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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record, an Estimate, and a Memorial By Alexander H. Japp Characters: 12647

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

In reality, Stevenson is always directly or indirectly preaching a sermon-enforcing a moral-as though he could not help it. "He would rise from the dead to preach a sermon." He wrote some first-rate fables, and might indeed have figured to effect as a moralist-fabulist, as truly he was from beginning to end. There was a bit of Bunyan in him as well as of ?sop and Rousseau and Thoreau-the mixture that found coherency in his most peculiarly patient and forbearing temper is what gives at once the quaintness, the freedom, and yet the odd didactic something that is never wanting. I remember a fable about the Devil that might well be brought in to illustrate this here-careful readers who neglect nothing that Stevenson wrote will remember it also and perhaps bear me out here.

But for the sake of the young folks who may yet have some leeway to make up, I shall indulge myself a little by quoting it: and, since I am on that tack, follow it by another which presents Stevenson in his favourite guise of quizzing his own characters, if not for his own advantage certainly for ours, if we would in the least understand the fine moralist-casuistical qualities of his mind and fancy:


Once upon a time the devil stayed at an inn, where no one knew him, for they were people whose education had been neglected. He was bent on mischief, and for a time kept everybody by the ears. But at last the innkeeper set a watch upon the devil and took him in the act.

The innkeeper got a rope's end.

"Now I am going to thrash you," said the inn-keeper.

"You have no right to be angry with me," said the devil. "I am only the devil, and it is my nature to do wrong."

"Is that so?" asked the innkeeper.

"Fact, I assure you," said the devil.

"You really cannot help doing ill?" asked the innkeeper.

"Not in the smallest," said the devil, "it would be useless cruelty to thrash a thing like me."

"It would indeed," said the innkeeper.

And he made a noose and hanged the devil.

"There!" said the innkeeper.

The deeper Stevenson goes, the more happily is he inspired. We could scarcely cite anything more Stevensonian, alike in its humour and its philosophy, than the dialogue between Captain Smollett and Long John Silver, entitled The Persons of the Tale. After chapter xxxii. of Treasure Island, these two puppets "strolled out to have a pipe before business should begin again, and met in an open space not far from the story." After a few preliminaries:

"You're a damned rogue, my man," said the Captain.

"Come, come, Cap'n, be just," returned the other. "There's no call to be angry with me in earnest. I'm on'y a character in a sea story. I don't really exist."

"Well, I don't really exist either," says the Captain, "which seems to meet that."

"I wouldn't set no limits to what a virtuous character might consider argument," responded Silver. "But I'm the villain of the tale, I am; and speaking as one seafaring man to another, what I want to know is, what's the odds?"

"Were you never taught your catechism?" said the Captain. "Don't you know there's such a thing as an Author?"

"Such a thing as a Author?" returned John, derisively. "And who better'n me? And the p'int is, if the Author made you, he made Long John, and he made Hands, and Pew, and George Merry-not that George is up to much, for he's little more'n a name; and he made Flint, what there is of him; and he made this here mutiny, you keep such a work about; and he had Tom Redruth shot; and-well, if that's a Author, give me Pew!"

"Don't you believe in a future state?" said Smollett. "Do you think there's nothing but the present sorty-paper?"

"I don't rightly know for that," said Silver, "and I don't see what it's got to do with it, anyway. What I know is this: if there is sich a thing as a Author, I'm his favourite chara'ter. He does me fathoms better'n he does you-fathoms, he does. And he likes doing me. He keeps me on deck mostly all the time, crutch and all; and he leaves you measling in the hold, where nobody can't see you, nor wants to, and you may lay to that! If there is a Author, by thunder, but he's on my side, and you may lay to it!"

"I see he's giving you a long rope," said the Captain. . . .

Stevenson's stories-one and all-are too closely the illustrations by characters of which his essays furnish the texts. You shall not read the one wholly apart from the other without losing something-without losing much of the quaint, often childish, and always insinuating personality of the writer. It is this if fully perceived which would justify one writer, Mr Zangwill, if I don't forget, in saying, as he did say, that Stevenson would hold his place by his essays and not by his novels. Hence there is a unity in all, but a unity found in a root which is ultimately inimical to what is strictly free dramatic creation-creation, broad, natural and unmoral in the highest sense just as nature is, as it is to us, for example, when we speak of Shakespeare, or even Scott, or of Cervantes or Fielding. If Mr Henley in his irruptive if not spiteful Pall Mall Magazine article had made this clear from the high critical ground, then some of his derogatory remarks would not have been quite so personal and offensive as they are.

Stevenson's bohemianism was always restrained and coloured by this. He is a casuistic moralist, if not a Shorter Catechist, as Mr Henley put it in his clever sonnet. He is constantly asking himself about moral laws and how they work themselves out in character, especially as these suggest and involve the casuistries of human nature. He is often a little like Nathaniel Hawthorne, but he hardly follows them far enough and rests on his own preconceptions and predilections, only he does not, like him, get into or remain long in the cobwebby corners-his love of the open air and exercise derived from generations of active lighthouse engineers, out at all times on sea or land, or from Scottish ministers who were fond of composing their sermons and reflecting on the backwardness of human nature as they walked in their gardens or along the hillsides even among mists and storms, did something to save him here, reinforcing natural cheerfulness and the warm desire to give pleasure. His excessive elaboration of style

, which grew upon him more and more, giving throughout often a sense of extreme artificiality and of the self-consciousness usually bred of it, is but another incidental proof of this. And let no reader think that I wish here to decry R. L. Stevenson. I only desire faithfully to try to understand him, and to indicate the class or group to which his genius and temperament really belong. He is from first to last the idealistic dreamy or mystical romancer, and not the true idealist or dealer direct with life or character for its own sake. The very beauty and sweetness of his spirit in one way militated against his dramatic success-he really did not believe in villains, and always made them better than they should have been, and that, too, on the very side where wickedness-their natural wickedness-is most available-on the stage. The dreamer of dreams and the Shorter Catechist, strangely united together, were here directly at odds with the creative power, and crossed and misdirected it, and the casuist came in and manoeuvred the limelight-all too like the old devil of the mediaeval drama, who was made only to be laughed at and taken lightly, a buffoon and a laughing-stock indeed. And while he could unveil villainy, as is the case pre-eminently in Huish in the Ebb-Tide, he shrank from inflicting the punishments for which untutored human nature looks, and thus he lost one great aid to crude dramatic effect. As to his poems, they are intimately personal in his happiest moments: he deals with separate moods and sentiments, and scarcely ever touches those of a type alien to his own. The defect of his child poems is distinctly that he is everywhere strictly recalling and reproducing his own quaint and wholly exceptional childhood; and children, ordinary, normal, healthy children, will not take to these poems (though grown-ups largely do so), as they would to, say, the Lilliput Levée of my old friend, W. B. Rands. Rands showed a great deal of true dramatic play there within his own very narrow limits, as, at all events, adults must conceive them.

Even in his greatest works, in The Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston, the special power in Stevenson really lies in subduing his characters at the most critical point for action, to make them prove or sustain his thesis; and in this way the rare effect that he might have secured dramatically is largely lost and make-believe substituted, as in the Treasure Search in the end of The Master of Ballantrae. The powerful dramatic effect he might have had in his dénouement is thus completely sacrificed. The essence of the drama for the stage is that the work is for this and this alone-dialogue and everything being only worked rightly when it bears on, aids, and finally secures this in happy completeness.

In a word, you always, in view of true dramatic effect, see Stevenson himself too clearly behind his characters. The "fine speeches" Mr Pinero referred to trace to the intrusion behind the glass of a part-quicksilvered portion, which cunningly shows, when the glass is moved about, Stevenson himself behind the character, as we have said already. For long he shied dealing with women, as though by a true instinct. Unfortunately for him his image was as clear behind Catriona, with the discerning, as anywhere else; and this, alas! too far undid her as an independent, individual character, though traits like those in her author were attractive. The constant effort to relieve the sense of this affords him the most admirable openings for the display of his exquisite style, of which he seldom or never fails to make the very most in this regard; but the necessity laid upon him to aim at securing a sense of relief by this is precisely the same as led him to write the overfine speeches in the plays, as Mr Pinero found and pointed out at Edinburgh: both defeat the true end, but in the written book mere art of style and a na?vete and a certain sweetness of temper conceal the lack of nature and creative spontaneity; while on the stage the descriptions, saving reflections and fine asides, are ruthlessly cut away under sheer stage necessities, or, if left, but hinder the action; and art of this kind does not there suffice to conceal the lack of nature.

More clearly to bring out my meaning here and draw aid from comparative illustration, let me take my old friend of many years, Charles Gibbon. Gibbon was poor, very poor, in intellectual subtlety compared with Stevenson; he had none of his sweet, quaint, original fancy; he was no casuist; he was utterly void of power in the subdued humorous twinkle or genial by-play in which Stevenson excelled. But he has more of dramatic power, pure and simple, than Stevenson had-his novels-the best of them-would far more easily yield themselves to the ordinary purposes of the ordinary playwright. Along with conscientiousness, perception, penetration, with the dramatist must go a certain indescribable common-sense commonplaceness-if I may name it so-protection against vagary and that over-refined egotism and self-confession which is inimical to the drama and in which the Stevensonian type all too largely abounds for successful dramatic production. Mr Henley perhaps put it too strongly when he said that what was supremely of interest to R. L. Stevenson was Stevenson himself; but he indicates the tendency, and that tendency is inimical to strong, broad, effective and varied dramatic presentation. Water cannot rise above its own level; nor can minds of this type go freely out of themselves in a grandly healthy, unconscious, and unaffected way, and this is the secret of the dramatic spirit, if it be not, as Shelley said, the secret of morals, which Stevenson, when he passed away, was but on the way to attain. As we shall see, he had risen so far above it, subdued it, triumphed over it, that we really cannot guess what he might have attained had but more years been given him. For the last attainment of the loftiest and truest genius is precisely this-to gain such insight of the real that all else becomes subsidiary. True simplicity and the abiding relief and enduring power of true art with all classes lies here and not elsewhere. Cleverness, refinement, fancy, and invention, even sublety of intellect, are practically nowhere in this sphere without this.

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