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

Chapter V

Travels

HIS interest in engineering soon went — his mind full of stories and fancies and human nature. As he had told his mother: he did not care about finding what was “the strain on a bridge,” he wanted to know something of human beings.

No doubt, much to the disappointment and grief of his father, who wished him as an only son to carry on the traditions of the family, though he had written two engineering essays of utmost promise, the engineering was given up, and he consented to study law. He had already contributed to College Magazines, and had had even a short spell of editing one; of one of these he has given a racy account. Very soon after his call to the Bar articles and essays from his pen began to appear in MACMILLAN’S, and later, more regularly in the CORNHILL. Careful readers soon began to note here the presence of a new force. He had gone on the INLAND VOYAGE and an account of it was in hand; and had done that tour in the Cevennes which he has described under the title TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN THE CEVENNES, with Modestine, sometimes doubting which was the donkey, but on that tour a chill caught either developed a germ of lung disease already present, or produced it; and the results unfortunately remained.

He never practised at the Bar, though he tells facetiously of his one brief. He had chosen his own vocation, which was literature, and the years which followed were, despite the delicacy which showed itself, very busy years. He produced volume on volume. He had written many stories which had never seen the light, but, as he says, passed through the ordeal of the fire by more or less circuitous ways.

By this time some trouble and cause for anxiety had arisen about the lungs, and trials of various places had been made. ORDERED SOUTH suggests the Mediterranean, sunny Italy, the Riviera. Then a sea-trip to America was recommended and undertaken. Unfortunately, he got worse there, his original cause of trouble was complicated with others, and the medical treatment given was stupid, and exaggerated some of the symptoms instead of removing them, All along — up, at all events, to the time of his settlement in Samoa — Stevenson was more or less of an invalid.

Indeed, were I ever to write an essay on the art of wisely “laying- to,” as the sailors say, I would point it by a reference to R. L. Stevenson. For there is a wise way of “laying-to” that does not imply inaction, but discreet, well-directed effort, against contrary winds and rough seas, that is, amid obstacles and drawbacks, and even ill-health, where passive and active may balance and give effect to each other. Stevenson was by native instinct and temperament a rover — a lover of adventure, of strange by-ways, errant tracts (as seen in his INLAND VOYAGE and TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY THROUGH THE CEVENNES— seen yet more, perhaps, in a certain account of a voyage to America as a steerage passenger), lofty mountain-tops, with stronger air, and strange and novel surroundings. He would fain, like Ulysses, be at home in foreign lands, making acquaintance with outlying races, with

“Cities of men,

And manners, climates, councils, governments:

Myself not least, but honoured of them all,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.”

If he could not move about as he would, he would invent, make fancy serve him instead of experience. We thus owe something to the staying and restraining forces in him, and a wise “laying-to” — for his works, which are, in large part, finely-healthy, objective, and in almost everything unlike the work of an invalid, yet, in some degree, were but the devices to beguile the burdens of an invalid’s days. Instead of remaining in our climate, it might be, to lie listless and helpless half the day, with no companion but his own thoughts and fancies (not always so pleasant either, if, like Frankenstein’s monster, or, better still like the imp in the bottle in the ARABIAN NIGHTS, you cannot, once for all liberate them, and set them adrift on their own charges to visit other people), he made a home in the sweeter air and more steady climate of the South Pacific, where, under the Southern Cross, he could safely and beneficially be as active as he would be involuntarily idle at home, or work only under pressure of hampering conditions. That was surely an illustration of the true “laying-to” with an unaffectedly brave, bright resolution in it.

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