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William Lyon Phelps Essay on Robert Louis Stevenson

by William Lyon Phelps

Stevenson spent his life, like an only and lonely child, in playing games with himself. Most boys who read romances have the dramatic instinct; they must forthwith incarnate the memories of their reading, and anything will do for a mise en scene. The mudpuddle becomes an ocean, where the pirate ship is launched; a scrubby apple tree has infinite possibilities. Armed with a wooden sword, the child sallies forth in the rain, and fiercely cuts down the mulleins; could we only see him without being seen, we should observe the wild light in his eye, and the frown of battle on his brow. He walks cautiously in the underbrush, to surprise the ambushed foe; and it is with rapture that he goes to sleep in a tent, pitched six yards from the kitchen door. This spirit of adventure remains in some men's hearts, even after the hair has grown grey or gone; they hear the call of the wild, lock up the desk, go into the woods, and there rejoice in a process of decivilisation.

In order to enjoy life, one must love it; and nobody ever loved life more than Stevenson. "It is[Pg 173] better to be a fool than to be dead," said he. To him the world was always picturesque, whether he saw it through the mists of Edinburgh, or amid the snows of Davos, or in the tropical heat of Samoa. "Where is Samoa?" asked a friend. "Go out of the Golden Gate," replied Stevenson, "and take the first turn to the left." This counsel makes up in joyous imagination what it lacks in latitude and longitude. Everything in Stevenson's bodily and mental life was an adventure, to be begun in a spirit of reckless enthusiasm. In his travels with a donkey, he was a beloved vagabond, whose wayside acquaintances are to be envied; in compulsory expeditions in search of health, he set out with as much zest as though he were after buried treasure; everything was an adventure, and his marriage was the greatest adventure of all. He read books with the same enthusiasm with which he tramped, or paddled in a canoe; every new novel he opened with the spirit of an explorer, for who knows in its pages what people one may meet? William Archer sent him a copy of Bernard Shaw's story, Cashel Byron's Profession, and Stevenson wrote in reply from Saranac Lake, "Over Bashville the footman I howled with derision and delight; I dote on Bashville—I could read of him for ever; de Bashville je suis le fervent—there is only one Bashville, and I am his devoted slave.... It is all mad,[Pg 174] mad and deliriously delightful.... It is Horrid Fun.... (I say, Archer, my God, what women!)" What would authors give for a reading public like that?

Prone in bed, when his attention was not diverted by a hemorrhage, he lived amid the pageantry of gorgeous day-dreams, presented on the stage of his brain. We know that Ben Jonson saw the Romans and Carthaginians fighting, marching and countermarching, across his great toe. Stevenson would have understood this perfectly. No pain or sickness ever daunted him, or held him captive; his mind was always in some picturesque or immensely interesting place. In composition, he seemed to have a double consciousness; he moulded his sentences with the fastidious care of a great artist; at the same moment he felt the growing sea-breeze, and knew that his hero would very soon have to shorten sail.

It is pleasant to remember that a man who had such genius for friendship, who so generously admired the literary work of his contemporaries, and who loved the whole world of saints and sinners, received such widespread homage in return. His career as a man of letters extended over twenty years; and during the last eight his name was actually a household word. To be sure, he published much work of a high order without getting even a hearing; his Inland VoyageTravels with a Donkey,[Pg 175] Virginibus PuerisqueFamiliar Studies,New Arabian Nights, and even Treasure Island, attracted very little attention; he remained in obscurity. But when, in the year 1886, appeared the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he found himself famous; the thrilling excitement of the story, combined with its powerful moral appeal, simply conquered the world. And although his own plays were failures, he had the satisfaction of knowing that thousands of people in theatres were spellbound by the modern Morality made out of his novel. Few writers have become "classics" in so short a time; during the years that remained to him, he was compelled to prepare a superb edition of his Complete Works. Without ever appealing to the animal nature of humanity, he had the keen satisfaction of reigning in the hearts of uncultivated readers, and of receiving the almost universal tribute of refined critics. There are authors who are the delight of a bookish few, and there are authors with an enormous public and no reputation. There are poets like Donne, and prose-masters like Browne, precious to the men and women of patrician taste; and there are some familiar examples of the other kind, needless to call by name. Stevenson pleases us all; for he always has a good story, and the subtlety of his art gives to his narrative imperishable beauty.

Stevenson's appearance as a novelist was in itself[Pg 176] an adventure. He seemed at first as obsolete as a soldier of fortune. He was as unexpected and as picturesque among contemporary writers of fiction as an Elizabethan knight in a modern drawing-room. When he placed Treasure Island on the literary map, Realism was at its height in some localities, and at its depth in others. But it was everywhere the standard form, in which young writers strove to embody their visions. Zola had just made an address in which he remarked that Walter Scott was dead, and that the fashion of his style had passed away. The experimental novel would go hand in hand with the advance of scientific thought. And there were many who believed that Zola spoke the truth. This state of affairs was a tremendous challenge to Stevenson, and he accepted it in the spirit of chivalry. The very name of his first novel, Treasure Island, was like the flying of a flag. Those critics who saw it must have smiled, and shaken their wise heads, for had not the time for such follies gone by? Stevenson was fully aware of what he was doing; in the midst of contemporary fiction he felt as impatient and as ill at ease as a boy, imprisoned in a circle of elders, whose conversation does not in the least interest him. His sentiments are clearly shown in a letter to the late Mr. Henley, written shortly after the appearance of Treasure Island, and which is important enough to[Pg 177] quote somewhat fully:—

"I do desire a book of adventure—a romance—and no man will get or write me one. Dumas I have read and reread too often; Scott, too, and I am short. I want to hear swords clash. I want a book to begin in a good way; a book, I guess, like Treasure Island, alas! which I have never read, and cannot though I live to ninety. I would God that someone else had written it! By all that I can learn, it is the very book for my complaint. I like the way I hear it opens; and they tell me John Silver is good fun. And to me it is, and must ever be, a dream unrealised, a book unwritten. O my sighings after romance, or even Skeltery, and O! the weary age which will produce me neither!

Chapter I

The night was damp and cloudy, the ways foul. The single horseman, cloaked and booted, who pursued his way across Willesden Common, had not met a traveller, when the sound of wheels—

Chapter I

'Yes, sir,' said the old pilot, 'she must have dropped into the bay a little afore dawn. A queer craft she looks.'

'She shows no colours,' returned the young gentleman, musingly.

'They're a-lowering of a quarter-boat, Mr. Mark,' resumed the old salt. 'We shall soon know more of her.'

'Ay,' replied the young gentleman called Mark, 'and here, Mr. Seadrift, comes your sweet daughter Nancy tripping down the cliff.'

'God bless her kind heart, sir,' ejaculated old Seadrift.

Chapter I[Pg 178]

The notary, Jean Rossignol, had been summoned to the top of a great house in the Isle St. Louis to make a will; and now, his duties finished, wrapped in a warm roquelaure and with a lantern swinging from one hand, he issued from the mansion on his homeward way. Little did he think what strange adventures were to befall him!—

That is how stories should begin. And I am offered Husks instead.

What should be: What is:
The Filibuster's Cache. Aunt Anne's Tea Cosy.
Jerry Abershaw. Mrs. Brierly's Niece.
Blood Money: A Tale. Society: A Novel."

The time was out of joint; but Stevenson was born to set it right. Not seven years after the posting of this letter, the recent Romantic Revival had begun. In the year of his death, 1894, it was in full swing; everybody was reading not only Stevenson, but The Prisoner of ZendaA Gentleman of FranceUnder the Red Robe, etc. Whatever we may think of the literary quality of some of these then popular stories, there is no doubt that the change was in many ways beneficial, and that the influence of Stevenson was more responsible for it than that of any other one man. This was everywhere recognised: in the Athenæum for 22 December, 1894, a critic remarked, "The Romantic Revival in the English novel of to-day had in him its leader.... But for him they might have been Howells and James young men." As a germinal writer, Stevenson[Pg 179] will always occupy an important place in the history of English prose fiction. And seldom has a man been more conscious of his mission.

Stevenson's high standing as an English classic depends very largely on the excellence of his literary style, although Scott and Cooper won immortality without it. (One wonders if they could to-day.) When some fifteen years ago a few critics had the temerity to suggest that he was equal, if not superior, to these worthies, it sounded like blasphemy; but such an opinion is not uncommon now, and may be reasonably defended. Stevenson lacked in some degree the virility and the astonishing fertility of invention possessed by Scott; but he exhibited a technical skill undreamed of by his great predecessor. From the prefatory verses to Treasure Island, we know that he admired Cooper; and he loved Sir Walter, without being in the least blind to his faults. "It is undeniable that the love of the slap-dash and the shoddy grew upon Scott with success." He "had not only splendid romantic, but splendid tragic, gifts. How comes it, then, that he could so often fob us off with languid, inarticulate twaddle?... He was a great day-dreamer, a seer of fit and beautiful and humorous visions, but hardly a great artist; hardly, in the manful sense, an artist at all." Stevenson seems to have felt that Scott's deficiencies in style were not merely artistic, but moral; he[Pg 180] lacked the patience and the particular kind of industry required. Scott loved to tell a good story, but he loved the story better than he did the telling of it; Stevenson, on the other hand, was fully as much absorbed by the manner of narration as by the narration itself. Stevenson was keenly alive to the fact that writers of romances did not seem to feel the necessity of style; whereas those who wrote novels wherein nothing happened, felt that a good style atoned for both the lack of incident and the lack of ideas. Stevenson's articles of literary faith apparently included the dogma that a mysterious, blood-curdling romance had fully as much dignity as a minute examination of the dreary, commonplace life of the submerged; and that the former made just as high a demand on the endowment and industry of a master-artist. If he had had not an idea in his head, he could not have written with more elegance.

There is, of course, some truth in the charge that Stevenson was not only a master of style, but a stylist. He is indeed something of a macaroni in words; occasionally he struts a bit, and he loves to show his brilliant plumes. He performed dexterous tricks with language, like a musician with a difficult instrument. He liked style for its own sake, and was not averse to exhibiting his technique. In a slight degree, his attitude and his influence in[Pg 181] mere composition are somewhat similar to those of John Lyly three hundred years before. Lyly delighted his readers with unexpected quips and quiddities, with a fantastic display of rhetoric; he showed, as no one had before him, the possible flexibility of English prose. There is more than a touch of Euphuism in Stevenson; he was never insincere, but he was consciously fine. Many have swallowed without salt his statement that he learned to write by imitation; that by the "sedulous ape" method, employed with unwearying study of great models, he himself became a successful author. Men of genius are never to be trusted when they discuss the origin and development of their powers; it is no more to be believed that Stevenson learned to be a great writer by imitating Browne, than that The Raven really reached its perfection in the manner so minutely described by Poe. The faithful practice of composition will doubtless help any ambitious young man or woman. But Stevensons are not made in that fashion. If they were, anyone with plenty of time and patience could become a great author. This "ape" remark by Stevenson has had one interesting effect; if he imitated others, he has been strenuously imitated himself. Probably no recent English writer has been more constantly employed for rhetorical purposes, and there is none whose influence on style is more evident in the work[Pg 182] of contemporary aspirants in fiction.

The stories of Stevenson exhibit a double union, as admirable as it is rare. They exhibit the union of splendid material with the most delicate skill in language; and they exhibit the union of thrilling events with a remarkable power of psychological analysis. Every thoughtful reader has noticed these combinations; but we sometimes forget that Silver, Alan, Henry, and the Master are just as fine examples of character-portrayal as can be found in the works of Henry James. It is from this point of view that Stevenson is so vastly superior to Fenimore Cooper; just as in literary style he so far surpasses Scott. Treasure Island is much better than The Red Rover or The Pirate; its author actually beat Scott and Cooper at their own game. With the exception of Henry Esmond, Stevenson may perhaps be said to have written the best romances in the English language; the undoubted inferiority of any of his books to that masterpiece would make an interesting subject for reflexion.

The one thing in which Scott really excelled Stevenson was in the depiction of women. The latter has given us no Diana Vernon or Jeannie Deans. For the most part, Stevenson's romances are Paradise before the creation of Eve. The snake is there, but not the woman. This extraordinary absence of sex-interest is a notable feature, and many[Pg 183] have been the reasons assigned for it. If he had not tried at all, we should be safe in saying that, like a small boy, he felt that girls were in the way, and he did not want them mussing up his games. There is perhaps some truth in this; for the presence of a girl might have ruined Treasure Island, as it ruined the Sea Wolf. Her fuss and feathers bring in all sorts of bothersome problems to distract a novelist, bent on having a good time with pirates, murders, and hidden treasure. Unfortunately for the complete satisfaction of this explanation, Stevenson wrote Prince Otto, and tried to draw a real woman. The result did not add anything to his fame, and, indeed, the whole book missed fire. He was unquestionably more successful in David Balfour, but, when all is said, the presence of women in a few of Stevenson's romances is not so impressive as their absence in most. It is only in that unfinished work, Weir of Hermiston, which gave every promise of being one of the greatest novels in English literature, that he seemed to have reached full maturity of power in dealing with the master passion. The best reason for Stevenson's reserve on matters of sex was probably his delicacy; he did not wish to represent this particular animal impulse with the same vivid reality he pictured avarice, ambition, courage, cowardice, and pride; and thus hampered by conscience, he thought it best in the main to omit it[Pg 184] altogether. At least, this is the way he felt about it, as we may learn from the Vailima Letters:—

"This is a poison bad world for the romancer, this Anglo-Saxon world; I usually get out of it by not having any women in it at all." (February, 1892.)

"I am afraid my touch is a little broad in a love story; I can't mean one thing and write another. As for women, I am no more in any fear of them; I can do a sort all right; age makes me less afraid of a petticoat, but I am a little in fear of grossness. However, this David Balfour's love affair, that's all right—might be read out to a mothers' meeting—or a daughters' meeting. The difficulty in a love yarn, which dwells at all on love, is the dwelling on one string; it is manifold, I grant, but the root fact is there unchanged, and the sentiment being very intense, and already very much handled in letters, positively calls for a little pawing and gracing. With a writer of my prosaic literalness and pertinency of point of view, this all shoves toward grossness—positively even towards the far more damnable closeness. This has kept me off the sentiment hitherto, and now I am to try: Lord! Of course Meredith can do it, and so could Shakespeare; but with all my romance, I am a realist and a prosaist, and a most fanatical lover of plain physical sensations plainly and expressly rendered; hence my perils. To do love in the same spirit as I did (for instance) D. Balfour's fatigue in the heather; my dear sir, there were grossness—ready made! And hence, how to sugar?" (May, 1892.)

On the whole, I am inclined to think, that with the omission of the fragment, Weir of Hermiston, Stevenson's best novel is his first—Treasure Island. He wrote this with peculiar zest; first of all, in spite[Pg 185] of the playful dedication, to please himself; second, to see if the public appetite for Romance could once more be stimulated. He never did anything later quite so off-hand, quite so spontaneous. His maturer books, brilliant as they are, lack the peculiar brightness of Treasure Island. It has more unity than The Master of Ballantræ; and it has a greater group of characters than Kidnapped.

Stevenson told this story in the first person, but, by a clever device, he avoided the chief difficulty of that method of narration. The speaker is not one of the principal characters in the story, though he shares in the most thrilling adventures. We thus have all the advantages of direct discourse, all the gain in reality—without a hint as to what will be the fate of the leading actors. Stevenson said, in one of the Vailima Letters, that first-person tales were more in accord with his temperament. The purely objective character of this novel is noteworthy, and entirely proper, coming from a perfectly normal boy. The Essays show that Stevenson could be sufficiently introspective if he chose, and Dr. Jekyll is really an introspective novel, differing in every way from Treasure Island. But here we have romantic adventures seen through the fresh eyes of boyhood, producing their unconscious reflex action on the soul of the narrator, who daily grows in courage and self-reliance by grappling with danger. In Henry[Pg 186] James's fine and penetrating essay on Stevenson, he says of this book, "What we see in it is not only the ideal fable, but the young reader himself and his state of mind: we seem to read it over his shoulder, with an arm around his neck." This particular remark has been much praised; but it seems in a way to half-apologise for a man's interest in the story, and to explain it like an affectionate uncle's sympathetic interest in a child's game, who mainly enjoys the child's enthusiasm. Now I venture to say that no one can any more outgrow Treasure Island than he can outgrow Robinson Crusoe. The events in the story delight children; but it is a book that in mature years can be read and reread with ever increasing satisfaction and profit. No one needs to regret or to explain his interest in this novel; it is nothing to be sorry for, nor does it indicate a low order of literary taste. Many serious persons have felt somewhat alarmed by their pleasure in reading Treasure Island, and have hesitated to assign it a high place in fiction. Some have said that, after all, it is only a pirate story, differing from the Sleuths and Harkaways merely in being better written. But this is exactly the point, and a very important point, in criticism. In art, the subject is of comparatively little importance, whereas the treatment is the absolute distinguishing feature. To insist that there is little difference between Treasure[Pg 187] Island and any cheap tale of blood-and-thunder, is equivalent to saying that there is little difference between the Sistine Madonna and a cottage chromo of the Virgin.

Pew is a fearsome personage, and a notable example of the triumph of mind over the most serious of all physical disabilities. Theoretically, it seems strange that able-bodied individuals should be afraid of a man who is stone blind. But the appearance of Pew is enough to make anybody take to his heels. He is the very essence of authority and leadership. The tap-tapping of his stick in the moonlight makes one's blood run cold. We are apt to think of blind people as gentle, sweet, pure, and holy; made submissive and tender by misfortune, dependent on the kindness of others. Old Pew has lost his eyes, but not his nerve. To see so black-hearted and unscrupulous a villain, his sight taken away as it were by the hand of God, and yet intent only on desperate wickedness, upsets the moral order; he becomes an uncanny monstrosity; he takes on the hue of a supernatural fiend. John Silver has lost a leg, but he circumvents others by the speed of his mind; amazingly quick in perception, a most astute politician, arrested from no treachery or murder by any moral principle or touch of pity, he has the dark splendour of unflinching depravity. He is no Laodicean. He never lets I dare not wait upon[Pg 188] I would. His course seems fickle and changeable, but he is really steering steadily by the compass of self-interest. He can be witty, affectionate, sympathetic, friendly, submissive, flattering, and also a devilish beast. He is the very chameleon of crime. Stevenson simply had not the heart to kill so consummate an artist in villainy. It was no mean achievement to create two heroes so sinister as Pew and Silver, while depriving one of his sight and the other of a leg. One wearies of the common run of romances, where the chief character is a man of colossal size and beautifully proportioned, so that his victories over various rascals are really only athletic records. In Treasure Island, the emphasis is laid in the right place, whence leadership comes; everybody is afraid of Long John, and nobody minds Ben Gunn, dead or alive.[14]

There are scenes in this story, presented with such dramatic power, and with such astonishing felicity of diction, that, once read, they can never pass from the reader's mind. The expression in Silver's face, as he talks with Tom in the marsh, first ingratiatingly friendly, then suspicious, then as implacable as malignant fate. The hurling of[Pg 189] the crutch; the two terrific stabs of the knife. "I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows." The boy's struggle on the schooner with Israel Hands; the awful moment in the little boat, while Flint's gunner is training the "long nine" on her, and the passengers can do nothing but await the result of the enemy's skill; the death of the faithful old servant, Redruth, who said he thought somebody might read a prayer.

Much has been written in both prose and verse of the fascination of Stevenson's personality. He was so different in different moods that no two of his friends have ever agreed as to what manner of man he really was. As he chose to express his genius mainly in objective romances, future generations will find in the majority of his works no hint as to the character of the author. From this point of view, compare for a moment The Master of Ballantræ with Joseph Vance! But fortunately, Stevenson elected to write personal essays; and still more fortunately, hundreds of his most intimate letters are preserved in type. Some think that these Letters form his greatest literary work, and that they will outlast his novels, plays, poems, and essays. For they will have a profound interest long after the last person who saw Stevenson on earth has passed away. They are the revelation of a man even more interesting than any of the wonderful characters he[Pg 190]created; they show that men like Philip Sidney were as possible in the nineteenth century as in the brilliant age of Elizabeth. The life of Stevenson has added immensely to our happiness and enjoyment of the world, and no literary figure in recent times had more radiance and wholesome charm. His optimism was based on a chronic experience of physical pain and weakness; to him it was a good world, and he made it distinctly better by his presence. He was a combination of the Bohemian and the Covenanter; he had all the graces of one, and the bed-rock moral earnestness of the other. "The world must return some day to the word 'duty,'" said he, "and be done with the word 'reward.'" He was the incarnation of the happy union of virtue and vivacity.

Book: Shattered Sighs