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

Chapter XVI

Stevenson’s Gloom

THE problem of Stevenson’s gloom cannot be solved by any commonplace cut-and-dried process. It will remain a problem only unless (1) his original dreamy tendency crossed, if not warped, by the fatalistic Calvinism which was drummed into him by father, mother, and nurse in his tender years, is taken fully into account; then (2) the peculiar action on such a nature of the unsatisfying and, on the whole, distracting effect of the bohemian and hail- fellow-well-met sort of ideal to which he yielded, and which has to be charged with much; and (3) the conflict in him of a keenly social animus with a very strong egotistical effusiveness, fed by fancy, and nourished by the enforced solitariness inevitable in the case of one who, from early years up, suffered from painful, and even crushing, disease.

His text and his sermon — which may be shortly summed in the following sentence — be kind, for in kindness to others lies the only true pleasure to be gained in life; be cheerful, even to the point of egotistic self-satisfaction, for through cheerfulness only is the flow of this incessant kindliness of thought and service possible. He was not in harmony with the actual effect of much of his creative work, though he illustrated this in his life, as few men have done. He regarded it as the highest duty of life to give pleasure to others; his art in his own idea thus became in an unostentatious way consecrated, and while he would not have claimed to be a seer, any more than he would have claimed to be a saint, as he would have held in contempt a mere sybarite, most certainly a vein of unblamable hedonism pervaded his whole philosophy of life. Suffering constantly, he still was always kindly. He encouraged, as Mr Gosse has said, this philosophy by every resource open to him. In practical life, all who knew him declared that he was brightness, naive fancy, and sunshine personified, and yet he could not help always, somehow, infusing into his fiction a pronounced, and sometimes almost fatal, element of gloom. Even in his own case they were not pleasure-giving and failed thus in essence. Some wise critic has said that no man can ever write well creatively of that in which in his early youth he had no knowledge. Always behind Stevenson’s latest exercises lies the shadow of this as an unshifting background, which by art may be relieved, but never refined away wholly. He cannot escape from it if he would. Here, too, as George MacDonald has neatly and nicely said: We are the victims of our own past, and often a hand is put forth upon us from behind and draws us into life backward. Here was Stevenson, with his half-hedonistic theories of life, the duty of giving pleasure, of making eyes brighter, and casting sunshine around one wherever one went, yet the creator of gloom for us, when all the world was before him where to choose. This fateful shadow pursued him to the end, often giving us, as it were, the very justificative ground for his own father’s despondency and gloom, which the son rather too decisively reproved, while he might have sympathised with it in a stranger, and in that most characteristic letter to his mother, which we have quoted, said that it made his father often seem, to him, to be ungrateful — “HAS THE MAN NO GRATITUDE?” Two selves thus persistently and constantly struggled in Stevenson. He was from this point of view, indeed, his own Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the buoyant, self-enjoying, because pleasure-conferring, man, and at the same time the helpless yet fascinating “dark interpreter” of the gloomy and gloom-inspiring side of life, viewed from the point of view of dominating character and inherited influence. When he reached out his hand with desire of pleasure-conferring, lo and behold, as he wrote, a hand from his forefathers was stretched out, and he was pulled backward; so that, as he has confessed, his endings were apt to shame, perhaps to degrade, the beginnings. Here is something pointing to the hidden and secret springs that feed the deeper will and bend it to their service. Individuality itself is but a mirror, which by its inequalities transforms things to odd shapes. Hawthorne confessed to something of this sort. He, like Stevenson, suffered much in youth, if not from disease then through accident, which kept him long from youthful company. At a time when he should have been running free with other boys, he had to be lonely, reading what books he could lay his hands on, mostly mournful and puritanic, by the borders of lone Sebago Lake. He that hath once in youth been touched by this Marah-rod of bitterness will not easily escape from it, when he essays in later years to paint life and the world as he sees them; nay, the hand, when he deems himself freest, will be laid upon him from behind, if not to pull him, as MacDonald has said, into life backward, then to make him a mournful witness of having once been touched by the Marah-rod, whose bitterness again declares itself and wells out its bitterness when set even in the rising and the stirring of the waters.

Such is our view of the “gloom” of Stevenson — a gloom which well might have justified something of his father’s despondency. He struggles in vain to escape from it — it narrows, it fatefully hampers and limits the free field of his art, lays upon it a strange atmosphere, fascinating, but not favourable to true dramatic breadth and force, and spontaneous natural simplicity, invariably lending a certain touch of weakness, inconsistency, and inconclusiveness to his endings; so that he himself could too often speak of them afterwards as apt to “shame, perhaps to degrade, the beginnings.” This is what true dramatic art should never do. In the ending all that may raise legitimate question in the process — all that is confusing, perplexing in the separate parts — is met, solved, reconciled, at least in a way satisfactory to the general, or ordinary mind; and thus such unity is by it so gained and sealed, that in no case can the true artist, whatever faults may lie in portions of the process-work, say of his endings that “they shame, perhaps degrade, the beginning.” Wherever this is the case there will be “gloom,” and there will also be a sad, tormenting sense of something wanting. “The evening brings a ‘hame’;” so should it be here — should it especially be in a dramatic work. If not, “We start; for soul is wanting there;” or, if not soul, then the last halo of the soul’s serene triumph. From this side, too, there is another cause for the undramatic character, in the stricter sense of Stevenson’s work generally: it is, after all, distressful, unsatisfying, egotistic, for fancy is led at the beck of some pre-established disharmony which throws back an abiding and irremovable gloom on all that went before; and the free spontaneous grace of natural creation which ensures natural simplicity is, as said already, not quite attained.

It was well pointed out in HAMMERTON, by an unanonymous author there quoted (pp. 22, 23), that while in the story, Hyde, the worse one, wins, in Stevenson himself — in his real life — Jekyll won, and not Mr Hyde. This writer, too, might have added that the Master of Ballantrae also wins as well as Beau Austin and Deacon Brodie. R. L. Stevenson’s dramatic art and a good deal of his fiction, then, was untrue to his life, and on one side was a lie — it was not in consonance with his own practice or his belief as expressed in life.

In some other matters the test laid down here is not difficult of application. Stevenson, at the time he wrote THE FOREIGNER AT HOME, had seen a good deal; he had been abroad; he had already had experiences; he had had differences with his father about Calvinism and some other things; and yet just see how he applies the standard of his earlier knowledge and observation to England — and by doing so, cannot help exaggerating the outstanding differences, always with an almost provincial accent of unwavering conviction due to his early associations and knowledge. He cannot help paying an excessive tribute to the Calvinism he had formally rejected, in so far as, according to him, it goes to form character — even national character, at all events, in its production of types; and he never in any really effective way glances at what Mr Matthew Arnold called “Scottish manners, Scottish drink” as elements in any way radically qualifying. It is not, of course, that I, as a Scotsman, well acquainted with rural life in some parts of England, as with rural life in many parts of Scotland in my youth, do not heartily agree with him — the point is that, when he comes to this sort of comparison and contrast, he writes exactly as his father would or might have done, with a full consciousness, after all, of the tribute he was paying to the practical outcome on character of the Calvinism in which he so thoroughly believed. It is, in its way, a very peculiar thing — and had I space, and did I believe it would prove interesting to readers in general, I might write an essay on it, with instances — in which case the Address to the Scottish Clergy would come in for more notice, citation and application than it has yet received. But meanwhile just take this little snippet — very characteristic and very suggestive in its own way — and tell me whether it does not justify and bear out fully what I have now said as illustrating a certain side and a strange uncertain limitation in Stevenson:

“But it is not alone in scenery and architecture that we count England foreign. The constitution of society, the very pillars of the empire, surprise and even pain us. The dull neglected peasant, sunk in matter, insolent, gross and servile, makes a startling contrast to our own long-legged, long-headed, thoughtful, Bible- loving ploughman. A week or two in such a place as Suffolk leaves the Scotsman gasping. It seems impossible that within the boundaries of his own island a class should have been thus forgotten. Even the educated and intelligent who hold our own opinions and speak in our own words, yet seem to hold them with a difference or from another reason, and to speak on all things with less interest and conviction. The first shock of English society is like a cold plunge.” 8

As there was a great deal of the “John Bull element” 9 in the little dreamer De Quincey, so there was a great deal, after all, of the rather conceited Calvinistic Scot in R. L. Stevenson, and it is to be traced as clearly in certain of his fictions as anywhere, though he himself would not perhaps have seen it and acknowledged it, as I am here forced now to see it, and to acknowledge it for him.

8 THE FOREIGNER AT HOME, in MEMORIES AND PORTRAITS.

9 A great deal has been made of the “John Bull element” in De Quincey since his MEMOIR was written by me (see MASSON’S CONDENSATION, p. 95); so now perhaps a little more may be made of the rather conceited Calvinistic Scot element in R. L. Stevenson!

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