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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial By Alexander H. Japp Characters: 16584

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

At first sight it would seem hard to trace any illustration of the doctrine of heredity in the case of this master of romance. George Eliot's dictum that we are, each one of us, but an omnibus carrying down the traits of our ancestors, does not appear at all to hold here. This fanciful realist, this n?ive-wistful humorist, this dreamy mystical casuist, crossed by the innocent bohemian, this serious and genial essayist, in whom the deep thought was hidden by the gracious play of wit and phantasy, came, on the father's side, of a stock of what the world regarded as a quiet, ingenious, demure, practical, home-keeping people. In his rich colour, originality, and graceful air, it is almost as though the bloom of japonica came on a rich old orchard apple-tree, all out of season too. Those who go hard on heredity would say, perhaps, that he was the result of some strange back-stroke. But, on closer examination, we need not go so far. His grandfather, Robert Stevenson, the great lighthouse-builder, the man who reared the iron-bound pillar on the destructive Bell Rock, and set life-saving lights there, was very intent on his professional work, yet he had his ideal, and romantic, and adventurous side. In the delightful sketch which his famous grandson gave of him, does he not tell of the joy Robert Stevenson had on the annual voyage in the Lighthouse Yacht-how it was looked forward to, yearned for, and how, when he had Walter Scott on board, his fund of story and reminiscence all through the tour never failed-how Scott drew upon it in The Pirate and the notes to The Pirate, and with what pride Robert Stevenson preserved the lines Scott wrote in the lighthouse album at the Bell Rock on that occasion:


"Far in the bosom of the deep

O'er these wild shelves my watch I keep,

A ruddy gem of changeful light

Bound on the dusky brow of night.

The seaman bids my lustre hail,

And scorns to strike his timorous sail."

And how in 1850 the old man, drawing nigh unto death, was with the utmost difficulty dissuaded from going the voyage once more, and was found furtively in his room packing his portmanteau in spite of the protests of all his family, and would have gone but for the utter weakness of death.

His father was also a splendid engineer; was full of invention and devoted to his profession, but he, too, was not without his romances, and even vagaries. He loved a story, was a fine teller of stories, used to sit at night and spin the most wondrous yarns, a man of much reserve, yet also of much power in discourse, with an aptness and felicity in the use of phrases-so much so, as his son tells, that on his deathbed, when his power of speech was passing from him, and he couldn't articulate the right word, he was silent rather than use the wrong one. I shall never forget how in these early morning walks at Braemar, finding me sympathetic, he unbent with the air of a man who had unexpectedly found something he had sought, and was fairly confidential.

On the mother's side our author came of ministers. His maternal grandfather, the Rev. Dr Balfour of Colinton, was a man of handsome presence, tall, venerable-looking, and not without a mingled authority and humour of his own-no very great preacher, I have heard, but would sometimes bring a smile to the faces of his hearers by very na?ve and original ways of putting things. R. L. Stevenson quaintly tells a story of how his grandfather when he had physic to take, and was indulged in a sweet afterwards, yet would not allow the child to have a sweet because he had not had the physic. A veritable Calvinist in daily action-from him, no doubt, our subject drew much of his interest in certain directions-John Knox, Scottish history, the '15 and the '45, and no doubt much that justifies the line "something of shorter-catechist," as applied by Henley to Stevenson among very contrasted traits indeed.

But strange truly are the interblendings of race, and the way in which traits of ancestors reappear, modifying and transforming each other. The gardener knows what can be done by grafts and buddings; but more wonderful far than anything there, are the mysterious blendings and outbursts of what is old and forgotten, along with what is wholly new and strange, and all going to produce often what we call sometimes eccentricity, and sometimes originality and genius.

Mr J. F. George, in Scottish Notes and Queries, wrote as follows on Stevenson's inheritances and indebtedness to certain of his ancestors:

"About 1650, James Balfour, one of the Principal Clerks of the Court of Session, married Bridget, daughter of Chalmers of Balbaithan, Keithhall, and that estate was for some time in the name of Balfour. His son, James Balfour of Balbaithan, Merchant and Magistrate of Edinburgh, paid poll-tax in 1696, but by 1699 the land had been sold. This was probably due to the fact that Balfour was one of the Governors of the Darien Company. His grandson, James Balfour of Pilrig (1705-1795), sometime Professor of Moral Philosophy in Edinburgh University, whose portrait is sketched in Catriona, also made a Garioch [Aberdeenshire district] marriage, his wife being Cecilia, fifth daughter of Sir John Elphinstone, second baronet of Logie (Elphinstone) and Sheriff of Aberdeen, by Mary, daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot, first baronet of Minto.

"Referring to the Minto descent, Stevenson claims to have 'shaken a spear in the Debatable Land and shouted the slogan of the Elliots.' He evidently knew little or nothing of his relations on the Elphinstone side. The Logie Elphinstones were a cadet branch of Glack, an estate acquired by Nicholas Elphinstone in 1499. William Elphinstone, a younger son of James of Glack, and Elizabeth Wood of Bonnyton, married Margaret Forbes, and was father of Sir James Elphinstone, Bart., of Logie, so created in 1701. . . .

"Stevenson would have been delighted to acknowledge his relationship, remote though it was, to 'the Wolf of Badenoch,' who burned Elgin Cathedral without the Earl of Kildare's excuse that he thought the Bishop was in it; and to the Wolf's son, the Victor of Harlaw [and] to his nephew 'John O'Coull,' Constable of France. . . . Also among Tusitala's kin may be noted, in addition to the later Gordons of Gight, the Tiger Earl of Crawford, familiarly known as 'Earl Beardie,' the 'Wicked Master' of the same line, who was fatally stabbed by a Dundee cobbler 'for taking a stoup of drink from him'; Lady Jean Lindsay, who ran away with 'a common jockey with the horn,' and latterly became a beggar; David Lindsay, the last Laird of Edzell [a lichtsome Lindsay fallen on evil days], who ended his days as hostler at a Kirkwall inn, and 'Mussel Mou'ed Charlie,' the Jacobite ballad-singer.

"Stevenson always believed that he had a strong spiritual affinity to Robert Fergusson. It is more than probable that there was a distant maternal affinity as well. Margaret Forbes, the mother of Sir James Elphinstone, the purchaser of Logie, has not been identified, but it is probable she was of the branch of the Tolquhon Forbeses who previously owned Logie. Fergusson's mother, Elizabeth Forbes, was the daughter of a Kildrummy tacksman, who by constant tradition is stated to have been of the house of Tolquhon. It would certainly be interesting if this suggested connection could be proved." [5]

"From his Highland ancestors," says the Quarterly Review, "Louis drew the strain of Celtic melancholy with all its perils and possibilities, and its kinship, to the mood of day-dreaming, which has flung over so many of his pages now the vivid light wherein figures imagined grew as real as flesh and blood, and yet, again, the ghostly, strange, lonesome, and stinging mist under whose spell we see the world bewitched, and every object quickens with a throb of infectious terror."

Here, as in many other cases, we see how the traits of ancestry reappear and transform other strains, strangely the more remote often being the strongest and most persistent and wonderful.

"It is through his father, strange as it may seem," says Mr Baildon, "that Stevenson gets the Celtic elements so marked in his person, character, and genius; for his father's pedigree runs back to the Highland clan Macgregor, t

he kin of Rob Roy. Stevenson thus drew in Celtic strains from both sides-from the Balfours and the Stevensons alike-and in his strange, dreamy, beautiful, and often far-removed fancies we have the finest and most effective witness of it."

Mr William Archer, in his own characteristic way, has brought the inheritances from the two sides of the house into more direct contact and contrast in an article he wrote in The Daily Chronicle on the appearance of the Letters to Family and Friends.

"These letters show," he says, "that Stevenson's was not one of those sunflower temperaments which turn by instinct, not effort, towards the light, and are, as Mr Francis Thompson puts it, 'heartless and happy, lackeying their god.' The strains of his heredity were very curiously, but very clearly, mingled. It may surprise some readers to find him speaking of 'the family evil, despondency,' but he spoke with knowledge. He inherited from his father not only a stern Scottish intentness on the moral aspect of life ('I would rise from the dead to preach'), but a marked disposition to melancholy and hypochondria. From his mother, on the other hand, he derived, along with his physical frailty, a resolute and cheery stoicism. These two elements in his nature fought many a hard fight, and the besieging forces from without-ill-health, poverty, and at one time family dissensions-were by no means without allies in the inner citadel of his soul. His spirit was courageous in the truest sense of the word: by effort and conviction, not by temperamental insensibility to fear. It is clear that there was a period in his life (and that before the worst of his bodily ills came upon him) when he was often within measurable distance of Carlylean gloom. He was twenty-four when he wrote thus, from Swanston, to Mrs Sitwell:

"'It is warmer a bit; but my body is most decrepit, and I can just manage to be cheery and tread down hypochondria under foot by work. I lead such a funny life, utterly without interest or pleasure outside of my work: nothing, indeed, but work all day long, except a short walk alone on the cold hills, and meals, and a couple of pipes with my father in the evening. It is surprising how it suits me, and how happy I keep.'

"This is the serenity which arises, not from the absence of fuliginous elements in the character, but from a potent smoke-consuming faculty, and an inflexible will to use it. Nine years later he thus admonishes his backsliding parent:

"'My dear Mother,-I give my father up. I give him a parable: that the Waverley novels are better reading for every day than the tragic Life. And he takes it back-side foremost, and shakes his head, and is gloomier than ever. Tell him that I give him up. I don't want no such a parent. This is not the man for my money. I do not call that by the name of religion which fills a man with bile. I write him a whole letter, bidding him beware of extremes, and telling him that his gloom is gallows-worthy; and I get back an answer-. Perish the thought of it.

"'Here am I on the threshold of another year, when, according to all human foresight, I should long ago have been resolved into my elements: here am I, who you were persuaded was born to disgrace you-and, I will do you the justice to add, on no such insufficient grounds-no very burning discredit when all is done; here am I married, and the marriage recognised to be a blessing of the first order. A1 at Lloyd's. There is he, at his not first youth, able to take more exercise than I at thirty-three, and gaining a stone's weight, a thing of which I am incapable. There are you; has the man no gratitude? . . .

"'Even the Shorter Catechism, not the merriest epitome of religion, and a work exactly as pious although not quite so true as the multiplication table-even that dry-as-dust epitome begins with a heroic note. What is man's chief end? Let him study that; and ask himself if to refuse to enjoy God's kindest gifts is in the spirit indicated.'

"As may be judged from this half-playful, half-serious remonstrance, Stevenson's relation to his parents was eminently human and beautiful. The family dissensions above alluded to belonged only to a short but painful period, when the father could not reconcile himself to the discovery that the son had ceased to accept the formulas of Scottish Calvinism. In the eyes of the older man such heterodoxy was for the moment indistinguishable from atheism; but he soon arrived at a better understanding of his son's position. Nothing appears more unmistakably in these letters than the ingrained theism of Stevenson's way of thought. The poet, the romancer within him, revolted from the conception of formless force. A personal deity was a necessary character in the drama, as he conceived it. And his morality, though (or inasmuch as) it dwelt more on positive kindness than on negative lawlessness, was, as he often insisted, very much akin to the morality of the New Testament."

Anyway it is clear that much in the interminglings of blood we can trace, may go to account for not a little in Stevenson. His peculiar interest in the enormities of old-time feuds, the excesses, the jealousies, the queer psychological puzzles, the desire to work on the outlying and morbid, and even the unallowed and unhallowed, for purposes of romance-the delight in dealing with revelations of primitive feeling and the out-bursts of the mere natural man always strangely checked and diverted by the uprise of other tendencies to the dreamy, impalpable, vague, weird and horrible. There was the undoubted Celtic element in him underlying what seemed foreign to it, the disregard of conventionality in one phase, and the falling under it in another-the reaction and the retreat from what had attracted and interested him, and then the return upon it, as with added zest because of the retreat. The confessed Hedonist, enjoying life and boasting of it just a little, and yet the Puritan in him, as it were, all the time eyeing himself as from some loophole of retreat, and then commenting on his own behaviour as a Hedonist and Bohemian. This clearly was not what most struck Beerbohm Tree, during the time he was in close contact with Stevenson, while arranging the production of Beau Austin at the Haymarket Theatre, for he sees, or confesses to seeing, only one side, and that the most assertive, and in a sense, unreal one:

"Stevenson," says Mr Tree, "always seemed to me an epicure in life. He was always intent on extracting the last drop of honey from every flower that came in his way. He was absorbed in the business of the moment, however trivial. As a companion, he was delightfully witty; as a personality, as much a creature of romance as his own creations."

This is simple, and it looks sincere; but it does not touch 'tother side, or hint at, not to say, solve the problem of Stevenson's personality. Had he been the mere Hedonist he could never have done the work he did. Mr Beerbohm Tree certainly did not there see far or all round.

Miss Simpson says:

"Mr Henley recalls him to Edinburgh folk as he was and as the true Stevenson would have wished to be known-a queer, inexplicable creature, his Celtic blood showing like a vein of unknown metal in the stolid, steady rock of his sure-founded Stevensonian pedigree. His cousin and model, 'Bob' Stevenson, the art critic, showed that this foreign element came from the men who lit our guiding lights for seamen, not from the gentle-blooded Balfours.

"Mr Henley is right in saying that the gifted boy had not much humour. When the joke was against himself he was very thin-skinned and had a want of balance. This made him feel his honest father's sensible remarks like the sting of a whip."

Miss Simpson then proceeds to say:

"The R. L. Stevenson of old Edinburgh days was a conceited, egotistical youth, but a true and honest one: a youth full of fire and sentiment, protesting he was misunderstood, though he was not. Posing as 'Velvet Coat' among the slums, he did no good to himself. He had not the Dickens aptitude for depicting the ways of life of his adopted friends. When with refined judgment he wanted a figure for a novel, he went back to the Bar he scorned in his callow days and then drew in Weir of Hermiston."

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