Today is Robert Louis Stevenson’s 162nd birthday. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the First Annual Robert Louis Stevenson Day. Now, whether Stevenson Day will ever dethrone the haggis fuelled revelry of Burns Night remains to be seen—though public recitations of “Markheim” are encouraged.
But if you don’t already have plans for your celebration, here’s one: The Association for Scottish Literary Studies has just released their new edition of Stevenson’s Fables as a free e-book download. At the time of writing, it was available here. I can say that the pdf version, certainly, is a lovely book. It also includes a brief scholarly introduction by Prof Bill Gray of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy.
Do get yourself a copy. The Fables show the trickster Stevenson at his most magical and capricious. Here is a specimen, so taut and concise it might as well be an epigram:
XV: THE TADPOLE AND THE FROG
“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog.
“When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole.
“You never were a tadpole.”
For our celebration here at Unsettling Wonder, we have three vignettes To The Immortal Memory. The first comes from Katherine Langrish, the folklore editor. The second I redacted from Andrew Lang’s memoir of his friend in Adventures Among Books (1912). The third was contributed by the poetry editor, Josh Richards.
(H/T Heather Robbins.)
From Katherine Langrish:
RLS to Mrs Sitwell, August 1877:
“Vividness and not style is now my thing; style is all very well, but vividness is the real line of country; if a thing is meant to be read, it seems just as well to try and make it readable.”
Stevenson was a master of style; he didn’t have to worry about that: but his instinct in this early letter is right. He’s simply one of the most enjoyable and readable of late nineteenth century writers. I can come up with half a dozen scenes from his books, without even trying – Hyde trampling the child in the foggy Edinburgh street (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde); the candelabra-lit duel in The Master of Ballantrae; Jim hiding in the apple barrel on the Hispaniola and overhearing Silver’s plots (Treasure Island) ; Alan Breck Stuart demanding, ‘Am I no a bonny fighter?’ (Kidnapped)… His account of various pieces of Polynesian folk belief in ‘Vailima Letters’, such as a rotting corpse swinging upside down through the trees, had me so enjoyably terrified as a child that, after dusk, I would avoid going anywhere near the elm trees which grew at the bottom of our lane.
Stevenson was so many different things. An invalid, an adventurer. An essayist, a myth-maker. An exile, a Scottish patriot. A Bohemian before the term existed; a lover, a poet, a man who could make friends and keep them. A man of great charm and great honesty. A man, a Victorian man, who married a pistol-packing, divorced, American firebrand of a wife – a great character in her own right – and wrote her one of the best private love-poems ever, I think:
Trusty, dusky, vivid, true
With eyes of gold and bramble dew
Steel-true and blade-straight
The Great Artificer made my mate.
A man who appreciates that kind of woman is a man you can trust, and Stevenson is one of my heroes.
From Andrew Lang:
Before attempting to give any “reminiscences” of Mr. Stevenson, it is right to observe that reminiscences of him can best be found in his own works. In his essay on “Child’s Play,” and in his “Child’s Garden of Verse,” he gave to the world his vivid recollections of his imaginative infancy. In other essays he spoke of his boyhood, his health, his dreams, his methods of work and study. “The Silverado Squatters” reveals part of his experience in America. The Parisian scenes in “The Wrecker” are inspired by his sojourn in French Bohemia; his journeys are recorded in “Travels with a Donkey” and “An Inland Voyage”; while his South Sea sketches, which appeared in periodicals, deal with his Oceanic adventures. He was the most autobiographical of authors, with an egoism nearly as complete, and to us as delightful, as the egoism of Montaigne. Thus, the proper sources of information about the author of “Kidnapped” are in his delightful books. […]
I never had heard of his existence till, in 1873, I think, I was at Mentone, in the interests of my health. Here I met Mr. Sidney Colvin, now of the British Museum, and, with Mr. Colvin, Stevenson. He looked as, in my eyes, he always did look, more like a lass than a lad, with a rather long, smooth oval face, brown hair worn at greater length than is common, large lucid eyes, but whether blue or brown I cannot remember, if brown, certainly light brown. On appealing to the authority of a lady, I learn that brown wasthe hue. His colour was a trifle hectic, as is not unusual at Mentone, but he seemed, under his big blue cloak, to be of slender, yet agile frame. He was like nobody else whom I ever met. There was a sort of uncommon celerity in changing expression, in thought and speech. His cloak and Tyrolese hat (he would admit the innocent impeachment) were decidedly dear to him. On the frontier of Italy, why should he not do as the Italians do? It would have been well for me if I could have imitated the wearing of the cloak! […]
Mr. Stevenson was in town, now and again, at the old Saville Club, in Saville Row, which had the tiniest and blackest of smoking-rooms. Here, or somewhere, he spoke to me of an idea of a tale, a Man who was Two Men. I said “‘William Wilson’ by Edgar Poe,” and declared that it would never do. But his “Brownies,” in a vision of the night, showed him a central scene, and he wrote “Jekyll and Hyde.” My “friend of these days and of all days,” Mr. Charles Longman, sent me the manuscript. In a very commonplace London drawing-room, at 10.30 P.M., I began to read it. Arriving at the place where Utterson the lawyer, and the butler wait outside the Doctor’s room, I threw down the manuscript and fled in a hurry. I had no taste for solitude any more. The story won its great success, partly by dint of the moral (whatever that may be), more by its terrible, lucid, visionary power. I remember Mr. Stevenson telling me, at this time, that he was doing some “regular crawlers,” for this purist had a boyish habit of slang, and I think it was he who called Julius Cæsar “the howlingest cheese who ever lived.” One of the “crawlers” was “Thrawn Janet”; after “Wandering Willie’s Tale” (but certainly afterit), to my taste, it seems the most wonderful story of the “supernatural” in our language. […]
The younger romancists who arose after Mr. Stevenson went to Samoa were his friends by correspondence; from them, who never saw his face, I hear of his sympathy and encouragement. Every writer knows the special temptations of his tribe: they were temptations not even felt, I do believe, by Mr. Stevenson. His heart was far too high, his nature was in every way as generous as his hand was open. It is in thinking of these things that one feels afresh the greatness of the world’s loss; for “a good heart is much more than style,” writes one who knew him only by way of letters. […]
I rather vaguely remember another anecdote. He missed his train from Edinburgh to London, and his sole portable property was a return ticket, a meerschaum pipe, and a volume of Mr. Swinburne’s poems. The last he found unmarketable; the pipe, I think, he made merchandise of, but somehow his provender for the day’s journey consisted in one bath bun, which he could not finish. […]
I have remembered very little, or very little that I can write, and about our last meeting, when he was so near death, in appearance, and so full of courage—how can I speak? His courage was a strong rock, not to be taken or subdued. When unable to utter a single word, his pencilled remarks to his attendants were pithy and extremely characteristic. This courage and spiritual vitality made one hope that he would, if he desired it, live as long as Voltaire, that reed among oaks. […]
I have known no man in whom the pre-eminently manly virtues of kindness, courage, sympathy, generosity, helpfulness, were more beautifully conspicuous than in Mr. Stevenson, no man so much loved—it is not too strong a word—by so many and such various people. He was as unique in character as in literary genius.
From Josh Richards:
Normally, I tell this literary anecdote that I ran across somewhere in my graduate work to illustrate to my students how many gestures and phrases actually have venerable, literary histories, but it will have to suffice as a birthday marker. Its lovingly preserved in one of Henry James’ letters, but I can’t find the source, so my adumbrated retelling will have to suffice.
At one point, in the late 1880’s, the expatriate Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson were together in the same room. This was a rarer thing than you might think for two people as good of friends as James and Stevenson. You see, James was often off gallivanting across the continent and Stevenson, whose health was exceedingly poor, spent most of his time convalescing in Skerryvore, the house his parents had left him in Bournemouth. Although James and Stevenson filled many letters with correspondence, and their correspondence filled many volumes, with discussion of everything from contemporary politics, the state of the French theatre, to the most abstract aesthetics, but these two literary friends just sat in total silence. Stevenson had been invited over to celebrate the runaway success of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which had finally brought the author financial security—no longer would he have to write torturous travel narratives to support his wife. Sure, being a provider is a noble cause and all, but nothing justifies Travels with a Donkey. Though they were ostensibly celebrating, and James had brought out the finest cognac for the occasion—
Let me pause to set the scene here. This was a drawing-room that required a century of social mobility to bring to its grim quintessence. It was the Victorian drawing room that other Victorian drawing rooms looked at in a magazine ad and mocked as being airbrushed to a soulless, unattainable Platonic ideal but cursed themselves in their hearts that they were not, and in this abstract drawing room were, as if in jars, preserved two ideals of Victorian Men of Letters. James was, at this time, a portly middle-aged man dressed to the tens—flawless suit, a waistcoat with a pocket-watch, and, although he would be clean-shaven in later years, he at the time sported the sort of vigorous academic beard that declared its owner considered Cicero to be an acceptable model for an English prose-style. Stevenson, on the other hand, was much younger but with sunken, sallow features and wearing a dressing gown that hung limply on his thin frame. His slender fingers were endlessly engaged in twirling the tips of his moustache. His eyes had the haunted gleam of the spes pthisica, and both of them knew it would not be long till he would leave the chilly English coast for the South Seas to sail beyond the sunset and the baths of all the western stars until he died. It might be the gulfs would wash him down; it might be that he would touch the Happy Isles and see the great Charles Dickens whom they knew. And though they would not have long to speak, they sat with their brandy in hand in silent celebration for Stevenson’s literary success until, finally, James wearily settled onto his right elbow and turned his arm to extend a clenched fist across the gulf between the two armchairs, and solemnly intoned, “Robbie… Knucks.”