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June 1998

An old gypsy nature

by Ben Downing

Review of Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson edited by Ernest Mehew

“IF NOBODY WRITES TO ME I SHALL DIE,” warned Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) in an uncharacteristically overwrought letter to a friend in 1884. The threat wasn’t quite idle, for the next day he almost did—not in a fit of epistolary loneliness, of course, but from a severe tubercular hemorrhage. And yet correspondence assumed for Stevenson, especially during the last years of his curtailed life, a singular importance. While this Scotsman’s twenty-eight hundred letters hardly hold the record, I doubt that anyone has topped Stevenson for sheer relish of the medium. All the brisk élan of his novels and essays animates his letters, too. Better still, they make us acquainted, as nothing else can, with the complex, delightful, and— rarest of qualities—wholly admirable character that was R.L.S., as it pleased Stevenson to sign himself.

Thanks to the efforts of Ernest Mehew, it’s now possible to get the full flavor of Stevenson’s piquant letters in a single meaty volume.[1] Spanning the years from September 1868, when R.L.S. was seventeen, right up to a few days before his death in 1894, the 317 letters chosen by Mehew range across the broad spectrum of moods, from the goofball to the saturnine, in which Stevenson operated. No less diverse is the roster of his recipients: Stevenson’s parents, cousin, oldest friends, and adored ex-nurse, Cummy, at the homier end of the list, and, at the more glamorous pole, a group of luminaries that includes Twain, Yeats, Rodin, Hardy, Henry James, J. M. Barrie, Edmund Gosse, George Meredith, George Saintsbury, John Addington Symonds, Arthur Conan Doyle, and William Dean Howells. For each correspondent, whether famous or obscure, Mehew provides a concise footnote explaining his or her relationship to R.L.S. Even more helpfully, his footnotes apprise us of the circumstances surrounding and prompting the letters: when, for example, Stevenson responds sharply to a given missive, Mehew quotes from it. Finally, Mehew interlards the text with brief biographical synopses. The results of his painstaking labors are to connect, at every step, the letters with the life, and to render appreciable that life’s heft and irregular shape; I gained a keener sense of Stevenson from Mehew’s annotations alone than from the one (admittedly poor) biography I’ve read.

Letters were crucial to R.L.S. for both emotional and utilitarian reasons. Warm, gregarious, unbudgeably loyal, he strove to maintain a cozy network of affections despite his long, frequent absences from those he loved—and letters were the only way. “Write to me in my infinite distance,” he entreats a friend. In 1874, Stevenson accurately predicted to his mother that “I shall be a nomad … until my days be done.” His letters are filled with a wry bafflement at the twists of his own fate. “Here is another curious start in my life,” begins one; “I am living at an angora goat ranche … eighteen miles from Monterey.”

If what Stevenson called his “old gipsy nature” spurred his vagrancy, illness was mostly to blame. First to European resorts like Menton, Hyères, and Davos, then to the South Pacific, his consumption kept him on the move. Nor was TB by any means his only ailment:

My dear James, My bloody health has played me it in once more in the absurdest fashion, and the creature who now addresses you is but a stringy and white-faced bouilli out of the pot of fever: sub-acute rheumatism, whispers the doctor; the congested kidney, the genial pleuritic rub, the familiar recalcitrant liver, the aching constipated gall-duct, the swimming headache, and the devil to pay in every corner of the economy.
Stevenson was a connoisseur of disease, with a touch for wringing humor from the blackest facts. Like some perverse Escoffier, he once boasted of “a succession of gentle colds out of which I at last succeeded in cooking up a fine pleurisy.” Self-mockery, not self-pity, was his preferred style.

But where R.L.S. could twit himself as a “wretched house-plant,” he could also take satisfaction in his resilience; “I was made for a contest,” he declared. Stevenson had (to steal Chesterton’s choice phrase) “pugnacious optimism.” For the reader, it’s an odd sensation to overhear the author of Treasure Island buck up the one of Peter Pan about such decidedly adult, non-fantastic matters:

No, Barrie, ’tis in vain that they try to alarm me with their bulletins. No doubt you’re ill and unco ill … but I have been so often in the same case that I know pleurisy and pneumonia are in vain against Scotsmen who can write. You cannot imagine … how near me this common calamity brings you.

Stevenson’s gift for mingling pain with comedy extended naturally to his own relationships. Here, for the benefit of James, he breathes fresh, droll life into the hoary commonplace that marriage is a battlefield:

My wife is peepy and dowie: two Scotch expressions with which I will leave you to wrestle unaided… . She is a woman (as you know) not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine; and she has recently laboured in this field not without success… . It is strange: “we fell out my wife and I” the other night; she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use turning life into King Lear; presently it was discovered that there were two dead combatants upon the field, each slain by the arrow of the truth, and we tenderly carried off each other’s corpses. Here is a little comedy for Henry James to write!
In 1911 Sidney Colvin, Stevenson’s mentor, editor, and closest friend, asked for James’s advice about whether to publish this letter. James replied that “Fanny S. will be a bigger fool than I ever took her for if she resents this lively description of their domestic broil. It helps to commemorate her and makes her interesting… .” Stevenson’s occasional exasperation with Fanny never shades over into nastiness. In fact, he could get rather tetchy in her defense, as when, having taken Howells’s A Modern Instance as a general assault on divorcées (which Fanny had once been), he frostily informed Howells that he wanted “to know no one who considers himself holier than my wife.” Typically, R.L.S. later apologized to Howells for his pit-bull behavior; quick to decry sanctimoniousness in others, he wasn’t about to pass over his own faults.

Stevenson’s devotion to Fanny was matched by that to his friends. Even by Victorian standards, he worshiped friendship zealously and prided himself on practicing it well. “I did not ever care for much else than my friends,” he writes to Charles Baxter, among the closest of them, and in an 1890 letter to Colvin his veneration is more fervent still:

I did my work while I was a bedridden worm in England, and please God I shall do my work until I burst. I do not know of any other virtue I possess; and indeed there are few I prize alongside of it. Only, one other I have: I love my friends… . Since my dear wild noble father died, no head on earth, not even my wife’s, is more precious to me than yours. I do not know if you know what I thought of him; I think of you, my honoured and beloved friend, equally and with a kindred spirit.
Such feelings were thoroughly requited. Gosse eulogized R.L.S. as the “most unselfish and the most lovable of human beings,” while James, claims Leon Edel, “loved Stevenson with a tenderness of memory unique among his friends.”

Mutual love notwithstanding, Stevenson did sometimes quarrel with his cronies. The worst rupture by far occurred between R.L.S and W. E. Henley, the prickly litterateur whose peg-leg Stevenson transplanted to Long John Silver. Once again, the igniting spark was Fanny, whom Henley had casually accused of plagiarism. Unlike in his spat with Howells, though, Stevenson didn’t simmer down; he knew the insult had been meant. “I fear I have come to an end with Henley,” he lamented to Baxter. It is a measure of the value Stevenson attached to friendship that, even two months after the break, his letters persist in agonizing over it: “This business has been my headstone; I will never be reconciled to life.”

Familiar Studies of Men and Books R.L.S. named one of his volumes, a spirited collection of critical and biographical essays. The title is revealing, for Stevenson was wont to treat other writers, whether dead or alive, with the easy, sometimes teasing bonhomie of a kinsman. Even more unbuttoned is his manner toward them in correspondence, and one of the best reasons to read these letters is for Stevenson’s salty, perceptive, often hilarious remarks on the competition.

Not surprisingly, his Scots affinities were strongest. Just as Rossetti thought himself Blake reincarnate, Stevenson quite literally believed, we discover here, that the eighteenth-century poet Robert Fergusson “lives in me”; “it really looks like transmigration of souls.” But the Caledonian forebear Stevenson wrote most pungently about (to Gosse, in this case) was Burns:

Talking of Burns, Robert … I made a kind of chronological table of his various loves and lusts, and have been comparatively speechless ever since… . There was something in him of the vulgar, bagmanlike, professional seducer. I could kick his bottom for it… . Oblige me by taking down and reading … his “Twa Dogs” and his “Address to the Unco’ Guid.” I am only a Scotchman after all, you see, and when I have beaten Burns I am driven at once, by my parental feelings, to console him with a sugar plum. But hang me, if I know anything I like so well as the “Twa Dogs.” Even a common Englishman may have a glimpse, as it were from Pisgah, of its extraordinary merits.

When it came to continental writers, R.L.S. was less clannish yet every bit as decisive in his opinions. At rare moments, he bows down in awed supplication: “I have been reading the Vth and VIth Aeneid … and am overpowered… . We are all damned small fry, and Virgil is one of the tops of human achievement.” At others, however, his censure is bitingly lucid:

Were you to re-read some Balzac, as I have been doing, it would greatly help to clear your eyes. He was a man who never found his method. An inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered under forcible-feeble detail. It is astounding, to the riper mind, how bad he is, how feeble, how untrue, how tedious; and of course, when he surrendered to his temperament, how good and powerful. And yet never plain nor clear. He could not consent to be dull, and thus became so. He would leave nothing undeveloped, and thus drowned out of sight of land amid the multitude of crying and incongruous details. Jesus, there is but one art: to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.
That last deserves the immortality of aphorism.

Although Stevenson could be caustic about his peers—he conceived a special distaste for Tess, grousing to Colvin about “the false fire of Hardy”—his letters also prove him to have had a keen nose for talent. He was on to Shaw by 1886; in the same year, at Symonds’s urging, he read Crime and Punishment in French, and raved that “Dostoieffsky is of course simply immense: it is not reading, it is having a brain fever… .” By 1890, he’d recognized Kipling’s writing on the wall (the letter is to James):

Well, we begin to be the old fogies now; and it was high time something rose to take our places. Certainly Kipling has the gifts; the fairy godmothers were all tipsy at his christening: what will he do with them?

Even at the height of his fame Stevenson eagerly sent fan mail. In 1894, the young Yeats received an out-of-the-blue letter informing him that R.L.S. had “fallen in slavery … to your poem called ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree.’” For his part, Twain got a mash note that began like this:

My dear Mark Twain, I should have written a great while ago to the author of Huckleberry Finn—a book which I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again tomorrow. I think you will like to hear this: I got Huckleberry when I was pretty ill … read it straight through, began at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. Just at this juncture, down comes a Distinguished Painter [Sargent] to do my portrait; he was very refined and privately French; and when I insisted that Huckleberry was to be read aloud at the sittings, he wilted, sir. But I told him he had to face it, and he did, and I believe it did him good. I think he supposed I should have had Baudelaire read aloud to me.

Stevenson’s irreverent, hard-headed approach to literature didn’t stop at his own door. The least neurotic of writers, he assessed his work with the same candor and detachment he brought to bear on everyone else’s. His story “The Beach of Falesá” he describes as “sixty thousand words of sterling domestic fiction”—which that crackling tale surely is. Penny dreadfuls, meanwhile, were frankly acknowledged as such: “As for The Wrecker, it’s a machine, you know; don’t expect aught else,” he shrugged to James. Another book he savaged altogether:

The present book, Saint Ives, is nothing—it is in no style in particular, a tissue of adventures, the central character not very well done, no philosophic pith under the yarn… .

This matter-of-fact tone predominates in Stevenson’s accounts of his craft as well. He had scant patience for mincing niceties or prudishness: “If I have to kill a man, I kill him good; and if my characters have to go to bed with each other—well, I want them to go.” Even when sizing up his life’s achievement, two months before his death, R.L.S. would entertain no delusions: “It was a very little dose of inspiration, and a pretty little trick of style … improved by the most heroic industry.” As befits a Scots writer sometimes accused of Gallic preening, his vanities were hard work and elegant prose.

Stevenson’s letters are blunt, finally, about his motives: “I do not write for the public; I do write for money, a nobler deity.” Yet his disregard for the ruck of readers excepted those like the four Montagnon children, who wrote to plead for a sequel to Kidnapped. They heard back from R.L.S. within a week:

Thank you for your very pleasant letter. I have every intention to start Alan and David once again on their adventures; but what you have heard is true, I am often ill and unfit to work; Alan, besides, and David too, have views of their own and sometimes sulk… .
And practical though he may have been, Stevenson was no Stephen King. From New York, he wrote the following to Colvin:
You have no idea how much is made of me here; I was offered £2000 for a weekly article —eh hé, how is that, but I refused that lucrative job. They would drive even an honest man into being a mere lucre-hunter in three weeks… .
He kept one eye on his boiling pot, the other on the icy pinnacles of art.

The classic R.L.S. letter was a gallimaufry of news, business, medical updates, ruminations, badinage, solicitudes, some frisky light verses, bits of Horace or Montaigne peppered in, a doodle or two, and, dangling from it all, a coda of postscripts. These, for instance, he appended to a letter to a book-illustrator:

My mother (a good judge) says this is obscure and affected. What I mean is, couldn’t you get that frontispiece sooner? R.L.S. My mother says this last is impolite: couldn’t you as a favour get the frontispiece sooner? R.L.S.
Countless such moments of whimsicality, even outright silliness, are to be found and snickered over here. “I begin to see the whole scheme of letter writing,” Stevenson mused in 1890; “you sit down every day and pour out an equable stream of twaddle.” Perhaps, but Stevenson’s twaddle makes better reading than most people’s profundities. In the 1880s, for example, he and Baxter concocted a mock correspondence between “Thomson” and “Johnson,” Scots characters of their larkish invention. The following passage is representative:
Thomson, what did I tell ye? What did I hammer in the lugs of ye? … Of coorse, it’s a sair affliction to see a man that I hae been ower muckle mixed up wi—no to say, identifeed—come to sic ho–rrible example; but still and on, it’s a consolation to ken that, whatever, I dinnae ken the disgrace o’ a gaol, airns, an co–mmon malefactors. Be damd, you’re in it noo! A bony exhibeetion. O Thomson, and me that has aye befreendit ye!
The Thomson-Johnson game was played in the tradition of “Jink,” the name given by R.L.S. and his cousin Bob to their adolescent practical joking. Stevenson once wrote that Pepys “preserved till nearly forty the headlong gusto of a boy”; his own endured till his death at forty-four.

It’s virtually impossible to talk about Stevenson for long without running into the fact—and the attendant “issue”—of his boyishness. A coddled only child who married a woman ten years his senior and never reproduced, R.L.S. routinely acknowledged his own juvenility. His last letters, haunted by a prescience of death, contain descriptions of himself as a “bewildered child” and, “to borrow Carlyle on De Quincey, [a] ‘Child that has been in hell.’” “I was not born for age,” he concludes, with Keatsian resonance.

In fact, Stevenson’s very status hinges largely on his puerile appeal. Aptly enough, he’s acquired a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde double reputation: as clever yet flyweight raconteur to kids and middlebrows, a downmarket Conrad, and as writer’s writer; among those taking the latter view have been (besides James et al.) Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Borges, and Graham Greene—wise judges all. Stevenson’s knacks for narrative, suspense, and the turning of shapely sentences are undeniable. What tends to divide his readers is the question of his “seriousness,” especially moral. My amateur opinion is that while Stevenson’s fast pace may preclude, say, George Eliot’s hand-wringing botherations, the problem of how to act is persistent in his work. Even callow characters like Jim Hawkins and David Balfour are forced to make swift, difficult decisions about loyalty and the right thing to do, and no one who reads The Weir of Hermiston can mistake its author for anything less than a seasoned observer of moral conflict, dilemma, and ambiguity.

On this whole disputed terrain Stevenson’s letters shed a clarifying light. For they show him to have combined, in his relationships, the best qualities of child and adult. Imaginative, impish, spontaneous, and open, R.L.S. was also fastidiously ethical and stalwart when it counted most; he confessed to Barrie a “sneaking love … for a rogue,” yet was never one himself. Ironically, the inveterate mama’s boy ended up bread-winning for Fanny and her brood (which included Joe Strong, her worthlesss sponge of a son-in-law). As “the head of a household of five whites, and of twelve Samoans” when living in the South Seas, Stevenson with bovine resignation assumed “the one eternal burthen to go on making an income for my family… . The jingling tingling damned mint sauce is the trouble always.” Nor did he neglect wider responsibilities, embroiling himself, at considerable risk, in the Samoan struggle with Germany: “I do loathe politics; but at the same time, I cannot stand by and have the natives blown in the air treacherously with dynamite.” Explosives and perfidy belonged to the hot world Stevenson found himself in, and to the swashbuckling one he conjured through his fiction. But within the intimate domain of his letters, life was far more often honest, genial, civilized.

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Ernest Mehew; Yale University Press, 626 pages, $39.95. Go back to the text.

Ben Downing's Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross was published last year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 June 1998, on page 69

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