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The versatility of Robert Louis Stevenson.

THE imminent centenary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa in the South Seas on December 3, 1894 provides an opportunity to assess his literary work. He was a writer of remarkable versatility, essayist, novelist, writer of fables and ballads, poet, playwright, travel writer, and he excelled as an author of short stories, revealing a rare genius.

Louis was born in Edinburgh on November 13, 1850 at 8 Howard Place, a street of elegant houses lying north of the Water of Leith in what is now known as Edinburgh's New Town. Both his father Thomas and his grandfather Robert were remarkable men, lighthouse engineers. Robert's most celebrated work was the Bell Rock lighthouse, eleven miles distant from Arbroath in Scotland. Louis's mother and father were devoted to their only son, despite bitter quarrels about religion. Margaret Isabel Balfour, tall and graceful as a girl, was the youngest daughter of Dr. Lewis Balfour, minister of Colinton, a village near Edinburgh.

Louis's health as a child in his father's new home in 17 Heriot Row and throughout his life was wretched, and from infancy he depended much on his nurse, a Scotswoman from Fife, Alison Cunningham, the cherished 'Cummy'. In a real sense she influenced his work as a writer, firing his imagination by reading to him accounts of persecuted Scottish Covenanters and arousing his pity in her rich, dramatic voice. Louis's imagination was already so vivid that he did not need his nurse to overstimulate his brain, but his sense of drama certainly owed something to her. 'It's you that gave me a passion for the drama, Cummy', he told her later. 'Me, Master Lou?', she protested, 'I never put foot inside a playhouse in my life'. 'Ay, woman', cried Louis, 'but it was the grand dramatic way ye had of reciting the hymns'. It was to 'Cummy' that he dedicated his A Child's Garden of Verses, first published in 1885. Both his conscience-stricken father and his diligent nurse sowed in R.L.S.'s mind in boyhood a powerful sense of evil and a consciousness of Sin, thus influencing his best stories such as Thrawn Janet, The Merry Men and Markheim where the devil makes a brief appearance as he does in Thrawn Janet.

His father naturally expected Louis, in the family tradition, to pursue the arduous and exacting career of a light-house engineer, entailing as it does constant visits to the coast in extremely harsh weather conditions. Stevenson was always intensely proud of his family's achievements as lighthouse engineers, but his own frail health would never have allowed him to make it his career. Nor had he a vocation or real aptitude for the profession. Yet the wild beauty of the coast between Caithness and the Orkney Islands stirred his deepest feelings and his love of nature can be perceived in his letters to 'his Madonna' Frances Sitwell. Moreover, his adventures on the isle of Erraid off Mull gave him fruitful material for his fine topographical novel Kidnapped and his story The Merry Men. Stevenson accompanied his father on a tour of Scottish lighthouses.

Stevenson always wanted to become a successful professional writer, learning the hard way, for his early efforts at writing stories met with failure. He would tell his intimate friend Charles Baxter, a Scottish lawyer, how on walks he would break out into dramatic dialogue, taking various parts and writing down conversations from memory. As he himself admitted, 'I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Baudelaire and to Obermann...'. As a mature writer he once described his method of embarking on his imaginative work to a Glasgow correspondent. 'I am still a slow study, and sit for a while on my eggs... Macerate your subject, let it boil slow, then take the lid off, and there your stuff is -- good or bad.'

Above all, Stevenson became a devoted student of topography, stressing the importance of place and action. In an early essay A Gossip on Romance, he describes 'fitness in events and places' where a certain locality becomes associated with an appropriate invented action. 'One place suggests work', he wrote, 'another idleness, a third early rising and long rambles in the dew'.

Swanston, his father's country cottage in the Pentlands where R.L.S. would retreat to write his essays, inspired his writing. Edinburgh, his natal city, he both loved and hated, for its climate was inimical to his health. In Edinburgh Picturesque Notes he writes intimately and lovingly of her. Above all, he was emotionally attached to Lammermuir, 'the hills of home', and to the purple heather of the Highlands. France and America later powerfully influenced his work.

As an essayist Louis has surely been underrated. They are always graceful, certainly not mere trifles, full of a mature and reflective wisdom of a writer endowed with enough imagination and sensitivity to probe into the vagaries of human conduct. Walking Tours was influenced by William Hazlitt's Going a Journey. He greatly admired him, remarking in Virginibus Puerisque on Going a Journey, 'for though we are mighty fine fellows nowadays, we cannot write like Hazlitt'. His friend Edmund Gosse, no mean critic, considered R.L.S. primarily an essayist, 'the best in my humble opinion (without one soul to approach you) since Lamb. To me, you always seem an essayist writing stories rather than a born novelist'.

In his study of Robert Burns intended for the Encyclopedia Britannica and at first rejected as being 'too frankly critical and too little in accordance with Scotch tradition', Stevenson is too much a moralist, the Conscience of the Covenanter, in conflict with the Bohemian he always at heart remained. It was later published by Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf in The Cornhill Magazine, to be reprinted in Familiar Studies of Men and Books. Again in his essay on Francois Villon, the fifteenth century French poet, his judgement is too harsh, for he could only see 'artistic evil' in him.

Stevenson's early books such as An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey, dedicated to Sidney Colvin to whom he owed so much, are lively and entertaining. The latter is an account of Louis's journey with Modestine in the Cevennes, appealing most to those with a wander lust, humorous and full of glee, but not lacking a haunting sadness, for Louis missed the companionship of Fanny Osbourne, the American divorcee he eventually married in San Francisco.

Thrawn Janet, praised by his friend Henry James as a 'masterpiece' and among his shorter stories 'the strongest in execution', is an important work, though difficult for an Angle-Saxon to understand because of the Scotch dialect. The story was written in Pitlochry, Perthshire during a very wet July (1881). Stevenson admitted that it 'frightened him to death', but Stephen immediately perceived its great merit, publishing it in The Cornhill in October. Much later in Samoa Louis confided to Belle Strong (Osbourne) his step-daughter that he believed his own gift lay in the grim and the terrible, stories such as Markheim influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.

In The Merry Men where the giant breakers off the south-west coast of Ares 'dance together the dance of death' Stevenson is obsessed with evil, the greed in the mind of the narrator's uncle, leading him slowly and inexorably as if by divine justice, to be drowned at the scene of his crime.

In The Art of Writing R.L.S. tells us that he began the Sea-Cook, the original title of Treasure Island in Braemar, the book that made him famous. He wrote his friend W. E. Henley: 'It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot John Silver'. His collaboration with Henley writing plays proved unsuccessful.

His residence in Bournemouth for three years in the 1880s marked one of his finest creative periods. There he began writing (1885) Kidnapped, his topographical novel mostly set in the highlands of Scotland (1751). Andrew Lang had earlier stimulated Stevenson's interest in Jacobite history.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reveals Stevenson's obsession with man's double, the Doppelganger, influenced, perhaps, by Edgar Allan Poe's stories William Wilson and Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque and by Bulwer-Lytton's A Strange Story. The critical sense of his devoted wife Fanny did not fail her, for Louis re-wrote this book in a white heat, sixty-four thousand words in six days, a marvellous achievement.

One of R.L.S.'s best novels The Master of Ballantrae was planned and begun during the icy winter of 1887-1888 when he was staying at 'Baker's Cottage', Lake Saranac, in the Adirondack Mountains of Upper New York State. Stevenson's portrait of the land steward MacKellar as narrator is masterly, no easy task for a writer. The hatred also between the two brothers is brilliantly described. What it lacks, however, is a convincing female character, for he failed often in female portraiture. Its brilliance is not sustained in its ending in America. Stevenson grew tired of it. One work never completed was St. Ives, the story of a French prisoner of war in Edinburgh Castle, probably owing to strained domestic conditions in his last years at Vailima.

The Beach of Falesa, the narrative of a South Sea trader, was inspired by Louis's travels in the South Seas, and has their full flavour. It is a splendid tale, smacking of warm tropical nights and heady with a strange wanton beauty. Suspense pervades it: Uma the native woman in the story is convincingly portrayed. The Ebb-Tide was begun in collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne and continued on his own in Samoa. The book owes something to Louis's brief sojourn in Papeete, the French colonial capital of Tahiti. It has no female characters, only three corrupt, decadent males, the drunken sea-captain Davis a failure and the vicious Huish a cockney.

Stevenson had an extraordinary affinity with the sea, revelling in her storms, no doubt mindful of his own experiences on The Casco. In The Wrecker another earlier work of collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, an uneven book, there is a magnificent description of a storm at sea. 'I could have thought', he wrote, 'there was at times another, a more piercing and human note that dominated all, like the wailing of an angel'.

In his last unfinished masterpiece Weir of Hermiston (first called The Justice-Clerk), written in Samoa and dedicated to his much loved, but tempestuous wife Fanny, he reveals his constant love and nostalgia for his native Scotland, unable to return there.

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal, Held still the target higher, chary of praise And prodigal of counsel. Who but thou?

It is widely known that Stevenson modelled Adam Weir, Lord Hermiston, on the notorious Lord Braxfield, a learned Scottish hanging judge partial to foul mirth and possessing a cherished coarseness. The two main female characters, the elder and younger Kirstie are finely portrayed, especially the elder Kirstie in the nocturnal scene with Archie, Hermiston's son. Perhaps Louis as he dictated to his step-daughter Belle Strong, the dialogue for once flowing so naturally and smoothly in his rich voice, was thinking of 'Cummy' reciting some Covenanting tale of martyrdom. Weir of Hermiston is a tragedy, and if Stevenson intended a happy ending to his work, it would have been false to his artistic ideals.

It is idle to speculate what Stevenson might have become if he had been vouchsafed a longer life. One might visualize him as an important novelist of the contemporary Pacific scene, to be compared with Conrad, but he touched greatness in his last work, and we must not ask for more.
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Author:Bevan, Bryan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:1949
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