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

Chapter IX

Some Characteristics

IN Stevenson we lost one of the most powerful writers of our day, as well as the most varied in theme and style. When I use the word “powerful,” I do not mean merely the producing of the most striking or sensational results, nor the facility of weaving a fascinating or blood-curdling plot; I mean the writer who seemed always to have most in reserve — a secret fund of power and fascination which always pointed beyond the printed page, and set before the attentive and careful reader a strange but fascinating PERSONALITY. Other authors have done that in measure. There was Hawthorne, behind whose writings there is always the wistful, cold, far- withdrawn spectator of human nature — eerie, inquisitive, and, I had almost said, inquisitorial — a little bloodless, eerie, weird, and cobwebby. There was Dr Wendell Holmes, with his problems of heredity, of race-mixture and weird inoculation, as in ELSIE VENNER and THE GUARDIAN ANGEL, and there were Poe and Charles Whitehead. Stevenson, in a few of his writings — in one of the MERRY MEN chapters and in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, and, to some extent, in THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE— showed that he could enter on the obscure and, in a sense, weird and metaphysical elements in human life; though always there was, too, a touch at least of gloomy suggestion, from which, as it seemed, he could not there wholly escape. But always, too, there was a touch that suggests the universal.

Even in the stories that would be classed as those of incident and adventure merely, TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED, and the rest, there is a sense as of some unaffected but fine symbolism that somehow touches something of possibility in yourself as you read. The simplest narrative from his hand proclaimed itself a deep study in human nature — its motives tendencies, and possibilities. In these stories there is promise at once of the most realistic imagination, the most fantastic romance, keen insights into some sides of human nature, and weird fancies, as well as the most delicate and dainty pictures of character. And this is precisely what we have — always with a vein of the finest autobiography — a kind of select and indirect self-revelation — often with a touch of quaintness, a subdued humour, and sweet-blooded vagary, if we may be allowed the word, which make you feel towards the writer as towards a friend. He was too much an artist to overdo this, and his strength lies there, that generally he suggests and turns away at the right point, with a smile, as you ask for MORE. Look how he sets, half slyly, these words into the mouth of David Balfour on his first meeting with Catriona in one of the steep wynds or closes off the High Street of Edinburgh:

“There is no greater wonder than the way the face of a young woman fits in a man’s mind, and stays there, and he never could tell you why: it just seems it was the thing he wanted.”

Take this alongside of his remark made to his mother while still a youth — “that he did not care to understand the strain on a bridge” (when he tried to study engineering); what he wanted was something with human nature in it. His style, in his essays, etc., where he writes in his own person, is most polished, full of phrases finely drawn; when he speaks through others, as in KIDNAPPED and DAVID BALFOUR, it is still fine and effective, and generally it is fairly true to the character, with cunning glimpses, nevertheless, of his own temper and feeling too. He makes us feel his confidants and friends, as has been said. One could almost construct a biography from his essays and his novels — the one would give us the facts of his life suffused with fancy and ideal colour, humour and fine observation not wanting; the other would give us the history of his mental and moral being and development, and of the traits and determinations which he drew from along a lengthened line of progenitors. How characteristic it is of him — a man who for so many years suffered as an invalid — that he should lay it down that the two great virtues, including all others, were cheerfulness and delight in labour.

One writer has very well said on this feature in Stevenson:

“Other authors have struggled bravely against physical weakness, but their work has not usually been of a creative order, dependent for its success on high animal spirits. They have written histories, essays, contemplative or didactic poems, works which may more or less be regarded as ‘dull narcotics numbing pain.’ But who, in so fragile a frame as Robert Louis Stevenson’s, has retained such indomitable elasticity, such fertility of invention, such unflagging energy, not merely to collect and arrange, but to project and body forth? Has any true ‘maker’ been such an incessant sufferer? From his childhood, as he himself said apropos of the CHILD’S GARDEN, he could ‘speak with less authority of gardens than of that other “land of counterpane.”’ There were, indeed, a few years of adolescence during which his health was tolerable, but they were years of apprenticeship to life and art (‘pioching,’ as he called it), not of serious production. Though he was a precocious child, his genius ripened slowly, and it was just reaching maturity when the ‘wolverine,’ as he called his disease, fixed its fangs in his flesh. From that time forward not only did he live with death at his elbow in an almost literal sense (he used to carry his left arm in a sling lest a too sudden movement should bring on a haemorrhage), but he had ever-recurring intervals of weeks and months during which he was totally unfit for work; while even at the best of times he had to husband his strength most jealously. Add to all this that he was a slow and laborious writer, who would take more pains with a phrase than Scott with a chapter — then look at the stately shelf of his works, brimful of impulse, initiative, and the joy of life, and say whether it be an exaggeration to call his tenacity and fortitude unique!”

Samoa, with its fine climate, prolonged his life — we had fain hoped that in that air he found so favourable he might have lived for many years, to add to the precious stock of innocent delight he has given to the world — to do yet more and greater. It was not to be. They buried him, with full native honours as to a chief, on the top of Vaea mountain, 1300 feet high — a road for the coffin to pass being cut through the woods on the slopes of the hill. There he has a resting-place not all unfit — for he sought the pure and clearer air on the heights from whence there are widest prospects; yet not in the spot he would have chosen — for his heart was at home, and not very long before his death he sang, surely with pathetic reference now:

“Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,

Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers,

Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,

Soft flow the stream thro’ the even-flowing hours;

Fair the day shine, as it shone upon my childhood —

Fair shine the day on the house with open door;

Birds come and cry there, and twitter in the chimney —

But I go for ever and come again no more.”

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