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

Chapter XXI

Unity in Stevenson’s Stories

THE unity in Stevenson’s stories is generally a unity of subjective impression and reminiscence due, in the first place, to his quick, almost abnormal boyish reverence for mere animal courage, audacity, and doggedness, and, in the second place, to his theory of life, his philosophy, his moral view. He produces an artificial atmosphere. Everything then has to be worked up to this — kept really in accordance with it, and he shows great art in the doing of this. Hence, though, a quaint sense of sameness, of artificial atmosphere — at once really a lack of spontaneity and of freedom. He is freest when he pretends to nothing but adventure — when he aims professedly at nothing save to let his characters develop themselves by action. In this respect the most successful of his stories is yet TREASURE ISLAND, and the least successful perhaps CATRIONA, when just as the ambitious aim compels him to pause in incident, the first-person form creates a cold stiffness and artificiality alien to the full impression he would produce upon the reader. The two stories he left unfinished promised far greater things in this respect than he ever accomplished. For it is an indisputable fact, and indeed very remarkable, that the ordinary types of men and women have little or no attraction for Stevenson, nor their commonplace passions either. Yet precisely what his art wanted was due infusion of this very interest. Nothing else will supply the place. The ordinary passion of love to the end he SHIES, and must invent no end of expedients to supply the want. The devotion of the ordinary type, as Thomas Hardy has over and over exhibited it, is precisely what Stevenson wants, to impart to his novels the full sense of reality. The secret of morals, says Shelley, is a going out of self. Stevenson was only on the way to secure this grand and all-sufficing motive. His characters, in a way, are all already like himself, romantic, but the highest is when the ordinary and commonplace is so apprehended that it becomes romantic, and may even, through the artist’s deeper perception and unconscious grasp and vision, take the hand of tragedy, and lose nothing. The very atmosphere Stevenson so loved to create was in itself alien to this; and, so far as he went, his most successful revelations were but records of his own limitations. It is something that he was to the end so much the youth, with fine impulses, if sometimes with sympathies misdirected, and that, too, in such a way as to render his work cold and artificial, else he might have turned out more of the Swift than of the Sterne or Fielding. Prince Otto and Seraphina are from this cause mainly complete failures, alike from the point of view of nature and of art, and the Countess von Rosen is not a complete failure, and would perhaps have been a bit of a success, if only she had made Prince Otto come nearer to losing his virtue. The most perfect in style, perhaps, of all Stevenson’s efforts it is yet most out of nature and truth, — a farce, felt to be disguised only when read in a certain mood; and this all the more for its perfections, just as Stevenson would have said it of a human being too icily perfect whom he had met.

On this subject, Mr Baildon has some words so decisive, true, and final, that I cannot refrain from here quoting them:

“From sheer incapacity to retain it, Prince Otto loses the regard, affection, and esteem of his wife. He goes eavesdropping among the peasantry, and has to sit silent while his wife’s honour is coarsely impugned. After that I hold it is impossible for Stevenson to rehabilitate his hero, and, with all his brilliant effects, he fails. . . . I cannot help feeling a regret that such fine work is thrown away on what I must honestly hold to be an unworthy subject. The music of the spheres is rather too sublime an accompaniment for this genteel comedy Princess. A touch of Offenbach would seem more appropriate. Then even in comedy the hero must not be the butt.” And it must reluctantly be confessed that in Prince Otto you see in excess that to which there is a tendency in almost all the rest — it is to make up for lack of hold on human nature itself, by resources of style and mere external technical art.

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