connection between a set of volumes which, from their very slenderness and their variety of topic, hang but loosely together, and which have met, moreover, with the fate, exceptional nowadays, of being more enjoyed than analyzed.
Looking before and after the accidental moment referred to above, and taking for our guide an autobiography readily sifted from Mr. Stevenson’s pages, we find that his nativity and bringing up fell in Scotland, and that almost as a consequence those early associations which leave their mark upon a writer, and form his material for comparison and reflection, if not the actual texture of his work, lay in his case very near, if not within, the bounds of Calvinism. His mother we can think of as the recipient of some verses of a noble ring in Underwoods : “ It is not yours, 0 mother, to complain.” Of his father we have his memorial sketch contributed to the Contemporary Review for June, 1887. Thomas Stevenson was the most active in inventions of a family of engineers, six of whom had not only followed the same calling, but held the same office, — that of engineer to the Board of Northern Lights. The fact mentioned in this paper that, “ holding as the Stevensons did a government appointment, they regarded their original work as something due already to the nation, and none of them has ever taken out a patent,” may be accepted as a composite photograph of the race. Other traits of the father may be quoted which, if not actually transmitted, can hardly have failed to exercise some influence on the gifts or character of the younger Stevenson : —
“ He was a man of a somewhat antique strain, with a blended sternness and softness that was wholly Scotch, and at first somewhat bewildering ; . . . passionately attached, passionately prejudiced ; a man of many extremes, many faults of temper, and no very stable foothold for himself among life’s troubles. Yet he was a wise adviser ; many men, and these not inconsiderable, took counsel with him habitually. . . . His talk, compounded of so much sterling sense and so much freakish humor, and clothed in language so apt, droll, and emphatic, was a perpetual delight to all who knew him.”
It would be easy to surmise that there may have been differences now and then between a father “ passionately prejudiced ” and a son with a fair inheritance of “ apt ” and “ emphatic ” talk, who began his literary career by undertaking “ to state temperately the beliefs of youth as opposed to the contentions of age ; ” but the agreement and likeness between them are to be read not only in the tenderness of all direct reference to his father, but still more in the tone and accent of Mr. Stevenson’s own work.
In Edinburgh, where the father, according to the memorial quoted above, “ had a circle of his own,” and was widely known and beloved, Robert Louis Stevenson was born, the books of reference tell us, in 1850. A Child’s Garden of Verses contains reminiscences, no doubt, if we knew where to look for them, of a sensitive yet happy childhood. The allusion above to autobiographical notes, let fall by Mr. Stevenson, had reference less to actual fact than to that intimate tone of his work which shows it to have been written, so to speak, out of his own fibre. It is flecked with caressing personalities, with touches which were evidently supplied by recollection, as when he describes a boy reading voluptuously, and “ digging blithely after a certain sort of incident, like a pig for truffles.” We hear of his being bred to the family profession, and leaving it for law studies, such as have been the prelude to many and diverse pursuits ; but, at an early though not very precocious age, we find him already embarked in letters, and writing of his profession as of one definitely embraced as a vocation.
From the land of Knox and Carlyle to that of Villon and Henri Murger is a far cry, but this is the “ inland voyage ” celebrated throughout Mr. Stevenson’s pages, and one in which no reader in complete sympathy and companionship with his work can refuse to follow him. It is a direction in which romantic youth is ready enough to adventure ; but here is no question of revolt or bravado, in the ordinary sense. The spirit in which Mr. Stevenson has made the journey, at once joyous and reflective, eager and home-loving, is too sincere and individual to be justly classified beforehand, or disposed of in readymade phrase. How give the name of Bohemianism to that thrill of freedom or that tender fellowship which glows in his travels, without cheapening it, or rubbing off somewhat of its bloom ? The fact is, Mr. Stevenson’s Bohemianism, his gypsyism, — for he is the true gypsy and wandering entertainer of the time, beguiling us with song and fortune-telling, — is, like others of his traits, of a delicate and modulated order. He is not one of those Bohemians whose works we should wish to peruse at a safe distance from the hand that wrote them. It is difficult to define the quality — if it be a single quality — which meets and controls the humorous and unconventional force in Mr. Stevenson’s books ; which blends with it to give the key of his style, and renders him not alone a gifted companion, but one heartily lovable and trustworthy as well. It is a certain fineness and elevation of mind ; what an Englishman, perhaps, might call the tone of a gentleman, though it is in this case an intellectual as well as moral distinction ; a perception of gradations and cordial recognition of the rights of others. Thackeray drew back from the familiar touch on his shoulder of an American railway conductor. Mr. Stevenson, in describing his visit to this country, when he traveled in workingmen’s clothes on an emigrant train, reports with like indignation the insults to his humanity and individual rights offered by official rudeness. But he has no discourtesy for his fellow-emigrants, or resentment of rebuffs offered in mere ignorance or misconception. He can tell a story against himself in all fairness and cheerfulness, as of his maladventure at “ La Fère of Cursed Memory,” when he was turned from the inn door amid torrents of rain, for his disreputable appearance. Wherever we find him, in Bohemia or on “ the Plains,” there is a nameless something to remind us of Scotland and the Calvinist background.
To have two distinct and opposite points of view can hardly be other than a gain to a healthy intellect : it suggests a reverse possibility in many things ; it shifts and verifies impressions. In this sense, a journey towards freedom like Mr. Stevenson’s is equivalent to an intellectual Wanderjahr. These results are already visible in the book which has an intrinsic claim to be considered as the earliest production of his pen. Virginibus Puerisque, though the date on its title-page is 1881, is made up of papers some of which had probably preceded the advent of An Inland Voyage, which came out in London in 1878, five years in advance of its republication here. Virginibus Puerisque is avowedly the book of a young man taking account of life from the startingpoint ; it was intended, we are told in the preface, to cover the field where youth and age differ, and to constitute a volume of special pleadings on the side of life at twenty-five. That it does not keep closely to this programme is due, according to the same authority, to the fact that, " with the best will, no man can be twenty-five forever.” But it may be remarked that the current against which the book is written is that not alone of advancing years, but of an active mobile spirit, emphatic in assertion, yet with a susceptibility to arguments upon the other side. The opinions of youth are stated in as positive a tone as possible, like stakes driven in where the tide will soon cover them ; there is an air as of one conscious yet unashamed of crudities. But indeed the crudities which attach to a literary perception such as Mr. Stevenson’s are neither frequent nor grievous ; for the essence of crudity is self-assertion and ignoring of perspectives, and this recognition from the first of non-finality takes the edge off dogmatism. In spite of some imitation of Lamb, as in the title and contents of An Apology for Idlers, and of Hazlitt, and a claim of having at twenty-five “ much looked on at the childish satisfaction of other people in their hobbies,” there is a great deal in Virginibus Puerisque which is individual, suggestive, and direct from life. There are sayings about Truth of Intercourse which penetrate a long way ; there are passages concerning youth, written from half within and half without the boundary, which probe to the quick some of its ailments and errors. “ A young man feels himself one too many in the world ; his is a painful situation ; he has no calling, no obvious utility, no ties but to his parents, and these he is sure to disregard. I do not think that a proper allowance has been made for this true cause of suffering in youth ; but by the mere fact of a prolonged existence, we outgrow either the fact or else the feeling. Either we become so callously accustomed to our own useless figure in the world, or else — and this, thank God, in the majority of cases — we so collect about us the interest or the love of our fellows, so multiply our effective part in the affairs of life, that we need to entertain no longer the question of our right to be.”
It would be superfluous to ask for the school or college diploma of a young man who writes that “ to travel deliberately through one’s ages is to get the heart out of a liberal education.” Virginibus Puerisque is valedictory enough. It is the stepping forth,
Pleasant as roses in the thicket blown,”
of a young, well-knit intelligence to which life is a wandering, a journey (the figure occurs to him again and again), to be pursued with relish of its phases as well as with a sense of its significance, — an intelligence which is not of the doctrinaire order, “ arrêté avant d’arriver,” is not even greatly concerned about reaching a haven of admiration, but can announce in all good faith that “ to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.” And all this eagerness for the fray, these cheerful, active words, are found alongside of passages which tell that the long struggle for health and battle for existence amid which all Mr. Stevenson’s clever and delightful books have been written had already begun, that his sympathies were quickened by suffering and that the days thus dedicated to enjoyment were already felt to be measured. The passage about multiplying an ”effective part in the affairs of life ” is the afterthought to an essay in which the writer had looked bravely, almost carelessly, at the nearness of death. It seems as though the author of the New Arabian Nights, like the narrator of the old ones, were constrained to hold his existence by the thread of a story, and ever with the coming of the dark hour to beguile the executioner with the fascination of a new scene or an unheard adventure.
The book which comes next in subject and date, Familiar Studies of Men and Books, is a less interesting and characteristic volume ; it would be hard to say why, except that in writing deliberately of books Mr. Stevenson, with all his literary sense, is a trifle bookish and much like everybody else. These studies disappoint not through any obvious faults or lack of merit, but rather by the absence of the buoyancy and life which belong to his reproduction of active scenes, whether invented or observed.
It is in romance that his chief successes have been made, — daring raids across the borderland of science and unveracity, of ancient fiction and nineteenthcentury fact. A Gossip on Romance, which appeared in Longman’s Magazine late in 1882, was the apology and argument of the first series of New Arabian Nights, published in the same year. In the full tide of realism and of analysis Mr. Stevenson stands for the romantic spirit, and has constituted himself the defender of bygone faiths, the champion and reviver, by precept and practice, of the much-abused story for its own sake. He brings back old chivalries and piracies, and talks to the boyhood of to-day of shipwrecks and highwaymen as if these venerable objects of worship had not been superseded long ago by mercantile heroes and dollar-coining newsboys. If it is not absolutely incumbent upon readers to decide beforehand and forever the question between realism and romance ; if it be permitted to rejoice heartily in the truest phase and intention of each, to wave a welcome to the van of either procession and escape the rabble at its end, then let us enjoy without odorous comparisons our Stevensonian romance, and rest satisfied that invention has its truths and falsehoods as well as fact. In the New Arabian Nights — a title including both series — there are not the outdoor opportunities which give atmosphere and life to others of his stories, to Kidnapped above all, and the style is subordinate to the narrative, or rather to the model on which it is fashioned. The humor is not of a genial or very obvious variety ; if you tried to demonstrate it to any one who should have chanced to overlook its existence, you would be very apt to be worsted, and have to fall back, like the blundering repeater in the old jest books, upon the conclusion that “ it must have been in the way he said it.” And perhaps it is. What Oriental gravity of narrative and precision of detail! The modernization is delicious. The young man with the cream tarts has hardly left Bagdad. Mr. Paul Challoner and the dynamiter are Londoners born, and Prince Florizel, with his pecuniary motives for being abroad is an Al Raschid distinctly of to-day ; but they traverse the magic sheet with a motion and purpose which are truly Eastern. The accessories do honor to the management ; the tales rest upon evidence as secure, to say the very least, as that of the faith cures and other marvels of the day. The cabs and cigar shops, the packs of cards, the drugs and the boxes of dynamite, are they not here to bear witness ? The Suicide Club can hardly fail to recommend itself to candid minds as a balm for certain disorders, social and individual. The invention of the stories is felicitous and wholly in keeping. The original Arabian Nights may have been written in this very vein, if we suppose a delicate intention of satire on the part of its author or authors, and this might perhaps be found there if we had the clue to it. Things happen with that utter inconsistency combined with deep logic which is characteristic of the immortal story-book, and is perhaps not entirely absent in actual life. It is one drawback of our vaunted scientific and commercial spirit that we think ourselves proof against the incredible and in possession of full insurance policies in case of marvels, and that, lulled by this sense of security, we succumb at a touch, and surrender in bands to the grossest of miracle workers. Might not a little exercise, now and then, of the fancy simply as fancy tend to prevent it from tripping up the rest of the faculties ?
But to insist, as is too often done, upon Mr. Stevenson’s ingenuity alone is to run the risk of overstating and at the same time of mechanizing it. There are even readers who, enamored of the unbarred sweetness of his travels, have all along been tempted to be a trifle jealous of his triumphs as a story-teller, and fearful lest practice in that line should injure the delicacy of his gift. They have told themselves that the cleverest ingenuities are apt to be a little hard, and that feats of construction and chapters of incident give small scope to those minor felicities of pen and heart which Mr. Stevenson has taught his readers to look for. There is reassurance for such fears in the daintincsses of Prince Otto and the wind-blown pages of Kidnapped, and it would be ungrateful to linger regretfully upon one phase of a talent of which the very charm lies in its plasticity, its forward impulse and susceptibility to fresh impressions. Nevertheless, the New Arabian Nights, for all its humor, scarcely escapes that tendency to hardness which is the danger of fancy divorced from poetry, and The Strange Story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does not escape it. The most popular of Mr. Stevenson’s stories and that by which he is most universally known, this is in some respects the least characteristic ; it has more rivals and predecessors than the others, and would be more likely to have imitators. The subject is one which has haunted literature and men’s minds for ages ; and perhaps Mr. Stevenson, by transferring the ghost to a living and comfortable bourgeois, may have done something to allay its wanderings. It seems, however, as if the possibilities of the theme would have admitted of a treatment a trifle finer and more subtle than he has chosen to give it. It may be misreading the intention of the book, with its hint of unfathomed depths in the soul, to suggest that the evil of Mr. Hyde is hardly that which would belong to the personality of Dr. Jekyll ; but its effect as a tale of situation and moral would scarcely have been marred if the link of connection between the two characters had been a little more delicate, and the individuality of each more carefully worked out. As it is, its gruesomeness has just a touch of the perfunctory : it does not thrill with so poetic a terror as that stirred by the inimitable one legged-sailor in Treasure Island, or by the ghastliness of Thrawn Janet.
Let us return to the open air, — to the Travels with a Donkey and An Inland Voyage, with their ringing accent of joyousness and personal feeling. Along with them may be counted Prince Otto, which is a lay of the “ good green wood,” though some of its characters and situations are “risked,” and the scenes are wittily situated between the “ seaboard Bohemia ” of poetry and the Gerolstein of opéra bouffe. Of the latter element it may be remarked, as the old Scotch lady said to certain of her sex holding their skirts from contact with a less immaculate sister, that “ it’s na catchin’ ; ” what is infectious is the spirit of renewal and of spring, the perfume of kindliness, and the spontaneous delight in goodness, which give to this airy fantasy an imprint of distinction. Kidnapped, too, with its broad landscape, its firmly welded romance and reality, and its delightful scenes of falling out and reconciliation, belongs to the same group. It is in these books that the qualities put forth as views in Mr. Stevenson’s essays, and brought into play for the shifting of scenes and lights in his more obviously clever stories, find their freest and most artistic expression. Here we have his style at its best. A certain English weekly, which is nothing if not infallible, after discovering in An Inland Voyage innumerable platitudes, imitations, and affectations, and a peculiar view of English composition, characterizes Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes as a book to be read slowly, “ on account of its style,” the author’s writing having grown “ more natural ” while “ as elegant as ever.” It is hardly likely that Mr. Stevenson’s entire manner had changed within a twelvemonth, — the two books are pretty near abreast in the affections of most readers, — but a year’s space had given opportunity for becoming accustomed to his style. It is an atmospheric style, taking account of divers and shifting effects, with moist running colors, with abrupt edges of tint, and withal a rare freshness and delicacy.
It is clever writing, but one forgets its cleverness, which is not of an unusual order, in the enjoyment of other features.
To have yielded one’s self to the charm of that idyl of travel through the Cévennes is to have a sensation as keen as recollection of having slept afield, with the stars shining straight overhead, and felt the strenuous autumn wind of the mountains. It is the record of only a twelve days’ excursion, told in less than three hundred pages of open print ; yet among many clever and delightful volumes of informal travel, it would not be easy to find one which is quite as unclassifiable, and gives us as much at once from without and from within. For the author is not simply journeying through the Cévennes, but through life as well, and by the footpath of art. The persons with whom he holds brief intercourse on the road — monks, peasants, and Plymouth brethren — are not merely interviewed and reported, but drawn by sympathy and a sort of creative process into relations that are true enough to be almost permanent. The scene is an historic battleground of the two religions. Mr. Stevenson has traversed it, as he went over that field of difference between youth and age, with an instinct of tolerance and reconciliation at once kindly and reverent. There is enough of the old Scottish tradition clinging to him to serve as passport among these Continental Protestants ; but it must be to a closer or broader sentiment — personal or human — that we owe the exquisite and feeling sketch of the Trappist monks at the convent of Our Lady of the Snows. Here is an attempt to cut from the book a section of its thought-peopled landscape ; the final clause “samples" fairly the lurking humor of the book.
“ To my Scotch eyes it seemed smiling and pleasant, as the weather still gave an impression of high summer to my Scotch body ; although the chestnuts were already picked out by the autumn, and the poplars that here began to mingle with them had turned into pale gold against the approach of winter.
“ There was something in this landscape, smiling although wild, that explained to me the spirit of the Scottish Covenanters. Those who took to the hills for conscience’ sake in Scotland had all gloomy and bewildered thoughts ; for once that they received God’s comfort they would be twice engaged with Satan. But the Camisards had only bright and supporting visions. They dealt much more in blood, given and taken ; yet I find no obsession of the evil one in their records. With a light conscience they pursued their life in these rough times and circumstances. The soul of Séguier, let us not forget, was like a garden. They knew they were on God’s side, with a knowledge that has no parallel among the Scots ; for the Scots, although they might be certain of the cause, could never rest confident of the person.”
With a faculty and gift that is more than half poetic, Mr. Stevenson is yet hardly to be called a lyrist. His new volume of verse, Underwoods, lacks the skill and mastery in versification which the reigning English school has taught us to look for almost as a matter of course in the youngest poets. His rhymes are occasionally a loose fit, and the models suggested by his verse are almost invariably among those poets to whom we forgive technical deficiencies for the sweetness of their thought. There are lines both here and in A Child’s Garden of Verses — for instance, The Unseen Playmate of the latter — which recall the groping and the vision of Blake. Many of the Scottish poems in Underwoods are in the familiar metre and vein of Burns’s epistles. My Conscience, with its shrewd, careless hits, is one of these ; and A London Sabbath Morn, with its kindly sketch of the gudeman “perplext wi’ leisure,” and of the churchyard bell that
The quick an’ deid,”
is an obvious and loving continuation of The Cotter’s Saturday Night. If Underwoods were a new book, by an unknown author, it might easily be overviewed, except by a few readers to whom it could not fail to give pleasure. But looked at in connection with its author’s prose ; taken, with all the personalities of which it is full, as part of the autobiography referred to in an earlier paragraph of this paper ; sandwiched between pages of travel, or laid beside those wholesouled dedications in which Mr. Stevenson’s affection delights, and which, even to his readers, are as a rosary of friendly names, — read in this way, it is a delightful volume, and one which, if it have little to say to a new ear, will tighten the bonds of friendship with an accustomed listener. Here is a poem, as characteristic as any in the book, with some beautiful spontaneous lines and some awkward ones, which, apart from all association, has a ring of sincerity and a quaint charm of its own, but which will be read with a keener or fainter sense of its pathos according to the place which Mr. Stevenson’s volumes hold on our shelves and in our estimation : —
THE CELESTIAL SURGEON.
In my great task of happiness ;
If I have moved among my race
And shown no glorious morning face;
If beams from happy human eyes
Have moved me not ; if morning, skies,
Books, and my food, and summer rain
Knocked on my sullen heart in vain,
Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take,
And stab my spirit broad awake ;
Or, Lord, if too obdurate I,
Choose thou, before that spirit die,
A piercing pain, a killing sin,
And to my dead heart run them in !
There are in literature, as in life, things which criticism is fain to leave to “ the celestial surgeon ; ” there are others which must be referred to time, perhaps even to hazard. It may be that we who have gathered, in passing, of this harvest ; who have overheard the stories as they were told ; who have been admitted to glimpses of the sick-room, and brought away no echo of complaint, only kindly messages to friends and fellowmortals, — it may be that we shall find that the work so cordially written and read has been magnified a little in the mist of our affections. Here is a countryman of Carlyle’s, and one who shows himself not imperceptive of the power of that writer, who, in apparent rather than real contradiction to the Carlylean creed, sets for himself at the outset a “ task of happiness.” Here is a writer who avowedly seeks as a primary object to entertain ; who has not stretched any large canvas, but has sketched incessantly, writing stories and articles which embrace a wide variety of subject. Perhaps not all his volumes have been mentioned in this hasty article, and there is a noticeable quantity of matter, signed sometimes only with initials, which is still lying uncollected in periodicals. All of these are readable, and some are of marked vigor and suggestiveness. There is a fragment still tolerably recent, The Day After To-Morrow, which picks up the socialistic question with a very fine instrument. Across the Plains gives a crosssection of this continent in word-painting of considerable breadth. But there is no space left for such details ; what may be noted in Mr. Stevenson’s pages, bound or unbound, is their breadth of topic and of sympathy, and their adaptation to a varied audience. To adopt as a vocation not the cloister, but the everyday, haphazard world, and even the world in its careless phases ; to know pain, and yet live a life not of martyrdom, but of gladness ; to work constantly and with heart, and accept the giving and taking of happiness as a “task,” is a career which, with all its gypsy pretension, exhibits a suspicious - looking skeleton of Scotch uprightness and intellectual truth under the folds of its drapery.