Robert Louis Stevenson (Chesterton)/Chapter I

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Table of contents Robert Louis Stevenson'
Chapter I. The Myth of Stevenson'
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter II. In the Country of Skelt



In this brief study of Stevenson I propose to follow a somewhat unusual course; or to sketch what may be considered a rather eccentric outline. It can only be justified in practice; and I have a healthy fear that my practice will not justify it. Nevertheless, I have not adopted it without considerable thought, and even doubt, about the best way of dealing with a real and practical problem. So before it collapses completely in practice, I will give myself the triumph and the joy of justifying it in principle.

The difficulty arises thus. In the great days of Stevenson critics had begun to be ashamed of being critics, and of giving to their ancient function the name of criticism. It was the fashion to publish a book that was a bundle of reviews and to call it "Appreciations." But the world advances; and if that sort of book is published now, it might well bear the general title of "Depreciations." Stevenson has suffered more than most from this new fashion of minimising and finding fault; and some energetic and successful writers have thrown themselves into the business almost with the eagerness of stockbrokers, bent on making a slump instead of a boom in Stevenson Stock. It may be questioned whether we need welcome the bear any more than the bull in the china-shop of elegant English letters. Others seem to make quite a hobby of proving a particular writer to be overrated. They write long and laborious articles, full of biographical detail and bitter commentary, in order to show that the subject is unworthy of attention; and write pages upon Stevenson to prove that he is not worth writing about. Neither their motives nor their methods are very clear or satisfactory. If it be true that all swans are geese to the discriminating eye of the scientific ornithologist, it hardly suffices to explain so long or so fatiguing a wild-goose chase.

But it is true that, in a sense more general than that of these rather irritable individuals, such a reaction does exist. And it is a reaction against Stevenson, or at least against Stevensonians. Perhaps it would be most correct to call it a reaction against Stevensoniana. And let me say at this early stage that I heartily agree that there has been far too much Stevensoniana. In one sense, indeed, everything about anybody so interesting as Stevenson is interesting. In one sense, everything about everybody is interesting. But not everybody can interest everybody else: and it is well to know an author is loved, but not to publish all the love-letters. Sometimes we only had to endure that most awful and appalling tragedy: a truth told once too often. Sometimes we heard Stevensonian sentiments repeated in violation of all Stevensonian rules. For of all things he hated dilution: and loved to take language neat, like a liqueur. In short, it was overdone; it was too noisy and yet all on one note; above all, it was too incessant and too prolonged. As I say, there were a variety of causes, which it would be unnecessary and sometimes unamiable to discuss. There was perhaps something in it of the very virtue of Stevenson; he was tolerant of many societies and interested in many men; and there was nothing to ward off the direst results of the men being interested in him. Especially after he was dead, one person after another turned up and wrote a book about meeting Stevenson on a steamboat or in a restaurant; and it is not surprising that such book-makers began to look as vulgar as bookies. There was perhaps something in it of the old joke of Johnson: that the Scots are in a conspiracy to praise each other. It was often because the Scots are secret sentimentalists and cannot always keep the secret. Their interest in a story so brilliant and in some ways so pathetic was perfectly natural and human; but for all that, their interest was overdone. It was sometimes, I regret to say, because the interest might fairly be called a vested interest. Anyhow, any number of things happened to combine to vulgarise the thing; but vulgarising a thing does not really make it vulgar.

Now Stevenson's life was really what we call picturesque; partly because he saw everything in pictures; and partly because a chapter of accidents did really attach him to very picturesque places. He was born on the high terraces of the noblest of northern cities: in the family mansion in Edinburgh in 1850; he was the son of a house of highly respected architects of lighthouses; and nothing could be more really romantic than such a legend of men laboriously lifting the star-crowned towers of the sea. He failed to follow the family tradition, however, for various reasons; he was blighted with ill-health and a taste for art; the latter sent him to pick up picturesque tricks and poses in the art colony of Barbizon; the former very soon sent him southward into warmer and warmer climates; and it so happens as he himself remarked, that the countries to which we are sent when health deserts us have a magical and rather mocking beauty. At one time he had paid a sort of vagabond visit to America, crossing the ugly plains that lead to the abrupt beauty of California, that promised land. He described it in the studies called _Across the Plain:_ a work vaguely unsatisfying both to writer and reader. I think it records the subconscious blank and sense of bewilderment felt by every true European on first seeing the very light and landscape of America. The shock of negation was in his case truly unnatural. He almost wrote a dull book. But there is another reason for noting this exception here.

This book makes no pretence of being even an outline of the life of Stevenson. In his particular case I deliberately omit such an outline, because I find that it has cut across and confused the very sharp and lucid outline of his art. But indeed in any case it would be very difficult to tell the tale with truth without telling it in detail, and in rather bewildering detail. The first thing that strikes us, on a rapid survey of his life and letters, is his innumerable changes of domicile, especially in his early days. If his friends followed the example he professes to set, in the matter of Mr. Michael Finsbury, and refused to learn more than one address for one friend, he must have left his correspondence very far behind indeed. His wanderings in Western Europe would appear on the map as much wilder as well as wider than the "probable course of David Balfour's wanderings" in Western Scotland. If we started out to tell his story thus, we should have to note how he went first to Mentone and then back again to Edinburgh and then to Fontainebleau and then to the Highlands and then to Fontainebleau again and then to Davos in the mountains, and so on; a zigzag pilgrimage impossible to compress except in a larger biography. But all or most of it is covered by one generalisation. This navigation chart was really a hospital chart. Its jagged mountains represented temperatures; or at least climates. The whole story of Stevenson is conditioned by a certain complexity, which a tenderness for the English language will restrain us from calling a complex. It was a sort of paradox, by which he was at once more and less protected than other men; like somebody travelling the wildest roads of the world in a covered waggon. He went where he did partly because he was an adventurer and partly because he was an invalid. By that sort of limping agility, he may be said to have seen at once too little and too much. He was perhaps a natural traveller; but he was not a normal traveller. Nobody ever did treat him as quite normal; which is the truth hidden in the falsehood of those who sneer at his childishness as that of a spoilt child. He was courageous; and yet he had to be shielded against two things at once, his weakness and his courage. But his picture of himself as a vagabond with blue fingers on the winter road is avowedly an ideal picture; it was exactly that sort of freedom that he could never have. He could only be carried from sight to sight; or even from adventure to adventure. Indeed there is here a curious aptness in the quaint simplicity of his childish rhyme that ran, "My bed is like a little boat." Through all his varied experiences his bed was a boat and his boat was a bed. Panoramas of tropic palm and Californian orange-grove passed over that moving couch like the long nightmare of the nursery walls. But his real courage was not so much turned outwards to the drama of the boat as inwards to the drama of the bed. Nobody knew better than he did that nothing is more terrible than a bed; since it is always waiting to be a deathbed.

Broadly speaking, therefore, his biography would consist of journeys hither and thither, with a donkey in the Cevennes, with a baronet on the French canals; on a sledge in Switzerland or in a bathchair at Bournemouth. But they were all, in one way or another, related to the problem of his health as well as to the cheerfulness of his curiosity. Now of all human things the search for health is the most unhealthy. And it is truly a great glory to Stevenson that he, almost alone among men, could go on pursuing his bodily health without once losing his mental health. As soon as he came to any place, he lost no time in finding a new and better reason for having come there. It might be a child or a sonnet, a flirtation or the plan of a story; but he made that the real reason; and not the unhealthy reason of health. Nevertheless, there generally had been, somewhere in the background, some suggestion of the reason of health; as there was in that last great journey to his final home in the South Seas.

The one real break, I suspect, in this curious double process of protection and risk, was his break-away to America, which arose partly at least in connection with the matter of his marriage. It seemed to his friends and family, not so much like the conduct of an invalid who had done a bolt from the hospital, as the conduct of a lunatic unaccountably loose from the asylum. In truth, the voyage struck them as less mad than the marriage. As this is not a biographical study, I need not go deeply into the delicate disputes about that business; but it was admittedly at least unconventional. All that matters to the argument here is that, while there was much in it that was even noble, it was not normal. It was not love as it should come to youth: it is no disrespect to either to say that in both, psychologically speaking, there was an element of patching up as well as of binding together. Stevenson had met, first in Paris and later in America, an American lady married to a seemingly somewhat unsatisfactory American gentleman, against whom she took proceedings for divorce. Stevenson at the same time precipitately crossed the seas and in some sense pursued her to California; I suppose with some vague idea of being in at the death; and indeed he was very nearly in at his own. The escapade brought on him one of the worst and sharpest of his attacks of illness; the lady, being on the spot, naturally threw herself into nursing him; and as soon as he could stand on two rickety legs they were married. It caused consternation to his family, who were however really reconciled afterwards, it would seem, by the personal magnetism of his foreign and almost exotic bride. Certainly in her society his literary work went with a renewed swing and even regularity; and the rest of his story is practically the story of his important works; varied by his, if possible, still more important friendships. There was illness, in which, it should be said, it was often a case of two invalids nursing each other. Then came the decision to fall back on the secure climate of the Pacific Islands; which led to his taking up his last station at Vailima on the island of Samoa: in a coloured archipelago which our cheerful forefathers might have described as the Cannibal Islands, but which Stevenson was more disposed to describe as the Islands of the Blest. There he lived as happily as can an exile who loves his country and his friends, free at least of all the daily dangers of his lung trouble; and there he died very suddenly, at the age of forty-four, the beloved patriarch of a little white and brown community, to whom he was known as Tusitala or the Teller of Tales.

That is the main outline of the actual biography of Robert Louis Stevenson; and from the time when he clambered as a boy among the crags and castellations of the Painted Hill, looking across the islets of the Forth, to the time when tall brown barbarians, crowned with red flowers, bore him on their spears to the peak of their sacred mountain, the spirit of this artist had been permitted to inhabit, and as it were to haunt, the beautiful places of the earth. To the last he had tasted that beauty with a burning sensibility; and it is no joke, in his case, to say that he would have enjoyed coming to his own funeral. Of course, even this generalisation is too much of a simplification. He was not, as we shall later have occasion to note, unacquainted with sombre nor, alas, with sordid surroundings. Oscar Wilde said with some truth that Stevenson might have produced yet richer and more purple romances if he had always lived in Gower Street; and he was certainly one of the very few who have managed to feel fierce and adventurous at Bournemouth. But broadly speaking, it is true that the outline of his life was romantic; and was therefore perhaps too easily turned into a romance. He himself deliberately turned it into a romance; but not all those romancing were such good romancers as he. So the romance tended to turn into mere repetition and gossip; and the romantic figure faded into journalism as the figure of Robin Hood faded into endless penny dreadfuls or schoolboy serials; as the figure of Micawber was multiplied and cheapened into Ally Sloper. Then came the reaction; a reaction which I should call rather excusable than justifiable. But that reaction is the problem in any Popular treatment of him to-day.

Now if I were to follow here the natural course of such a volume as this, I should have to begin by telling slowly and systematically the tale that I have just told rapidly and briefly. I should have to give a chapter to his childhood, to his favourite aunt and his yet more beloved nurse, and to all the things much more clearly recorded in _A Child's Garden of Verses._ I should have to give a chapter to his youth, his differences with his father, his struggles with his malady, his greater struggles about his marriage; working up slowly through the whole length of the book to the familiar picture of so many magazines and memoirs; the slender semi-tropical Tusitala with his long brown hair and long olive face and long strange slits of eyes, sitting clad in white or crowned with garlands and telling tales to all the tribes of men. Now the misfortune of all this would be that it would amount to saying, through a slow series of chapters, that there is nothing more to be said about Stevenson except what has been said a thousand times. It would be to suggest that Stevenson's serious fame does still really depend on this string of picturesque accidents; and that there is really nothing to be told of him, except that he wore long hair in the Savile Club or light clothes in the Samoan mountains. His life really was romantic; but to repeat that romance is like reprinting the _Scarlet Pimpernel_ or offering the world an entirely new portrait of Rudolph Valentino. It is against this repetition that the reaction has set in; perhaps wrongly but certainly strongly. And to spin it out through the whole of this book would be to give the impression (which I should mildly resent) that this book is only the thousandth unnecessary volume of Stevensoniana. However I told his story in detail, though it were with all the sympathy I feel, I could not avoid that suggestion of a sort of jaded journalism. Stevenson's picturesque attitude and career are rather in his way at this moment; not for me, because I like the picturesque, but for this new pose which may be called the pose of the prosaic. To these unfortunate realists, to say that there were all these romantic things about him is only another way of saying that there was nothing in him. And there was a very great deal in him. I am driven to adopt some other method of bringing it out.

When I come to describing it, I find it is perhaps even more difficult to describe it than to do it. But something of this sort is what I propose to do. Loudon Dodd, in whom there is much of Louis Stevenson, says very truly in _The Wrecker,_ that for the artist the external result is always a fizzle: his eyes are turned inward: "he lives for a state of mind." I mean to attempt the conjectural description of certain states of mind, with the books that were the "external expression" of them. If for the artist his art is a fizzle, his life is often far more of a fizzle: it is even far more of a fiction. It is the one of his works in which he tells least of the truth. Stevenson's was more real than most, because more romantic than most. But I prefer the romances, which were still more real. I mean that I think the wanderings of Balfour more Stevensonian than the wanderings of Stevenson: that the duel of Jekyll and Hyde is more illuminating than the quarrel of Stevenson and Henley: and that the true private life is to be sought not in Samoa but in Treasure Island; for where the treasure is, there is the heart also.

In short, I propose to review his books with illustrations from his life; rather than to write his life with illustrations from his books. And I do it deliberately, not because his life was not as interesting as any book; but because the habit of talking too much about his life has already actually led to thinking far too little of his literature. His ideas are being underrated, precisely because they are not being studied separately and seriously as ideas. His art is being underrated, precisely because he is not accorded even the fair advantages of Art for Art's Sake. There is indeed a queer irony about the fate of the men of that age, who delighted in that axiom. They claimed judgement as artists, not men; and they are really remembered as men much more than they are remembered as artists. More men know the Whistlerian anecdotes than the Whistlerian etchings; and poor Wilde will live in history as immoral rather than unmoral. But there is a real reason for studying intrinsic intellectual values in the case of Stevenson; and it need not be said that exactly where the modern maxim would be useful, it is never used. The new criticism of Stevenson is still a criticism of Stevenson rather than of Stevenson's work; it is always a personal criticism, and often, I think, rather a spiteful criticism. It is simply nonsense, for instance, for a distinguished living novelist to suggest that Stevenson's correspondence is a thin stream of selfish soliloquy devoid of feeling for anybody but himself. It teems with lively expressions of longing for particular people and places; it breaks out everywhere with delight into that broad Scots idiom which, as Stevenson truly said elsewhere, gives a special freedom to all the terms of affection. Stevenson might be lying, of course, though I know not why a busy author should lie at such length for nothing. But I cannot see how any man could say any more to suggest his dependence on the society of friends. These are positive facts of personality that can never be proved or disproved. I never knew Stevenson; but I knew very many of his favourite friends and correspondents. I knew Henry James and William Archer; I have still the honour of knowing Sir James Barrie and Sir Edmund Gosse. And anybody who knows them, even most slightly and superficially, must know they are not the men to be in confidential correspondence for years with a silly, greedy and exacting egoist without seeing through him; or to be bombarded with boring autobiographies without being bored. But it seems rather a pity that such critics should still be called upon to hunt up Stevenson's letter-bag, when they might well think it time to form some conclusions about Stevenson's place in letters. Anyhow, I propose on the present occasion to be so perverse as to interest myself in literature when dealing with a literary man; and to be especially interested not only in the literature left by the man but in the philosophy inhering in the literature. And I am especially interested in a certain story, which was indeed the story of his life, but not exactly the story in his biography. It was an internal and spiritual story; and the stages of it are to be found rather in his stories than in his external acts. It is told much better in the difference between _Treasure Island_ and _The Story of a Lie,_ or in the difference between _A Child's Garden of Verses_ and _Markheim_ or _Olalla,_ than in any detailed account of his wrangles with his father or the fragmentary love-affairs of his youth. For it seems to me that there is a moral to the art of Stevenson (if the shades of Wilde and Whistler will endure the challenge), and that it is one with a real bearing on the future of European culture and the hope that is to guide our children. Whether I shall be able to draw out this moral and make it sufficiently large and clear, I know as little as the reader does.

Nevertheless, at this stage of the attempt I will say one thing. I have, in a sense, a sort of theory about Stevenson; a view of him which, right or wrong, concerns his life and work as a whole. But it is perhaps less exclusively personal than much of the interest that has been naturally taken in his personality. It is certainly the very contrary of the attacks which have commonly, and especially recently, been made on that personality. Thus the critics are fond of suggesting that he was nothing if not self-conscious; that the whole of his significance came from self-consciousness. I believe that the one really great and important work which he did for the world was done quite unconsciously. Many have blamed him for posing; some have blamed him for preaching. The matter which mainly interests me is not merely his pose, if it was a pose, but the large landscape or background against which he was posing; which he himself only partly realised, but which goes to make up a rather important historical picture. And though it is true that he sometimes preached, and preached very well, I am by no means certain that the thing which he preached was the same as the thing which he taught. Or, to put it another way, the thing which he could teach was not quite so large as the thing which we can learn. Or again, many of them declare that he was only a nine days' wonder, a passing figure that happened to catch the eye and even affect the fashion; and that with that fashion he will be forgotten. I believe that the lesson of his life will only be seen after time has revealed the full meaning of all our present tendencies; I believe it will be seen from afar off like a vast plan or maze traced out on a hillside; perhaps traced by one who did not even see the plan while he was making the tracks. I believe that his travels and doublings and returns reveal an idea, and even a doctrine. Yet it was perhaps a doctrine in which he did not believe, or at any rate did not believe that he believed. In other words, I think his significance will stand out more strongly in relation to larger problems which are beginning to press once more upon the mind of man; but of which many men are still largely unaware in our time, and were almost entirely unaware in his. But any contribution to the solution of those problems will be remembered; and he made a very great contribution, probably greater than he knew. Lastly, these same critics do not hesitate, in many cases, to accuse him flatly of being insincere. I should say that nobody, so openly fond of play-acting as he was, could possibly be insincere. But it is more to my purpose now to say that his relation to the huge half-truth that he carried was in its very simplicity a mark of truthfulness. For he had the splendid and ringing sincerity to testify, in a voice like a trumpet, to a truth that he did not understand.