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

Chapter XXIII

Edinburgh Reviewers’ Dicta Inapplicable to Later Work

FROM many different points of view discerning critics have celebrated the autobiographic vein — the self-revealing turn, the self-portraiture, the quaint, genial, yet really child-like egotistic and even dreamy element that lies like an amalgam, behind all Stevenson’s work. Some have even said, that because of this, he will finally live by his essays and not by his stories. That is extreme, and is not critically based or justified, because, however true it may be up to a certain point, it is not true of Stevenson’s quite latest fictions where we see a decided breaking through of the old limits, and an advance upon a new and a fresher and broader sphere of interest and character altogether. But these ideas set down truly enough at a certain date, or prior to a certain date, are wrong and falsely directed in view of Stevenson’s latest work and what it promised. For instance, what a discerning and able writer in the EDINBURGH REVIEW of July 1895 said truly then was in great part utterly inapplicable to the whole of the work of the last years, for in it there was grasp, wide and deep, of new possibilities — promise of clear insight, discrimination, and contrast of character, as well as firm hold of new and great human interest under which the egotistic or autobiographic vein was submerged or weakened. The EDINBURGH REVIEWER wrote:

“There was irresistible fascination in what it would be unfair to characterise as egotism, for it came natural to him to talk frankly and easily of himself. . . . He could never have dreamed, like Pepys, of locking up his confidence in a diary. From first to last, in inconsecutive essays, in the records of sentimental touring, in fiction and in verse, he has embodied the outer and the inner autobiography. He discourses — he prattles — he almost babbles about himself. He seems to have taken minute and habitual introspection for the chief study in his analysis of human nature, as a subject which was immediately in his reach, and would most surely serve his purpose. We suspect much of the success of his novels was due to the fact that as he seized for a substructure on the scenery and situations which had impressed him forcibly, so in the characters of the most different types, there was always more or less of self-portraiture. The subtle touch, eminently and unmistakably realistic, gave life to what might otherwise have seemed a lay-figure. . . . He hesitated again and again as to his destination; and under mistakes, advice of friends, doubted his chances, as a story-writer, even after TREASURE ISLAND had enjoyed its special success. . . . We venture to think that, with his love of intellectual self-indulgence, had he found novel-writing really enjoyable, he would never have doubted at all. But there comes in the difference between him and Scott, whom he condemns for the slovenliness of hasty workmanship. Scott, in his best days, sat down to his desk and let the swift pen take its course in inspiration that seemed to come without an effort. Even when racked with pains, and groaning in agony, the intellectual machinery was still driven at a high pressure by something that resembled an irrepressible instinct. Stevenson can have had little or nothing of that inspiriting afflatus. He did his painstaking work conscientiously, thoughtfully; he erased, he revised, and he was hard to satisfy. In short, it was his weird — and he could not resist it — to set style and form before fire and spirit.”

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