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

Chapter XXV

Mr Christie Murray’s Impressions

MR CHRISTIE MURRAY, writing as “Merlin” in our handbook in the REFEREE at the time, thus disposed of some of the points just dealt with by us:

“Here is libel on a large scale, and I have purposely refrained from approaching it until I could show my readers something of the spirit in which the whole attack is conceived. ‘If he wanted a thing he went after it with an entire contempt for consequences. For these, indeed, the Shorter Catechist was ever prepared to answer; so that whether he did well or ill, he was safe to come out unabashed and cheerful.’ Now if Mr Henley does not mean that for the very express picture of a rascal without a conscience he has been most strangely infelicitous in his choice of terms, and he is one of those who make so strong a profession of duty towards mere vocables that we are obliged to take him AU PIED DE LA LETTRE. A man who goes after whatever he wants with an entire contempt of consequences is a scoundrel, and the man who emerges from such an enterprise unabashed and cheerful, whatever his conduct may have been, and justifies himself on the principles of the Shorter Catechism, is a hypocrite to boot. This is not the report we have of Robert Louis Stevenson from most of those who knew him. It is a most grave and dreadful accusation, and it is not minimised by Mr Henley’s acknowledgment that Stevenson was a good fellow. We all know the air of false candour which lends a disputant so much advantage in debate. In Victor Hugo’s tremendous indictment of Napoleon le Petit we remember the telling allowance for fine horsemanship. It spreads an air of impartiality over the most mordant of Hugo’s pages. It is meant to do that. An insignificant praise is meant to show how a whole Niagara of blame is poured on the victim of invective in all sincerity, and even with a touch of reluctance.

“Mr Henley, despite his absurdities of ‘‘Tis’ and ‘it were,’ is a fairly competent literary craftsman, and he is quite gifted enough to make a plain man’s plain meaning an evident thing if he chose to do it. But if for the friend for whom ‘first and last he did share’ he can only show us the figure of one ‘who was at bottom an excellent fellow,’ and who had ‘an entire contempt’ for the consequences of his own acts, he presents a picture which can only purposely be obscured . . . .

“All I know of Robert Louis Stevenson I have learned from his books, and from one unexpected impromptu letter which he wrote to me years ago in friendly recognition of my own work. I add the testimonies of friends who may have been of less actual service to him than Mr Henley, but who surely loved him better and more lastingly. These do not represent him as the victim of an overweening personal vanity, nor as a person reckless of the consequences of his own acts, nor as a Pecksniff who consoled himself for moral failure out of the Shorter Catechism. The books and the friends amongst them show me an erratic yet lovable personality, a man of devotion and courage, a loyal, charming, and rather irresponsible person whose very slight faults were counter- balanced many times over by very solid virtues. . . .

“To put the thing flatly, it is not a heroism to cling to mere existence. The basest of us can do that. But it is a heroism to maintain an equable and unbroken cheerfulness in the face of death. For my own part, I never bowed at the literary shrine Mr Henley and his friends were at so great pains to rear. I am not disposed to think more loftily than I ever thought of their idol. But the Man - the Man was made of enduring valour and childlike charm, and these will keep him alive when his detractors are dead and buried.”

As to the Christian name, it is notorious that he was christened Robert Lewis — the Lewis being after his maternal grandfather — Dr Lewis Balfour. Some attempt has been made to show that the Louis was adopted because so many cousins and relatives had also been so christened; but the most likely explanation I have ever heard was that his father changed the name to Louis, that there might be no chance through it of any notion of association with a very prominent noisy person of the name of Lewis, in Edinburgh, towards whom Thomas Stevenson felt dislike, if not positive animosity. Anyhow, it is clear from the entries in the register of pupils at the Edinburgh Academy, in the two years when Stevenson was there, that in early youth he was called Robert only; for in the school list for 1862 the name appears as Robert Stevenson, without the Lewis, while in the 1883 list it is given as Lewis Robert Stevenson. Clearly if in earlier years Stevenson was, in his family and elsewhere, called ROBERT, there could have then arisen no risk of confusion with any of his relatives who bore the name of Lewis; and all this goes to support the view which I have given above. Anyhow he ceased to be called Robert at home, and ceased in 1863 to be Robert on the Edinburgh Academy list, and became Lewis Robert. Whether my view is right or not, he was thenceforward called Louis in his family, and the name uniformly spelt Louis. What blame on Stevenson’s part could be attached to this family determination it is hard to see — people are absolutely free to spell their names as they please, and the matter would not be worth a moment’s attention, or the waste of one drop of ink, had not Mr Henley chosen to be very nasty about the name, and in the PALL MALL MAGAZINE article persisted in printing it Lewis as though that were worthy of him and of it. That was not quite the unkindest cut of all, but it was as unkind as it was trumpery. Mr Christie Murray neatly set off the trumpery spite of this in the following passage:

“Stevenson, it appears, according to his friend’s judgment, was ‘incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson,’ but most of us are incessantly and passionately interested in ourselves. ‘He could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every time he passed it.’ I remember that George Sala, who was certainly under no illusion as to his own personal aspect, made public confession of an identical foible. Mr Henley may not have an equal affection for the looking-glass, but he is a very poor and unimaginative reader who does not see him gloating over the god-like proportions of the shadow he sends sprawling over his own page. I make free to say that a more self-conscious person than Mr Henley does not live. ‘The best and most interesting part of Stevenson’s life will never get written — even by me,’ says Mr Henley.

“There is one curious little mark of animus, or one equally curious affectation — I do not profess to know which, and it is most probably a compound of the two — in Mr Henley’s guardedly spiteful essay which asks for notice. The dead novelist signed his second name on his title-pages and his private correspondence ‘Louis.’ Mr Henley spells it ‘Lewis.’ Is this intended to say that Stevenson took an ornamenting liberty with his own baptismal appellation? If so, why not say the thing and have done with it? Or is it one of Mr Henley’s wilful ridiculosities? It seems to stand for some sort of meaning, and to me, at least, it offers a jarring hint of small spitefulness which might go for nothing if it were not so well borne out by the general tone of Mr Henley’s article. It is a small matter enough, God knows, but it is precisely because it is so very small that it irritates.”

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