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[The following is an excerpt from Henry Van Dyke's Companionable Books, 1922.]
AN ADVENTURER IN A VELVET JACKET
THUS gallantly he appears in my mind’s eye when I pause in rereading one of his books and summon up a fantasm of the author, — Robert Louis Stevenson, gentleman adventurer in life and letters, his brown eyes shining in a swarthy face, his lean, long-enduring body adorned with a black-velvet jacket.
This garment is no disguise but a symbol. It is short, so as not to impede him with entangling tails. It is unconventional, as a protest against the tyranny of fashion. But it is of velvet, mark you, to match a certain niceness of choice and preference of beauty, — yes, and probably a touch of bravura, — in all its wearer’s vagaries. ‘Tis like the silver spurs, broad sombrero and gay handkerchief of the thoroughbred cowboy, — not an element of the dandiacal, but a tribute to romance. Strange that the most genuine of men usually have a bit of this in their composition; your only incurable poseur being the fellow who affects never to pose and betrays himself by his attitude of scorn.
Of course, Stevenson did not always wear this symbolic garment. In fact the only time I met him in the flesh his clothes had a discouraging resemblance to those of the rest of us at the Authors Club in New York. And a few months ago, when I traced his “footprints on the sands of time” at Waikiki beach, near Honolulu, the picture drawn for me by those who knew him when he passed that way, was that of a lank, bare-footed, bright-eyed, sun-browned man who daundered along the shore in white-duck trousers and a shirt wide open at the neck. But the velvet jacket was in his wardrobe, you may be sure, ready for fitting weather and occasion. He wore it, very likely, when he went to beard the Honolulu colourman who was trying to “do” his stepson-in-law in the matter of a bill for paints. He put it on when he banqueted with his amiable but bibulous friend, King Kalakaua. You can follow it through many, if not most, of the photographs which he had taken from his twentieth to his forty-fourth, and last, year. And in his style you can almost always feel it, — the touch of distinction, the ease of a native elegance, the assurance of a well-born wanderer, — in short, the velvet jacket.
Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson began the ad-venture of life in a decent little house in Howard Place, Edinburgh, on November 18, 1850. He completed it on the Samoan island of Upolu in the South Seas, December 8, 1894, — completed it, I think, for though he left his work unfinished he had arrived at the port of honour and the haven of happy rest.
His father, and his father’s father, were engineers connected with the Board of Northern Lights. This sounds like being related to the Aurora Borealis; and indeed there was something of mystery and magic about Stevenson, as if an influence from that strange midnight dawn had entered his blood. But as a matter of fact the family occupation was nothing more uncanny than that of building and maintaining lighthouses and beacons along the Scottish coast, a profession in which they won considerable renown and to which the lad himself was originally assigned. He made a fair try at it, and even won a silver medal for an essay on improvements in lighthouses. But the calling did not suit him, and he said afterward that he gained little from it except “properties for some possible romance, or words to add to my vocabulary.”
This lanky, queer, delicate, headstrong boy was a dreamer of dreams, and from youth desperately fond of writing. He felt himself a predestinated author, and like a true Scot toiled diligently to make his calling and election sure.
But there was one thing for which he cared more than for writing, and that was living. He plunged into it eagerly, with more zest than wisdom, trying all the games that cities offer, and learning some rather disenchanting lessons at a high price. For in truth neither his physical, nor (as he later discovered) his moral, nature was suited to the sowing of wild oats. His constitution was one of the frailest ever exposed to the biting winds and soaking mists of the North British Boston. Early death seemed to be written in his horoscope. But an indomitable spirit laughs at dismal predictions. Robert Louis Stevenson, (as he now called himself, velvet-jacketing his own name,) was not the man to be easily snuffed out by weak lungs or wild weather. Mocking at “bloody Jack” he held fast to life with grim, cheerful, grotesque courage; his mother, his wife, his trusty friends, heartened him for the combat; and he succeeded in having a wider experience and doing more work than falls to the lot of many men in rudely exuberant health. To do this calls for a singular kind of bravery, not inferior to, nor unlike, that of the good soldier who walks with Death undismayed.
Undoubtedly Stevenson was born with a Wanderlust.
“My mistress was the open road
And the bright eyes of danger.”
Ill health gave occasion and direction to many voyages and experiments, some of which bettered him, while others made him worse. As a bachelor he roamed mountains afoot and travelled rivers in his own boat, explored the purlieus and sublittorals of Paris, London, and Edinburgh, lodged “on the seacoast of Bohemia,” crossed the ocean as an emigrant, and made himself vagrantly at home in California where he married the wife “the great Artificer made for him.” They passed their honeymoon in a deserted miner’s cabin, and then lived around, in Scotland, the Engadine, Southern France, Bournemouth, the Adirondacks, and on a schooner among the South Sea Islands bringing up at last in the pleasant haven of Vailima. On all these distant roads Death pursued him, and, till the last ten years, Poverty was his companion. Yet he looked with keen and joyful eyes upon the changing face of the world and into its shadowy heart without trembling. He kept his spirit unbroken, his faith unquenched even when the lights burned low. He counted life
“just a stuff
To try the soul’s strength on and educe the man.”
He may have stumbled and sometimes fallen, things may have looked black to him; but he never gave up, and in spite of frailties and burdens, he travelled a long way, — upward. Through all his travels and tribulations he kept on writing, writing, writing, — the very type of a migratory author. He made his first appearance in a canoe. The log of this journey, An Inland Voyage on French Rivers, published in 1878, was a modest, whimsical, charming debut in literature. In 1879 he appeared again, and this time with a quaint companion. Travels with a Donkey, in the Cevennes is one of the most delightful, uninstructive descriptions of a journey ever written in English. It contains no practical information but plenty of pleasure and profit. I do not envy the reader who can finish it without loving that obstinate little mouse-coloured Modestine, and feeling that she is one of the best-drawn female characters, of her race, in fiction.
From this good, quiet beginning his books followed rapidly, and (after Treasure Island, that incomparable boys’ book for men,) with growing popularity among the judicious, the “gentle readers,” who choose books not because they are recommended by professors or advertised in department stores, but because they are really well written and worth reading.
It is difficult to classify Stevenson’s books, perhaps just because they are migrants, borderers. Yet I think a rough grouping, at least of his significant works, may be made. There are five volumes of travels; six or seven volumes of short stories; nine longer novels or romances; three books of verse; three books of essays; one biography; and one study of South Sea politics. This long list lights up two vital points in the man: his industry and his versatility.
“A virtue and a vice,” say you? Well, that may be as you choose to take it, reader. But if you say it in a sour or a puritanical spirit, Stevenson will gaily contradict you, making light of what you praise and vaunting what you blame.
Industry? Nonsense! Did he not write An Apology for Idlers? Yet unquestionably he was a toiler; his record proves it. Fleeing from one land to another to shake off his implacable enemy; camping briefly in strange places; often laid on his back by sickness and sometimes told to “move on” by Policeman Penury; collecting his books by post and correcting his proofs in bed; be made out to produce twenty-nine volumes in sixteen years, — say 8,000 pages of 800 words, each, — a thing manifestly impossible without a mort of work. But of this be thought less than of the fact that he did it, as a rule, cheerfully and with a high heart. Herein he came near to his own ideal of success: “To be honest, to be kind — to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not to be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation, — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself — here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.” Of his work I think he would have said that he stuck to it, first, because he needed the money that it brought in, and second, because he enjoyed it exceedingly. With this he would have smiled away the puritan who wished to pat him on the back for industry.
That he was versatile, turned from one subject to another, tried many forms of his art, and succeeded in some better than in others, he would have admitted boldly — even before those critics who speak slightingly of versatility as if it marked some inferiority in a writer, whereas they dislike it chiefly because it gives them extra trouble in putting him into his precise pigeonhole of classification. Stevenson would have referred these gentlemen to his masters Scott and Thackeray for a justification. His versatility was not that of a weathercock whirled about by every wind of literary fashion, but that of a well-mounted gun which can be turned towards any mark. He did not think that because he had struck a rich vein of prose story-telling he must follow that lead until he had worked it or himself out. He was a prospector as well as a miner. He wished to roam around, to explore things, books, and men, to see life vividly as it is, and then to write what he thought of it in any form that seemed to him fit, — essay, or story, or verse. And this he did, thank God, without misgiving, and on the whole greatly to our benefit and enjoyment.
I am writing now of the things which make his books companionable. That is why I have begun with a thumb-nail sketch of the man in the velvet jacket who lives in them and in his four volumes of letters, — the best English letters, it seems to me, since Lamb and Thackeray. That also is why I have not cared to interrupt this simple essay by telling which of his works strike me as comparative failures, and giving more or less convincing reasons why certain volumes in my “collective edition” are less worn than others.
‘Tis of these others that I wish to speak, — the volumes whose bindings are like a comfortable suit of old clothes and on whose pages there are pencil-marks like lovers’ initials cut upon the bark of friendly trees. What charm keeps them alive and fresh, in an age when most books five years old are considered out of date and everything from the unspacious times of Queen Victoria is cordially damned? What manner of virility is in them to evoke, and to survive, such a flood of “Stevensoniana”? What qualities make them still welcome to so wide a range of readers, young and old, simple and learned, — yes, even among that fair and capricious sex whose claim to be courted his earlier writings seem so lightly (or prudently) to neglect?
Over and above the attraction of his pervading personality, I think the most obvious charm of Stevenson’s books lies in the clear, vivid, accurate and strong English in which they are written. Reading them is like watching a good golfer drive or putt the ball with clean strokes in which energy is never wanting and never wasted. He does not foozle, or lose his temper in a hazard, or brandish his brassy like a war-club. There is a grace of freedom in his play which comes from practice and self-control.
Stevenson describes (as far as such a thing is possible) the way in which he got his style. “All through my boyhood and youth,” says he, “I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler, and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write.” He traces with gusto, and doubtless with as much accuracy as can be expected in a map drawn from memory, the trails of early admiration which he followed towards this goal. His list of “authors whom I have imitated” is most entertaining: Hazlitt, Lamb, Wordsworth, Sir Thomas Browne, Defoe, Hawthorne, Montaigne, Baudelaire, Obermann. In another essay, on “Books Which Have Influenced Me,” he names The Bible, Hamlet, As You Like It, King Lear, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Leaves of Grass, Herbert Spencer’s books, Lewes’s Life of Goethe, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the poems of Wordsworth, George Meredith’s The Egoist, the essays of Thoreau and Hazlitt, Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, — a strange catalogue, but not incoherent if you remember that he is speaking now more of their effect upon his way of thinking than of their guidance in his manner of writing, — though in this also I reckon he learned something from them, especially from the English Bible.
Besides the books which he read, he carried about with him little blank-books in which he jotted down the noteworthy in what he saw, heard, or imagined. without a manuscript, masters of the viva-voce style, like Robert, the Scotch gardener, and John Todd, the shepherd. When he saw a beggar on horseback, he cared not where the horse came from, he watched the rascal ride. If an expression struck him “for some conspicuous force, some happy distinction,” he promptly annexed it; — because he understood it, it was his.
In two separate essays, each of which he calls “A Gossip,” he pays tribute to “the bracing influence of old Dumas,” and to the sweeping power and broad charm of Walter Scott, “a great romantic — an idle child,” the type of easy writers. But Stevenson is of a totally different type, though of a kindred spirit. He is the best example in modern English of a careful writer. He modelled and remodelled, touched and retouched his work, toiled tremendously. The chapter on Honolulu in The Wrecker, was rewritten ten times. His essays for Scribner’s Magazine passed through half a dozen revisions.
His end in view was to bring his language closer to life, not to use the common language of life. That, he maintained, was too diffuse, too indiscriminate. He wished to condense, to distil, to bring out the real vitality of language. He was like Sentimental Tommy in Barrie’s book, willing to cogitate three hours to find the solitary word which would make the thing be had in mind stand out distinct and unmistakable. What matter if his delay to finish his paper lost him the prize in the competition? Tommy’s prize was the word; when he had that his work was crowned.
A willingness to be content with the wrong colour, to put up with the word which does not fit, is the mark of inferior work. For example, the author of Trilby, wishing to describe a certain quick, retentive look, speaks of the painter’s “prehensile eye.” The adjective startles, but does not illuminate. The prehensile quality belongs to tails rather than to eyes.
There is a modern school of writers fondly given to the cross-breeding of adjectives and nouns. Their idea of a vivid style is satisfied by taking a subject which belongs to one region of life and describing it in terms drawn from another. Thus if they write of music, they use the language of painting; if of painting, they employ the terminology of music. They give us pink songs of love, purple roars of anger, and gray dirges of despair. Or they describe the andante passages of a landscape, and the minor key of a heroine’s face.
This is the extravagance of a would-be pointed style which mistakes the incongruous for the brilliant. Stevenson may have had something to do with the effort to escape from the polished commonplace of an English which admitted no master earlier than Addison or later than Macaulay. He may have been a leader in the hunting of the unexpected, striking, pungent word. But for the excesses and absurdities of this school of writing in its decadence, he had no liking. He knew that if you are going to use striking words you must be all the more careful to make them hit the mark.
He sets forth his theory of style in the essay called A Humble Remonstrance. It amounts to this: First, you shall have an idea, a controlling thought; then you shall set your words and sentences marching after it as soldiers follow their captain; and if any turns back, looks the other way, fails to keep step, you shall put him out of the ranks as a malingerer, a deserter at heart. “The proper method of literature,” says he, “is by selection, which is a kind of negative exaggeration.” But the positive exaggeration, — the forced epithet, the violent phrase, the hysterical paragraph, — he does not allow. Hence we feel at once a restraint and an intensity, a poignancy and a delicacy in his style, which make it vivid without ever becoming insane even when he describes insanity, as he does in The Merry Men, Olalla, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His words are focussed on the object as with a burning-glass. They light it up; they kindle it; but they do not distort it.
Now a style like this may have its occasional fatigues: it may convey a sense of over-carefulness, of a choice somewhat too meticulous, — to use a word which in itself illustrates my meaning. But after all it has a certain charm, especially in these days of slipshod, straddling English. You like to see a man put his foot down in the right place, neither stumbling nor swaggering. The assurance with which he treads may be the result of forethought and concentration, but to you, reading, it gives a feeling of ease and confidence. You follow him with pleasure because he knows where he is going and has taken pains to study the best way of getting there.
Take a couple of illustrations from the early sketches which Stevenson wrote to accompany a book of etchings of Edinburgh, — hack work, you may call them; but even hack work can be done with a nice conscience.
Here is the Edinburgh climate: “The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in spring. The delicate die early, and I, as a survivor among bleak winds and plumping rains, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate.” Here is the Scottish love of home: (One of the tall “lands,” inhabited by a hundred families, has crumbled and gone down.) “How many people all over the world, in London, Canada, New Zealand, could say with truth, ‘The house I was born in fell last night’!”
Now turn to a volume of short stories. Here is a Hebridean night, in The Merry Men: “Outside was a wonderful clear night of stars, with here and there a cloud still hanging, last stragglers of the tempest. It was near the top of the flood, and the Merry Men were roaring in the windless quiet.”
Here is a sirocco in Spain: “It came out of malarious lowlands, and over several snowy sierras. The nerves of those on whom it blew were strung and jangled; their eyes smarted with the dust; their legs ached under the burden of their body; and the touch of one hand upon another grew to be odious.”
Now take an illustration from one of his very early essays, Notes on the Movements of Young Children, printed in 1874. Here are two very little girls learning to dance: “In these two, particularly, the rhythm was sometimes broken by an excess of energy, as though the pleasure of the music in their light bodies could endure no longer the restraint of the regulated dance.”
These examples are purposely chosen from tranquil pages; there is nothing far-fetched or extraordinary about them; yet I shall be sorry for you, reader, if you do not feel something rare and precious in a style like this, in which the object, however simple, is made alive with a touch, and stands be-fore you as if you saw it for the first time.
Tusitala, — “Teller of Tales,” — was the name which the South Sea Islanders gave to Stevenson; and he liked it well. Beginning as an essayist, he turned more and more, as his life went on, to the art of prose fiction as that in which he most desired to excel. It was in this field, indeed, that he made his greatest advance. His later essays do not surpass his earlier ones as much as his later stories excel his first attempts.
Here I conceive my reader objecting: Did not Treasure Island strike twelve early in the day? Is it not the best book of its kind in English?
Yes, my fellow Stevensonian, it is all that you say, and more, — of its kind it has no superior, so far as I know, in any language. But the man who wrote it wrote also books of a better kind, — deeper, broader, more significant, and in writing these he showed, in spite of some relapses, a steadily growing power which promised to place him in the very highest rank of English novelists.
The Master of Ballantrae, maugre its defects of construction, has the inevitable atmosphere of fate, and the unforgettable figures of the two brothers, born rivals. The second part of David Balfour is not only a better romance, but also a better piece of character drawing, than the first part. St. Ives, which was left unfinished, may have been little more than a regular “sword-and-cloak” story, more choicely written, perhaps, than is usual among the followers of “old Dumas.” But Stevenson’s other unfinished book, Weir of Hermiston, is the torso of a mighty and memorable work of art. It has the lines and the texture of something great.
Why, then, was it not finished? Ask Death.
Lorna Doone was written at forty-four years: The Scarlet Letter at forty-six: The Egoist at fifty-one: Tess of the D’Urbervilles at fifty-one. Stevenson died at forty-four. But considerations of what he might have done, (and disputes about the insoluble question,) should not hinder us from appraising his actual work as a teller of tales which do not lose their interest nor their charm.
He had a theory of the art of narration which he stated from time to time with considerable definiteness and inconsiderable variations. It is not obligatory to believe that his stories were written on this theory. It is more likely that he did the work first as he wanted to do it, and then, like a true Scot, reasoned out an explanation of why he had done it in just that way. But even so, his theory remains good as a comment on the things that he liked best in his own stories. Let us take it briefly.
His first point is that fiction does not, and can not, compete with real life. Life has a vastly more varied interest because it is more complex. Fiction must not try to reproduce this complexity literally, for that is manifestly impossible. What the novelist has to do is to turn deliberately the other way, and seek to hold you by simplifying and clarifying the material which life presents. He wins not by trying to tell you everything, but by telling you that which means most in the revelation of character and in the unfolding of the story. Of necessity he can deal only with a part of life, and that chiefly on the dramatic side, the dream side; for a life in which the ordinary, indispensable details of mere existence are omitted is, after all, more or less dream-like. Therefore, the story-teller must renounce the notion of making his story a literal transcript of even a single day of actual life, and concentrate his attention upon those things which seem to him tl3i most real in life, — the things that count.
Now a man who takes this view of fiction, if he excels at all, will be sure to do so in the short story, a form in which the art of omission is at a high premium. Here, it seems to me, Stevenson is a master unsurpassed. Will o’ the Mill is a perfect idyl; Markheim, a psychological tale in Hawthorne’s manner; Olalla, a love-story of tragic beauty; and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in spite of its obvious moving-picture artifice, a parable of intense power.
Stevenson said to Graham Balfour: “There are three ways of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly you may take a certain atmosphere and get actions and persons to express and realize it. I’ll give you an example — The Merry Men. There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the feeling with which that coast affected me.” This, probably, is somewhat the way in which Hawthorne wrote The House of the Seven Gables; yet I do not think that is one of his best romances, any more than I think The Merry Men one of Stevenson’s best short stories. It is not memorable as a tale. Only the bits of description live. The Treasure of Franchard, light and airy as it is, has more of that kind of reality which Stevenson sought. Therefore it seems as if his third “way of writing a story” were not the best suited to his genius.
The second way, — that in which the plot links and unfolds the characters — is the path on which he shows at his best. Here the gentleman adventurer was at ease from the moment he set forth on it. In Treasure Island he raised the dime novel to the level of a classic.
It has been charged against Stevenson’s stories that there are no women in them. To this charge one might enter what the lawyers call a plea of “confession and avoidance.” Even were it true, it would not necessarily be fatal. It may well be doubted whether that primitive factor which psychologists call “sex-interest” plays quite such a predominant, perpetual, and all-absorbing part in real life as that which neurotic writers assign to it in their books. But such a technical, (and it must be confessed, somewhat perilous,) defense is not needed. There are plenty of women in Stevenson’s books, — quite as many, and quite as delightful and important as you will find in the ordinary run of life. Marjory in Will o’ the Mill is more lovable than Will himself. Olalla is the true heroine of the story which bears her name. Catriona and Miss Grant, in the second part of David Balfour, are girls of whom it would be an honour to be enamoured; and I make no doubt that David, (like Stevenson) was hard put to it to choose between them. Uma, in The Beach of Falesa, is a lovely insulated Eve. The two Kirsties, in Weir of Hermiston, are creatures of intense and vivid womanhood. It would have been quite impossible for a writer who had such a mother as Stevenson’s, such a friend of youth as Mrs. Sit-well, such a wife as Margaret Vandegrift, to ignore or slight the part which woman plays in human life. If he touches it with a certain respect and pudor, that also is in keeping with his character, — the velvet jacket again.
The second point in his theory of fiction is that in a well-told tale the threads of narrative should converge, now and then, in a scene which expresses, visibly and unforgettably, the very soul of the story. He instances Robinson Crusoe finding the footprint on the beach, and the Pilgrim running from the City of Destruction with his fingers in his ears.
There are many of these flash-of-lightning scenes in Stevenson’s stories. The duel in The Master of Ballantrae where the brothers face each other in the breathless winter midnight by the light of unwavering candles, and Mr. Henry cries to his tormentor, “I will give you every advantage, for I think you are about to die.” The flight across the heather, in Kidnapped, when Davie lies down, for-spent, and Alan Breck says, “Very well then, I’ll carry ye”; whereupon Davie looks at the little man and springs up ashamed, crying “Lead on, I’ll follow!” The moment in Olalla when the Englishman comes to the beautiful Spanish mistress of the house with his bleeding hand to be bound up, and she, catching it swiftly to her lips, bites it to the bone. The dead form of Israel Hands lying huddled together on the clean, bright sand at the bottom of the lagoon of Treasure Island. Such pictures imprint themselves on memory like seals.
The third point in Stevenson’s theory is, that details should be reduced to a minimum in number and raised to a maximum in significance. He wrote to Henry James, (and the address of the letter is amusing,) “How to escape from the besotting particularity of fiction? ‘Roland approached the house; it had green doors and window blinds; and there was a scraper on the upper step.’ To hell with Roland and the scraper!” Many a pious reader would say “thank you” for this accurate expression of his sentiments.
But when Stevenson sets a detail in a story you see at once that it cannot be spared. Will o’ the Mill, throwing back his head and shouting aloud to the stars, seems to see “a momentary shock among them, and a diffusion of frosty light pass from one to another along the sky.” When Markheim has killed the antiquarian and stands in the old curiosity shop, musing on the eternity of a moment’s deed, — ’ ‘first one and then another, with every variety of pace and voice, — one deep as the bell from a cathedral turret, another ringing on its treble notes the prelude of a waltz, — the clocks began to strike the hour of three in the afternoon.” Turning over the bit of paper on which “the black spot,” the death-notice of the pirates, has been scrawled with charcoal, Jim Hawkins finds it has been cut from the last page of a Bible, and on the other side he reads part of a verse from the last chapter of the Revelation: Without are dogs and murderers.
There is no “besotting particularity” in such details as these. On the contrary they illustrate the classic conception of a work of art, in which every particular must be vitally connected with the general, and the perfection of the smallest part depends upon its relation to the perfect whole. Now this is precisely the quality, and the charm, of Stevenson’s stories, short or long. He omits the non-essential, but his eye never misses the significant. He does not waste your time and his own in describing the coloured lights in the window of a chemist’s shop where nothing is to happen, or the quaint costume of a disagreeable woman who has no real part in the story. That kind of realism, of local colour, does not interest him. But he is careful to let you know that Alan Breck wore a sword that was much too long for him; that Mr. Hyde was pale and dwarfish, gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, and bore himself “with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness”; that John Silver could use his wooden leg as a terrible weapon; that the kitchen of the cottage on Aros was crammed with rare incongruous treasures from far away; and that on a certain cold sunny morning “the blackbirds sung exceeding sweet and loud about the House of Durisdeer, and there was a noise of the sea in all the chambers.” Why these trivia? Why such an exact touch on these details? Because they count.
Yet Stevenson’s tales and romances do not give — at least to me — the effect of over-elaboration, of strain, of conscious effort; there is nothing affected and therefore nothing tedious in them. They move; they carry you along with them; they are easy to read; one does not wish to lay them down and take a rest. There is artifice in them, of course, but it is a thoroughly natural artifice, — as natural as a clean voice and a clear enunciation are to a well-bred gentleman. He does not think about them; he uses them in his habit as he lives. Tusitala enjoys his work as a teller of tales; he is at home in it. His manner is his own; it suits him; he wears it without fear or misgiving, — the velvet jacket again.
Of Stevenson as a moralist I hesitate to write because whatever is said on this point is almost certain to be misunderstood. On one side are the puritans who frown at a preacher in a velvet jacket; on the other side the pagans who scoff at an artist who cares for morals. Yet surely there is a way between the two extremes where an artist-man may follow his conscience with joy to deal justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God. And having caught sight of that path, though he may trace it but dimly and follow it stumbling, surely such a man may say to his fellows, “This is the good way; let us walk in it.” Not one of the great writers who have used the English language, so far as I know, has finished his career without wishing to moralize, to teach something worth learning, to stand in the pulpit of experience and give an honest message to the world. Stevenson was no exception to this rule. He avowed the impulse frankly when he said to William Archer, “I would rise from the dead to preach.”
In his stories we look in vain for “morals” in the narrow sense, — proverbs printed in italics and tagged on to the tale like imitation oranges tied to a Christmas tree. The teaching of his fiction is like that of life, diffused through the course of events and embodied in the development of characters. But as the story unfolds we are never in doubt as to the feelings of the narrator, — his pity for the unfortunate; his scorn for the mean, the selfish, the hypocritical; his admiration for the brave, the kind, the loyal and cheerful servants of duty. Never at his lightest and gayest does he make us think of life as a silly farce; nor at his sternest and saddest does he leave us disheartened, “having no hope and without God in the world.” Behind the play there is a meaning, and beyond the conflict there is a victory, and underneath the uncertainties of doubt there is a foothold for faith.
I like what Stevenson wrote to an old preacher, his father’s friend. “Yes, my father was a ‘distinctly religious man,’ but not a pious. . . . His sentiments were tragic; he was a tragic thinker. Now granted that life is tragic to the marrow, it seems the proper service of religion to make us accept and serve in that tragedy, as officers in that other and comparable one of war. Service is the word, active service in the military sense; and the religious man — I beg pardon, the pious man — is he who has a military joy in duty, — not he who weeps over the wounded.”
This is the point of view from which Stevenson writes as a novelist; you can feel it even in a romance as romantic as Prince Otto; and in his essays, where he speaks directly and in the first person, this way of taking life as an adventure for the valourous and faithful comes out yet more distinctly. The grace and vigour of his diction, the pointed quality of his style, the wit of his comment on men and books, add to the persuasiveness of his teaching. I can see no reason why morality should be drab and dull. It was not so in Stevenson’s character, nor is it so in his books. That is one reason why they are companionable.
“There is nothing in it [the world],” wrote he to a friend, but the moral side — but the great battle and the breathing times with their refreshments. I see no more and no less. And if you look again, it is not ugly, and it is filled with promise.”
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