Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton
Stevenson (from Twelve Types [a Collection of Biographies])
A brief biography of Robert Louis Stevenson.
By G. K. Chesterton
A recent incident has finally convinced us that Stevenson was, as we suspected, a great man. We knew from recent books that we have noticed, from the scorn of ‘Ephemera Critica’ and Mr George Moore, that Stevenson had the first essential qualification of a great man: that of being misunderstood by his opponents. But from the book which Messrs Chatto & Windus have issued, in the same binding as Stevenson’s works, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson,’ by Mr H. Bellyse Baildon, we learn that he has the other essential qualification, that of being misunderstood by his admirers. Mr Baildon has many interesting things to tell us about Stevenson himself, whom he knew at college. Nor are his criticisms by any means valueless. That upon the plays, especially ‘Beau Austin,’ is remarkably thoughtful and true. But it is a very singular fact, and goes far, as we say, to prove that Stevenson had that unfathomable quality which belongs to the great, that this admiring student of Stevenson can number and marshal all the master’s work and distribute praise and blame with decision and even severity, without ever thinking for a moment of the principles of art and ethics which would have struck us as the very things that Stevenson nearly killed himself to express.
Mr Baildon, for example, is perpetually lecturing Stevenson for his ‘pessimism’; surely a strange charge against the man who has done more than any modern artist to make men ashamed of their shame of life. But he complains that, in ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,’ Stevenson gives evil a final victory over good. Now if there was one point that Stevenson more constantly and passionately emphasised than any other it was that we must worship good for its own value and beauty, without any reference whatever to victory or failure in space and time. ‘Whatever we are intended to do,’ he said, ‘we are not intended to succeed.’ That the stars in their courses fight against virtue, that humanity is in its nature a forlorn hope, this was the very spirit that through the whole of Stevenson’s work sounded a trumpet to all the brave. The story of Henry Durie is dark enough, but could anyone stand beside the grave of that sodden monomaniac and not respect him? It is strange that men should see sublime inspiration in the ruins of an old church and see none in the ruins of a man.
The author has most extraordinary ideas about Stevenson’s tales of blood and spoil; he appears to think that they prove Stevenson to have had (we use Mr Baildon’s own phrase) a kind of ‘homicidal mania.’ ‘He (Stevenson) arrives pretty much at the paradox that one can hardly be better employed than in taking life.’ Mr Baildon might as well say that Dr Conan Doyle delights in committing inexplicable crimes, that Mr Clark Russell is a notorious pirate, and that Mr Wilkie Collins thought that one could hardly be better employed than in stealing moonstones and falsifying marriage registers. But Mr Baildon is scarcely alone in this error: few people have understood properly the goriness of Stevenson. Stevenson was essentially the robust schoolboy who draws skeletons and gibbets in his Latin grammar. It was not that he took pleasure in death, but that he took pleasure in life, in every muscular and emphatic action of life, even if it were an action that took the life of another.
Let us suppose that one gentleman throws a knife at another gentleman and pins him to the wall. It is scarcely necessary to remark that there are in this transaction two somewhat varying personal points of view. The point of view of the man pinned is the tragic and moral point of view, and this Stevenson showed clearly that he understood in such stories as ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ and ‘Weir of Hermiston.’ But there is another view of the matter—that in which the whole act is an abrupt and brilliant explosion of bodily vitality, like breaking a rock with a blow of a hammer, or just clearing a five-barred gate. This is the standpoint of romance, and it is the soul of ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Wrecker.’ It was not, indeed, that Stevenson loved men less, but that he loved clubs and pistols more. He had, in truth, in the devouring universalism of his soul, a positive love for inanimate objects such as has not been known since St Francis called the sun brother and the well sister. We feel that he was actually in love with the wooden crutch that Silver sent hurtling in the sunlight, with the box that Billy Bones left at the ‘Admiral Benbow,’ with the knife that Wicks drove through his own hand and the table. There is always in his work a certain clean-cut angularity which makes us remember that he was fond of cutting wood with an axe.
Stevenson’s new biographer, however, cannot make any allowance for this deep-rooted poetry of mere sight and touch. He is always imputing something to Stevenson as a crime which Stevenson really professed as an object. He says of that glorious riot of horror, ‘The Destroying Angel,’ in ‘The Dynamiter,’ that it is ‘highly fantastic and putting a strain on our credulity.’ This is rather like describing the travels of Baron Munchausen as ‘unconvincing.’ The whole story of ‘The Dynamiter’ is a kind of humorous nightmare, and even in that story ‘The Destroying Angel’ is supposed to be an extravagant lie made up on the spur of the moment. It is a dream within a dream, and to accuse it of improbability is like accusing the sky of being blue. But Mr Baildon, whether from hasty reading or natural difference of taste, cannot in the least comprehend the rich and romantic irony of Stevenson’s London stories. He actually says of that portentous monument of humour, Prince Florizel of Bohemia, that, ‘though evidently admired by his creator, he is to me on the whole rather an irritating presence.’ From this we are almost driven to believe (though desperately and against our will) that Mr Baildon thinks that Prince Florizel is to be taken seriously, as if he were a man in real life. For ourselves, Prince Florizel is almost our favourite character in fiction; but we willingly add the proviso that if we met him in real life we should kill him.
The fact is, that the whole mass of Stevenson’s spiritual and intellectual virtues have been partly frustrated by one additional virtue—that of artistic dexterity. If he had chalked up his great message on a wall, like Walt Whitman, in large and straggling letters, it would have startled men like a blasphemy. But he wrote his light-headed paradoxes in so flowing a copy-book hand that everyone supposed they must be copy-book sentiments. He suffered from his versatility, not, as is loosely said, by not doing every department well enough, but by doing every department too well. As child, cockney, pirate, or Puritan, his disguises were so good that most people could not see the same man under all. It is an unjust fact that if a man can play the fiddle, give legal opinions, and black boots just tolerably, he is called an Admirable Crichton, but if he does all three thoroughly well, he is apt to be regarded, in the several departments, as a common fiddler, a common lawyer, and a common boot-black. This is what has happened in the case of Stevenson. If ‘Dr Jekyll,’ ‘The Master of Ballantrae,’ ‘The Child’s Garden of Verses,’ and ‘Across the Plains’ had been each of them one shade less perfectly done than they were, everyone would have seen that they were all parts of the same message; but by succeeding in the proverbial miracle of being in five places at once, he has naturally convinced others that he was five different people. But the real message of Stevenson was as simple as that of Mahomet, as moral as that of Dante, as confident as that of Whitman, and as practical as that of James Watt.
The conception which unites the whole varied work of Stevenson was that romance, or the vision of the possibilities of things, was far more important than mere occurrences: that one was the soul of our life, the other the body, and that the soul was the precious thing. The germ of all his stories lies in the idea that every landscape or scrap of scenery has a soul: and that soul is a story. Standing before a stunted orchard with a broken stone wall, we may know as a mere fact that no one has been through it but an elderly female cook. But everything exists in the human soul: that orchard grows in our own brain, and there it is the shrine and theatre of some strange chance between a girl and a ragged poet and a mad farmer. Stevenson stands for the conception that ideas are the real incidents: that our fancies are our adventures. To think of a cow with wings is essentially to have met one. And this is the reason for his wide diversities of narrative: he had to make one story as rich as a ruby sunset, another as grey as a hoary monolith: for the story was the soul, or rather the meaning, of the bodily vision. It is quite inappropriate to judge ‘The Teller of Tales’ (as the Samoans called him) by the particular novels he wrote, as one would judge Mr George Moore by ‘Esther Waters.’ These novels were only the two or three of his soul’s adventures that he happened to tell. But he died with a thousand stories in his heart.
If you wish to learn more about either of these authors you can check out our Robert Louis Stevenson Biography, or G. K. Chesterton Resource Index, both of which contain further resources.
When will you read Stevenson’s writing in Excellence in Literature?
E1.6 Focus text: Treasure Island