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

Chapter XXX

Lord Rosebery’s Case

IMMEDIATELY on reading Lord Rosebery’s address as Chairman of the meeting in Edinburgh to promote the erection of a monument to R. L. Stevenson, I wrote to him politely asking him whether, since he quoted a passage from a somewhat early essay by Stevenson naming the authors who had chiefly influenced him in point of style, his Lordship should not, merely in justice and for the sake of balance, have referred to Thoreau. I also remarked that Stevenson’s later style sometimes showed too much self-conscious conflict of his various models in his mind while he was in the act of writing, and that this now and then imparted too much an air of artifice to his later compositions, and that those who knew most would be most troubled by it. Of that letter, I much regret now that I did not keep any copy; but I think I did incidentally refer to the friendship with which Stevenson had for so many years honoured me. This is a copy of the letter received in reply:

“38 BERKELEY SQUARE, W.,
17th DECEMBER 1896.

“DEAR SIR, — I am much obliged for your letter, and can only state that the name of Thoreau was not mentioned by Stevenson himself, and therefore I could not cite it in my quotation.

“With regard to the style of Stevenson’s later works, I am inclined to agree with you.-Believe me, yours very faithfully, ROSEBERY.

“Dr ALEXANDER H. JAPP.”

This I at once replied to as follows:

“NATIONAL LIBERAL CLUB,
WHITEHALL. PLACE, S.W.,
19TH DECEMBER 1896.

“MY LORD, — It is true R. L. Stevenson did not refer to Thoreau in the passage to which you allude, for the good reason that he could not, since he did not know Thoreau till after it was written; but if you will oblige me and be so good as to turn to p. xix. of Preface, BY WAY OF CRITICISM, to FAMILIAR STUDIES OF MEN AND BOOKS you will read:

“‘Upon me this pure, narrow, sunnily-ascetic Thoreau had exercised a wondrous charm. I HAVE SCARCE WRITTEN TEN SENTENCES SINCE I WAS INTRODUCED TO HIM, BUT HIS INFLUENCE MIGHT BE SOMEWHERE DETECTED BY A CLOSE OBSERVER.’

“It is very detectable in many passages of nature-description and of reflection. I write, my Lord, merely that, in case opportunity should arise, you might notice this fact. I am sure R. L. Stevenson would have liked it recognised. — I remain, my Lord, always yours faithfully, etc.,

ALEXANDER H. JAPP.”

In reply to this Lord Rosebery sent me only the most formal acknowledgment, not in the least encouraging me in any way to further aid him in the matter with regard to suggestions of any kind; so that I was helpless to press on his lordship the need for some corrections on other points which I would most willingly have tendered to him had he shown himself inclined or ready to receive them.

I might also have referred Lord Rosebery to the article in THE BRITISH WEEKLY (1887), “Books that have Influenced Me,” where, after having spoken of Shakespeare, the VICOMTE DE BRAGELONNE, Bunyan, Montaigne, Goethe, Martial, Marcus Aurelius’s MEDITATIONS, and Wordsworth, he proceeds:

“I suppose, when I am done, I shall find that I have forgotten much that is influential, as I see already I have forgotten Thoreau.”

I need but to add to what has been said already that, had Lord Rosebery written and told me the result of his references and encouraged me to such an exercise, I should by-and-by have been very pleased to point out to him that he blundered, proving himself no master in Burns’ literature, precisely as Mr Henley blundered about Burns’ ancestry, when he gives confirmation to the idea that Burns came of a race of peasants on both sides, and was himself nothing but a peasant.

When the opportunity came to correct such blunders, corrections which I had even implored him to make, Lord Rosebery (who by several London papers had been spoken of as “knowing more than all the experts about all his themes”), that is, when his volume was being prepared for press, did not act on my good advice given him “FREE, GRATIS, FOR NOTHING”; no; he contented himself with simply slicing out columns from the TIMES, or allowing another man to do so for him, and reprinting them LITERATIM ET VERBATIM, all imperfect and misleading, as they stood. SCRIPTA MANET alas! only too truly exemplified to his disadvantage. But with that note of mine in his hand, protesting against an ominous and fatal omission as regards the confessed influences that had operated on Stevenson, he goes on, or allows Mr Geake to go on, quite as though he had verified matters and found that I was wrong as regards the facts on which I based my appeal to him for recognition of Thoreau as having influenced Stevenson in style. Had he attended to correcting his serious errors about Stevenson, and some at least of those about Burns, thus adding, say, a dozen or twenty pages to his book wholly fresh and new and accurate, then the TIMES could not have got, even if it had sought, an injunction against his publishers and him; and there would have been no necessity that he should pad out other and later speeches by just a little whining over what was entirely due to his own disregard of good advice, his own neglect — his own fault — a neglect and a fault showing determination not to revise where revision in justice to his subject’s own free and frank acknowledgments made it most essential and necessary.

Mr Justice North gave his decision against Lord Rosebery and his publishers, while the Lords of Appeal went in his favour; but the House of Lords reaffirmed the decision of Mr Justice North and granted a perpetual injunction against this book. The copyright in his speech is Lord Rosebery’s, but the copyright in the TIMES’ report is the TIMES’. You see one of the ideas underlying the law is that no manner of speech is quite perfect as the man speaks it, or is beyond revision, improvement, or extension, and, if there is but one VERBATIM report, as was the case of some of these speeches and addresses, then it is incumbent on the author, if he wishes to preserve his copyright, to revise and correct his speeches and addresses, so as to make them at least in details so far differ from the reported form. This thing ought Lord Rosebery to have done, on ethical and literary GROUNDS, not to speak of legal and self-interested grounds; and I, for one, who from the first held exactly the view the House of Lords has affirmed, do confess that I have no sympathy for Lord Rosebery, since he had before him the suggestion and the materials for as substantial alterations and additions from my own hands, with as much more for other portions of his book, had he informed me of his appreciation, as would have saved him and his book from such a sadly ironical fate as has overtaken him and it.

From the whole business — since “free, gratis, for nothing,” I offered him as good advice as any lawyer in the three kingdoms could have done for large payment, and since he never deemed it worth while, even to tell me the results of his reference to FAMILIAR STUDIES, I here and now say deliberately that his conduct to me was scarcely so courteous and grateful and graceful as it might have been. How different — very different — the way in which the late R. L. Stevenson rewarded me for a literary service no whit greater or more essentially valuable to him than this service rendered to Lord Rosebery might have been to him.

This chapter would most probably not have been printed, had not Mr Coates re-issued the inadequate and most misleading paragraph about Mr Stevenson and style in his Lord Rosebery’s LIFE AND SPEECHES exactly as it was before, thus perpetuating at once the error and the wrong, in spite of all my trouble, warnings, and protests. It is a tragicomedy, if not a farce altogether, considering who are the principal actors in it. And let those who have copies of the queer prohibited book cherish them and thank me; for that I do by this give a new interest and value to it as a curiosity, law- inhibited, if not as high and conscientious literature — which it is not.

I remember very well about the time Lord Rosebery spoke on Burns, and Stevenson, and London, that certain London papers spoke of his deliverances as indicating more knowledge — fuller and exacter knowledge — of all these subjects than the greatest professed experts possessed. That is their extravagant and most reckless way, especially if the person spoken about is a “great politician” or a man of rank. They think they are safe with such superlatives applied to a brilliant and clever peer (with large estates and many interests), and an ex-Prime Minister! But literature is a republic, and it must here be said, though all unwillingly, that Lord Rosebery is but an amateur — a superficial though a clever amateur after all, and their extravagances do not change the fact. I declare him an amateur in Burns’ literature and study because of what I have said elsewhere, and there are many points to add to that if need were. I have proved above from his own words that he was crassly and unpardonably ignorant of some of the most important points in R. L. Stevenson’s development when he delivered that address in Edinburgh on Stevenson — a thing very, very pardonable — seeing that he is run after to do “speakings” of this sort; but to go on, in face of such warning and protest, printing his most misleading errors is not pardonable, and the legal recorded result is my justification and his condemnation, the more surely that even that would not awaken him so far as to cause him to restrain Mr Coates from reproducing in his LIFE AND SPEECHES, just as it was originally, that peccant passage. I am fully ready to prove also that, though Chairman of the London County Council for a period, and though he made a very clever address at one of Sir W. Besant’s lectures, there is much yet — very much — he might learn from Sir W. Besant’s writings on London. It isn’t so easy to outshine all the experts — even for a clever peer who has been Prime Minister, though it is very, very easy to flatter Lord Rosebery, with a purpose or purposes, as did at least once also with rarest tact, at Glasgow, indicating so many other things and possibilities, a certain very courtly ex-Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

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