Literary studies by Joseph Jacobs/Stevenson
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
December 3, 1894
HE most striking individuality in English letters of to-day has gone from us. The loss is the greater since one of the peculiar notes of his genius was its versatility and unexpectedness. You could never guess what Stevenson's next book was going to be about. It might be a footnote to history, a familiar study of men or of books, a mediæval romance, a new Arabian night, a talk about talking, a tale of Thule or a ballad of the South Seas, a nursery rhyme or a sympathetic study of old men. What might he not have given us if his years had stretched to the Psalmist's span?
But amid all the diversity of his work there was one common strain which made it all his and gave the individual note. Jeffrey wondered where Macaulay got that style of his; Stevenson has told us how he created the prose instrument which has done more than anything to break up the Macaulayesque influence. He played the 'sedulous ape/ as he himself phrased it, to Mr. Ruskin, to Hazlitt, to Sir Thomas Browne, to all the great ones of the past. It has been suggested that in his style he owed more to a master of the present than to any of the past grand masters. There are who give to Mr. George Meredith the rights of paternity to Stevenson's style. And, indeed, in their search for the unexpected adjective, in their use of the metaphoric verb, in their appeal to the sous-entendu, both masters have a common method. Yet the younger man has surpassed his model in lucidity, in grace, in restraint of his eccentricities, with the result that for ease there has been nothing like Stevenson's style since Lamb, while for vivacity and vividness there is nothing like it elsewhere in English prose. The richer rhythms he perhaps lacks, and his tone has possibly at times a touch of affectation. But no more subtle instrument of human thought has ever been wielded more gracefully outside the shores of France. No wonder that its influence has spread far and wide, till even the suburban journalist writes with something like ease.
But it was something more than that edulous imitation that gave Stevenson's style its cachet. The style is the habiliment of the spirit. At first sight it might seem that Stevenson was as much the sedulous ape in the spirit of his work as he had been in the style of it. Here we see Edgar Allan Poe, there Alexandre Dumas; here Walt Whitman, and there Walter Scott; Hazlitt here, and there Laurence Sterne. Yet what is this but to say that he was of the classic tradition and carried it on in all branches of his work? And in all his superiority of style put him on the level even of the great masters he was copying. If he could not equal Poe's command of the eerie and fantastic, Dumas's grouping and broad canvas, Scott's humour and geniality and multifarious life, he could clothe what he took from each in drapery more closely fitting than any they had in their wardrobe. His very choice of models was significant, and the Romantic Revival in the English novel of to-day had in him its leader.
But for one side of his activity he had to go back to no other original than himself. He first found himself in his characteristic studies of men young and old, and revealed in his treatment of them a philosophy of life that was all his own. Stevenson was the first of the younger voices who spoke out the thoughts of men who faced life without the support of the older traditions. He was the laureate of the joy of life, of the life here and now. He courted Life like the gallant that he was what time he himself was walking hand in hand with Death. That joyous acceptance of life as it is was the predominant note of Stevenson, and was the chief artistic lesson he has left to his age.
Herein Stevenson came in line with the French school of literary critics of life. They have been untrammelled by the older traditions, they have faced life in all its aspects bravely and gallantly, they have been curious in their wordcraft, yet in this last, if in nought else, they carried on the older traditions. Only in one thing did Stevenson part company with them. One of the aspects of life which the French faced most boldly and unflinchingly is the fact of sex. Stevenson shrank from this consciously and avowedly. He clung to the cleanly tradition of restraint and self-respect in this regard, and except for some slight sketches in Prince Otto, woman is absent from his pages. The fact is characteristic of the two civilisations.
It was this gay, gallant, fresh philosophy of life that lent their chief charm to his first efforts, An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey. He moralised every step of the way. Not a character appears that is not ethically valued in the scheme of life—this one for his courtesy, that for his silence, another for his courage, she for gaiety, he for his grumpiness—all are judged ethically as well as artistically. Yet Stevenson was singularly deficient in capacity for catching characteristic traits of physiognomy. He rarely, if ever, pictures men by his pen. He cannot give a character by a trick of gesture as Dickens could, and did.
Still more was this philosophy of his predominant and pervading in his critical studies. Whether he was judging Burns or Villon, old admirals or young men, a lover, a soldier, or a poet, the appeal was to an ideal of character which Stevenson had formed for himself straight from the facts of life, or perhaps one should say straight from the facts of Scottish life. Although he may have thrown over the older creeds, they formed at least the frame to his picture of life. He was Scot of the Scots in his judgment of things, and we might almost forgive Calvinism for the misery it has caused in the world if only because it formed, as it were, the sash to the window from which Stevenson looked out into the world.
It is this Calvinistic framework, hard but clear, which imparted such effectiveness to the booklet by which he most impressed the world. Dr. Jekyll became a classic from the day it was published. It stands beside The Pilgrim's Progress and Gulliver's Travels as one of the three great allegories in English. The idea had occupied Stevenson for long: it had been utilised in the drama of Deacon Brodie, and is referred to at the end of An Inland Voyage. Its artistic economy is almost perfect; every word tells. In the background looms one aspect of the great problem of sex which Stevenson elsewhere evaded or avoided. But the facing of the facts of life is straightforward and sincere. Mr. Hyde is as much part of the composite nature as is Dr. Jekyll.
It is curious that his other great popular success should have been made with a book of an entirely opposite character, as objective as the other was psychopathic, as open and straightforward as the other was weird and mystic. Treasure Island struck, if not a new note, a disused one in English fiction. He founded, or at least refounded, the plein air school. The moment was ripe and the man had come. The world was getting tired of analysis and introspection. It had had enough of looking on at painful paturitions of society nothings. Yet our gratitude to Stevenson need not be the less because he appeared when he was wanted. In literature, above all things, the master is paramount. There are always a number of facile pens that can write ditto to Mr. Burke. If Stevenson had chosen to develop the more morbid side of his genius, the world might have been flooded with morbidity. He took us out into the open air and made us care for the common life and adventures of men. If young gentlemen nowadays find it more profitable to write second-rate imitations of Dumas than to become Cabinet ministers, they owe it to Stevenson; but for him they might have been Howells and James young men.
Of Treasure Island itself one finds it difficult to speak the unexaggerated word. That the subject itself and many of its details were reminiscential with Stevenson matters not. It is the unique fusion of incident and character interest that makes the book so remarkable. It is action, action, action, from the first sentence to the last. Yet every one who plays his part in the action is as deeply characterised as if he were the centre of an introspective novel. It is not alone the sea cook himself; there is not a single person whose name is given in the book whose character we do not know almost as well, if not as thoroughly, as that versatile villain. From Billy Jones to George Merry they are characterised with a firmness of touch and certainty of vision equal to Phil May's.
Much the same may be said of Kidnapped. But though the plot lacks the epic unity of the other, yet the characterisation here touches profounder depths. Stevenson was breathing his native air he could create, and not merely construct character. After all, your buccaneer does not pay for mining deep into his character. Stevenson had struck it rich when he had to deal with Alan Breck, poet and spy, deserter and rebel, brave and a braggart. Those who know the printed report of the trial of James Stuart will recognise what scanty material Stevenson had for his creation both in Kidnapped and its sequel Catriona. This latter failed just because he gave us too much of the trial. It is, indeed, curious that in both books fascination only begins when we cross the Highland line, either locally or spiritually. The Lowlander, with his canny caution, cannot stir our blood. It is one of Stevenson's triumphs to have kept consistently cool the tone of the narrator, the Lowland David Balfour, amidst all the feuds of the Gael.
A similar triumph was achieved when Stevenson put in the mouth of a dominie the strange tale of a fraternal feud told in The Master of Ballantrae. The Master himself is over-elaborated, and the whole book is too episodical and not closely enough knit together. Yet there are touches that cut us deep, and there are scenes that stand out as clear as anything in Stevenson. The duel by candlelight, the Master's farewell to his home, the two brothers at the tailor's shop, are as vivid as anything he did, but the connection of the book is not organic.
I have now commented upon all of Stevenson's work in fiction that is of really first-class rank. The Suicide Club in the New Arabian Nights may go to join the others. But the rest is only fantastic trifling which leaves but slight impress on the memory. Almost the same might be said of the Merry Men volume, but the tales there touch deeper notes. In Markheim a higher level is reached—it wanted little more to have been a second Jekyll. Thrifty as Stevenson was as a creative artist, wasting never a word or an incident, he yet required a largish canvas before he could produce his full effect. It must ever be so with the masters of characterisation; the conte is not for them.
In thinking over Stevenson's work one is apt to overlook Prince Otto. It is of so different a genre, it has almost a note of insincerity. Yet that very note is cognate with its subject, and in its rococo manner it is a perfect bit of novelistic bric-à-brac, a sort of romance in Dresden china. There is one chapter, however, that redeems it. The flight of the princess through the woods in the night is one of the most perfect things Stevenson ever wrote. It is characteristic that it should come with the plunge from courtly artificialities into the open air and Nature unadorned. The character drawing is as firm as elsewhere. The Miller, the Scotch Colonel, the English Traveller, the demirep Countess, the sensualist Conspirator, all these bite the steel with cleancut lines. Yes, Prince Otto is the Stevensonian crux; like not that and you are no true Stevensonian.
Of his more recent excursions in company with Mr. Lloyd Osbourne there is little need to speak—he could not ride tandem. Touches there are in The Wrecker and the rest which recall the unadulterate Stevenson, but they are few and far between. Those books should form no part of his luggage on his journey to the House of Fame.
Nor will he carry with him up the hill his volumes of verse, attractive though they be in many respects. But their attraction lies not in themselves, but rather in the fact that Stevenson wrote them. That applies even to the Child's Book of Verses, unique as it is. If we contrast it with the Songs of Innocence, we see how Stevenson has failed to transmute verse into poetry. He was emphatically a speaker, not a singer.
All his qualities coalesced when he came to deal with his own life as a young man in the Memories and Portraits, and with the life of all young men in the Virginibus Puerisque. The light touch, the full feeling, the deep thought, the gay and gallant aspect, make the books as bright as youth itself. He could creep into a child's mind; but the thoughts and feelings of these books were those of a man who was ever young at heart, and so they are fitted to be for ever the vade-mecum of the young man. Who has entered into the motives for a young man's laziness like Stevenson? Who has expressed so well the haunting sense of inutility which besets almost all men on entering life? Yet how playfully and how cheeringly he diagnoses the nostalgia!
These bright books, full of the most ebullient life, were written by a man gazing steadfastly into the eyes of Death. Perhaps it was the insistent need for getting rid of morbid thoughts that led Stevenson to dwell on the active life in the open air. But what a dauntless courage that could disregard the perpetual menace of his grisly visitant and play so well the part of the young man into whose calculations Death enters not! His were indeed brave words, and their courage is an inspiration.