Features November 1988
The short happy life of Robert Louis Stevenson
On Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and legacy.
“Talent without genius isn’t much,” remarked Valery, “but genius without talent is nothing whatever.” Robert Louis Stevenson had talent in abundance, and he was touched by genius, but how often the two combined in his work remains a question not easily answered. Stevenson (1850–94) shall soon be dead for fully a century, yet his literary reputation is still unsettled. William Lyon Phelps thought that he belonged with Fielding and Scott, Dickens and George Eliot, Meredith and Hardy. Henry James acclaimed him “an exquisite literary talent.” Yet George Moore, despite the enduring popularity of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, said that Stevenson “imagined no human soul, and he invented no story that anyone will remember,” while John Jay Chapman accused him of merely aping his literary betters with the result that he was nothing more than “the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature.” Long moldering in his tomb atop Mount Vaea in Samoa, Stevenson himself may not feel the question of his literary reputation a very pressing one. But to those of us who have a minor mania (if not a full-blown rage) for order, and to whom Robert Louis Stevenson’s career and accomplishments have long seemed as grey and cloudy as a February afternoon in his native city of Edinburgh, the attempt to place Stevenson has seemed long overdue. Besides, as a recent television commercial for America’s leading gutter newspaper puts it, inquiring minds want to know.
Stevenson’s was one of those large, flowing talents of the kind that always seem to leave lots of spillage in the form of unfinished books and finished books that probably ought never to have been begun. (He claimed to have made ten or twelve serious runs at writing a novel before completing his first, at age thirty-one, Treasure Island.) I mention the spillage only because Stevenson was working from a cracked glass to begin with, by which I mean that his health was wretched. From early childhood he suffered upper respiratory ailments—even today it is not completely certain that it was tuberculosis—that left him wracked by coughs and ruined by fevers; he grew up bone thin and slightly bug-eyed, perpetually susceptible to illness, disease, and every physical disaster. In Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial medallion of Stevenson, the subject is working, characteristically, in bed, a blanket over his propped up knees, a pad on his lap, a cigarette in hand. While Stevenson was still alive, Henry James, in an essay in the Century Magazine, did not scruple to remark that “it adds immensely to the interest of volumes through which there draws so strong a current of life to know that they are not only the work of an invalid, but have largely been written in bed, in dreary ‘health resorts,’ in the intervals of sharp attacks.” In “Aes Triplex,” one of Stevenson’s best essays, he said, well knowing whereof he spoke, that the human body, viewed pathologically, is “a mere bag of petards.” In the same essay, written when he was twenty-eight, Stevenson wrote that “it is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it like a miser . . . better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sickroom.” He himself died, after putting in a morning’s writing, giving a French lesson to his step-grandchild, and helping his wife prepare a mayonnaise, in Samoa, of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of forty-four.
Stevenson loved life, and with an intensity perhaps granted only to those who are denied full participation in it.
Stevenson loved life, and with an intensity perhaps granted only to those who are denied full participation in it. He took life not as a struggle but as an adventure. Although he might from time to time complain of one or another of his many maladies “unhorsing” him, he always rode on, viewing himself, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, one of “freedom’s athletes.” A literary man to the tips of his long and emaciated fingers, he nonetheless despised all that he thought deadening in literary culture. He disliked realism of the kind made famous by Zola for its heavy emphasis on technique, and of it wrote: “Those who like death have their innings today with art that is like mahogany and horsehair furniture, solid, true, serious and dead as Caesar.” A good part of his enthusiasm for Whitman was owing to the fact that the American poet struck “the brave, vivacious note,” building courage in his readers and defeating indifference. Again and again the appetite for life, with its small but regular pleasures, comes through in Stevenson. Let theologians and philosophers argue whether life gives preparation for death or death gives meaning to life, as far as Stevenson was concerned, “a good meal and a bottle of wine is an answer to most standard works upon the question.”
How explain this inexorably cheerful view of life on the part of a man whose early years supplied the perfect conditions to breed a prince of grievance and gloom? As a first datum, take the city of Edinburgh. In a brief essay on Edinburgh, the city of his birth and upbringing, Stevenson noted that “the weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring.” In Edinburgh, Stevenson adds, “the delicate die early, and I, as a survivor, among bleak winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate.” To grow up in fragile health—and Stevenson’s respiratory ailments were discovered when he was but two years old—in a city of tempests, lashing rain, and perpetual damp was an early indication that life’s blessings are not evenly distributed at birth.
Stevenson’s parents, in their odd differences of temperament, were themselves a mixed blessing. Owing to his mother’s poor health—his illness is said to have been inherited from her—he was an only child in a house that sometimes took on the air of a sickroom. He probably also inherited his cheerful disposition from his mother, for she was intrepidly optimistic, to the point of sailing off to the South Seas with her son and his family when she was well along in life. His father offset his mother’s jolly optimism with regular plunges into a deep melancholia that biographers tend to chalk up to the grim pessimism found at the heart of Calvinism. An engineer specializing in lighthouses, as his father before him had been, Thomas Stevenson was known for his work in optics as applied to lighthouse illumination. The Stevensons never bothered to patent any of their inventions; holding government appointments, they felt that in good conscience these patents were owed to the nation. But then conscience was ever of concern to Stevenson’s father, whose sense of his own unworthiness his son called “morbid.” Stevenson loved his father, and remarked upon his droll humor and the charm of his talk. When the small boy Louis, as Stevenson was called, would wake from one of his many nightmares, it was his father who would arrive to soothe him with tales of adventure of his own invention.
In later life Stevenson wrote plaintively to a friend that “the children of lovers are orphans.” Certainly his parents loved each other, and his mother’s illness—while he was a child she was nearly an invalid—may have diverted attention from himself. One of the chief effects of this was to throw Louis, like many another English or Scottish middle-class child, into the hands of a nurse-nanny; in his case into the hands of a woman named Alison Cunningham. “Cummy,” as he called her, was very keen for religion, and kept her highly imaginative charge nicely revved up with fire-and-brimstone stories. “He was from a child an ardent and uncomfortable dreamer,” Stevenson wrote of himself in an essay called “A Chapter on Dreams.” His troubled dreams about losing salvation often combined with dreams about failure in school, so that in a standard nightmare, “he seemed to himself to stand before the Great White Throne; he was called on, poor little devil, to recite some form of words, on which his destiny depended; his tongue stuck, his memory was blank, hell gaped for him; and he would awake, clinging to the curtain-rod with his knees to his chin.”
Yet the picture I seem to be limning of a sickly child with a febrile imagination set aflame by religious fantasies, a boy so crushable that he therefore must easily be crushed, is a distortion. He may have been ill but he wasn’t unhappy; his illness merely forced him to live more in his mind than other children, devising games to be played upon the counterpane, inventing stories to pass the secluded days. The future author of Treasure Island and Kidnapped was already working at his apprenticeship. He had powerful inner resources—and powerful outer ones, too. Boy and man, Robert Louis Stevenson was one tough and willful hombre. So far as one can make out, he never finally did anything in life that he really didn’t want to do.
No weakling could have defied his father, as Stevenson did, on the two things in life that were most important to him: religion and work. As he grew older, Stevenson began to feel more acutely the chill of Scottish Calvinism. The deadliness of Edinburgh sabbaths with their pervasive restrictions seemed pointless to him and the emphasis on sin, as construed in his father’s home and church, only made sin itself more enticing. As a young man, Stevenson, partly out of a distaste for polite Edinburgh society, began to develop a taste for bohemianism and low life. He ran with his cousin Bob Stevenson, three years his elder, who is said to have taught him, in the words of the editor W. E. Henley, to “think and drink.” Out of a mixture of curiosity and desire, he had a go at the brothels of Victorian Edinburgh. With his cousin and a few selected cronies, he hung around the shadier pubs in the city’s slummier neighborhoods, where his companions, as he later noted, were “seamen, chimney-sweeps, and thieves.” “My circle,” he added, “was being continually changed by the action of the police magistrate.”
Out of a mixture of curiosity and desire, he had a go at the brothels of Victorian Edinburgh.
In a fit of foolish candor when he was twenty-two, Stevenson proclaimed to his father that he was agnostic. “You have rendered my whole life a failure,” Thomas Stevenson replied. Life at home afterward was dour; Stevenson likened it to “a house in which somebody is awaiting burial.” In one of their several arguments about religion, Stevenson’s father shot out at him: “A poor end for all my tenderness. I have worked for you and gone out of my way for you and the end of it is that I find you in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ—I find everything gone.” Loving his father, Stevenson did not find this easy to take. (Good old guilt, the gift that never stops giving.) Yet he stood his ground, muting his opinions when not absolutely swallowing them, in later life abiding quietly by his father’s religious rules when in his company, so that in time religion no longer stood, bog-like, between them.
It was assumed that Stevenson would follow the profession of his grandfather, his father, and his uncles—that of lighthouse engineer. At the University of Edinburgh he studied for a scientific degree. When only twenty he wrote and read a paper entitled “A New Form of Intermittent Light” before the Royal Scottish Society of Arts. Doubtless he could have succeeded well enough as an engineer, yet, as he made plain in his essay “The Education of an Engineer,” the work, for all its satisfactions, was not for him: “It takes a man into the open air; it keeps him hanging about harbour-sides, which is the richest form of idling; it carries him to wild islands; it gives him a taste of the genial dangers of the sea; it supplies him with dexterities to exercise; it makes demands upon his ingenuity; it will cure him of any taste (if ever he had one) for the miserable life of cities.” All well enough, but “when it has done so, it carries him back and shuts him in an office!” Stevenson briefly describes the drudgeries of the inside-work aspects of engineering—applying “long-sighted eyes to the petty niceties of drawing” and so forth. Yet there is something a bit disingenuous about it all, for long before he had determined to be a writer. When he apprised his father of this, Thomas Stevenson took the decision with calm resignation, asking only that his son now study law so that, should the always precarious trade of literature not provide a steady income, he would have something to fall back upon. (With their use of parental guilt and of law school as a fall-back position, these Scottish Calvinists begin to sound more and more like the Jews of nineteenth-century Protestantism.) Stevenson did in fact study law, though less than passionately, and even passed the bar, though he never practiced.
Robert Louis Stevenson went from a childhood of inventing stories in his head to an adolescence of scribbling away at them in earnest. An indifferent student, he served a most serious novitiate in literature. Janet Adam Smith, in her slender volume on Stevenson in the Duckworth Great Lives series, writes of him at university: “His real work, he considered, was to learn how to write. As he walked about Edinburgh and the Pent-lands he was always trying to find the right words for what he saw, and jotting them down in a notebook. Whenever he read something that seemed particularly well or neatly said, he sat down and imitated the author.” Careful words set out in a confident cadence were his aim, and if he did not instantly achieve it on the page he apparently could unfailingly bring it off in conversation. The wife of an Edinburgh engineering professor described the youthful Stevenson as this boy “who talked as Charles Lamb wrote, this young Heine with the Scottish accent.” Sidney Colvin, Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge, who first met him when Stevenson was twenty-two, has left the following account of the charms of his conversation:
He would begin no matter how—perhaps with a jest at some absurd adventure of his own, perhaps with the recitation, in his vibrating voice and full of Scotch accent, of some snatch of poetry that was haunting him, perhaps with a rhapsody of analytic delight over some minute accident of beauty or expressiveness that had struck him in man, woman, child, or external nature. And forthwith the floodgates would be opened, and the talk would stream on in endless, never importunate, flood and variety. A hundred fictitious characters would be invented and launched on their imaginary careers; a hundred ingenious problems of conduct and cases of honor would be set and solved; romantic voyages would be planned and followed out in vision, with a thousand incidents; the possibilities of life and art would be illuminated with searchlights of bewildering range and penetration, sober argument and high poetic eloquence alternating with coruscations of insanely apposite slang . . . and all the while an atmosphere of goodwill diffusing itself from the speaker, a glow of eager benignity and affectionate laughter emanating from his presence, till every one about him seemed to catch something of his gift and inspiration. This sympathetic power of inspiring others was the special and distinguishing note of Stevenson’s conversation.
Stevenson’s clothes did not attract less attention than his conversation. He dressed out of the let-’er-rip school of haberdashery, partly owing to the fact that his father kept him on a short financial leash. He might wear a red sash round his waist, an odd colorful piece of cloth at his throat, a rumpled velveteen jacket, a shawl across his thin shoulders, some strange piece of headgear. He wore his hair long and none too clean, a thick and somewhat droopy mustache depended from his upper lip, a wispy imperial from his lower. He was 5’10” but his thinness, owing to his endless illnesses, made him seem well above six feet, at least in photographs and paintings. In John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait, Stevenson has the elongated look that certain funhouse mirrors give, though all who knew him averred that Sargent’s is a fine likeness. I tend to think of him, physically, as a disheveled version of Comte Robert de Montesquieu, Proust’s model for Baron de Charlus, dressed out of a Goodwill shop.
This freakishly dressed, splendidly well-spoken young man did not take long to capture the attention and affection of his elders. In London in 1874, when Stevenson was twenty-three, Sidney Colvin put him up for the Savile Club, formed five years earlier and known as the preferred meeting place of the young and brilliant and promising. There his dazzling talk impressed, among others, Edmund Gosse, himself now launched on a literary career (Gosse was five years older than Stevenson). Soon Stevenson’s essays and reviews began appearing in the Fortnightly, the Academy, and Leslie Stephen’s Cornhill, where for a while his contributions, signed R. L. S., were thought to stand for the Real Leslie Stephen.
Although Stevenson was from the outset an immensely productive writer, he disavowed literary fertility, claiming “I am constipated in the brains.” He appears to have been one of those essentially slothful and disorganized people who turn out a vast quantity of work as part of the general effort to avoid doing that work that they are supposed to be doing in the first place. Some people before they begin writing need near perfect conditions: good health, psychological security, Trappist monastery quiet, two grants, and a gentle climate. Others can write with creditors’ knuckles at the door, on choppy seas, while hemorrhaging. Robert Louis Stevenson was of the latter kind. He was a natural writer, not that writing came easily to him—there are, as someone once said, no Mozarts in literature—but that he loved fashioning phrases, constructing sentences, building paragraphs. “No other business offers a man his daily bread upon such joyful terms,” he wrote about writing in “Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art,” and then he adds:
I take the author, with whose career I am best acquainted, and it is true he works in a rebellious material, and that the act of writing is cramped and trying both to the eyes and the temper; but remark him in his study, when matter crowds upon him and words are not wanting—in what a continual series of small successes time flows by; with what a sense of power as of one moving mountains, he marshals his petty characters; with what pleasures, both of the ear and eye, he sees his airy structure growing on the page; and how he labours in a craft to which the whole material of his life is tributary, and which opens a door to all his tastes, his loves, his hatreds, and his convictions, so that what he writes is only what he longed to utter.
No matter how complicated Stevenson’s life, in the midst of the complexity he generally emerges, manuscript in hand, without complaint. “There should be no honours for the artist,” he wrote in the same essay; “he has already, in the practice of his art, more than his share of the rewards of life; the honours are pre-empted for other trades, less agreeable and perhaps more useful.”
As for complications, Stevenson added richly to his own when, at twenty-six, he fell in love with a woman some ten years older than he who was already married, with a seventeen-year-old daughter, an eight-year-old son, and a recently deceased infant over whom she was still grieving. A more convenient lover, one might have thought, must have been available; still, “the blind bow-boy,” as Stevenson referred to Cupid, had struck. Fanny Osbourne was an American, Indianapolis born, small, dark, game, a bit of a bluestocking, even more (in the words of J. C. Furnas, Stevenson’s biographer), an “aesthetic parvenu.” Without much in the way of funds, and perhaps even less in talent, she had come to Europe to study painting. Stevenson met her at Grez, a village and art colony near Fontainebleau, where he had gone for his health, she for her painting. To make a lengthy romance short, once Fanny was able to clear the decks of her first husband through divorce, she and Stevenson married. He was then twenty-nine, in ill health, and unable to earn a living for one. “And yet when all has been said,” as he wrote in part two of his essay “Virginibus Puerisque,” “the man who should hold back from marriage is in the same case with him who runs away from battle.” Not quite the way a contemporary marriage counselor might put it, perhaps, but it captures nicely its author’s sense of life as an adventure.
Young men who marry women who already have children are the world’s supreme optimists.
Young men who marry women who already have children are the world’s supreme optimists. Stevenson is of their class, and perhaps beyond. When he followed Fanny Osbourne across the ocean and thence across the continent to Monterey, California, he had neither health nor the least prospect of wealth. “I am an author,” he wrote to a future brother-in-law, “but I am not very likely to make my fortune in that business, where better even than I are glad to get their daily bread.” It was quite a bargain: he was acquiring as a wife a woman who had been round the block a time or two and who was scarcely ten years younger than his mother, while she was acquiring, as J. C. Furnas puts it in his excellent biography, “a rickety economic casualty.”1 On Stevenson’s side, all were united in their opposition to the marriage. His literary friends in London tried systematically to discourage him; his father in Edinburgh threatened to disinherit him. Stevenson, working away in a furnished room in San Francisco on five or six different economically unpromising literary projects and suffering from malaria and rotting teeth, was not to be dissuaded from his course. One recalls that the elder and wilder of the two Duties brothers in Stevenson’s novel The Master of Ballantrae flips a coin whenever a fateful decision is required. Stevenson had something of the same willingness to leave his fate to chance. He married Fanny Osbourne in San Francisco on May 19, 1880.
Fourteen years of life were left to Robert Louis Stevenson. These were spent in an atmosphere of domestic chaos that might have driven a less spirited and more serenity-seeking man to slip away on a moonless night to join the Foreign Legion. Until the final move to Samoa in 1890, the Steven-sons changed residences—usually for reasons of health or for journalistic opportunity—from California to Scotland to Switzerland to France to England to upper New York State to Honolulu to the South Seas. The cast of characters hauled along on this odyssey included stepchildren and a grandchild, a spendthrift and shiftless stepson-in-law, a somewhat intemperate Skye terrier named Bogue, a cat that could not be housebroken, a French-Swiss maid of the type that used to be known as “a treasure,” various Polynesian servants, and at one point a Chinese chef with the hilarious name of Ah Fu. Sciatica, Egyptian ophthalmia, and severe hemorrhages were but a few of the afflictions suffered by the head of this travelling circus; death, which could never have been far from his thoughts during his many bouts of illness, he described as “the wolverine on my shoulders.” All this while he plowed and plugged away at a gallimaufry of projects: novels, stories, essays, journalism, finishing more than anyone might think possible, leaving some uncompleted, walking away from others (among the latter, a biography of William Hazlitt, which is a volume in that most portable of libraries: books one would love to have read but for the inconvenient fact that they were never written).
As long as you’re up, a contemporary who reads about Stevenson’s travail feels like exclaiming, get this man a grant—make it a double MacArthur. In fact, despite his impressive rate of literary production, Stevenson, given the expenses caused by his illnesses and by his familial responsibilities, could not make his nut. He was able to keep afloat only through help from his father, who was at first strongly opposed to his son’s marriage but soon enough kicked in for £250 a year, and extra when more was needed. Quarrel though they might, Stevenson must have known that he could always count upon his father, and often did, and his father never failed him.
The book that finally put Robert Louis Stevenson into the black was Treasure Island, which began as a lark when Stevenson, amusing himself with his stepson Lloyd’s paints, drew a treasure map of an imaginary island. He next constructed a story to go with the map, which he wrote at the rate of a chapter a day and read each night to his family, then living near Braemar in Scotland. Both Stevenson’s father and his stepson enjoyed it immensely and added bits of detail that he inserted into the text. The story originally appeared, under a pseudonym, in a boy’s magazine called Young Folks. “If this doesn’t fetch the kids,” remarked Stevenson, “why, they have gone rotten since my day.” The original title for the story was “The Sea-Cook,” after its most interesting character, Long John Silver, who, it will be recalled, served as a cook on the Hispaniola, the ship in the novel. In its book form the title was changed to Treasure Island, which naturally seems much the superior title. But then, as the small store of publishing wisdom has it, the winning title for a best-selling book is that which happens to have been given to a book that sells extremely well.
Treasure Island was not, as J. C. Furnas recounts, a smashing best-seller, but instead a book that slowly built its audience until it became part of that small shelf of books that every middle-class English-speaking boy is supposed to read. Its early admirers, however, were quite as often adults as children; Gladstone is said to have stayed up through an entire night reading it; the critic Andrew Lang pronounced it, as a romance, beneath only the Odyssey and Tom Sawyer. Its author originally received (at Young Folks’s space rates) roughly thirty-four pounds for its serialization and a hundred for its publication in book form. Slowly but inexorably reprint followed reprint. “In his lifetime,” writes James Pope-Hennessey in his 1974 biography of Stevenson, “it was appearing in [editions of] tens of thousands. Louis had his first taste of fame.”2
With the publication of Treasure Island in 1883, just after Stevenson’s thirty-third birthday, he began slowly to turn from being a small-public to a large-public writer, from being a “detrimental” (as he put it in his essay “Authors and Publishers”) to a successful author. When The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1886, it sold forty thousand copies in its first six months and had three separate dramatizations for the stage. Kidnapped (1886), like Treasure Island, became a steady earner of royalties. Offers of work for serious fees began arriving from America: $10,000 to write a weekly column for the New York World, $3,500 to write a year’s worth of monthly essays for Scribner’s Magazine. “The good fairy,” writes J. C. Furnas, “was dipping in with both hands.” Stevenson became one of nine members elected annually to the Atheneum Club in London. And he had gained entrance into an even more select club—that of the small circle of intimate friends of Henry James.
The friendship of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson was founded on their passionate interest in the art of fiction and their respect for each other as very different practitioners of that art; and it was perpetuated by the love that sturdily grew between them. The friendship began when, in 1884, Stevenson published in Longman’s Magazine “A Humble Remonstrance” to James’s essay “The Art of Fiction,” published earlier in the same journal. Stevenson’s remonstrance, written with evident and great regard for James, sets out the case for his own kind of fiction, and does so with a subtlety of tact, a measured elegance of style, and a depth of knowledge that Henry James found irresistible. He didn’t, in fact, try to resist it, and directly wrote to Stevenson to say that they had more belief in common than he perhaps knew and that “it’s a luxury, in this immoral age, to encounter some one who does write—who is really acquainted with that lovely art.”
In Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record of Friendship and Criticism (1948), Janet Adam Smith writes: “James and Stevenson clearly loved each other; but they also needed each other.” When they met, James was forty-one, Stevenson thirty-four. Yet, as Mrs. Smith goes on to say, both of them “thought more profoundly about their art, and cared more intensely for it, than any of their contemporaries”; both had a strong sense of the sacredness of their craft and of its demands; and both felt something many notches below awe for the opinion of the public on literary quality, with Stevenson at one point allowing, in a letter to Edmund Gosse, that “there must be something wrong in me, or I would not be popular.” As Mrs. Smith rightly remarks, “they certainly were the two most conscious novelists of their time in England.”
Although James had met Stevenson earlier, and was not much impressed with his bohemianism, thinking him a bit of a poseur, they first became friends in Bournemouth, where Stevenson was on the mend from yet another of his illnesses and James was attending his invalid sister Alice. Intimacy between them appears to have been almost instant. Fanny Stevenson wrote to her mother about James: “I had always been told that he was the type of an Englishman, but, except that he looks like the Prince of Wales, I call him the type of an American. He is gentle, amiable and soothing.” Apparently sufficiently so for Stevenson soon to speak and write to him with full candor about his art. After telling James how much pleasure he took from reading Roderick Hudson, he was not above recommending that, if a new edition were to be run off, James might go through the text and strike out the words “immense” and “tremendous,” which he thought overused. In the same letter, in a postscript, he informed James that “I can’t bear The Portrait of a Lady.” He cheered James on during the composition of The Princess Casamassima, congratulating him on his being able to “do low life,” adding that “it was of that nature of touch that I sometimes achingly miss from your former work.”
James understood Stevenson better than Stevenson understood James.
Although of the two men James was aesthetically much the more highly developed, the most he allowed himself by way of criticism of Stevenson’s work in their correspondence was to remark that his verses “show your ‘cleverness,’ but they don’t show your genius,” and to complain, ever so mutedly, about missing the “risible” “the personal painter-touch” in Stevenson’s book The South Seas and in his novel Catriona. James understood Stevenson better than Stevenson understood James, but then James understood him better than any of his other friends of longer standing. He was the only one among them not to oppose Stevenson’s final settlement in Samoa, though he was to miss him sorely. James realized that, if Stevenson continued to live in Europe, he would have to continue to abide in one or another health spa, or, as Stevenson himself once put it, in the “Land of the Counterpane,” where his life approximated that of “a weevil in a biscuit.” Writing about Stevenson after his death, James noted that in Samoa “he found, after a wonderful, adventurous quest, the treasure island, the climatic paradise that met, that enhanced his possibilities; and with this discovery was ushered in his completely full and rich period, the time in which . . . his genius and his character most overflowed.”
“Unexpurgated heaven” Stevenson called the climate in Samoa, which for him it was since it gave him back his health at forty, or at least more of it than he was able to enjoy in many years. Fanny and he and their complicated family had plenty in the way of details to keep them jumping when Stevenson bought the Vailima estate near the municipality of Apia and set out to build a cluster of houses for his family and servants and a large manse-like structure for family meetings. The Samoans called him Tusitala, which means teller of tales, and his relations with those Samoans he encountered were splendid, chiefly because he never lorded it over them and had an instinctive appreciation for their ways that Franz Boas would have found admirable. As he wrote to a friend from Bournemouth who was about to begin missionary work:
Forget wholly and for ever all small pruderies, and remember that you cannot change ancestral feelings of right and wrong without what is practically soul murder. Barbarous as the customs may seem, always hear them with patience, always judge them with gentleness, always find in them some seed of good; see that you always develop them; remember that all you can do is to civilize the man in the line of his own civilization, such as it is.
Sound advice, and Henry Adams, while touring the South Pacific with his friend the painter John La Farge, might have done well to have taken it when visiting the Stevensons. Adams encountered them shortly after they had themselves arrived at Vailima, and his reaction to them was pure snobbery. The squalor of the setting hit him first, and then their garb bowled him over. “Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless,” Adams wrote to his friend Elizabeth Cameron. “He was costumed in a dirty striped cotton pyjamas, the baggy legs tucked into coarse knit woolen stockings, one of which was bright brown in color, the other a purplish dark tone.” When Adams, the past century’s least casual man, could get his mind off those socks, which wasn’t easy, he described Stevenson’s nervous manner of talk, “for he cannot be quiet, but sits down, jumps up, darts off and flies back, at every sentence he utters, and his eyes and features gleam with a hectic glow.” On another occasion, after admonishing himself that in his correspondence he must stop ridiculing Stevenson, who had been most obliging in arranging letters of recommendation for him in the South Pacific, Adams describes him as looking “like an insane stork” and Fanny, whom he had earlier likened to “a half-breed Mexican,” as being as “stalwart as any other Apache squaw.” Snobbery has perhaps never more completely negated intelligence.
Robert Louis Stevenson did not get his wish of dying a violent death (“to be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse—aye, to be hanged”).
Robert Louis Stevenson did not get his wish of dying a violent death (“to be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse—aye, to be hanged”), but at least he evaded, through cerebral hemorrhage, the death through “slow dissolution” that he feared most. His funeral was a Cecil B. De Mille production. Forty Samoan tribal chiefs, working through the night, with knives and axes cut a path up the steep incline of Mount Vaea, at whose summit he wished to be buried. The following day his body in its coffin was carried up the path on Samoan shoulders to be buried in a grave from which the Pacific Ocean could be viewed 1,300 feet below. Fanny Stevenson lived twenty years longer, and died in California, though her daughter buried her ashes in her husband’s grave atop Mount Vaea.
What was not buried on Mount Vaea was the legend—or, as it is more often called, the myth—of Robert Louis Stevenson, which began in earnest with Stevenson’s death. George Saintsbury called him “the most brilliant and interesting by far” of the English writers of the second half of the nineteenth century. “Vergil of prose,” chipped in Richard Le Gallienne. “He was the laureate of the joy of life,” wrote a contributor to the Atheneum. Arthur Conan Doyle set him alongside Poe and Hawthorne as one of the three great short-story writers. Arthur Quiller-Couch weighed in with: “Put away books and paper and pen. . . . Stevenson is dead, and now there is nobody left to write for.” Interest in the facts of Stevenson’s life was unending; not since Byron had biographical curiosity about a writer run quite so high. “Within thirty years every living human being whose cat had patronized the same veterinarian as Bogue [the Stevensons’ Skye terrier] had published dilute memories of Robert Louis Stevenson,” J. C. Furnas writes in his biography. “In short,” as Chesterton remarked in his 1927 study of Stevenson, the entire fuss was “overdone; it was too noisy and yet all on one note; above all, it was too incessant and too prolonged.”
And yet it could scarcely be resisted. The profusely talented young writer whose flame lights the sky, then gutters, and is snuffed out is a story with repeated and, apparently, endless appeal. It is the story of the god Adonis, young and beautiful and too soon dead. It is the story, in literature, of Keats and Byron and Rupert Brooke and, in America, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Agee. The story is generally made more piquant when the young writer leaves behind an unfinished masterpiece, as Fitzgerald left behind The Last Tycoon and Agee A Death in the Family. Stevenson left behind a novel, said to be a third complete, entitled Weir of Hermiston, and it is frustratingly fine. He also left behind a reputation, doubtless much overdone, as a saintly man. “He became the most exquisite English writer of his generation,” wrote Edmund Gosse, “yet those who lived close to him are apt to think less of this than of the fact that he was the most unselfish and lovable of human beings.” Gosse also wrote: “I ought to remember [Stevenson’s] faults, but I protest I can remember none.”
After such inflation, it did not take the deflators long to arrive. Sniffing around in Stevenson’s private life, literary journalists and scholars tried snouting out various truffles of scandal: love affairs, illegitimate children, bigamy (on Fanny’s part) were set upon the table. The critical reaction soon enough set in. George Moore, John Jay Chapman, Thomas Beer wrote that Stevenson was vastly overrated; E. F. Benson, C. E. M. Joad, Frank Swinnerton argued that he was no more than second-rate. For Swinnerton “the extravagant nonsense written and thought about Stevenson since his death” only impaired his literary reputation, making it all the plainer that “with all his writing he took the road of least resistance, the road of limited horizons . . . .” Swinnerton could find no more in Stevenson than “a fragment, a handful of tales and two boys books . . . and the charm of Stevenson’s personality.” As for charm, Swinnerton added: “Charm as an adjunct is very well; charm as an asset is of less significance.” When the deflators depart, they don’t leave much.
Not that Stevenson hadn’t doubts about his own literary quality—doubts that even the most patent evidence of worldly success could not shake. This evidence came in the form of a large and steady sale of his books, admiring letters from famous as well as younger writers that made plain his world fame, and plans on the part of his English and American publishers to bring out a collected, twenty-volume Edinburgh Edition of his writings—this last rather impressive for a man still in his early forties. Yet he continued to think of himself as merely the “author of a vast quantity of little books.” He told his stepson Lloyd that “what genius I had was for hard work,” and, in a letter to Sidney Colvin, remarked, “I cannot take myself seriously, as an artist; the limitations are so obvious.”
A final judgment about Robert Louis Stevenson’s quality is not so easily made.
Are they? A final judgment about Robert Louis Stevenson’s quality is not so easily made. Given all that he had to overcome to achieve what he did, there is simply no setting aside his life—as Henry James rightly noted after Stevenson’s death, it had been his fortune to become, like Samuel Johnson, a “Figure.” In Treasure Island and (to a lesser extent) Kidnapped, he produced two authentic children’s classics; and in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with its central insight into the duality of human personality, he placed a psychological metaphor permanently into the language in a story that continues to interest new generations of intelligent readers, while keeping academics happily whittling away at their workbenches.3 Stevenson was the literary equivalent of the decathlon athlete: competing in ten different difficult events yet holding world records in none. He wrote essays, novels, children’s verse, political journalism, boys’ books, poetry, plays, short stories, mysteries, and memoirs—almost all of it interesting, some of it touching greatness, yet very little wholly, shimmeringly splendid and powerful in the way one requires of the highest art.
Along with his extraordinary variousness, there is the problem of Stevenson’s style. Often, when complimented on a piece of work, he would attribute what success he had achieved in it to this or that “trick” of style. He worked very hard on his prose. It is not going too far to say that he was a brilliant stylist; it is going altogether too far, however, to say that he had his own style. He had instead styles. When Stevenson set out to tell a story, he searched for the best style in which to tell it. Sometimes, as in The Master of Ballantrae and in Treasure Island, he would switch styles by switching narrators in mid-book and then switch back again. Sometimes he would appropriate another writer’s style—as he did, without happy effect, George Meredith’s in his, Stevenson’s, novel Prince Otto. Even his essays, familiar, personal, and marvelously good though many of them are, do not have a distinctive and unified style; they, too, lack an original feel and could have been written by several other Victorian men of letters.
The music critic Ernest Newman used to maintain that all important composers, when studied carefully, leave fingerprints that reveal what he called the “physiology of their style,” which was itself the basis for their psychology. Anyone who reads large amounts of a particular writer comes in time to discover similar literary fingerprints—sentences or passages that one greets by recognizing that this is the author in his most essential self, pure Jane Austen or Tolstoy or Dickens or George Eliot or Conrad or James or Chekhov or Kafka; it could only have been written by him or her and by no one else. Stevenson’s books are filled with wondrous passages, rhythmic and ringing and resonant with penetrating observation and felicitous sentiment—and yet they are not characteristically his but beautiful writing merely. A writer who took great pains with prose style, he finally left no fingerprints of his own.
Henry James, who wrote about Stevenson with the sympathy of a good-hearted friend, remarked in an essay of 1887 that “each of his books is an independent effort—a window opened to a different view.” James noted Stevenson’s love of style, and, in a fine touch of merry malice, late in his essay wrote that Stevenson’s “ideal of the delightful work of fiction would be the adventures of Monte Cristo related by the author of Richard Feverel.” But if James found no characteristic style in Stevenson, he did find a characteristic note, which was the love of life and especially of life lived by the young. “The part of life that he cares for most is youth, and the direct expression of the love of youth is the beginning and end of his message . . . . In a word, he is an artist accomplished even to sophistication, whose constant theme is the unsophisticated.”
Toward the close of his essay, James remarks on the quarrel in Kidnapped between the novel’s two heroes, David Balfour and Alan Breck, a quarrel that comes about, it will be recalled, almost as much through fatigue as through anything else. James found an impressively deep psychological truth in this brief scene, finding in it “a real stroke of genius, [that has in it] the very logic and rhythm of life—a quarrel which we feel to be inevitable, though it is about nothing, or almost nothing, and which springs from exasperated nerves and the simple shock of temperaments.” It was in search of such artistic touches that James read, and he has taught others of us to be on the lookout for them. James ends his essay by saying that such a fine touch is Stevenson’s pledge of future artistry of the highest and finest caliber.
Yet Stevenson, finally, was less interested in such touches than in getting the swords out again, moving the action along, telling his story without too much fuss and bother. G. K. Chesterton, who (like James) wanted to have a high opinion of Stevenson and who wrote about him in the wake of Stevenson’s detractors, noted that Stevenson was altogether too economical in his storytelling, and felt that he would have profited by availing himself of more Victorian capaciousness: “It is exactly because Balfour or Ballantrae only do what they are meant to do, and do it so swiftly and well, that we have a vague feeling that we do not know them as we know more loitering, more rambling or more sprawling characters.” Stevenson’s problem, I understand Chesterton to be saying, is that he too carefully observed what he, Chesterton, called “the niceties of technical literature,” by which he meant that Stevenson was too much the professional writer and did not let himself go in the direction of Whitman, the Victorian novelists, Henry James, and all true artists—the direction, that is to say, of one’s own artistic instincts and idiosyncrasies.
Stevenson had the talent to write stories like “The Beach of Fafesá” and “The Suicide Club” that are almost as good as anything in Conrad and Kipling, and essays like “The Lantern-Bearers” and “Aes Triplex” that are almost as good as anything in Hazlitt and Lamb, but not quite the genius to be absolutely himself on the page. Had he possessed that genius, he might have surpassed them all. If literature, as Van Wyck Brooks once defined it, is a great man writing, the best place to discover the great man who was Robert Louis Stevenson is in his letters. There one can depend upon finding adversity met by unrelenting cheerfulness, misfortune by undiminished courage. (“Literally no man has more completely lived out life than I have done,” he wrote in the last year of his life to his friend Charles Baxter. “And still it’s good fun.”) It is a magnificent human performance, and puts one in mind of a sentence in Stevenson’s youthful essay on John Knox, in which he compares the difficulty of Knox’s early life to the serenity of his later life. “One would take the first forty years gladly,” Stevenson wrote at twenty-four, “if one could be sure of the last thirty.” The man who wrote that sentence had forty-four years in all, and within them, against formidable obstacles, achieved a very great deal. With another thirty years to live, what might he have done? That, alas, is another of those questions too sad to pursue.
- J.C. Furnas’s Voyage to Windward: The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson was published by William Sloane Associates in 1951.
- Pope-Hennessey’s Robert Louis Stevenson was published by Jonathan Cape.
- A recent sampling of this handiwork is to be found in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after One Hundred Years, edited by William Veeder and Gordon Hirsch; University of Chicago Press, 332 pages, $47.50.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 3, on page 22
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com