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

Chapter XVII

Proofs of Growth

Once again I quote Goethe:

“Natural simplicity and repose are the acme of art, and hence it follows no youth can be a master.” It has to be confessed that seldom, if ever, does Stevenson naturally and by sheer enthusiasm for subject and characters attain this natural simplicity, if he often attained the counterfeit presentment — artistic and graceful euphony, and new, subtle, and often unexpected concatenations of phrase. Style is much; but it is not everything. We often love Scott the more that he shows loosenesses and lapses here, for, in spite of them, he gains natural simplicity, while not seldom Stevenson, with all his art and fine sense of verbal music, rather misses it. THE SEDULOUS APE sometimes disenchants as well as charms; for occasionally a word, a touch, a turn, sends us off too directly in search of the model; and this operates against the interest as introducing a new and alien series of associations, where, for full effect, it should not be so. And this distraction will be the more insistent, the more knowledge the reader has and the more he remembers; and since Stevenson’s first appeal, both by his spirit and his methods, is to the cultured and well read, rather than to the great mass, his “sedulous apehood” only the more directly wars against him as regards deep, continuous, and lasting impression; where he should be most simple, natural and spontaneous; he also is most artificial and involved. If the story-writer is not so much in earnest, not so possessed by his matter that this is allowed to him, how is it to be hoped that we shall be possessed in the reading of it? More than once in CATRIONA we must own we had this experience, directly warring against full possession by the story, and certain passages about Simon Lovat were especially marked by this; if even the first introduction to Catriona herself was not so. As for Miss Barbara Grant, of whom so much has been made by many admirers, she is decidedly clever, indeed too clever by half, and yet her doom is to be a mere DEUS EX MACHINA, and never do more than just pay a little tribute to Stevenson’s own power of PERSIFLAGE, or, if you like, to pay a penalty, poor lass, for the too perfect doing of hat, and really, really, I could not help saying this much, though, I do believe that she deserved just a wee bit better fate than that.

But we have proofs of great growth, and nowhere are they greater than at the very close. Stevenson died young: in some phases he was but a youth to the last. To a true critic then, the problem is, having already attained so much — a grand style, grasp of a limited group of characters, with fancy, sincerity, and imagination, — what would Stevenson have attained in another ten years had such been but allotted him? It has over and over again been said that, for long he SHIED presenting women altogether. This is not quite true: THRAWN JANET was an earlier effort; and if there the problem is persistent, the woman is real. Here also he was on the right road — the advance road. The sex-question was coming forward as inevitably a part of life, and could not be left out in any broad and true picture. This element was effectively revived in WEIR OF HERMISTON, and “Weir” has been well said to be sadder, if it does not go deeper than DENIS DUVAL or EDWIN DROOD. We know what Dickens and Thackeray could do there; we can but guess now what Stevenson would have done. “Weir” is but a fragment; but, to a wisely critical and unprejudiced mind, it suffices to show not only what the complete work would have been, but what would have inevitably followed it. It shows the turning-point, and the way that was to be followed at the cross-roads — the way into a bigger, realer, grander world, where realism, freed from the dream, and fancy, and prejudice of youth, would glory in achieving the more enduring romance of manhood, maturity and humanity.

Yes; there was growth — undoubted growth. The questioning and severely moral element mainly due to the Shorter Catechism — the tendency to casuistry, and to problems, and wistful introspection — which had so coloured Stevenson’s art up to the date of THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE, and made him a great essayist, was passing in the satisfaction of assured insight into life itself. The art would gradually have been transformed also. The problem, pure and simple, would have been subdued in face of the great facts of life; if not lost, swallowed up in the grandeur, pathos, and awe of the tragedy clearly realised and presented.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00