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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial By Alexander H. Japp Characters: 21134

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

When I left Braemar, I carried with me a considerable portion of the MS. of Treasure Island, with an outline of the rest of the story. It originally bore the odd title of The Sea-Cook, and, as I have told before, I showed it to Mr Henderson, the proprietor of the Young Folks' Paper, who came to an arrangement with Mr Stevenson, and the story duly appeared in its pages, as well as the two which succeeded it.

Stevenson himself in his article in The Idler for August 1894 (reprinted in My First Book volume and in a late volume of the Edinburgh Edition) has recalled some of the circumstances connected with this visit of mine to Braemar, as it bore on the destination of Treasure Island:

"And now, who should come dropping in, ex machina, but Dr Japp, like the disguised prince, who is to bring down the curtain upon peace and happiness in the last act; for he carried in his pocket, not a horn or a talisman, but a publisher, in fact, ready to unearth new writers for my old friend Mr Henderson's Young Folks. Even the ruthlessness of a united family recoiled before the extreme measure of inflicting on our guest the mutilated members of The Sea-Cook; at the same time, we would by no means stop our readings, and accordingly the tale was begun again at the beginning, and solemnly redelivered for the benefit of Dr Japp. From that moment on, I have thought highly of his critical faculty; for when he left us, he carried away the manuscript in his portmanteau.

"Treasure Island-it was Mr Henderson who deleted the first title, The Sea-Cook-appeared duly in Young Folks, where it figured in the ignoble midst without woodcuts, and attracted not the least attention. I did not care. I liked the tale myself, for much the same reason as my father liked the beginning: it was my kind of picturesque. I was not a little proud of John Silver also; and to this day rather admire that smooth and formidable adventurer. What was infinitely more exhilarating, I had passed a landmark. I had finished a tale and written The End upon my manuscript, as I had not done since The Pentland Rising, when I was a boy of sixteen, not yet at college. In truth, it was so by a lucky set of accidents: had not Dr Japp come on his visit, had not the tale flowed from me with singular ease, it must have been laid aside, like its predecessors, and found a circuitous and unlamented way to the fire. Purists may suggest it would have been better so. I am not of that mind. The tale seems to have given much pleasure, and it brought (or was the means of bringing) fire, food, and wine to a deserving family in which I took an interest. I need scarcely say I mean my own."

He himself gives a goodly list of the predecessors which had "found a circuitous and unlamented way to the fire":

"As soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the paper-makers. Reams upon reams must have gone to the making of Rathillet, The Pentland Rising, The King's Pardon (otherwise Park Whitehead), Edward Daven, A Country Dance, and A Vendetta in the West. Rathillet was attempted before fifteen, The Vendetta at twenty-nine, and the succession of defeats lasted unbroken till I was thirty-one."

Another thing I carried from Braemar with me which I greatly prize-this was a copy of Christianity confirmed by Jewish and Heathen Testimony, by Mr Stevenson's father, with his autograph signature and many of his own marginal notes. He had thought deeply on many subjects-theological, scientific, and social-and had recorded, I am afraid, but the smaller half of his thoughts and speculations. Several days in the mornings, before R. L. Stevenson was able to face the somewhat "snell" air of the hills, I had long walks with the old gentleman, when we also had long talks on many subjects-the liberalising of the Scottish Church, educational reform, etc.; and, on one occasion, a statement of his reason, because of the subscription, for never having become an elder. That he had in some small measure enjoyed my society, as I certainly had much enjoyed his, was borne out by a letter which I received from the son in reply to one I had written, saying that surely his father had never meant to present me at the last moment on my leaving by coach with that volume, with his name on it, and with pencilled notes here and there, but had merely given it me to read and return. In the circumstances I may perhaps be excused quoting from a letter dated Castleton of Braemar, September 1881, in illustration of what I have said-

"My dear Dr Japp,-My father has gone, but I think I may take it upon me to ask you to keep the book. Of all things you could do to endear yourself to me you have done the best, for, from your letter, you have taken a fancy to my father.

"I do not know how to thank you for your kind trouble in the matter of The Sea-Cook, but I am not unmindful. My health is still poorly, and I have added intercostal rheumatism-a new attraction, which sewed me up nearly double for two days, and still gives me 'a list to starboard'-let us be ever nautical. . . . I do not think with the start I have, there will be any difficulty in letting Mr Henderson go ahead whenever he likes. I will write my story up to its legitimate conclusion, and then we shall be in a position to judge whether a sequel would be desirable, and I myself would then know better about its practicability from the story-telling point of view.-Yours very sincerely, Robert Louis Stevenson."

A little later came the following:-

"The Cottage, Castleton of Braemar.

(No date.)

"My dear Dr Japp,-Herewith go nine chapters. I have been a little seedy; and the two last that I have written seem to me on a false venue; hence the smallness of the batch. I have now, I hope, in the three last sent, turned the corner, with no great amount of dulness.

"The map, with all its names, notes, soundings, and things, should make, I believe, an admirable advertisement for the story. Eh?

"I hope you got a telegram and letter I forwarded after you to Dinnat.-Believe me, yours very sincerely, Robert Louis Stevenson."

In the afternoon, if fine and dry, we went walking, and Stevenson would sometimes tell us stories of his short experience at the Scottish Bar, and of his first and only brief. I remember him contrasting that with his experiences as an engineer with Bob Bain, who, as manager, was then superintending the building of a breakwater. Of that time, too, he told the choicest stories, and especially of how, against all orders, he bribed Bob with five shillings to let him go down in the diver's dress. He gave us a splendid description-finer, I think, than even that in his Memories-of his sensations on the sea-bottom, which seems to have interested him as deeply, and suggested as many strange fancies, as anything which he ever came across on the surface. But the possibility of enterprises of this sort ended-Stevenson lost his interest in engineering.

Stevenson's father had, indeed, been much exercised in his day by theological questions and difficulties, and though he remained a staunch adherent of the Established Church of Scotland he knew well and practically what is meant by the term "accommodation," as it is used by theologians in reference to creeds and formulas; for he had over and over again, because of the strict character of the subscription required from elders of the Scottish Church declined, as I have said, to accept the office. In a very express sense you could see that he bore the marks of his past in many ways-a quick, sensitive, in some ways even a fantastic-minded man, yet with a strange solidity and common-sense amid it all, just as though ferns with the veritable fairies' seed were to grow out of a common stone wall. He looked like a man who had not been without sleepless nights-without troubles, sorrows, and perplexities, and even yet, had not wholly risen above some of them, or the results of them. His voice was "low and sweet"-with just a possibility in it of rising to a shrillish key. A sincere and faithful man, who had walked very demurely through life, though with a touch of sudden, bright, quiet humour and fancy, every now and then crossing the grey of his characteristic pensiveness or melancholy, and drawing effect from it. He was most frank and genial with me, and I greatly honour his memory. [2]

Thomas Stevenson, with a strange, sad smile, told me how much of a disappointment, in the first stage, at all events, Louis (he always called his son Louis at home), had caused him, by failing to follow up his profession at the Scottish Bar. How much he had looked forward, after the engineering was abandoned, to his devoting himself to the work of the Parliament House (as the Hall of the Chief Court is called in Scotland, from the building having been while yet there was a Scottish Parliament the place where it sat), though truly one cannot help feeling how much Stevenson's very air and figure would have been out of keeping among the bewigged, pushing, sharp-set, hard-featured, and even red-faced and red-nosed (some of them, at any rate) company, who daily walked the Parliament House, and talked and gossiped there, often of other things than law and equity. "Well, yes, perhaps it was all for the best," he said, with a sigh, on my having interjected the remark that R. L. Stevenson was wielding far more influence than he ever could have done as a Scottish counsel, even though he had risen rapidly in his profession, and become Lord-Advocate or even a judge.

There was, indeed, a very pathetic kind of harking back on the might-have-beens when I talked with him on this subject. He had reconciled himself in a way to the inevitable, and, like a sensible man, was now inclined to make the most and the best of it. The marriage, which, on the report of it, had been but a new disappointment to him, had, as if by magic, been transformed into a blessing in his mind and his wife's by personal contact with Fanny Van der Griff Stevenson, which no one who ever met her could wonder at; but, nevertheless, his dream of seeing his only son walking in the pathways of the Stevensons, and adorning a profession in Edinburgh, and so winning new and welcome laurels for the family and the name, was still present with him constantly, and by contrast, he was depressed with contemplation of the real state of the case, when, as I have said, I pointed out to him, as more than once I did, what an influence his son was wielding now, not only over those near to him, but throughout the world, compared with

what could have come to him as a lighthouse engineer, however successful, or it may be as a briefless advocate or barrister, walking, hardly in glory and in joy, the Hall of the Edinburgh Parliament House. And when I pictured the yet greater influence that was sure to come to him, he only shook his head with that smile which tells of hopes long-cherished and lost at last, and of resignation gained, as though at stern duty's call and an honest desire for the good of those near and dear to him. It moved me more than I can say, and always in the midst of it he adroitly, and somewhat abruptly, changed the subject. Such penalties do parents often pay for the honour of giving geniuses to the world. Here, again, it may be true, "the individual withers but the world is more and more."

The impression of a kind of tragic fatality was but added to when Stevenson would speak of his father in such terms of love and admiration as quite moved one, of his desire to please him, of his highest respect and gratitude to him, and pride in having such a father. It was most characteristic that when, in his travels in America, he met a gentleman who expressed plainly his keen disappointment on learning that he had but been introduced to the son and not to the father-to the as yet but budding author-and not to the builder of the great lighthouse beacons that constantly saved mariners from shipwreck round many stormy coasts, he should record the incident, as his readers will remember, with such a strange mixture of a pride and filial gratitude, and half humorous humiliation. Such is the penalty a son of genius often pays in heart-throbs for the inability to do aught else but follow his destiny-follow his star, even though as Dante says:-

"Se tu segui tua stella

Non puoi fallire a glorioso porto." [3]

What added a keen thrill as of quivering flesh exposed, was that Thomas Stevenson on one side was exactly the man to appreciate such attainments and work in another, and I often wondered how far the sense of Edinburgh propriety and worldly estimates did weigh with him here.

Mr Stevenson mentioned to me a peculiar fact which has since been noted by his son, that, notwithstanding the kind of work he had so successfully engaged in, he was no mathematician, and had to submit his calculations to another to be worked out in definite mathematical formul?. Thomas Stevenson gave one the impression of a remarkably sweet, great personality, grave, anxious, almost morbidly forecasting, yet full of childlike hope and ready affection, but, perhaps, so earnestly taken up with some points as to exaggerate their importance and be too self-conscious and easily offended in respect to them. But there was no affectation in him. He was simple-minded, sincere to the core; most kindly, homely, hospitable, much intent on brotherly offices. He had the Scottish perfervidum too-he could tolerate nothing mean or creeping; and his eye would lighten and glance in a striking manner when such was spoken of. I have since heard that his charities were very extensive, and dispensed in the most hidden and secret ways. He acted here on the Scripture direction, "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." He was much exercised when I saw him about some defects, as he held, in the methods of Scotch education (for he was a true lover of youth, and cared more for character being formed than for heads being merely crammed). Sagacious, with fine forecast, with a high ideal, and yet up to a certain point a most tolerant temper, he was a fine specimen of the Scottish gentleman. His son tells that, as he was engaged in work calculated to benefit the world and to save life, he would not for long take out a patent for his inventions, and thus lost immense sums. I can well believe that: it seems quite in keeping with my impressions of the man. There was nothing stolid or selfishly absorbed in him. He bore the marks of deep, true, honest feeling, true benevolence, and open-handed generosity, and despite the son's great pen-craft, and inventive power, would have forgiven my saying that sometimes I have had a doubt whether the father was not, after all, the greater man of the two, though certainly not, like the hero of In Memoriam, moulded "in colossal calm."

In theological matters, in which Thomas Stevenson had been much and deeply exercised, he held very strong views, leading decisively to ultra-Calvinism; but, as I myself could well sympathise with such views, if I did not hold them, knowing well the strange ways in which they had gone to form grand, if sometimes sternly forbidding characters, there were no cross-purposes as there might have been with some on that subject. And always I felt I had an original character and a most interesting one to study.

This is another very characteristic letter to me from Davos Platz:

"Chalet Buol, Davos, Grisons,

Switzerland. (No date.)

"My dear Dr Japp,-You must think me a forgetful rogue, as indeed I am; for I have but now told my publisher to send you a copy of the Familiar Studies. However, I own I have delayed this letter till I could send you the enclosed. Remembering the night at Braemar, when we visited the picture-gallery, I hoped they might amuse you.

"You see we do some publishing hereaway.

"With kind regards, believe me, always yours faithfully,

Robert Louis Stevenson."

"I shall hope to see you in town in May."

The enclosed was the second series of Moral Emblems, by R. L. Stevenson, printed by Samuel Osbourne. My answer to this letter brought the following:

"Chalet-Buol, Davos,

April 1st, 1882.

"My dear Dr Japp,-A good day to date this letter, which is, in fact, a confession of incapacity. During my wife's wretched illness-or I should say the worst of it, for she is not yet rightly well-I somewhat lost my head, and entirely lost a great quire of corrected proofs. This is one of the results: I hope there are none more serious. I was never so sick of any volume as I was of that; I was continually receiving fresh proofs with fresh infinitesimal difficulties. I was ill; I did really fear, for my wife was worse than ill. Well, 'tis out now; and though I have already observed several carelessnesses myself, and now here is another of your finding-of which indeed, I ought to be ashamed-it will only justify the sweeping humility of the preface.

"Symonds was actually dining with us when your letter came, and I communicated your remarks, which pleased him. He is a far better and more interesting thing than his books.

"The elephant was my wife's, so she is proportionately elate you should have picked it out for praise from a collection, let us add, so replete with the highest qualities of art.

"My wicked carcass, as John Knox calls it, holds together wonderfully. In addition to many other things, and a volume of travel, I find I have written since December ninety Cornhill pp. of Magazine work-essays and stories-40,000 words; and I am none the worse-I am better. I begin to hope I may, if not outlive this wolverine upon my shoulders, at least carry him bravely like Symonds or Alexander Pope. I begin to take a pride in that hope.

"I shall be much interested to see your criticisms: you might perhaps send them on to me. I believe you know that I am not dangerous-one folly I have not-I am not touchy under criticism.

"Sam and my wife both beg to be remembered, and Sam also sends as a present a work of his own.-Yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson."

As indicating the estimate of many of the good Edinburgh people of Stevenson and the Stevensons that still held sway up to so late a date as 1893, I will here extract two characteristic passages from the letters of the friend and correspondent of these days just referred to, and to whom I had sent a copy of the Atalanta Magazine, with an article of mine on Stevenson.

"If you can excuse the garrulity of age, I can tell you one or two things about Louis Stevenson, his father and even his grandfather, which you may work up some other day, as you have so deftly embedded in the Atalanta article that small remark on his acting. Your paper is pleasant and modest: most of R. L. Stevenson's admirers are inclined to lay it on far too thick. That he is a genius we all admit; but his genius, if fine, is limited. For example, he cannot paint (or at least he never has painted) a woman. No more could Fettes Douglas, skilful artist though he was in his own special line, and I shall tell you a remark of Russel's thereon some day. [4] There are women in his books, but there is none of the beauty and subtlety of womanhood in them.

"R. L. Stevenson I knew well as a lad and often met him and talked with him. He acted in private theatricals got up by the late Professor Fleeming Jenkin. But he had then, as always, a pretty guid conceit o' himsel'-which his clique have done nothing to check. His father and his grandfather (I have danced with his mother before her marriage) I knew better; but 'the family theologian,' as some of R. L. Stevenson's friends dabbed his father, was a very touchy theologian, and denounced any one who in the least differed from his extreme Calvinistic views. I came under his lash most unwittingly in this way myself. But for this twist, he was a good fellow-kind and hospitable-and a really able man in his profession. His father-in-law, R. L. Stevenson's maternal grandfather, was the Rev. Dr Balfour, minister of Colinton-one of the finest-looking old men I ever saw-tall, upright, and ruddy at eighty. But he was marvellously feeble as a preacher, and often said things that were deliciously, unconsciously, unintentionally laughable, if not witty. We were near Colinton for some years; and Mr Russell (of the Scotsman), who once attended the Parish Church with us, was greatly tickled by Balfour discoursing on the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, remarking that Mrs P---'s conduct was 'highly improper'!"

The estimate of R. L. Stevenson was not and could not be final in this case, for Weir of Hermiston and Catriona were yet unwritten, not to speak of others, but the passages reflect a certain side of Edinburgh opinion, illustrating the old Scripture doctrine that a prophet has honour everywhere but in his own country. And the passages themselves bear evidence that I violate no confidence then, for they were given to me to be worked into any after-effort I might make on Stevenson. My friend was a good and an acute critic who had done some acceptable literary work in his day.

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