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so much as a scuffle. The tone of letters is in him
the tone of letters as distinct from that of philosophy,
or of those industries whose uses are supposed to be
immediate. Many readers, no doubt, consider that
he carries it too far ; they manifest an impatience for
some glimpse of his moral message. They may be
heard to ask what it is he proposes to demonstrate,
with such a variety of paces and graces.

The main thing that he demonstrates, to our own
perception, is that it is a delight to read him, and that
he renews this delight by a constant variety of ex-
periment. Of this anon, however; and meanwhile,
it may be noted as a curious characteristic of current
fashions that the writer whose effort is perceptibly
that of the artist is very apt to find himself thrown
on the defensive. A work of literature is a form, but


the author who betrays a consciousness of the
responsibilities involved in this circumstance not
rarely perceives himself to be regarded as an uncanny
personage. The usual judgment is that he may be
artistic, but that he must not be too much so ; that
way, apparently, lies something worse than madness.
This queer superstition has so successfully imposed
itself, that the mere fact of having been indifferent to
such a danger constitutes in itself an originality.
How few they are in number and how soon we could
name them, the writers of English prose, at the
present moment, the quality of whose prose is
personal, expressive, renewed at each attempt ! The
state of things that one would have expected to be
the rule has become the exception, and an exception
for which, most of the time, an apology appears to be
thought necessary. A mill that grinds with regular-
ity and with a certain commercial fineness that is
the image suggested by the manner of a good many
of the fraternity. They turn out an article for which
there is a demand, they keep a shop for a speciality,
and the business is carried on in accordance with a
useful, well-tested prescription. It is just because he
has no speciality that Mr. Stevenson is an individual,
and because his curiosity is the only receipt by which
he produces. Each of his books is an independent
effort a window opened to a different view. Doctor
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as dissimilar as possible from
Treasure Island; Virginibus Puerisque has nothing in
common with The New Arabian Nights, and I should


never have supposed A Child's Garden of Verses to be
from the hand of the author of Prince Otto.

Though Mr. Stevenson cares greatly for his phrase,
as every writer should who respects himself and his
art, it takes no very attentive reading of his volumes
to show that it is not what he cares for most, and
that he regards an expressive style only, after all, as
a means. It seems to me the fault of Mr. Archer's
interesting paper, that it suggests too much that the
author of these volumes considers the art of expres-
sion as an end an ingenious game of words. He
finds that Mr. Stevenson is not serious, that he
neglects a whole side of life, that he has no percep-
tion, and no consciousness, of suffering ; that he
speaks as a happy but heartless pagan, living only in
his senses (which the critic admits to be exquisitely
fine), and that in a world full of heaviness he is not
sufficiently aware of the philosophic limitations of
mere technical skill. In sketching these aberrations
Mr. Archer himself, by the way, displays anything
but ponderosity of hand. He is not the first reader,
and he will not be the last, who shall have been
irritated by Mr. Stevenson's jauntiness. That jaunti-
ness is an essential part of his genius ; but to my
sense it ceases to be irritating it indeed becomes
positively touching and constitutes an appeal to
sympathy and even to tenderness when once one
has perceived what lies beneath the dancing-tune
to which he mostly moves. Much as he cares for
his phrase, he cares more for life, and for a certain


transcendently lovable part of it. He feels, as it
seems to us, and that is not given to every one.
This constitutes a philosophy which Mr. Archer fails
to read between his lines the respectable, desirable
moral which many a reader doubtless finds that he
neglects to point. He does not feel everything
equally, by any manner of means ; but his feelings
are always his reasons. He regards them, whatever
they may be, as sufficiently honourable, does not
disguise them in other names or colours, and looks
at whatever he meets in the brilliant candle-light that
they shed. As in his extreme artistic vivacity he
seems really disposed to try everything he has tried
once, by way of a change, to be inhuman, and there
is a hard glitter about Prince Otto which seems to
indicate that in this case too he has succeeded, as he
has done in most of the feats that he has attempted.
But Prince Otto is even less like his other productions
than his other productions are like each other.

The part of life which he cares for most is youth,
and the direct expression of the love, of youth is the
beginning and the end of his message. His apprecia-
tion of this delightful period amounts to a passion,
and a passion, in the age in which we live, strikes us
on the whole as a sufficient philosophy. It ought
to satisfy Mr. Archer, and there are writers who
press harder than Mr. Stevenson, on whose behalf no
such moral motive can be alleged. Mingled with
this almost equal love of a literary surface, it repre-
sents a real originality. This combination is the


keynote of Mr. Stevenson's faculty and the explana-
tion of his perversities. The feeling of one's teens,
and even of an earlier period (for the delights of
crawling, and almost of the rattle, are embodied in
A Child's Garden of Verses), and the feeling for happy
turns these, in the last analysis (and his sense of a
happy turn is of the subtlest), are the corresponding
halves of his character. If Prince Otto and Doctor
Jekyll left me a clearer field for the assertion, I would
say that everything he has written is a direct apology
for boyhood ; or rather (for it must be confessed that
Mr. Stevenson's tone is seldom apologetic), a direct
rhapsody on the age of heterogeneous pockets. Even
members of the very numerous class who have held
their breath over Treasure Island may shrug their
shoulders at this account of the author's religion ; but
it is none the less a great pleasure the highest
reward of observation to put one's hand on a rare
illustration, and Mr. Stevenson is certamly rare.
What makes him so is the singular maturity of the
expression that he has given to young sentiments :
he judges them, measures them, sees them from the
outside, as well as entertains them. He describes
credulity with all the resources of experience, and
represents a crude stage with infinite ripeness. In a
word, he is an artist accomplished even to sophistica-
tion,, whose constant theme is the unsophisticated.
Sometimes, as in Kidnapped, the art is so ripe that it
lifts even the subject into the general air : the execu-
tion is so serious that the idea (the idea of a boy's



romantic adventures), becomes a matter of universal
relations. What he prizes most in the boy's ideal is
the imaginative side of it, the capacity for successful
make-believe. The general freshness in which this
is a part of the gloss seems to him the divinest thing
in life ; considerably more divine, for instance, than
the passion usually regarded as the supremely tender
one. The idea of making believe appeals to him
much more than the idea of making love. That
delightful little book of rhymes, the Child's Garden,
commemorates from beginning to end the picturing,
personifying, dramatising faculty of infancy the
view of life from the level of the nursery-fender. The
volume is a wonder for the extraordinary vividness
with which it reproduces early impressions : a child
might have written it if a child could see childhood
from the outside, for it would seem that only a child
is really near enough to the nursery floor. And
what is p'eculiar to Mr. Stevenson is that it is his own
childhood he appears to delight in, and not the
personal presence of little darlings. Oddly enough,
there is no strong implication that he is fond of
babies ; he doesn't speak as a parent, or an uncle, or
an educator he speaks as a contemporary absorbed
in his own game. That game is almost always a
vision of dangers and triumphs, and if emotion,
with him, infallibly resolves itself into memory,
so memory is an evocation of throbs and thrills
and suspense. He has given to the world the
romance of boyhood, as others have produced that


of the peerage and the police and the medical pro-

This amounts to saying that what he is most
curious of in life is heroism personal gallantry, if
need be with a manner, or a banner, though he is
also abundantly capable of enjoying it when it is
artless. The delightful exploits of Jim Hawkins, in
Treasure Island, are unaffectedly performed ; but none
the less " the finest action is the better for a piece
of purple," as the author remarks in the paper on
"The English Admirals" in Flrginibus Puerisque, a
paper of which the moral is, largely, that " we learn
to desire a grand air in our heroes ; and such a
knowledge of the human stage as shall make them
put the dots on their own i's, and leave us in no
suspense as to when they mean to be heroic." The
love of brave words as well as brave deeds which
is simply Mr. Stevenson's essential love of style is
recorded in this little paper with a charming, slightly
sophistical ingenuity. " They served their guns
merrily when it came to fighting, and they had the
readiest ear for a bold, honourable sentiment of any
class of men the world ever produced." The author
goes on to say that most men of high destinies have
even high-sounding names. Alan Breck, in Kid-
napped, is a wonderful picture of the union of courage
and swagger ; the little Jacobite adventurer, a figure
worthy of Scott at his best, and representing the
highest point that Mr. Stevenson's talent has reached,
shows us that a marked taste for tawdry finery


tarnished and tattered, some of it indeed, by ticklish
occasions is quite compatible with a perfectly high
mettle. Alan Breck is at bottom a study of the
love of glory, carried out with extreme psychological
truth. When the love of glory is of an inferior order
the reputation is cultivated rather than the oppor-
tunity ; but when it is a pure passion the opportunity
is cultivated for the sake of the reputation. Mr.
Stevenson's kindness for adventurers extends even
to the humblest of all, the mountebank and the
strolling player, or even the pedlar whom he declares
that in his foreign travels he is habitually taken for,
as we see in the whimsical apology for vagabonds
which winds up An Inland Voyage. The hungry
conjurer, the gymnast whose maillot is loose, have
something of the glamour of the hero, inasmuch as
they too pay with their person. " To be even one
of the outskirters of art leaves a fine stamp on a
man's countenance. . . . That is the kind of thing
that reconciles me to life : a ragged, tippling, incom-
petent old rogue, with the manners of a gentleman
and the vanity of an artist, to keep up his self-
respect ! " What reconciles Mr. Stevenson to life is
the idea that in the first place it offers the widest
field that we know of for odd doings, and that in the
second these odd doings are the best of pegs to hang
a sketch in three lines or a paradox in three pages.

As it is not odd, but extremely usual, to marry,
he deprecates that course in Firginibus Puerisque, the
collection of short essays which is most a record of


his opinions that is, largely, of his likes and dislikes.
It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile
and that feeling about life which leads him to regard
women as so many superfluous girls in a boy's game.
They are almost wholly absent from his pages (the
main exception is Prince Otto, though there is a Clara
apiece in The Rajah's Diamond and The Pavilion on
the Links), for they don't like ships and pistols and
fights, they encumber the decks and require separate
apartments, and, almost worst of all, have not the
highest literary standard. Why should a person
marry when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking
for a buried treasure ] Why should he waste at the
nuptial altar precious hours in which he might be
polishing periods? It is one of those curious and
to my sense fascinating inconsistencies that we en-
counter in Mr. Stevenson's mind, that though he
takes such an interest in the childish life he takes
no interest in the fireside. He has an indulgent
glance for it in the verses of the Garden, but to his
view the normal child is the child who absents him-
self from the family-circle, in fact when he can, in
imagination when he cannot, in the disguise of a
buccaneer. Girls don't do this, and women are only
grown-up girls, unless it be the delightful maiden,
fit daughter of an imperial race, whom he commemo-
rates in An Inland Voyage.

'A girl at school, in France, began to describe one of our
regiments on parade to her French schoolmates ; and as she
went on, she told me, the recollection grew so vivid, she became


so proud to be the countrywoman of such soldiers, that her
voice failed her and she burst into tears. I have never for-
gotten that girl ; and I think she very nearly deserves a statue.
To call her a young lady, with all its niminy associations, would
be to offer her an insult. She may rest assured of one thing ;
although she never should marry a heroic general, never see any
great or immediate result of her life, she will not have lived in
vain for her native land."

There is something of that in Mr. Stevenson ; when
he begins to describe a British regiment on parade
(or something of that sort), he too almost breaks
down for emotion : which is why I have been careful
to traverse the insinuation that he is primarily a
chiseller of prose. If things had gone differently
with him (I must permit myself this allusion to his
personal situation, and I shall venture to follow it
with two or three others), he might have been an
historian of famous campaigns a great painter of
battle-pieces. Of course, however, in this capacity it
would not have done for him to break down for

Although he remarks that marriage " is a field of
battle and not a bed of roses," he points out re-
peatedly that it is a terrible renunciation and some-
how, in strictness, incompatible even with honour
the sort of roving, trumpeting honour that appeals
most to his sympathy. After that step,

" There are no more bye-path meadows where you may inno-
cently linger, but the road lies long and straight and dusty to
the grave. . . . You may think you had a conscience and
believed in God ; but what is a conscience to a wife ? ... To
marry is to domesticate the Recording Angel. Once you


are married, there is nothing left for you, not even suicide,
but to be good. . . . How then, in such an atmosphere of
compromise, to keep honour bright and abstain from base capit-
ulations ? . . . The proper qualities of each sex are eternally
surprising to the other. Between the Latin and the Teuton
races there are similar divergences, not to be bridged by the
most liberal sympathy. ... It is better to face the fact and
know, when you marry, that you take into your life a creature
of equal if unlike frailties ; whose weak, human heart beats no
more tunefully than yours."

If there be a grimness in that it is as near as Mr.
Stevenson ever comes to being grim, and we have only
to turn the page to find the corrective something
delicately genial, at least, if not very much less sad.

"The blind bow-boy who smiles upon us from the end of
terraces in old Dutch gardens laughingly hurls his bird-bolts
among a fleeting generation. But for as fast as ever he shoots,
the game dissolves and disappears into eternity from under his
falling arrows ; this one is gone ere he is struck ; the other has
but time to make one gesture and give one passionate cry ;
and they are all the things of a moment."

That is an admission that though it is soon over, the
great sentimental surrender is inevitable. And there
is geniality too, still over the page (in regard to quite
another matter), geniality, at least, for the profession
of letters, in the declaration that there is

" One thing you can never make Philistine natures understand;
one thing which yet lies on the surface, remains as unseizable
to their wit as a high flight of metaphysics namely, that the
business of life is mainly carried on by the difficult art of litera-
ture, and according to a man's proficiency in that art shall be
the freedom and fulness of his intercourse with other men. "

Yet it is difficult not to believe that the ideal in


which our author's spirit might most gratefully have
rested would have been the character of the pater-
familias, when the eye falls on such a charming piece
of observation as these lines about children in the
admirable paper on Child's Play :

"If it were not for this perpetual imitation we should be
tempted to fancy they despised us outright, or only considered
us in the light of creatures brutally strong and brutally silly,
among whom they condescended to dwell in obedience, like a
philosopher at a barbarous court."


WE know very little about a talent till we know
where it grew up, and it would halt terribly at the
start, any account of the author of Kidnapped which
should omit to insist promptly that he is a Scot of
the Scots. Two facts, to my perception, go a great
way to explain his composition : the first of which is
that his boyhood was passed in the shadow of Edin-
burgh Castle, and the second that he came of a family
that had set up great lights on the coast. His grand-
father, his uncle, were famous constructors of light-
houses, and the name of the race is associated above
all with the beautiful and beneficent tower of Skerry-
vore. We may exaggerate the way in which, in an
imaginative youth, the sense of the " story " of things
would feed upon the impressions of Edinburgh
though I suspect it would be difficult really to do so.
The streets are so full of history and poetry, of pic-
ture and song, of associations springing from strong
passions and strange characters, that, for our own part,
we find ourselves thinking of an urchin going and
coming there as we used to think (wonderingly, en-
viously), of the small boys who figured as super-


numeraries, pages or imps, in showy scenes at the
theatre : the place seems the background, the com-
plicated "set" of a drama, and the children the
mysterious little beings who are made free of the
magic world. How must it not have beckoned on
the imagination to pass and repass, on the way to
school, under the Castle rock, conscious, acutely yet
familiarly, of the gray citadel on the summit, lighted
up with the tartans and bagpipes of Highland regi-
ments ? Mr. Stevenson's mind, from an early age,
was furnished with the concrete Highlander, who
must have had much of the effect that we now-
adays call decorative. We have encountered some-
where a fanciful paper l of our author's, in which there
is a reflection of half-holiday afternoons and, unless
our own fancy plays us a trick, of lights red, in the
winter dusk, in the high-placed windows of the old
town a delightful rhapsody on the penny sheets of
figures for the puppet-shows of infancy, in life-like
position and awaiting the impatient yet careful scis-
sors. " If landscapes were sold," he says in Travels
with a Donkey, " like the sheets of characters of my
boyhood, one penny plain and twopence coloured, I
should go the length of twopence every day of my

Indeed the colour of Scotland has entered into him
altogether, and though, oddly enough, he has written
but little about his native country, his happiest work

1 "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured." Republished,
since the above was written, in Memories and Portraits, 1887.


shows, I think, that she has the best of his ability,
the best of his ambition. Kidnapped (whose inade-
quate title I may deplore in passing) breathes in
every line the feeling of moor and loch, and is the
finest of his longer stories, and Thraivn Janet, a
masterpiece in thirteen pages (lately republished in
the volume of The Merry Men), is, among the shorter,
the strongest in execution. The latter consists of
a gruesome anecdote of the supernatural, related in
the Scotch dialect, and the genuineness which this
medium (at the sight of which, in general, the face of
the reader grows long) wears in Mr. Stevenson's hands
is a proof of how living the question of form always is
to him, and what a variety of answers he has for it.
It would never have occurred to us that the style of
Travels with a Donkey or Virginibus Puerisque and the
idiom of the parish of Balweary could be a concep-
tion of the same mind. If it be a good fortune for a
genius to have had such a country as Scotland for its
primary stuff, this is doubly the case when there
has been a certain process of detachment, of extreme
secularisation. Mr. Stevenson has been emancipated :
he is, as we may say, a Scotchman of the world.
None other, I think, could have drawn with such a
mixture of sympathetic and ironical observation the
character of the canny young Lowlander, David
Balfour, a good boy but an exasperating. Treasure
Island, The New Arabian Nights, Prince Otto, Doctor
Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde, are not very directly founded
on observation ; but that quality comes in with ex-


treme fineness as soon as the subject involves consider-
ation of race.

I have been wondering whether there is something
more than this that our author's pages would tell us
about him, or whether that particular something is
in the mind of an admirer because he happens to
have had other lights on it. It has been possible
for so acute a critic as Mr. William Archer to read
pure high spirits and the gospel of the young man
rejoicing in his strength and his matutinal cold bath
between the lines of Mr. Stevenson's prose. And it
is a fact that the note of a morbid sensibility is so
absent from his pages, they contain so little reference
to infirmity and suffering, that we feel a trick has
really been played upon us on discovering by accident
the actual state of the case with the writer who has
indulged in the most enthusiastic allusion to the joy
of existence. We must permit ourselves another
mention of his personal situation, for it adds im-
mensely to the interest of volumes through which
there draws so strong a current of life, to know that
they are not only the work of an invalid, but that
they have largely been written in bed, in dreary
"health-resorts," in the intervals of sharp attacks.
There is almost nothing in them to lead us to guess
this : the direct evidence indeed is almost all con-
tained in the limited compass of The Silverado
Squatters. In such a case, however, it is the indirect
that is the most eloquent, and I know not where
to look for that, unless in the paper called " Ordered


South," and its companion " Aes Triplex," in Virgin-
ibus Puerisque. It is impossible to read " Ordered
South " attentively without feeling that it is personal :
the reflections it contains are from experience, not
from fancy. The places and climates to which the
invalid is carried to recover or to die are mainly
beautiful, but

" In his heart of hearts he has to confess that [they are] not
beautiful for him. . . . He is like an enthusiast leading about
with him a stolid, indifferent tourist. There is some one by who
is out of sympathy with the scene, and is not moved up to
the measure of the occasion ; and that some one is himself. . . .
He seems to himself to touch things with muffled hands and to
see them through a veil. . . . Many a white town that sits
far out on the promontory, many a comely fold of wood on the
mountain side, beckons and allures his imagination day after
day, and is yet as inaccessible to his feet as the clefts and
gorges of the clouds. The sense of distance grows upon him

Online LibraryHenry JamesPartial portraits → online text (page 9 of 24)