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

Chapter XXIV

Mr Henley’s Spiteful Perversions

MORE unfortunate still, as disturbing and prejudicing a sane and true and disinterested view of Stevenson’s claims, was that article of his erewhile “friend,” Mr W. E. Henley, published on the appearance of the MEMOIR by Mr Graham Balfour, in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE. It was well that Mr Henley there acknowledged frankly that he wrote under a keen sense of “grievance” — a most dangerous mood for the most soberly critical and self-restrained of men to write in, and that most certainly Mr W. E. Henley was not — and that he owned to having lost contact with, and recognition of the R. L. Stevenson who went to America in 1887, as he says, and never came back again. To do bare justice to Stevenson it is clear that knowledge of that later Stevenson was essential — essential whether it was calculated to deepen sympathy or the reverse. It goes without saying that the Louis he knew and hobnobbed with, and nursed near by the Old Bristo Port in Edinburgh could not be the same exactly as the Louis of Samoa and later years — to suppose so, or to expect so, would simply be to deny all room for growth and expansion. It is clear that the W. E. Henley of those days was not the same as the W. E. Henley who indited that article, and if growth and further insight are to be allowed to Mr Henley and be pleaded as his justification CUM spite born of sense of grievance for such an onslaught, then clearly some allowance in the same direction must be made for Stevenson. One can hardly think that in his case old affection and friendship had been so completely submerged, under feelings of grievance and paltry pique, almost always bred of grievances dwelt on and nursed, which it is especially bad for men of genius to acknowledge, and to make a basis, as it were, for clearer knowledge, insight, and judgment. In other cases the pleading would simply amount to an immediate and complete arrest of judgment. Mr Henley throughout writes as though whilst he had changed, and changed in points most essential, his erewhile friend remained exactly where he was as to literary position and product — the Louis who went away in 1887 and never returned, had, as Mr W. E. Henley, most unfortunately for himself, would imply, retained the mastery, and the Louis who never came back had made no progress, had not added an inch, not to say a cubit, to his statue, while Mr Henley remained IN STATU QUO, and was so only to be judged. It is an instance of the imperfect sympathy which Charles Lamb finely celebrated — only here it is acknowledged, and the “imperfect sympathy” pled as a ground for claiming the full insight which only sympathy can secure. If Mr Henley was fair to the Louis he knew and loved, it is clear that he was and could only be unjust to the Louis who went away in 1887 and never came back.

“At bottom Stevenson was an excellent fellow. But he was of his essence what the French call PERSONNEL. He was, that is, incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson. He could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every time he passed it; to him there was nothing obvious in time and eternity, and the smallest of his discoveries, his most trivial apprehensions, were all by way of being revelations, and as revelations must be thrust upon the world; he was never so much in earnest, never so well pleased (this were he happy or wretched), never so irresistible as when he wrote about himself. WITHAL, IF HE WANTED A THING, HE WENT AFTER IT WITH AN ENTIRE CONTEMPT OF CONSEQUENCES. FOR THESE, INDEED, THE SHORTER CATECHISM WAS EVER PREPARED TO ANSWER; SO THAT WHETHER HE DID WELL OR ILL, HE WAS SAFE TO COME OUT UNABASHED AND CHEERFUL.”

Notice here, how undiscerning the mentor becomes. The words put in “italics,” unqualified as they are, would fit and admirably cover the character of the greatest criminal. They would do as they stand, for Wainwright, for Dr Dodd, for Deeming, for Neil Cream, for Canham Read, or for Dougal of Moat Farm fame. And then the touch that, in the Shorter Catechism, Stevenson would have found a cover or justification for it somehow! This comes of writing under a keen sense of grievance; and how could this be truly said of one who was “at bottom an excellent fellow.” W. Henley’s ethics are about as clear-obscure as is his reading of character. Listen to him once again — more directly on the literary point.

“To tell the truth, his books are none of mine; I mean that if I wanted reading, I do not go for it to the EDINBURGH EDITION. I am not interested in remarks about morals; in and out of letters. I HAVE LIVED A FULL AND VARIED LIFE, and my opinions are my own. SO, IF I CRAVE THE ENCHANTMENT OF ROMANCE, I ASK IT OF BIGGER MEN THAN HE, AND OF BIGGER BOOKS THAN HIS: of ESMOND (say) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, of REDGAUNTLET and OLD MORTALITY, OF LA REINE MARGOT and BRAGELONNE, of DAVID COPPERFIELD and A TALE OF TWO CITIES; while if good writing and some other things be in my appetite, are there not always Hazlitt and Lamb — to say nothing of that globe of miraculous continents; which is known to us as Shakespeare? There is his style, you will say, and it is a fact that it is rare, and IN THE LAST times better, because much simpler than in the first. But, after all, his style is so perfectly achieved that the achievement gets obvious: and when achievement gets obvious, is it not by way of becoming uninteresting? And is there not something to be said for the person who wrote that Stevenson always reminded him of a young man dressed the best he ever saw for the Burlington Arcade? 10 Stevenson’s work in letters does not now take me much, and I decline to enter on the question of his immortality; since that, despite what any can say, will get itself settled soon or late, for all time. No — when I care to think of Stevenson it is not of R. L. Stevenson — R. L. Stevenson, the renowned, the accomplished — executing his difficult solo, but of the Lewis that I knew and loved, and wrought for, and worked with for so long. The successful man of letters does not greatly interest me. I read his careful prayers and pass on, with the certainty that, well as they read, they were not written for print. I learn of his nameless prodigalities, and recall some instances of conduct in another vein. I remember, rather, the unmarried and irresponsible Lewis; the friend, the comrade, the CHARMEUR. Truly, that last word, French as it is, is the only one that is worthy of him. I shall ever remember him as that. The impression of his writings disappears; the impression of himself and his talk is ever a possession. . . . Forasmuch as he was primarily a talker, his printed works, like these of others after his kind, are but a sop for posterity. A last dying speech and confession (as it were) to show that not for nothing were they held rare fellows in their day.”

Just a month or two before Mr Henley’s self-revealing article appeared in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE, Mr Chesterton, in the DAILY NEWS, with almost prophetic forecast, had said:

“Mr Henley might write an excellent study of Stevenson, but it would only be of the Henleyish part of Stevenson, and it would show a distinct divergence from the finished portrait of Stevenson, which would be given by Professor Colvin.”

And it were indeed hard to reconcile some things here with what Mr Henley set down of individual works many times in the SCOTS AND NATIONAL OBSERVER, and elsewhere, and in literary judgments as in some other things there should, at least, be general consistency, else the search for an honest man in the late years would be yet harder than it was when Diogenes looked out from his tub!

Mr James Douglas, in the STAR, in his half-playful and suggestive way, chose to put it as though he regarded the article in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE as a hoax, perpetrated by some clever, unscrupulous writer, intent on provoking both Mr Henley and his friends, and Stevenson’s friends and admirers. This called forth a letter from one signing himself “A Lover of R. L. Stevenson,” which is so good that we must give it here.

A LITERARY HOAX.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STAR.

SIR— I fear that, despite the charitable scepticism of Mr Douglas, there is no doubt that Mr Henley is the perpetrator of the saddening Depreciation of Stevenson which has been published over his name.

What openings there are for reprisals let Mr Henley’s conscience tell him; but permit me to remind him of two or three things which R. L. Stevenson has written concerning W. E. Henley.

First this scene in the infirmary at Edinburgh:

“(Leslie) Stephen and I sat on a couple of chairs, and the poor fellow (Henley) sat up in his bed with his hair and beard all tangled, and talked as cheerfully as if he had been in a king’s palace, or the great King’s palace of the blue air. He has taught himself two languages since he has been lying there. I SHALL TRY TO BE OF USE TO HIM.”

Secondly, this passage from Stevenson’s dedication of VIRGINIBUS PUERISQUE to “My dear William Ernest Henley”:

“These papers are like milestones on the wayside of my life; and as I look back in memory, there is hardly a stage of that distance but I see you present with advice, reproof, or praise. Meanwhile, many things have changed, you and I among the rest; but I hope that our sympathy, founded on the love of our art, and nourished by mutual assistance, shall survive these little revolutions, undiminished, and, with God’s help, unite us to the end.”

Thirdly, two scraps from letters from Stevenson to Henley, to show that the latter was not always a depreciator of R. L. Stevenson’s work:

“1. I’m glad to think I owe you the review that pleased me best of all the reviews I ever had. . . . To live reading such reviews and die eating ortolans — sich is my aspiration.

“2. Dear lad, — If there was any more praise in what you wrote, I think — (the editor who had pruned down Mr Henley’s review of Stevenson’s PRINCE OTTO) has done us both a service; some of it stops my throat. . . . Whether (considering our intimate relations) you would not do better to refrain from reviewing me, I will leave to yourself.”

And, lastly, this extract from the very last of Stevenson’s letters to Henley, published in the two volumes of LETTERS:

“It is impossible to let your new volume pass in silence. I have not received the same thrill of poetry since G. M.‘s JOY OF EARTH volume, and LOVE IN A VALLEY; and I do not know that even that was so intimate and deep. . . . I thank you for the joy you have given me, and remain your old friend and present huge admirer, R. L. S.”

It is difficult to decide on which side in this literary friendship lies the true modesty and magnanimity? I had rather be the author of the last message of R. L. Stevenson to W. E. Henley, than of the last words of W. E. Henley concerning R. L. Stevenson.

10 It was Mr George Moore who said this.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stevenson/robert_louis/s848zj/chapter24.html

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