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

Chapter XXXIII

Lapses and Errors in Criticism

NOTHING could perhaps be more wearisome than to travel o’er the wide sandy area of Stevenson criticism and commentary, and expose the many and sad and grotesque errors that meet one there. Mr Baildon’s slip is innocent, compared with many when he says (p. 106) TREASURE ISLAND appeared in YOUNG FOLKS as THE SEA-COOK. It did nothing of the kind; it is on plain record in print, even in the pages of the EDINBURGH EDITION, that Mr James Henderson would not have the title THE SEA-COOK, as he did not like it, and insisted on its being TREASURE ISLAND. To him, therefore, the vastly better title is due. Mr Henley was in doubt if Mr Henderson was still alive when he wrote the brilliant and elevated article on “Some Novels” in the NORTH AMERICAN, and as a certain dark bird killed Cock Robin, so he killed off Dr Japp, and not to be outdone, got in an ideal “Colonel” JACK; so Mr Baildon there follows Henley, unaware that Mr Henderson did not like THE SEA-COOK, and was still alive, and that a certain Jack in the fatal NORTH AMERICAN has Japp’s credit.

Mr Baildon’s words are:

“This was the famous book of adventure, TREASURE ISLAND, appearing first as THE SEA-COOK in a boy’s paper, where it made no great stir. But, on its publication in volume form, with the vastly better title, the book at once ‘boomed,’ as the phrase goes, to an extent then, in 1882, almost unprecedented. The secret of its immense success may almost be expressed in a phrase by saying that it is a book like GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, and ROBINSON CRUSOE itself for all ages — boys, men, and women.”

Which just shows how far lapse as to a fact may lead to critical misreadings also.

Mr Hammerton sometimes lets good folks say in his pages, without correction, what is certainly not correct. Thus at one place we are told that Stevenson was only known as Louis in print, whereas that was the only name by which he was known in his own family. Then Mr Gosse, at p. 34, is allowed to write:

“Professor Blackie was among them on the steamer from the Hebrides, a famous figure that calls for no description, and a voluble shaggy man, clad in homespun, with spectacles forward upon his nose, who it was whispered to us, was Mr Sam Bough, the Scottish Academician, A WATER-COLOUR PAINTER OF SOME REPUTE, who was to die in 1878.”

Mr Sam Bough WAS “a water-colour painter of some repute,” but a painter in oils of yet greater repute — a man of rare strength, resource, and facility — never, perhaps, wholly escaping from some traces of his early experiences in scene-painting, but a true genius in his art. Ah, well I remember him, though an older man, yet youthful in the band of young Scotch artists among whom as a youngster I was privileged to move in Edinburgh — Pettie, Chalmers, M’Whirter, Peter Graham, MacTaggart, MacDonald, John Burr, and Bough. Bough could be voluble on art; and many a talk I had with him as with the others named, especially with John Burr. Bough and he both could talk as well as paint, and talk right well. Bough had a slight cast in the eye; when he got a WEE excited on his subject he would come close to you with head shaking, and spectacles displaced, and forelock wagging, and the cast would seem to die away. Was this a fact, or was it an illusion on my part? I have often asked myself that question, and now I ask it of others. Can any of my good friends in Edinburgh say; can Mr Caw help me here, either to confirm or to correct me? I venture to insert here an anecdote, with which my friend of old days, Mr Wm. MacTaggart, R.S.A., in a letter kindly favours me:

“Sam Bough was a very sociable man; and, when on a sketching tour, liked to have a young artist or two with him. Jack Nisbett played the violin, and Sam the ‘cello, etc. Jack was fond of telling that Sam used to let them all choose the best views, and then he would take what was left; and Jack, with mild astonishment, would say, that ‘it generally turned out to be the best — on the canvas!’”

In Mr Hammerton’s copy of the verses in reply to Mr Crockett’s dedication of THE STICKIT MINISTER to Stevenson, in which occurred the fine phrase “The grey Galloway lands, where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying, his heart remembers how”:

“Blows the wind to-day and the sun and the rain are flying:

Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,

Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,

My heart remembers how.

“Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,

Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,

Hills of sheep, and the HOMES of the silent vanished races,

And winds austere and pure.

“Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,

Hills of home! and to hear again the call —

Hear about the graves of the martyrs the pee-weet crying,

And hear no more at all.”

Mr Hammerton prints HOWES instead of HOMES, which I have italicised above. And I may note, though it does not affect the poetry, if it does a little affect the natural history, that the PEE-WEETS and the whaups are not the same — the one is the curlew, and the other is the lapwing — the one most frequenting wild, heathery or peaty moorland, and the other pasture or even ploughed land — so that it is a great pity for unity and simplicity alike that Stevenson did not repeat the “whaup,” but wrote rather as though pee-weet or pee- weets were the same as whaups — the common call of the one is KER- LEE, KER-LEE, and of the other PEE-WEET, PEE-WEET, hence its common name.

It is a pity, too, that Mr Hammerton has no records of some portions of the life at Davos Platz. Not only was Stevenson ill there in April 1892, but his wife collapsed, and the tender concern for her made havoc with some details of his literary work. It is good to know this. Such errata or omissions throw a finer light on his character than controlling perfection would do. Ah, I remember how my old friend W. B. Rands (“Matthew Browne” and “Henry Holbeach”) was wont to declare that were men perfect they would be isolated, if not idiotic, that we are united to each other by our defects — that even physical beauty would be dead like later Greek statues, were these not departures from the perfect lines. The letter given by me at p. 28 transfigures in its light, some of his work at that time.

And then what an opportunity, we deeply regret to say, Mr Hammerton wholly missed, when he passed over without due explanation or commentary that most significant pamphlet — the ADDRESS TO THE SCOTTISH CLERGY. If Mr Hammerton had but duly and closely studied that and its bearings and suggestions in many directions, then he would have written such a chapter for true enlightenment and for interest as exactly his book — attractive though it is in much — yet specially lacks. It is to be hoped that Mr Sidney Colvin will not once more miss the chance which is thus still left open to him to perfect his LIFE OF STEVENSON, and make it more interpretive than anything yet published. If he does this, then, a dreadful LACUNA in the EDINBURGH EDITION will also be supplied.

Carefully reading over again Mr Arthur Symons’ STUDIES IN TWO LITERATURES— published some years ago — I have come across instances of apparent contradiction which, so far as I can see, he does not critically altogether reconcile, despite his ingenuity and great charm of style. One relates to Thoreau, who, while still “sturdy” as Emerson says, “and like an elm tree,” as his sister Sophia says, showed exactly the same love of nature and power of interpreting her as he did after in his later comparatively short period of “invalidity,” while Mr Symons says his view of Nature absolutely was that of the invalid, classing him unqualifiedly with Jefferies and Stevenson, as invalid. Thoreau’s mark even in the short later period of “invalidity” was complete and robust independence and triumph over it — a thing which I have no doubt wholly captivated Stevenson, as scarce anything else would have done, as a victory in the exact ROLE he himself was most ambitious to fill. For did not he too wrestle well with the “wolverine” he carried on his back — in this like Addington Symonds and Alexander Pope? Surely I cannot be wrong here to reinforce my statement by a passage from a letter written by Sophia Thoreau to her good friend Daniel Ricketson, after her brother’s death, the more that R. L. Stevenson would have greatly exulted too in its cheery and invincible stoicism:

“Profound joy mingles with my grief. I feel as if something very beautiful had happened — not death; although Henry is with us no longer, yet the memory of his sweet and virtuous soul must ever cheer and comfort me. My heart is filled with praise to God for the gift of such a brother, and may I never distrust the love and wisdom of Him who made him and who has now called him to labour in more glorious fields than earth affords. You ask for some particulars relating to Henry’s illness. I feel like saying that Henry was never affected, never reached by it. I never before saw such a manifestation of the power of spirit over matter. Very often I heard him tell his visitors that he enjoyed existence as well as ever. The thought of death, he said, did not trouble him. His thoughts had entertained him all his life and did still. . . . He considered occupation as necessary for the sick as for those in health, and accomplished a vast amount of labour in those last few months.”

A rare “invalidity” this — a little confusing easy classifications. I think Stevenson would have felt and said that brother and sister were well worthy of each other; and that the sister was almost as grand and cheery a stoic, with no literary profession of it, as was the brother.

The other thing relates to Stevenson’s HUMAN SOUL. I find Mr Symons says, at p. 243, that Stevenson “had something a trifle elfish and uncanny about him, as of a bewitched being who was not actually human — had not actually a human soul” — in which there may be a glimmer of truth viewed from his revelation of artistic curiosities in some aspects, but is hardly true of him otherwise; and this Mr Symons himself seems to have felt, when, at p. 246, he writes: “He is one of those writers who speak TO US ON EASY TERMS, with whom we MAY EXCHANGE AFFECTIONS.” How “affections” could be exchanged on easy terms between the normal human being and an elfish creature actually WITHOUT A HUMAN SOUL (seeing that affections are, as Mr Matthew Arnold might have said, at least, three-fourths of soul) is more, I confess, than I can quite see at present; but in this rather MALADROIT contradiction Mr Symons does point at one phase of the problem of Stevenson — this, namely that to all the ordinary happy or pleasure-endings he opposes, as it were of set purpose, gloom, as though to certain things he was quite indifferent, and though, as we have seen, his actual life and practice were quite opposed to this.

I am sorry I CANNOT find the link in Mr Symons’ essay, which would quite make these two statements consistently coincide critically. As an enthusiastic, though I hope still a discriminating, Stevensonian, I do wish Mr Symons would help us to it somehow hereafter. It would be well worth his doing, in my opinion.

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