Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, by A.H. Japp

Chapter XII

His Genius and Methods

TO have created a school of idolaters, who will out and out swear by everything, and as though by necessity, at the same time, a school of studious detractors, who will suspiciously question everything, or throw out suggestions of disparagement, is at all events, a proof of greatness, the countersign of undoubted genius, and an assurance of lasting fame. R. L. Stevenson has certainly secured this. Time will tell what of virtue there is with either party. For me, who knew Stevenson, and loved him, as finding in the sweet-tempered, brave, and in some things, most generous man, what gave at once tone and elevation to the artist, I would fain indicate here my impressions of him and his genius — impressions that remain almost wholly uninfluenced by the vast mass of matter about him that the press now turns out. Books, not to speak of articles, pour forth about him — about his style, his art, his humour and his characters — aye, and even about his religion.

Miss Simpson follows Mr Bellyse Baildon with the EDINBURGH DAYS, Miss Moyes Black comes on with her picture in the FAMOUS SCOTS, and Professor Raleigh succeeds her; Mr Graham Balfour follows with his LIFE; Mr Kelman’s volume about his Religion comes next, and that is reinforced by more familiar letters and TABLE TALK, by Lloyd Osbourne and Mrs Strong, his step-children; Mr J. Hammerton then comes on handily with STEVENSONIANA— fruit lovingly gathered from many and far fields, and garnered with not a little tact and taste, and catholicity; Miss Laura Stubbs then presents us with her touching STEVENSON’S SHRINE: THE RECORD OF A PILGRIMAGE; and Mr Sidney Colvin is now busily at work on his LIFE OF STEVENSON, which must do not a little to enlighten and to settle many questions.

Curiosity and interest grow as time passes; and the places connected with Stevenson, hitherto obscure many of them, are now touched with light if not with romance, and are known, by name at all events, to every reader of books. Yes; every place he lived in, or touched at, is worthy of full description if only on account of its associations with him. If there is not a land of Stevenson, as there is a land of Scott, or of Burns, it is due to the fact that he was far-travelled, and in his works painted many scenes: but there are at home — Edinburgh, and Halkerside and Allermuir, Caerketton, Swanston, and Colinton, and Maw Moss and Rullion Green and Tummel, “the WALE of Scotland,” as he named it to me, and the Castletown of Braemar — Braemar in his view coming a good second to Tummel, for starting-points to any curious worshipper who would go the round in Scotland and miss nothing. Mr Geddie’s work on THE HOME COUNTRY OF STEVENSON may be found very helpful here.

1. It is impossible to separate Stevenson from his work, because of the imperious personal element in it; and so I shall not now strive to gain the appearance of cleverness by affecting any distinction here. The first thing I would say is, that he was when I knew him - what pretty much to the end he remained — a youth. His outlook on life was boyishly genial and free, despite all his sufferings from ill-health — it was the pride of action, the joy of endurance, the revelry of high spirits, and the sense of victory that most fascinated him; and his theory of life was to take pleasure and give pleasure, without calculation or stint — a kind of boyish grace and bounty never to be overcome or disturbed by outer accident or change. If he was sometimes haunted with the thought of changes through changed conditions or circumstances, as my very old friend, Mr Charles Lowe, has told even of the College days that he was always supposing things to undergo some sea-change into something else, if not “into something rich and strange,” this was but to add to his sense of enjoyment, and the power of conferring delight, and the luxuries of variety, as boys do when they let fancy loose. And this always had, with him, an individual reference or return. He was thus constantly, and latterly, half- consciously, trying to interpret himself somehow through all the things which engaged him, and which he so transmogrified — things that especially attracted him and took his fancy. Thus, if it must be confessed, that even in his highest moments, there lingers a touch — if no more than a touch — of self-consciousness which will not allow him to forget manner in matter, it is also true that he is cunningly conveying traits in himself; and the sense of this is often at the root of his sweet, gentle, naive humour. There is, therefore, some truth in the criticisms which assert that even “long John Silver,” that fine pirate, with his one leg, was, after all, a shadow of Stevenson himself — the genial buccaneer who did his tremendous murdering with a smile on his face was but Stevenson thrown into new circumstances, or, as one has said, Stevenson-cum- Henley, so thrown as was also Archer in WEIR OF HERMISTON, and more than this, that his most successful women-folk — like Miss Grant and Catriona — are studies of himself, and that in all his heroes, and even heroines, was an unmistakable touch of R. L. Stevenson. Even Mr Baildon rather maladroitly admits that in Miss Grant, the Lord Advocate’s daughter, THERE IS A GOOD DEAL OF THE AUTHOR HIMSELF DISGUISED IN PETTICOATS. I have thought of Stevenson in many suits, beside that which included the velvet jacket, but — petticoats!

Youth is autocratic, and can show a grand indifferency: it goes for what it likes, and ignores all else — it fondly magnifies its favourites, and, after all, to a great extent, it is but analysing, dealing with and presenting itself to us, if we only watch well. This is the secret of all prevailing romance: it is the secret of all stories of adventure and chivalry of the simpler and more primitive order; and in one aspect it is true that R. L. Stevenson loved and clung to the primitive and elemental, if it may not be said, as one distinguished writer has said, that he even loved savagery in itself. But hardly could it be seriously held, as Mr I. Zangwill held:

“That women did not cut any figure in his books springs from this same interest in the elemental. Women are not born, but made. They are a social product of infinite complexity and delicacy. For a like reason Stevenson was no interpreter of the modern. . . . A child to the end, always playing at ‘make-believe,’ dying young, as those whom the gods love, and, as he would have died had he achieved his centenary, he was the natural exponent in literature of the child.”

But there were subtly qualifying elements beyond what Mr Zangwill here recognises and reinforces. That is just about as correct and true as this other deliverance:

“His Scotch romances have been as over-praised by the zealous Scotsmen who cry ‘genius’ at the sight of a kilt, and who lose their heads at a waft from the heather, as his other books have been under-praised. The best of all, THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, ends in a bog; and where the author aspires to exceptional subtlety of character-drawing he befogs us or himself altogether. We are so long weighing the brothers Ballantrae in the balance, watching it incline now this way, now that, scrupulously removing a particle of our sympathy from the one brother to the other, to restore it again in the next chapter, that we end with a conception of them as confusing as Mr Gilbert’s conception of Hamlet, who was idiotically sane with lucid intervals of lunacy.”

If Stevenson was, as Mr Zangwill holds, “the child to the end,” and the child only, then if we may not say what Carlyle said of De Quincey: “ECCOVI, that child has been in hell,” we may say, “ECCOVI, that child has been in unchildlike haunts, and can’t forget the memory of them.” In a sense every romancer is a child — such was Ludwig Tieck, such was Scott, such was James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. But each is something more — he has been touched with the wand of a fairy, and knows, at least, some of Elfin Land as well as of childhood’s home.

The sense of Stevenson’s youthfulness seems to have struck every one who had intimacy with him. Mr Baildon writes (p. 21 of his book):

“I would now give much to possess but one of Stevenson’s gifts — namely, that extraordinary vividness of recollection by which he could so astonishingly recall, not only the doings, but the very thoughts and emotions of his youth. For, often as we must have communed together, with all the shameless candour of boys, hardly any remark has stuck to me except the opinion already alluded to, which struck me — his elder by some fifteen months — as very amusing, that at sixteen ‘we should be men.’ HE OF ALL MORTALS, WHO WAS, IN A SENSE, ALWAYS STILL A BOY!”

Mr Gosse tells us:

“He had retained a great deal of the temperament of a child, and it was his philosophy to encourage it. In his dreary passages of bed, when his illness was more than commonly heavy on him, he used to contrive little amusements for himself. He played on the flute, or he modelled little groups and figures in clay.”

2. One of the qualifying elements unnoted by Mr Zangwill is simply this, that R. L. Stevenson never lost the strange tint imparted to his youth by the religious influences to which he was subject, and which left their impress and colour on him and all that he did. Henley, in his striking sonnet, hit it when he wrote:

“A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck,

Much Antony, of Hamlet most of all,

AND SOMETHING OF THE SHORTER CATECHIST.”

SOMETHING! he was a great deal of Shorter Catechist! Scotch Calvinism, its metaphysic, and all the strange whims, perversities, and questionings of “Fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,” which it inevitably awakens, was much with him — the sense of reprobation and the gloom born of it, as well as the abounding joy in the sense of the elect — the Covenanters and their wild resolutions, the moss-troopers and their dare-devilries — Pentland Risings and fights of Rullion Green; he not only never forgot them, but they mixed themselves as in his very breath of life, and made him a great questioner. How would I have borne myself in this or in that? Supposing I had been there, how would it have been — the same, or different from what it was with those that were there? His work is throughout at bottom a series of problems that almost all trace to this root, directly or indirectly. “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford,” said the famous Puritan on seeing a felon led to execution; so with Stevenson. Hence his fondness for tramps, for scamps (he even bestowed special attention and pains on Villon, the poet-scamp); he was rather impatient with poor Thoreau, because he was a purist solitary, and had too little of vice, and, as Stevenson held, narrow in sympathy, and too self- satisfied, and bent only on self-improvement. He held a brief for the honest villain, and leaned to him brotherly. Even the anecdotes he most prizes have a fine look this way — a hunger for completion in achievement, even in the violation of fine humane feeling or morality, and all the time a sense of submission to God’s will. “Doctor,” said the dying gravedigger in OLD MORTALITY, “I hae laid three hunner an’ fower score in that kirkyaird, an’ had it been His wull,” indicating Heaven, “I wad hae likeit weel to hae made oot the fower hunner.” That took Stevenson. Listen to what Mr Edmond Gosse tells of his talk, when he found him in a private hotel in Finsbury Circus, London, ready to be put on board a steamer for America, on 21st August, 1887:

“It was church time, and there was some talk of my witnessing his will, which I could not do because there could be found no other reputable witness, the whole crew of the hotel being at church. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the way in which our valuable city hotels — packed no doubt with gems and jewellery — are deserted on a Sunday morning. Some bold piratical fellow, defying the spirit of Sabbatarianism, might make a handsome revenue by sacking the derelict hotels between the hours of ten and twelve. One hotel a week would enable such a man to retire in course of a year. A mask might perhaps be worn for the mere fancy of the thing, and to terrify kitchen-maids, but no real disguise would be needful.’”

I would rather agree with Mr Chesterton than with Mr Zangwill here:

“Stevenson’s enormous capacity for joy flowed directly out of his profoundly religious temperament. He conceived himself as an unimportant guest at one eternal and uproarious banquet, and instead of grumbling at the soup, he accepted it with careless gratitude. . . . His gaiety was neither the gaiety of the pagan, nor the gaiety of the BON VIVANT. It was the greater gaiety of the mystic. He could enjoy trifles because there was to him no such thing as a trifle. He was a child who respected his dolls because they were the images of the image of God, portraits at only two removes.”

Here, then, we have the child crossed by the dreamer and the mystic, bred of Calvinism and speculation on human fate and chance, and on the mystery of temperament and inheritance, and all that flows from these — reprobation, with its dire shadows, assured Election with its joys, etc., etc.

3. If such a combination is in favour of the story-teller up to a certain point, it is not favourable to the highest flights, and it is alien to dramatic presentation pure and simple. This implies detachment from moods and characters, high as well as low, that complete justice in presentation may be done to all alike, and the one balance that obtains in life grasped and repeated with emphasis. But towards his leading characters Stevenson is unconsciously biassed, because they are more or less shadowy projections of himself, or images through which he would reveal one or other side or aspect of his own personality. Attwater is a confessed failure, because it, more than any other, testifies this: he is but a mouth-piece for one side or tendency in Stevenson. If the same thing is not more decisively felt in some other cases, it is because Stevenson there showed the better art o’ hidin’, and not because he was any more truly detached or dramatic. “Of Hamlet most of all,” wrote Henley in his sonnet. The Hamlet in Stevenson - the self-questioning, egotistic, moralising Hamlet — was, and to the end remained, a something alien to bold, dramatic, creative freedom. He is great as an artist, as a man bent on giving to all that he did the best and most distinguished form possible, but not great as a free creator of dramatic power. “Mother,” he said as a mere child, “I’ve drawed a man. Now, will I draw his soul?” He was to the end all too fond to essay a picture of the soul, separate and peculiar. All the Jekyll and Hyde and even Ballantrae conceptions came out of that — and what is more, he always mixed his own soul with the other soul, and could not help doing so.

4. When; therefore, I find Mr Pinero, in lecturing at Edinburgh, deciding in favour of Stevenson as possessed of rare dramatic power, and wondering why he did not more effectively employ it, I can’t agree with him; and this because of the presence of a certain atmosphere in the novels, alien to free play of the individualities presented. Like Hawthorne’s, like the works of our great symbolists, they are restricted by a sense of some obtaining conception, some weird metaphysical WEIRD or preconception. This is the ground “Ian MacLaren” has for saying that “his kinship is not with Boccaccio and Rabelais, but with Dante and Spenser” — the ground for many remarks by critics to the effect that they still crave from him “less symbol and more individuality” — the ground for the Rev. W. J. Dawson’s remark that “he has a powerful and persistent sense of the spiritual forces which move behind the painted shows of life; that he writes not only as a realist but as a prophet, his meanest stage being set with eternity as a background.”

Such expressions are fullest justification for what we have here said: it adds, and can only add, to our admiration of Stevenson, as a thinker, seer, or mystic, but the asserting sense of such power can only end in lessening the height to which he could attain as a dramatic artist; and there is much indeed against Mr Pinero’s own view that, in the dramas, he finds that “fine speeches” are ruinous to them as acting plays. In the strict sense overfine speeches are yet almost everywhere. David Balfour could never have writ some speeches attributed to him — they are just R. L. Stevenson with a very superficial difference that, when once detected, renders them curious and quaint and interesting, but not dramatic.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30