Robert Louis Stevenson's Critical Reception
by Richard Dury
see also: opinions of other writers
1) During his lifetime.
Five works were well received in English-speaking countries:
“Most of us had heard of him for the first times, a great many years ago, when a remarkable story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine , called ‘Pavilion on the Links,’ signed with the initials ‘R.L.S.’ None of us had then the least idea as to the identity of the writer of the story, but some of us, at all events, felt satisfied that a new and fresh power had arisen in English literature.” (Sidney Colvin, (1924). Robert Louis Stevenson: His Work And Personality. London: Hodder & Stoughton, Notes by Colvin, p. 232).
One person who recognized his abilities at an early date was Alexander Whyte. G.F. Barbour (Life of Alexander Whyte, 1923) tells how Whyte 'perhaps in the early months of 1880' met Thomas Stevenson and told him 'that his son's name would yet stand beside that of Swift and Sterne, high on the roll of the masters of English prose'.
His literary career did not begin in earnest
till 1878; he made his first considerable success with
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde made its sensational appearance in 1886. (Ib. 241).
In 1888 Marcel
Schwob dedicates to Stevenson Coeur double, his first volume to stories and
publishes enthusiastic essays on him in 1888, 1890, and 1894. In 1901-2 he sets
out on a cruise for health reasons that takes him to
Stevenson’s style was often seen as distinctive: Kipling (in a deleted paragraph of ‘Black Jack’, published in Soldiers Three in 1888) talks of “a writer called Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson who makes the most delicate inlay-work in black and white, and files out to the fraction of a hair.” Oscar Wilde calls him ‘that delightful master of delicate and fanciful prose’ (‘The Decay of Lying’, 1889) and considers him one of the few modern masters of English prose (‘English Poetesses’. Queen, December 8, 1888).
In ‘Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson. A Critical Study’ Stephen Gwynn (Fortnightly Review 56, Dec. 1894: 776-92) summed up a consensus opinion: he is ‘a classic’, has produced several masterpieces ‘in different kinds’ and has a ‘consummate mastery of a singularly ornate style’ (776), though he criticizes him for being too language-focussed (‘he is light and thin’ and sometimes affected) and not writing about familiar contexts. Nevertheless ‘he has written the best books of travel in the language’. Stevenson ‘preaches in art the gospel of technical thoroughness’ and he has founded a school ‘one has only to look round to see that’ (783). ‘It is as a story teller, not as an essayist that Mr. Stevenson will go down to posterity’ (786)
In contrast, Margaret Moyes Black (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1898, p. 103-4) says that many readers find the ‘graceful fascination’ of the essays much more satisfying than even the best of his tales.
The notices written of him at his death will give a good idea of his standing at the time, e.g. in The Illustrated London News Dec. 22, 1894: 769: ‘He is gone, our Prince of storytellers—such a Prince, indeed, as his own Florizel of Bohemia, with the insatiable taste for weird adventure, for diablerie, for a strange mixture of metaphysics and romance’.
In these first two periods he was seen (i) as the new 'great English novelist' (at a time when the great novelist was a matter of national pride), (ii) the hero of a life-narrative himself: the bohemian, the noble invalid, the dying wanderer.
Stevenson was enthusiastically praised by ‘the first holders of Chairs of English literature at the two historic universities: Sir Walter Raleigh (Merton Chair, Oxford, 1904), author of one of the first major studies on his style (1895) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (King Edward VII Professor, Cambridge, 1912), who wrote the final chapters of St. Ives, a novel Stevenson’s left unfinished at his death’ (Ambrosini & Dury 2006: ‘Introduction’). See: Early Studies, Biographies and In the Footsteps). George Saintsbury (History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1896): 339) saw in Stevenson’s work ‘a combination of literary and story-telling charm that perhaps no writer except Mérimée has ever equalled’.
‘On books on Stevenson there is no end, but rather an increased flow’ (Graham Balfour, Times Literary Supplement,19.6.1903, p. 194). ‘Perhaps no other writer was ever so much written about within so few years of his death’ (Sidney Colvin, ‘Two Stevenson Books’, TLS 18.9.1903: 262). It was as a result of this biographical attention that the feeling grew that interest iin Stevenson's life had taken the place of interest in his works: this is already expressed by Henry James in a letter to Gosse of 1901: "Insistent publicity [...] has done its work [...[ and Louis, qua artist, is now, definitively, the victim thereof". Janet Adam Smith repeats the idea in 1948 ("Stevenson the serious writer was eclipsed by Stevenson the picturesque character--the imaginative child, the rebellious Edinburgh bohemian, the Tusitala of the last coloured South Seas years" (Janet Adam Smith, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson (1948), p. 46)
Willam Sharp (who wrote his novels as ‘Fiona Macleod’) considers ‘where Stevenson is at his best’
in ‘The Country of Stevenson’ (1904) (The Selected Writings of
William Sharp. Vol. IV: Literary Geography.
Jack London (1876-1916) was another great Stevenson enthusiast, and expresses this
clearly in a series of letters to Cloudesley Johns in 1899-1900; he took
Henley’s side in the infamous 1901 review of Balfour, no doubt because of his admiration
for the adventurous and undomesticated life; he appreciated particularly The
Ebb-Tide, Treasure Island, 'A Lodging for the Night', Father Damien, his essays, his
letters, and his philosophy of life, considering (in 1910) that his
other fiction would not survive. In Martin Eden (1907), two
characters praise Stevenson but are ‘appalled at the quantities of rubbish
written about Stevenson and his work’ by critics who do not measure up to his
stature. In 1908 he visited Stevenson’s grave in
But I do join with you, and heartily, in admiration of Robert Louis Stevenson. What an example he was of application and self-development ! As a storyteller there isn’t his equal; the same thing might almost be said of his essays. While the fascination of his other works is simply irresistible, to me, the most powerful of all is his Ebb-tide. (Letter to Cloudesley Johns, 7 March 1899; from The Letters of Jack London)
I agree with you that R.L.S. never turned out a foot of polished trash, & that Kipling has; but – well, Stevenson never had to worry about ways or means, while Kipling, a mere journalist, hurt himself by having to seek present sales rather than posthumous fame. (To Cloudesley Johns 15 March 1899)
Do you remember Robert Louis Stevenson moralizing on death in his Inland Voyage? It is a beautiful expression of ‘Eat drink, and be merry, for to-morrow we die’. (To Cloudesley Johns 30 April 1899)
One may be a leader without posing as one, and in this category – the best of all – may be placed R.L.S. (To Cloudesley Johns May 28, 1899)
Am reading Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque just now. Find in this mail his Inland Voyage. Return it when you have finished, as I wish to pass it along. It has just arrived. Have read it myself. […] Have send for his Silverado Squatters – don’t think much of it from previous reading, but it was a long time ago, and I did it too hurriedly, I’m afraid. (To Cloudesley Johns 24 October 1899)
So it seems my immature judgement of Silverado Squatters, has been substantiated by another Stevenson lover. Guess I won’t re-read it with so much else clamouring for my attention. (To Cloudsesley Johns 31 October 1899)
Put all yourself into your work until your work become you, but nowhere let yourself be apparent. When, in the Ebb Tide, the schooner is at the pearl island, and the missionary pearler meets those three desperate men & puts his will against theirs for life or death, does the reader think of Stevenson? Does the reader have one thought of the writer? Nay, nay. Afterwards, when all is over, he recollects, and wonders, and loves Stevenson – but at the time? Not he. (To Cloudsesley Johns 16 June 1900)
sending you his [
note (from The Letters of Jack London): Strunsky was to deliver a
speech on W. E. Henley to the Woman’s Press Association; it was later published
as ‘On the Principle of Loyalty in Biography’, Impression Quarterly, March 1902.
In it, she defended
But the majority of the great short stories do not deal with love. 'A Lodging for the Night,' for instance, one of the most rounded and perfect stories ever told, not only has no hint of love in it, but does not contain a hint of one character whom we would care to meet in life. Beginning with the murder of Thevenin, running through the fearful night in the streets and the robbing of the dead jade in the porch, and finishing with the old lord of Brisetout, who is not murdered because he possesses seven pieces of plate instead of ten, it contains nothing that is not terrible and repulsive. Yet it is the awfulness of it that makes it great. The play of words in the deserted house between Villon and the feeble lord of Brisetout, which is the story, would be no story at all were the stress and strain taken out of it and the two men placed vis-a-vis with a score of retainers at the old lord’s back. ('The Terrible and Tragic in Fiction', The Critic, June 1903)
Stevenson’s Father Damien Letter has had more effect in a minute, and will go on having more effect in a minute, than all the stories I have written or shall ever write. (To Lorrin A. Thurston 1 Feb 1910)
Of all the
stories that I have ever read I place Stevenson’s
Kipling is forgotten, will Robert Louis Stevenson be remembered for his Dr. Jekyll and
Mr. Hyde, his Kidnapped, and his David Balfour?
Not so. His
‘Too much is written by the men who can’t write about the men who do write,’ Martin concurred. ‘Why, I was appalled at the quantities of rubbish written about Stevenson and his work.’
‘Ghouls and harpies!’ Brissenden snapped out with clicking teeth.’ Yes, I know the spawn - complacently pecking at him for his Father Damien letter, analyzing him, weighing him - ‘
‘Measuring him by the yardstick of their own miserable egos,’ Martin broke in.
‘Yes, that’s it, a good phrase, - mouthing and besliming the True, and Beautiful, and Good, and finally patting him on the back and saying, ‘Good dog, Fido.’ Faugh! ‘The little chattering daws of men,’ Richard Realf called them the night he died.’
‘Pecking at star-dust,’ Martin took up the strain warmly; ‘at the meteoric flight of the master-men […]’ (Martin Eden (1907), ch. 32)
The enthusiasm for Stevenson went beyond English-speaking countries. In 1904, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the Italo-German pianist and composer, wrote to his wife from on board an America-bound liner (27 March 1904):
große Freude. Ich habe Stevenson gelesen. Er ist ein Großer; ein Erzähler, ein
Denker, ein Realist, ein Phantast, Poet, Philosoph, einfach und complicirt;
aber immer mit einem Meistergriff beginnend und diesen festhaltend. Er ist neu,
originell und doch von dieser Art, daß er ebenso gut 300 Jahre vorher oder
nachher hätte entstehen können. Er ist tief, ohne schwer zu sein; er ist ein
Moralist und doch hauptsächlich ein Schriftsteller. Denn das sind die beiden
Punkte: Der Künstler muß vor Allem ganz Professionist sein: dann aber
weitsehender Mensch, außerhalb zeitlicher und räumlicher
Augenblicksverhältnisse. - Diese sind die Bleibenden...’
[‘I have had one great pleasure. I have read Stevenson. He is great: a storyteller, a thinker, a realist, a visionary, poet, philosopher, simple and complicated; he has the grip of a master when he begins and his hold never slackens. He is new, original, but of the type that could just as well have been born 300 years earlier or later. He is deep without being heavy; he is a moralist and above all a writer. For there are two important points: the artist must, before everything, be quite professional; and far-seeing, too, beyond momentary considerations of time and space. Artists with these qualities are the ones who remain…’]
The following day he
writes ‘Habe mit steigender Bewunderung Stevenson gelesen. Er
wiederholt sich nicht. Ein Bazar von Ideen und Scenen! Den Schlüssel des
Novellenproblems besitzt er wie Keiner. / Ich las eine spanische, eine
französische, eine irische Novelle; eine psychologische, eine philosophische.
Überall Colorit und Charaktere mit packender Plastik. Humor, Pathos, Ernst,
Naturpoesie, Menschenbeobachtung. Und - über alledem - der Novellenstoff, der
[‘Have read Stevenson with increasing admiration. He does not repeat himself. A bazaar of ideas and scenes! He possesses the key to the problems of fiction like no one else. / I have read some short stories about
(Ferruccio Busoni, Briefe an seine Frau 1895-1907. Zürich-Leipzig: Rotapfel, 1935. Letters to his Wife, translated by Rosamund Ley,
The American arts-and-crafts prophet Elbert Hubbard and The Roycrofters publishing company he founded in N.Y. State published Little Journeys to the Homes of… including Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Lovers, Vol. XIX, Dec. 1906. No. 6 was dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne.
R.A. Scott- James reviewing the first volumes of The Pentland Edition in The Daily News (Oct. 26 1906) says ‘Stevenson’s work is beginning to find its level among the classics of English literature’.
One of his special qualities is that ‘he has made us all conscious of a new kind of romance which has never before been experienced […] [He] taught us to see the romance of daily life, the sudden gleams from a brighter world illuming the dull and banishing the conventional. He has set up, as it were, a new romantic school, the greatest living member of which is Mr. Joseph Conrad. Its central feature is the contact of the personal, conscious self, with the strange, uncanny mystery of environment.’ Implicitly answering criticism, he adds ‘[W]hen he writes he is not so much posing as triumphing in the deft use of tools by means of which the fertile world he sees becomes the subject of his art’. Of the essays he says: ‘how many memorable phrases there are in these essays, how much just exploding of prejudices, recalling of simpler and elemental ideals, of probing down to important and fundamental truths’
The English Decadents (Dowson, Machen, Symons) were attracted to Stevenson not only because of his careful style and bohemian life-style, but also because he combined high literary ideals with remunerative popularity (Kirsten MacLeod, Fictions of British Decadence, New York: Palgrave, 2006; pp. 49-50).
But at the same time (and dangerously for his later evaluation by Modernists), Stevenson was also popularly revered as a figure of moral inspiration. Extracts from his works were anthologized in a series of volumes: The Pocket R.L.S. (1906), A Stevenson Calendar (1909), The Wisdom of R.L. Stevenson (1904), and even Brave Words About Death (1916). A typical sentimental reference is found in Eleanor Atkinson’s Greyfriar’s Bobby (New York: Harper & Bros., 1912):
Today, many would cross wide seas to look upon Swanston cottage, in whose odorous old garden a whey-faced, wistful-eyed laddie dreamed so many brave and laughing dreams.
soon adopted in the classroom: William Lyon Phelps edited a selection of Essays
in 1906 (New York: Scribner's) with Introduction and Notes for 'school
and college courses'; and an early edition of
In 1910, John
W. Cousin (A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature,
His greatest power is
[…] shown in those works which deal with
The main entry for Stevenson in The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. XIV (1916), is in the volume devoted ‘Critical and Miscellaneous Prose’ by Hugh Walker. He gives an almost totally positive overview, though he praises the essays and travel writing and short stories more than the novels:
Of all this group [writers of ‘critical and miscellaneous prose’ in the Victorian age], the greatest was Robert Louis Stevenson. Versatility was one of Stevenson’s most conspicuous qualities, for, besides being the foremost essayist since Lamb and a master of fiction, whether in the form of romance or in that of short story, he was also a dramatist and a poet.[…]
In [his] romances, Stevenson is at his best,
like Scott, when he is dealing with his native land; but a comparison with the
In 1913, Jacques
Rivière published his classic critical study Le roman d’aventure,
in which he takes Stevenson as one of his models in his definition of ‘the
On the last but one page of his study he finally offers an example of what he means by roman d’aventure: it is the scene in The Ebb-Tide when the three adventurers arrive on the pearl island. ‘Upon reading these pages’, Rivière writes, I feel my life extending into a sort of infinity, instead of contracting and thickening within me. My blood circulates freely; my breath is quick; and during those moments when nothing is yet happening… I feel myself quietly growing equal to everything prodigious in the universe. And my ecstasy resembles that of Herrick who, leaning over the diaphanous scarce-moving water of the lagoon, saw ‘a trail of rainbow fish with parrot beaks’ move by. (from Ambrosini forthcoming).
In 1913 the
poet Rupert Brooke lived on
G.K. Chesterton’s Robert Louis Stevenson (1927) is already in the period of ‘reaction against Stevenson, or at least against Stevensonsonians. Perhaps it would be most correct to call it a reaction against Stevensoniana… [I]t is well to know an author is loved, but not to publish all the love-letters’ (2). He mentions ‘the attacks which have commonly, and especially recently, been made’ on Stevenson (8) and defends him against them before going on to outline his artistic achievements. For Chesterton, ‘the 'supreme and splendid characteristic of Stevenson was his levity'—a point that has affinities with the views of Calvino (see below).
Revision of Stevenson is unusual: it was like a complete reversal of polarity--from highly positive not to slightly less positive but to clearly negative; after being highly praised as a great writer he becomes a symbol of the bad writer, his works an example of the direction in which literature should not go; he was excluded from the canon. "One way of making sense of this exclusion is to entertain the proposition that Stevenson, however brilliant an author of prose fiction, did not write novels. That is, he did not write 'novels' according to the ways in which the genre came to be defines, and its aesthetic norms established, in the retrospective view of twenthieth-century crtiticism." (Ian Duncan (2010). 'Stevenson and Fiction'. In Penny Fielding (ed.). The Edinburgh Companion to Robert Louis Stevenson. EUP. 11-26; 11.)
Early revisionismThere were some ‘revisionist’ versions of the life and works before 1914:
(i) George Moore disliked Stevenson’s stylistic virtuosity, which he saw as superficiality—Moore’s influence by Zola and Stevenson’s ironic distance from Realism undoubtedly has something to do with this attitude (the realist novel aimed to connect the reader directly with the described reality without any interposed authorial display). His criticisms date from as early as 1887.
In chapter 2 of A Mere Accident (1887), the misogynistic
aesthete John Norton shows the visitor the library of
In 1888 Moore published Confessions of a Young Man, a passionate revolt of English literature against the Victorian tradition, in which he says (Ch. 10): ‘I think of Mr. Stevenson as a consumptive youth weaving garlands of sad flowers with pale, weak hands, or leaning to a large plate-glass window, and scratching thereon exquisite profiles with a diamond pencil.[…] Mr. Stevenson's style is over smart, well-dressed, shall I say, like a young man walking in the Burlington Arcade? […] It is not Mr. Stevenson's brain that prevents him from being a thinker, but his style.[…] his talent is vented in prettinesses of style. […] if any man living in this end of the century needed freedom of expression for the distinct development of his genius, that man is R.L. Stevenson.’
In 1889 Moore condemned The Master of Ballantrae as 'a story of adventure with the story left out', with its 'disjointed narratives' and 'vain seas of speech where windless sails of narrative hang helpless and death-like, and vague shapes... people the gloom'. He quotes a long passage with the comment 'This seems to me as bad a page of English as I ever read... anything more limp and insipid I cannot imagine'. The book is 'as pretty as a drawing-room that has been recently re-decorated and arranged, according to the latest canons of fashion', it is 'the weakest piece of writing of Mr Stevenson's with which I am acquainted', and it is 'in exceeding degree vacuous and insincere'. (Hawk, 5 Nov. 1889; Maixner 1981, pp. 354-9).
In the Daily Chronicle April 24 1897, in a review of The Secret Rose by W.B. Yeats, Moore says ‘Stevenson is the leader of these countless writers who perceive nothing but the visible world’, while Yeats is the representative of great literature. Stevenson ‘imagined no human soul, and he invented no story that anyone will remember’; his best work is only ‘literary marquetry’. (This review appears to have created a stir and led to defences of Stevenson against its attacks from Quiller-Couch (The Speaker)and Vernon Blackburn (Academy) in 1897, Richard Le Gallienne in 1900 ('The Dethroning of Stevenson, in Sleeping Beauty and Other Prose Fancies, and also A.H. Japp (in Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An Estimate, A Memorial, 1905.)
(ii) Another early critic was H.G. Wells: in his review of Weir of Hermiston (Saturday Review 13 June 1896) he sees him as 'not so much a romancer as a novelist entangled in the puerilities of romance'. (For more on accusations of childishness by J.M. Barrie (1894), John Jay Chapman (1898), Edwin Muir (1931), and others, see Glenda Norquay, Robert Louis Stevenson and Theories of Reading (2007), pp. 92-3.)
(iii) John St. Loe Strachey in ‘A Study of Louis Stevenson’ (in From Grave to Gay. London: Smith, Elder 6 Co., 1897, 74-114) begins by asking ‘What is it that makes Mr. Stevenson's literary work never wholly satisfying?’ (Richard Le Gallienne defends Stevenson against the attacks of both Moore and Strachey in ‘Stevenson Dethroned’.)
(iv) In a letter of 1896 John Jay Chapman rather campishly accuses Stevenson of campishness: '[He] is…so highly artificial. He struts and grimaces and moralizes and palavers and throws in tid bits of local color, fine feeling, graceful ornament, O, my, ain't he clever - the rogue - hits you in the mid-riff - don't he - so beautiful…' (letter 1896, qu. Maixner 1980: 488). In 1898, latching on to Stevenson’s account of his training by imitating other writers (as a ‘sedulous ape’), he presents him as ‘the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature’(Emerson and Other Essays, p. 221), ‘there is an undertone of insincerity’ in his writings’ (225), ‘The reason why Stevenson represents a backward movement in literature, is that literature lives by the pouring into it of new words from speech, and new thoughts from life, and Stevenson used all his powers to exclude both from his work. He lived and wrote in the past’ (p. 243); both Lang and Stevenson supply material for the new mass-market in literature. [Stevenson’s self-mocking account of ‘playing the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Oberman’ (‘A College Magazine’, Memories and Portraits, 1887) was later to be so often used against him that Max Beerbohm jokingly claimed that the printers kept ‘sedulous ape’ ready set up in type (qu. Paul Maixner, Robert Louis Stevenson. The Critical Heritage, 1981, p. 21).]
(v) The Glasgow Herald Oct. 22 1898 has an unsigned article ‘Limits of the Stevenson Cult’ which criticises his ‘theatricality’ and condemns the ethics of his fiction (the violence of The Wrecker). His essays don’t teach morals effectively. ‘When all these allowances are made, we still have left to us in Stevenson the charming egoist, the supreme and infinitely conscious artist… Among the Immortals he will have a seat on the second bench. He will sit by the side of Lamb, and not be hopelessly distant from Montaigne’.
(vi) Ford Madox Ford recalled ‘hearing Stephen Crane […] [probably in 1899] comment upon a sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson that he was reading. The sentence was: ‘With interjected finger he delayed the motion of the timepiece’ [‘Markheim’; actually: that piece of life had been arrested, as the horologist, with interjected finger, arrests the beating of the clock’]. ‘ “By God, poor dear!” Crane exclaimed. “That man put back the clock of English fiction fifty years”.’ (Ford Madox Ford, Memories and Impressions (1911). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971: 182). Chesterton (1927: ch. VI) says the same objection to ‘interjected’ was made by George Moore.
(viii) ‘Stevenson Unwhitewashed’. Atlantic Monthly (March 1900), unsigned article [and article with the title ‘Stevenson Unwhitewashed: Was his Story of Jekyll and Hyde Enacted in Real Life?’ was also published in Current Opinion in1924].
(ix) W. E. Henley (1901). ‘R.L.S.’. Pall Mall Magazine (Dec 1901): here
he praised the youthful, bohemian Stevenson (who had been his companion) and
harshly criticized the sanitized and domesticated version of Balfour’s
biography and (while appreciating ‘the unmarried and irresponsible Lewis; the
friend, the comrade, the charmeur’, ‘the Lewis that I knew and loved’
who ‘never came back’ from America) he accuses him of selfishness and having
written no books of interest: he is ‘an overstrained stylist, a third- or
fourth-class romancer’; is
there not something to be said for the person [George Moore] who wrote that
Stevenson always reminded him of a young man dressed the best he ever saw for
the Burlington Arcade?’
(x) In 1901, Clement K. Shorter (Sphere
7 Dec.) writes that Stevenson ' is not an epoch-making writer; he has
no place with the very greatest masters in fiction or in thoughtful
(xi) In E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), Leonard Bast betrays his lack of culture by enthusing over Stevenson’s essays and travel books, thus creating great embarrassment and a ripple of laughter among the young intellectuals gathered around the Schlegel sisters (Forster 1953: 111-3).
(xii) The Chicago Evening Post Feb. 3, 1911 (NLS MS9906 cuttings collected by Graham Balfour, cutting 57 (also numbered A 79)), is a report on ‘the latest acid comment’ (but with no ref): the article reported had said that Stevenson has ‘a self-conscious style… Nearly always it is overelaborated, it poses’ also ‘there was a good deal of effeminacy in his nature’.
(xiii) George Saintsbury (in The English Novel, 1913, p. 295) talks of ‘the effective but also rather affected and decidedly laboured style’ Stevenson had used before Weir of Hermiston.
(xiv) G. K. Chesterton (1913), in The Victorian Age in Literature (London: Home University Library, p. 110) warned that ‘when we look back up the false perspective of time, Stevenson does seem in a sense to have prepared that imperial and downward path’, even though ‘he would not have liked it if he had lived to understand it’.
The reaction (1914-early 1950s) begins with Frank Swinnerton’s R.L. Stevenson: A Critical Study (1914; 2nd ed 1923). The subtitle is deliberately chosen to show an intellectually rigorous approach and to distinguish it from earlier readings of Stevenson’s life and ‘personality’. He demolishes both the man and his work with arguments which would recur throughout the century: ‘a writer of the second class’ and a superficial thinker; his art is 'tedious virtuosity, a pretense, a conscious toy'.
He is also criticized in The Times Literary Supplement Dec. 4, 1919 [by Hugh l’Anson Fausset, published anonymously], p. 1: ‘the number of those who attack the accepted view of his genius with dark sayings and subdued negations is on the increase; while the generation which has grown up with such tragic suddenness under war conditions finds itself regarding him with that attitude of kindly and agreeable patronage which is significant of more than youth’s unconscious attitude towards the amiable indiscretions of its elders’. ‘His writing is a game… We like to see him playing with his toys; but it is a game in which we are seldom tempted to share.’
In September 1919 Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that ‘[Forster] hates Stevenson’ (Diary I, p. 295) and in 1925, E. M. Forster (‘Anonymity: An Inquiry’ in Two Cheers for Democracy) says Stevenson is ‘not first class’, he is guilty of ‘mannerisms . . . self-consciousness . . . sentimentality . . . [and] quaintness’:
If we glance at one or two writers who are not first class this point will be illustrated. Charles Lamb and R. L. Stevenson will serve. Here are two gifted, sensitive, fanciful, tolerant, humorous fellows, but they always write with their surface-personalities and never let down buckets into their underworld. Lamb did not try: bbbbuckets, he would have said, are bbeyond me, and he is the pleasanter writer in consequence. Stevenson was always trying oh ever so hard, but the bucket either stuck or else came up again full of the R.L.S. who let it down, full of the mannerisms, the self-consciousness, the sentimentality, the quaintness which he was hoping to avoid. He and Lamb append their names in full to every sentence they write. They pursue us page after page, always to the exclusion of higher joy. They are letter writers, not creative artists, and it is no coincidence that each of them did write charming letters. A letter comes off the surface: it deals with the events of the day or with plans: it is naturally signed. Literature tries to be unsigned. And the proof is that, whereas we are always exclaiming ‘How like Lamb!’ or ‘How typical of Stevenson!’ we never say ‘How like Shakespeare!’ or ‘How typical of Dante!’
Forster later wrote in his commonplace book in 1926 that he could not tolerate Stevenson because he belonged to an oppressive and disliked preceding generation of writers:
Immediate Past is like a stuffy room, and
the succeeding generation waste their time in trying to tolerate it. All they
can do is to go out leaving the door open behind them. The room may be
spacious, witty, harmonious, friendly, but it smells, and there is no getting
round this. Hence letters to The Times on the one hand and broken
windows on the other. ‘What a pity the young are not more tolerant!’ Quite so.
But what a pity there is such a thing as death, for that is the real
difficulty. The apartments occupied by the succeeding generation will smell
equally in their turn. (Writers whom I find smell: H. James, Meredith,
Stevenson: and if Hardy doesn’t it’s not because his novels are better than the
other three - they are not so good - but because of the injection into them of
great poetry.) (E.M. Forster’s Commonplace Book, ed. by Philip Gardner,
John A. Stuart, in a letter to the Times 18
April 1922 talks of ‘the Stevenson cult’ and the reaction to it in the
article by Maurice Hewlett on 13th April. ‘A few charming essays in
a minor key, some short stories – not all of them first rate – a quantity of
indifferent verse, and a couple of excellent books for boys – these it
[criticism today] says are not so wonderful a performance after all’. ‘Two
books – “Kidnapped” and “
John Freeman (London Mercury vol. 5 No. 30 (April 1922), pp. 617-627, is perplexed by ‘the Stevenson myth’, his books give ‘momentary pleasure’ (p. 626). In the same year, George S. Hellman also wrote on ‘The Stevenson Myth’ (Century Magazine, December 1922).
1924 was a year of renewed interest in Stevenson: John A. Steuart’s Robert Louis Stevenson: Man and Writer. A Critical Biography (2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co; notice the word ‘critical’ in the title, a clear indication of approach, following Swinnerton’s 1914 biography), Colvin’s Robert Louis Stevenson: His Work And Personality, Osborne’s An Intimate Portrait of R.L.S., the publication of Fanny Stevenson’s The Cruise of the Janet Nichol; the new Tusitala and Skerryvore Editions, the end of unlimited copyright. This led to several important articles about the present-day status of Stevenson.
Leonard Woolf in a 1924 essay (‘The Fall
of Stevenson’. Nation and Athenaeum 34 (5 Jan. 1924), p. 517 (reprinted
in Essays on Literature, History, Politics, Etc. London: Hogarth Press,
1927. 33-43) says that ‘there never has been a more headlong fall in a writer’s
reputation than there was in Stevenson’s after his death’ and ‘a false style
tells most fatally against a writer when, as with Stevenson, he has nothing
original to say’, the style of the writer who had been ‘just the man to
captivate the taste of the romantic ‘nineties’, sounded by then ‘drearily thin
and artificial.’ (Stevenson’s old friend, Edmund Gosse, could not believe that
such things were being said by ‘the son-in-law of our old friend Leslie
Stephen, having married
Stuart P. Sherman in The New York Herald Tribune: Books Nov. 23 1924, p. 1-2, writes an review criticizing Stuart with the title ‘Who Made the Stevenson Myth?’: talks of ‘the extraordinary richness and the almost incomparable versatility of Stevenson’s literary talent’. ‘Whence, then, came the “Stevenson myth”, which ever criticaster thinks it his duty to smash?’
In a review of Stuart in the American Mercury, (“Tusitala” [review]. The American Mercury 3(2) (Nov. 1924): 378-80.) H. L. Mencken condemns Stevenson to the second and third rate. 
‘The typical Stevensonian is bookish but not a bookman – in brief, a sort of gaper over the fence of beautiful letters… I can detect no passion for Stevenson among the men and women who are actually making the literature of today. There are hot partisans among them for Joseph Conrad, for Hardy, for Meredith, for Flaubert, for Dostoievsky and even for Dickens, but there are none, so far as I am aware, for good Louis. His customers, beginning with literary college professors, often female, fade into collectors of complete library sets. Himself always a boy of 17, he seems to hold best those readers whose delight in the wonders of the word is not too much contaminated by the cramps and questionings of maturity….
What is wanting is a fell-length study of him, done objectively and by a realistic and scientific hand… It is a wonder, indeed, that no Freudian has been tempted to the task, for S was surely one of the most beautiful masses of complexes ever encountered on this earth. His whole life was a series of flights from reality – first from Presbyterianism, then from the sordid mountbankery of the law, and then from the shackles of his own wrecked and tortured body… Doomed to spend half his life in bed, beset endlessly by pain, brought often to death’s door by hemorrhages, and sometimes forbidden for days on end to work or even to speak, he found release and consolation in gaudy visions of gallant encounters, sinister crimes, and heroic loves. He was the plow-boy dreaming in the hay-loft, the flapper tossing on her finishing-school bed. It was at once a grotesque tragedy and a pathetic farce, but it wrung out of him the best that was in him. What man ever paid more bitterly for the inestimable privilege of work? Stevenson, alas, wrote a great deal of third-rate stuff; even his most doting admirers must find it hard to read, for example, some of his essays. But out of the agony came also ‘A Lodging for the Night’, ‘The Sire de Malétroit’s Door’, ‘Will o’ the Mill’ and ‘Treasure Island’, and if they do not belong absolutely in the first rank, then certainly they go high in the second. Every one of them represents an attempt to escape the world of reality by launching into a world of compensatory fancy.
His weakness as
an imaginative author lies in the fact that he never got beyond the simple
revolt of boyhood – that his intellect never developed to match his
imagination. The result is an air of triviality hangs about all his work and
even at times, an air of trashiness. He is never very searching, never
genuinely profound. More than any other man, perhaps, he was responsible for
the revival of the romantic novel in the last years of the Nineteenth Century,
and more than any other salient man of his time he was followed by shallow and
shoddy disciples. The appearance of Joseph Conrad, a year after his death,
disposed of all his full-length romances save ‘
A notable attack came from E. F.
Benson in 1925 (‘The Myth of Robert Louis Stevenson’. The
At the end of the year another attack came in the new York Saturday Review of Literature (Vol. 1, No. 19, Dec. 6 1924), the lead article and very probably by the editor Henry Seidel Canby. He mentions the defence of Stevenson by Stuart P. Sherman in Books of the Herald Tribune, but says that readers had revalued Stevenson because 'impatient with the suppressions that left so much out of the Victorian novel.... We have been living in one of those periods when sets of conventions that have lost their quality are smashed and new ones that fit better are adjusted to the human machine... We grow tired of these perpetual moral conclusions perfectly phrased and ask for the evidence... And, therefore, Stevenson was one of the first to sufer by the change of taste in the twentieth century.'
1925 saw the publication of George Hellman's The True Stevenson: a Study in Clarification. Hellman had made money by dismembering Stevenson's notebooks and selling a few sheets at a time in expensive leather bindings; now he turned to the life, suggesting an irregular sexual life in this debunking biography. The attack on Stevenson is seen as part of a general trend in "The Myth Exploding Industry" in The Harvard Crimson of 12 Dec. 1925. Commenting on Hellman's biography, the anonymous writer of this short piece says "Robert Louis Stevenson is now passing through the unfavorable second stage of biography; and he is unfortunate in having reached this point at a time when debunking is the first literary industry in the world".
Thomas Beer (in The Mauve Decade, 1926)
repeats the attack on Stevenson’s style seen as derivative and superficial:
‘His prose chimes gently on, delicately echoing a hundred classical musics,
generally dwindles from the recollection as do all imitations’ (p. 178).
According to Beer he was praised in the
In 1931, Edwin Muir (who would clearly classify himself among ‘the serious critics’) said ‘Stevenson has simply fallen out of the procession. He is still read by the vulgar, but he has joined the band of writers on whom, by tacit consent, the serious critics have nothing to say’ (Modern Scot, Autumn 1931).
George Orwell at the end of his period as a schoolboy at Eton (1917-21) had chosen a passage from Stevenson at an annual public reading, but in his first novel Burmese Days (1934), the protagonist, Mr. Flory, ‘pays a visit to the house of an Indian doctor, and discovers a “rather unappetising little library, books of essays, of the Emerson-Carlyle-Stevenson type.” (Richard Ambrosini, R. L. Stevenson: la poetica del romanzo, Bulzoni, 2001, p. 414). Both Forster and Orwell, in their debut as novelists (Howard’s End and Burmese Days), ‘use an appreciation of Stevenson as synonymous of cultural pretensions on the part of those – the low-class clerk, the colonised – who want to ape the taste of the bourgeoisie without understanding which authors are accepted in the predominant literary canon.’ (Ambrosini 2001, p. 414). In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) Orwell ‘strikes out’ at Stevenson again: ‘He looked at the time-dulled “classics” near his feet. Dead, all dead. Carlyle and Ruskin and Meredith and Stevenson—all are dead, God rot them. He glanced over their faded titles. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ha, ha! That’s good. Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson! Its top edge was black with dust. Dust thou art, to dust thou returnest. Gordon kicked Stevenson’s buckram backside. Art there, old falsepenny? You’re cold meat, if ever Scotchman was.’
V.S. Pritchett signed his first published works ‘VSP’ (perhaps in imitation of ‘RLS’?) and at the age of 21 went on a walking tour in imitation of Stevenson south of Paris from Melun to Orléans by way of Fontainebleau and wrote an essay about it in the Christian Science Monitor (1922), but then in his ‘Introduction’ to a selection of Stevenson’s Novels and Stories (London: Pilot Press, 1945), he emphasizes ‘the Stevenson legend’ and the way each of his works was ‘greeted eagerly and idolatrously’ by ‘his generation’ in ‘his time’, calls him ‘always too clever by half’ and ‘addicted to words for their own sake’ (before passing on to praise him).
Mario Praz in his Introduction to an Italian translation of Weir of Hermiston (1945), criticizes the legend created by Stevenson’s family members and quotes Benson’s ‘The Myth of Stevenson’ (1925).
The literary historian George Sampson says in 1947 (‘On Playing the Sedulous Ape’, in Seven Essays, pp. 61-98) that modern critics have been over-influenced by Stevenson’s own account of his imitative early work (‘the sedulous ape’) and ‘with the unanimity that is always wonderful they have found his writing unoriginal, unnatural and imitative’ (61). Sampson himself criticizes the ‘false’ and ‘theatrical’ style of ‘Aes Triplex’ and ‘Some Gentlemen in Fiction’; his moral essays are ‘the least satisfying’, because they lack sincerity.
Stevenson was now considered outmoded: his literary greatness was questioned, he was associated with the Victorian era, and his bohemian persona was analysed by new psychoanalytic biographers. Even David Daiches, as we see below (in the ‘reinstatement’ section) writes a monograph in 1947, praising the Scottish novels but faintly praising or condemning the other works.
Stevenson was omitted from the ‘canon’ of great writers in a series of authoritative works. F. R. Leavis only includes Stevenson in The Great Tradition (1948), in a footnote to Ch.1: ‘Scott was primarily a kind of inspired folk-lorist […] not having the creative writer’s interest in literature, he made no serious attempt to work out his own form and break away from the bad tradition of the eighteenth century-romance. […] Out of Scott a bad tradition came. It spoiled Fenimore Cooper, who had new and first-hand interests and the makings of a distinguished novelist. And with Stevenson it took on ‘literary’ sophistication and fine writing’; and he does not include him in The Common Pursuit (1952) and he is not mentioned once in the influential journal Scrutiny under Leavis’s editorship (1932-1953).
Stevenson is omitted from the first edition of Victorian Fiction: A Guide to Research, ed. Lionel Stevenson, 1964 (though writers like Disraeli and Bulwer-Lytton are in). The Preface (p. v) says that ‘Stevenson has been omitted, in spite of his influence on romantic fiction, because his adult novels are few and of debatable rank’.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by M. H. Abrams from the first (1962) to the seventh edition (2000) did not include a section devoted to Stevenson (he was admitted to the eighth edition of 2006). Raymond Williams excludes Stevenson from his ‘great tradition’ in The English Novel From Dickens to Lawrence (1970) in which he highlights works with ethical, political and social concerns. In 1973, Frank Kermode and John Hollander exclude any single mention of Stevenson (let alone a section devoted to him) in their Oxford Anthology of English Literature.
In his 1964 monograph, Robert Kiely says that except for Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and A Child's Garden of Verses, Stevenson's works have 'dropped into utter darkness'; he himself does not highly regard the works considered 'for children': only in the late works, he says, The Master of Ballantrae and Weir of Hermiston, did Stevenson 'begin to show the impressive consequences of the transition . .. from sleight-of-hand to artistry'.
Bruce Chatwin attacked him in 1974 (in an essay published posthumously in Anatomy of Restlessness, 1996), using arguments that had now become commonplaces: Stevenson isn’t a serious writer, he is “second-rate”, really a writer of books for boys and his fine style is superficial, an end in itself. It is curious that Chatwin has actually many affinities with RLS: his constant movements, sexual ambiguity, charm, endless myth-making, his cultivation of a concise and careful style.
Similarly, Jenni Calder in 1982 says plainly that "No-one would now claim that Stevenson is a great writer" (Modern Language Review 77.1, p. 398).
Hugh MacDiarmid [Christopher Murray Grieve] places Stevenson’s works within ‘Scottish literature’ in 1922 and (contrary to the tendency of Modernist critics to belittle RLS) indirectly praises him when he complains of the inadequate analysis of his works by amateur critics (‘Scottish literature […], unlike most other literatures, has been written about almost exclusively by ministers, with, on the whole, an effect similar to that produced by the statement (of the worthy Dr John MacIntosh) that “as a novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson had the art of rendering his writings interesting,” and “his faculty of description was fairly good”. (‘Causerie’. The Scottish Chapbook 1.i. (Aug. 1922): 2). As early as 1924, at the height of the "debunking" of "the Stevenson myth", we find a hope for "the genuine 'revival' [in Stevenson], which has been long bewen preparing, which is now overdue" (S. P. Sherman, "Who Made the Stevensn Myth?", in The New York Herald Tribune: Books Nov. 23 1924, p. 1-2). Stevenson's reinstatement begins timidly with mixed praise in Robert Louis Stevenson by Stephen Gwynn (1939) and in Robert Louis Stevenson: A Revaluation by David Daiches, published in 1947 at perhaps the lowest point of Stevenson’s reputation among critics (the first sentence is: ‘The works of Robert Louis Stevenson are not widely read today’). At that time, he says, ‘it has long been the fashion to esteem him as an essayist and dismiss the novels’ and part of the aim of the study is ‘to redirect attention to the novels as the most impressive expression of Stevenson’s genius’ (148), which he does in the first three of the four chapters (‘Adventure’, ‘Transition’, ‘Fulfilment’).
However Daiches also betrays the prejudices of the time: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is only mentioned in passing and is seen as ‘melodramatic’ and characterized by ‘swaggering confidence’ (118); An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey are both examples of ‘a show piece, a sort of prize essay’ (154); The Amateur Emigrant and The Silverado Squatters are ‘more important as sources for Stevenson’s biography than as literary works in their own right’ (167) and the essays are seen as ‘self-conscious’ (148) and ‘affected’ (150): he overlooks the essays on literary theory and gives a quotation from ‘The Lantern Bearers’ followed by the comment ‘The modern reader looks askance at this pretentious and perhaps at the same time commonplace philosophising’ (167). Daiches’ contribution was to stress Stevenson’s importance as a novelist and a as a Scottish novelist. However, even his praise of the Scottish novels is not without criticism: in a later publication (Robert Louis Stevenson and his World (1973, p. 83) he says of the multiple narrators of Ballantrae (now often seen as one of the text's interesting aspects): 'It is difficult to see what Stevenson hoped to gain by splitting up the story among different narrators'.
J.C. Furnas's biography Voyage to Windward (1952) dedicates an appendix to 'The Dialectics of Reputation' (pp. 436-455), and another ('Controversy') to refuting various legends that had grown up around the life story.
Travis R. Merritt emphasizes the ‘amazing’ nature of Stevenson’s essay ‘On Style in Literature’ in The Art of Victorian Prose (ed. George Levine & William Madden, 1968): ‘For sheer concentration on verbal method, for a specific interest in the texture of language which seems oddly to anticipate some of the habits of the New Criticism, there is nothing like this piece in all Victorian criticism. In its way, it is the most extreme offering from any of the advocates of prose stylism.’ (28).
It was perhaps easier for American critics to appreciate Stevenson, thanks to the greater importance of the romance in the American tradition (and the importance given to this by Northrop Frye in his studies on genres). Fundamental contributions to reinstatement were the monographs by Robert Kiely (1964), Edwin Eigner (1966) and Erwin S. Saposnik (1974).
A breakthrough in works of scholarly reference comes with Roger Swearingen's The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (1980) and Paul Maixner's Robert Louis Stevenson: the Critical Heritage (1981); critical studies of Stevenson also gained a new impulse in the 1980s thanks to Barry Menikoff's Robert Louis Stevenson and the Beach of Falesá (1984) and the influential collection of essays Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde After One Hundred Years (1988) edited by Veeder & Hirsch. Also of significance in the story was the Penguin Classics edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde edited by Jenni Calder in 1979, which included Falesá and The Ebb-Tide, making them easily available after they had been many years out-of-print. Oxford World Classics paperbacks followed, issuing several Stevenson volumes in the late 1980s.
English-language monographs on Stevenson before 1995 were rare (1947, 1965, 1966, 1974); since then there has been a ‘take-off’ in Stevenson studies: 1996 (Sandison), 2004 (Colley), 2004 (Danahay & Chisholm), 2004 (Gray), 2005 (Menikoff), 2005 (Miller), 2006 (Ambrosini & Dury), 2006 (Reid), 2007 (Buckton), 2007 (Norquay). In addition, 1997 saw the launching the RLS website, 2000 the start of biennial conferences, 2004 the launching of The Journal of Stevenson Studies—all indicators that confirm the growing interest and the final emergence of Stevenson from his period of critical exclusion. In 2005 Burkhard Niederhoff judged that ‘the critical tide now seems to be moving in favour of Stevenson and a serious critical study of his works’.
Jean-Yves Tadié (1982). ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’. In Le roman d’aventures, Paris, P.U.F.(Collection Ecriture), pp. 113-148.
Jean Baudrillard’s essay La pensée radicale (1994) centred on the relationship of thought and the real has as an epigraph a quotation from ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ (‘The novel is a work of art not so much because of its inevitable resemblance with life but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from life’).
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, after famously excluding Stevenson from 1968 to 2000 (1st - 7th editions), now includes him in their 8th edition (2006), in ‘The Victorian Age’ section (ed. Carol Christ and Catherine Robson), with the whole of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a two-page introduction.
The introduction gives a bio-bibliographical summary with only a few evaluative comments, among which a relative emphasis on ‘children’s classics… swashbuckling romances, historical adventures’ suggests the continuation of a certain critical distancing despite the welcome new inclusion. Another example of this attitude is the publisher’s presentation of Robert Louis Stevenson: Seven Novels (Barnes & Noble, 2006): ‘Robert Louis Stevenson was the soul of adventure, and his tales of derring-do in exotic lands rich with history and intrigue have enthralled countless readers’.
Ernest Mehew (2004) concludes his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography with ‘the critics (following pioneer work by David Daiches and Janet Adam Smith) are beginning to take him seriously again’. This is then quoted by Willam Baker (2006: 695) at the end of his survey on Stevenson publications in 2004).
Burkhard Niederhoff (2005: 334) suggests that the recent growth of interest in Stevenson’s works may have some connection with ‘cultural studies’, which sees a value in all sorts of texts and so overcomes the barrier perceived by ‘many a high-minded scholar’. ‘The relaxed way in which Ambosini, Norquay and Arata deal with S’s defence of popular literature contrasts vividly with the way in which he was attacked as an evasive and escapist writer by Andrew Noble and Peter Gilmore some twenty years ago. Stevenson scholars no longer write in the mode of accusation or in the mode of apology, and this indicates—even better than the mere quantity of publications—that Stevenson has finally and fully arrived on the academic scene.’
‘That Stevenson is a (post)modernist avant la lettre is a recurrent claim in Stevenson criticism’ (Niederhoff 2005: 331). This claim can be found (implicitly or explicitly) in the following contributions (in chronological order):
Alan Sandison, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Appearance of Modernism (London: Macmillan, 1996).
Roslyn Jolly, ‘Introduction’ to Robert Louis Stevenson, South Sea Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. xxxii-xxxiii;
Nels C. Pearson, ‘The Moment of Modernism: Schopenhauer’s “Unstable Phantom” in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae’, Studies in Scottish Literature 31 (1999), pp. 182–202.
Eric Massie, ‘Stevenson,
Conrad and the Proto-Modernist Novel’, PhD thesis,
Jean Webb, ‘Conceptualising Childhood: Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses’, Cambridge Journal of Education 32 (3) (2002), pp. 359-65.
Richard J. Walker, ‘ “He, I say – I Cannot Say I’: Modernity and the crisis of Identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, Journal of Stevenson Studies 1 (2004), pp. 76-102.
Roderick Watson, ‘ “You cannot fight me with a word”: The Master of Ballantrae and the wilderness beyond dualism’, Journal of Stevenson Studies 1 (2004), pp. 1-23.
Roslyn Jolly, ‘The Ebb-Tide and The Coral Island’, Scottish Studies Review 7 (2) (2006), pp. 79-91.
J. Walker, ‘Pious Works: Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Modern Individual in
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, in Robert
Louis Stevenson. Writer of Boundaries (
Jean-Pierre Naugrette, ‘Stevenson avec Barthes : Treasure Island, entre plaisir et jouissance’, in Hervé Fourtine, Nathalie Jaëck, Joël Richard (eds.), Le plaisir (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007), pp. 33-45.
Alex Clunas, ‘R.L. Stevenson: Precursor of the Post-Moderns?’, Cencrastus 6 (1981), pp. 9-11.
Silvia Albertazzi, ‘R. L. Stevenson e il suo pubblico: pretesto per una divagazione sul lettore pre- e post-moderno’ Problemi 84 (1989), pp. 4-14, reprinted in Ulrich Schulz-Buschhaus et al. (eds.), Scrittore e lettore nella società di massa (Trieste: LINT, 1991), pp. 235-246.
Alison Lumsden, ‘Postmodern Thought and the Fiction of Robert Louis Stevenson’, in R.D.S. Jack and Kevin McGinley (eds), Of Lion and of Unicorn: Essays on Anglo-Scottish Literary Relations in Honour of Prof. John MacQueen (Edinburgh: Quadriga, 1993), pp. 115–38.
Alan Sandison, ‘A World
Made for Liars: Stevenson’s Dynamiter and the Death of the Real’, In Jones (ed.), Robert Louis Stevenson Reconsidered (
Stephen Arata, ‘Stevenson Reading’. Journal of Stevenson Studies 1 (2004), pp. 192-200.
Roderick Watson. ‘ “The unrest and movement of our century”: the universe of The Wrecker’. Journal of Stevenson Studies 4 (2007), pp. 114-28.
Roslyn Jolly (2007) claims that ‘The critical re-evaluation of Stevenson in the 1990s had two major conceptual centres. It was under the banners of modernism and postcolonialism that Stevenson was rescued from belle-lettrist oblivion and instated as a subject of serious academic study’, adding that ‘The analysis of Stevenson’s modernism has now expanded to an exploration of his affinities with postmodernism.’ Now, two additional critical approaches have been added, ‘Anthropology and psychoanalysis — the latter particularly in its relation to literary theory’.
She sees previous dismissal of Stevenson as partly inspired by ‘hearsay’ evidence: ‘typified by an episode from Orwell’s Burmese Days, […] in which an enthusiast of empire quotes a phrase ‘that probably came from Stevenson . . . “torchbearers upon the path of progress.” Anybody who has read A Footnote to History […] knows that there is no phrase he would have been less likely to use, unless ironically as part of an attack on European colonialism.’
(and influence on other writers)
While critics rejected Stevenson as a major writer for many decades, creative writers continued to admire the work of this ‘writers’ writer’. What follows is only the start of a collection of observations on Stevenson by writers.
In a letter in 1886 the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins talks of Stevenson and complains that his corresponded Robert Bridges does not see ‘his great genius’ and says that in Jekyll and Hyde ‘the superficial touches of character are admirable’ and ‘worthy of Shakespeare’. ‘The Pavilion on the Links’ ‘is genius from beginning to end’. ‘Stevenson is master of a consummate style, and each phrase is finished as in poetry’. (Letters, ed. Abbott 1935: 238-9, 243; qu. Maixner 1981: 229-30).
In the Indian Railway Library Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Soldiers Three (1888), the short story ‘Black Jack’ has an opening paragraph omitted from later editions: ‘There is a writer called Mr Robert Louis Stevenson, who makes most delicate inlay work in black and white, and files out the fraction of a hair. He has written a story about a Suicide Club, wherein men gambles for Death because other amusements did not bite sufficiently. My friend private Mulvaney knows nothing about Mr Stevenson, but he once assisted informally at almost such a Club as that gentleman has described, and his words are true.’
Alfred Ollivant’s Owd Bob The Grey Dog of Kenmuir (know in the USA as Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir) (1898) is about the rivalry of two sheepdogs and their masters. The first idea for the story came from S’s essay ‘Pastoral’.
In his biography Things Near and Far (1923), Arthur Machen (1863-1947) wrote: 'It was in the early spring of 1894 that I set about the writing of the said "Three Impostors," a book which testifies to the vast respect I entertained for the fantastic, "New Arabian Nights" manner of R. L. Stevenson, to those curious researches in the byways of London which I have described already, and also, I hope, to a certain originality of experiment in the tale of terror'. Like the Florizel Stories, Machen's work is set in a mysterious and threatening London, has an episodic form of inset weird tales, and these tales are connected with a secret society, in this case devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three imposters of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London and pursue "the young man with spectacles". The first edition was had cover and title page by Aubrey Beardsley.
In his essay ‘On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings’ (1899), the philosopher William James, brother of Henry, includes a long quotation from Stevenson’s ‘The Lantern-Bearers’, of which he comments: ‘I really think [it] deserves to become immortal, both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form.’
Soseki Natsume (1867–1916), the Japanese teacher and writer whose novel I Am a Cat (1904-6) contains three references to RLS also wrote about him in an essay called ‘My Favourite Books’: ‘For me Stevenson's style is the best in Western Literature. It's vigorous and simple [...]. Reading him makes me feel more alive’.
Jack London praises
Stevenson in his letters and uintroduced references to him in Martin Eden (1907) and ‘The Seed of McCoy’ (1911): ‘As a storyteller there isn’t his
equal; the same thing might almost be said of his essays. While the fascination
of his other works is simply irresistible, to me, the most powerful of all is
his Ebb-tide.’ (Letter to Cloudesley
Johns, 7 March 1899; from The Letters of Jack London). ‘Stevenson’s Father Damien Letter has had
more effect in a minute, and will go on having more effect in a minute, than
all the stories I have written or shall ever write’. (To Lorrin A. Thurston 1
Feb 1910). ‘Of all the stories that I have ever read I place Stevenson’s
In an undergraduate essay ('The Defects of Kipling' (1909), reprinted in Essays in Criticism 51i (2001), T.S. Eliot praises The Ebb-Tide ('a triumph' which combines 'truth and strangeness') and later in a review of Chesterton (1927) he is disappointed that no-one has produced 'a critical essay showing that Stevenson is a writer of permanent importance, and why'.
Willa Cather (1873-1947): ‘her subtle prose style and careful handling of narrative grew from her admiration for the work of American, British, and European writers such as Hawthorne, Flaubert, Stevenson, and James’ (Margaret Anne O’Connor, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fourth Edition at http://college.hmco.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/author_pages/modern/cather_wi.html).
Stephane Mallarmé wrote a short text of praise (7
December 1896) to the members of a Stevenson Memorial Committee for the
erection of a
In a passage of Marcel Proust’s Les Temps retrouvé (1927),
Swann hears Stevenson slightingly described as a children’s writer, to
which he retorts ‘Mais c’est tout à fait un grand écrivain, Stevenson,
je vous assure, monsieur de Goncourt, un très grand, l’égal des plus
grands’ “ (Proust 1927/1954 : 716). In Jean Santeuil (started 1896) the protagonist
remembers that he used to go to the beach ‘en emportant toujours un
volume de Stevenson’, who he describes as ‘génial’. (Paris: Gallimard
(Bibliotèque de la Pléiade), 1971, p. 367).
Proust also refers to Stevenson several times in his letters. In a letter to Madame de Caraman-Chimay, 20 July 1907, he warmly recommends a number of Stevenson’s works. The Dynamiter is ‘terriblement compliqué mais bien charmant tout de même’; but it is Jekyll and Hyde which is ‘de plus saisissant’ - even though the second-rate H.G. Wells by his plagiarising has deprived it of some of its ‘poignante singularité’.
In a letter to Edmund Gosse (12 March 1921) he speaks of his ‘déférence envers un Maitre que j’admire autant que vous’. Seriously ill himself, he writes of their common suffering: ‘c’est par ce seul côté que je me suis permis de me rapprocher d’un homme dont l’œuvre est tellement supérieure a la mienne.’ [it is the only respect with which I can compare myself with a man whose work is so greatly superior to my own]).
Other references in letters: to Gaston Gallimard (asking him to find ‘a scholarly edition of Katriona’ (sic) (1 April 1921, Correspondance (ed. Kolb) vol 20, p. 162); an admiring letter to André Lang, October 1921; another complimentary reference in a letter to Jacques Boulanger, June 1922. In a letter to Robert de Billy, March 1910 (vol. 10, p. 55), he includes Stevenson along with George Eliot, Thomas Hardy and Emerson as exemplars amongst writers who have impressed him.
Stevenson’s style is even used as a term of comparison to praise a person he greatly admired: in a letter to Robert de Montesquiou (June 1905) Proust compares him to RLS because he has ‘something of magic in him’ (‘Il y a en vous quelque chose de magique. C’est dans les Mille et une Nuits, ou les exquises Nouvelles Mille et une Nuits de Stevenson qu’il faudrait chercher pareil enchanteur.’, vol. 5, p. 216).
Proust’s knowledge of Stevenson is also highlighted in Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld’s ‘Portrait’ in Hommage a Marcel Proust (Nouvelle Revue Française, 1 jan. 1923 vol 20, p. 69): ‘C’est lui qui me fit lire Le Dynamiteur, Le Club du Suicide, toute cette œuvre merveilleuse à laquelle il goûtait un plaisir infini’ [It was he who introduced me to The Dynamiter, ‘The Suicide Club’ and all that wonderful body of writings, which gave him enormous pleasure].
Julien Green (1900-1998) writes in his Journal
(Aug. 1, 1932; Journal vol. I: 82): ‘A Berlin. Continué The Master of Ballantrae
avec une très grande admiration. Si quelque chose pouvait me déplaire dans ce
livre, c'est sa perfection même. J'aurais préféré que l'adresse de l'auteur ne
fût pas toujours aussi évidente. Il a quelquefois l'air d'exécuter un tour très
difficile avec une désinvolture professionnelle.’ [Continued The Master of Ballantrae with
very great admiration. If anything could displease me about this book it is
it’s very perfection. I would have preferred it if the skill of the author were
not always so evident. He sometimes has the appearance of performing a very
difficult acrobatic feat with professional ease.] André Gide says
of the same book: ‘Curieux livre, où tout est excellent’
(ref***, read during
In John Steinbeck’s ‘Junius Maltby’, one of the linked stories about the valley of Monterey in The Pastures of Heaven (1932, reprinted independently in Nothing So Monstrous, 1936), the title character regards Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes as one of the greatest works of English literature and names his son Robert Louis. Maltby’s choice of favourite book is a reflection of his own character: he is a free spirit who leads an unconventional life of poverty and intellectual curiosity (followed by his son until the latter goes to school and the weight of social disapproval leads to the end of their idyll). Steinbeck himself was inspired by Stevenson in the choice of title for his cross-country voyage with a grey-haired poodle, Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1961).
In her Seven Gothic Tales (1934), Isak Dineson [Karen Blixen] was influenced by English-language developments in short stories from the late 19th- early-20th century, and in particular by Stevenson. She alludes to him overtly in ‘The Dreamers’ by naming one of her characters Olalla. ‘Two motifs from Stevenson's early work are particularly dominant throughout Seven Gothic Tales: the courageous act or last throw of the dice in the face of impending doom, as in [...] Stevenson's "The Pavilion on the Links"; and the controlling older person manipulating the sexual destinies of the young, as in his "The Sire de Maletroit's Door".’ Dineson’s stories of such control, however, do not have happy endings: ‘The Poet’, ‘The Monkey", ‘The Roads Round Pisa’ and ‘The Deluge at Norderney’. (Quotation from Margaret Atwood (2013). ‘The show-stopping Isak Dinesen’. The Guardian 29 Nov 2013.)
In ch. 5 of Irène Némirovsky’s Les chiens et les loups (1940), Ada imagines all the children leaving to live in another country together: ‘C’était le petit matin. Ou, mieux encore, la nuit noire, sans une lumière; tout dort, et, de chaque maison, sortent les enfants [...], et chaque porte une lanterne sourde (cela, c’était le point le plus important) chachée sous son manteau.’
This seems very close to the following passage in ‘The Lantern-Bearers’: ‘the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull’s-eye lantern. [...] We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat. [...] The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned.’ Even the ‘lanterne sourde’ (dark lantern) seems to echo the lantern with ‘the slide shut’.
Silvio D'Arzo (Ezio Comparoni; 1920-52), an Italian writer who died young, was another admirer of Stevenson. He wrote two essays for the centenary year of 1950: ‘L’isola di Tusitala’ and ‘Una morte più bella di un poema’, both reprinted in Silvio D'Arzo, Contea inglese. Saggi e corrispondenza, ed. Eraldo Affinati (Palermo: Sellerio, 1987), pp 42-6, 47-50. The influence of RLS can be seen in his novel All’insegna del Buon Corsiero [At the Sign of the Noble Steed] (1942) and in his short story 'Penny Whirton e sua madre' ['Penny Whirton and his mother'] (1948, published 1978).
Italo Calvino declared himself a ‘Stevenson worshipper’, praised his ‘marvellous lightness’, and wrote: ‘I love Stevenson because he gives the impression he is flying’ (Calvino 1955/1995: 968-9, Calvino 1959/1995: 1528-9).
Calvino’s first novel, published in 1947, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Spiders’ Nests), contains allusions to Treasure Island. Like Stevenson’s text it is an adventure story with a boy at its centre, in which the fighting men are often morally contradictory. The Resistance fighters (in their isolated encampment in the mountains) have a cook, Mancino with a pet bird, a hawk, named after a hero of its owner, the French Revolutionary, Babeuf. The treasure which sets the whole story in motion is represented by a gun, buried by one character and dug up treacherously by another. His second novel, Il visconte dimezzato (The Cloven Viscount) 1952, is a fantastical variant on the Jekyll and Hyde theme: the viscount, split in two by a cannon ball, causes problems to his community in the person of both his evil and his good half.
Other quotes from Calvino: ‘Per Borges, Stevenson è un modello di stile. Per G. Greene l’idea dell’entertainment viene direttamente da lui. Lo stesso si dica per Mario Soldati. Da noi la generazione di E. Cecchi aveva introdotto Stevenson nel contesto culturale italiano. Ricorderò un grande stevensoniano, Aldo Camerino, critico del Gazzettino, uomo di gusto squisito e traduttore degli scrittori inglesi di fine secolo. L’ammirazione per Stevenson arrivera perfino a Pavese, ed è Pavese il primo che ha fatto il nome di Stevenson parlando di me, forse senza sapere che era uno dei miei ‘autori da capezzale’. [Stevenson] ha coscienza ironica ed estetica. Non è Alexandre Dumas che ci dà dentro: ed è poi il lettore che magari legge l’ironia nelle sue pagine. Nello scrivere il romanzo storico o d’avventure, Stevenson è un esteta che gioca con i suoi materiali con grande precisione e finezza’ (La repubblica 5.11.1976) […In his adventure romances, Stevenson is an aesthete who plays with his materials with great precision and finesse’].
‘Sul valore autentico di Robert Louis Stevenson non tutti i giudizi sono d’accordo. C’è chi lo considera un minore e chi un grande in assoluto. Questo secondo è pure il mio avviso: per la nettezza limpida e leggera dello stile ma anche per il nocciolo morale d’ogni sua narrazione’ (Calvino 1983/1995: 982-8) [On the real value of Robert Louis Stevenson not everyone is in agreement. There are those who think him a minor writer and those who see him as one of the great writers. I agree with the latter, because of the clean, light clarity of his style, but also because of the moral nucleus of all his narratives]. (1)
The Canadian children's poet Dennis Lee (b. 1939) writes poems that in tone and form are similar to those in A Child's Garden of Verses. In Alligator Pie (1974) he takes Stevenson's poem 'The Swing' and writes a new version to the same metre: 'Who is the king of the little kid's swing?' (see Elizabeth Waterston (2001). Rapt in Plaid: Canadian Literature and Scottish Tradition (Univ. Toronto Press). 168-173).
Graham Greene was related to RLS through his mother (a first cousin). In 1985 we writes a letter giving support for a memorial to RLS and adds ‘I admire some of his poems and a great deal of his prose’; in another letter of the same year he says ‘I think it was Stevenson's method of describing action without adjectives or adverbs which taught me a good deal.’ (http://www.library.georgetown.edu/dept/speccoll/fl/f130%7D1.htm)
‘Ode marítima’ (1915), by Álvaro de Campos (the ‘Futurist’ and
homosexual ‘persona’ of Fernando Pessoa), the ‘Grande Pirata’ sings
‘Fifteen men on the Dead Man’s Chest. / Yo-ho ho and a bottle of rum’ and then
Walter Benjamin, not only philosopher and critic but one of the great German prose writers of the twentieth century, thought highly of Stevenson. In his essay ‘Der Erzähler’ (‘The Storyteller’) (1936) he says the modern ‘decay of experience’ can be seen in the replacement of oral storytelling by the novel—though vestiges of storytelling can still be found in a few modern writers, including Stevenson, who he sees as providing an experience richer than that typically supplied by modernity. Benjamin praises ‘A Plea for Gas Lamps’ in letter to Theodor and Greta Adorno in 1938 and compares it to Poe’s ‘The Man in the Crowd’ in Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire, 1938). Indeed Matthew Wickman sees Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) (written between 1927 and 1940) as similar to Stevenson’s essay on a larger scale.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) makes at least a hundred references to Stevenson in his published works, with many quotations from RLS, often from the literary essays. 'Stevenson's reflections on narrative theory, and his practice of the novel and of short fiction, were essential to the radical turn in Borges's work' in the 1930s; 'Stevenson is invoked as a model in one of the prefaces to Historia universal de la infamia, Borges's first book of short stories (1935), and his influence can be felt in such stories as "Las ruinas circulares" (1940)', in the stories of Ficciones and El Aleph (Balderston 2007). In ‘Borges y yo’, 1960, he lists
the things that the real Borges likes: ‘Me gustan los relojes de arena, los mapas, la tipografía
Noches pasadas, me detuvo un desconocido en la calle Maipú.
- Borges, quiero agradecerle una cosa – me dijo.
Le pregunté qué era y me contestó:
- Usted me ha hecho conocer a Stevenson.
Me sentí justificado y feliz. Estoy seguro que le lector de este volumen compartirá esa gratitud. Como el de Montaigne o el de Sir Thomas Browne, el descumbrimento de Stevenson es una de las perdurables felicidades que puede deparar la literatura.
(‘Las Nuevas noches Árabes. Markheim’ (1986), republished in Biblioteca personal. Prólogos (1988)).
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was a great admirer of Stevenson and taught Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in his course of literary masterpieces at Cornell University. He quotes the Irish biographer Steven Gwynn, 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' is a work 'nearer to poetry than ordinary prose fiction" and adds in his own words that it "belongs to the same order of art as ... Madame Bovary or Dead Souls' (Lectures in Literature, 180). Edmund Wilson wrote to Nabokov about the choice of writers for his literature course at Cornell: 'Stevenson is second-rate. I don't know why you admire him so much - though he has done some rather fine short stories. I tried reading to Henry and Reuel a couple of summers ago one of the only books of Stevenson I had ever liked, The New Arabian Nights, but completely failed to interest them in it. It surprised me to find that these stories were the thinnest kind of verbalizing and that the characters had not even a fairy-tale existence. [...] I didn't like Treasure Island even as a child.' Nabokov replied 'You approach Stevenson from the wrong side. Of course Treasure Island is poor stuff. The one masterpiece he wrote is the first-rate and permanent Jekyll and Hyde.' (From letters 209 and 210 of Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya: The Nabokov-Wilson Letters, 1940-1971, ed. Simon Karlinsky, 2001).
In a 1973 interview Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was asked ‘What writers have influenced you?’ After saying that this was one of the most frequent questions that writers are asked, he continued, ‘I customarily say Orwell, and that is fairly close to the truth, but ordinarily I forget until long after the interview is over a man to whom I am deeply indebted, and he is Robert Louis Stevenson. He seems to be somewhat forgotten now, but as a boy I read an awful lot of Robert Louis Stevenson and was excited by stories which were well-made. Real “story” stories . . . with a beginning, middle, and end. Because of the early admiration for him I still try to be a stroyteller, to tell a story with some shape to it. So basically, Robert Louis Stevenson.’ (Frank McLaughlin (1973). ‘An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’ Media and Methods May 1973: 38-41, 45-46. Repr. in William Rodney Adam (ed.) (1988). Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi). 66-75. Ths quote from p. 66.)
In El Club Dumas (1993) by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the modern Spanish adventure writer who has been compared to Stevenson, one of the characters, speaking of The Three Musketeers, says: ‘Coincido con el buen padre Stevenson: no hay un canto a la amistad tan largo, accidentado, y hermoso como éste.’
Ian Rankin’s first Inspector Rebus book was Knots and Crosses (1987). Rankin ‘saw it as a 20th-century reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’
In the 1994 BBC documentary Stevenson’s Travels, crime novelist P.D. James says ‘He uses English wonderfully, with imagination, with economy, with elegance. We must read him, really, for the sheer pleasure of the language’.
Michele Mari’s ‘Otto scrittori’ (Tu,
sanguinosa infanzia, 1997) is a fictional autobiographical essay in
which the young Mari, who originally thinks of Conrad, Defoe, London, Melville,
Poe, Salgari, Stevenson and Verne as one writer, begins to suspect that one
among them talks of sea adventures with a less authentic voice. The writers -
sailing together with the writer - are abandoned one by one - the writers themselves
taking part in the contest/debate, as in Dante's Commedia. First Verne
is defeated and abandoned, then Defoe, Salgari,
Raccontatore amato, che come una pioggia sottile illuminata dal sole velate il mondo di un malinconico incanto, voi che nella culla dovete essere stato accarezzato da un dio perché adoperate la penna come un flauto e riempite di struggimento i cuori degli uomini; voi che dell’avventura fate incubo e fiaba e che nella vostra delicatezza di pallido selenita nascondete la violenza dell’astro infuocato, come oltre a quella famosissima storia di doppiezza e di trasformazione mostruoso dimostra l’odio che legò per la vita e per la morte Durrisdeer e Ballantrae; voi che siete stato capace di scrivere L’isola del tesoro, libro che fra i mille suoi pregi ha quello di rallentare la crescita di chi ha avuto la fortuna di leggerlo nell’adolescenza, ch’è l’età vostra eterna, libro saturo di mistero eppur legnoso e salmastro, libro spettacoloso ch’io non esito a definire il più bel libro d’avventura che sia mai stato scritto, se in proposito mi vengon dei dubbi mi basta pensare a personaggi come Silver o Cane Nero per non averne più; in somma voi, che io qui voglio ancora chiamare con il musicalissimo nome di Robert Louis Stevenson per riallacciarmi a tutte le volte in cui mi chiesero quali fossero i miei scrittori preferiti ed io rispondendo in vario modo a secondo l’età e della conoscenza non mancai mai di includervi nell’eletta sempre pronunciando “Stevenson” con grande esultanza, …
Beloved narrator, you who, like gentle sunlit rain, veil the world with a melancholy charm, you who in the cradle must have been kindly touched by a god because you use the pen like a musician playing a flute and fill the hearts of men with yearning; you who turn adventure into nightmare and fairytale, and who with the delicacy of a pale moon-dweller hide the violence of the fiery star, as – apart from that most famous of stories of doubleness and monstrous transformation – can be seen in the hatred that links in life and death Durrisdeer and Ballantrae; you who wrote ‘Treasure Island’, a book that – among its thousand merits has that of slowing the passage of time of those who have the fortune to read it in their youth, which is your own eternal age, a book imbued with mystery yet also tough and tangy, extraordinary book that I do not hesitate to call the finest adventure story ever written, indeed if I ever begin to have doubts of this, I need only think of characters like Silver and Black Dog to banish such thoughts for ever; in short, you who once more I wish to call by that most musical of names, Robert Louis Stevenson, so that I may live again all those times when, asked who were my favourite writers, I, replying in varying ways according to my age and knowledge, never failed to include you in the chosen few, always pronouncing the name ‘Stevenson’ with great joy…
Alberto Meschiari Le lanterne di stagno. Dieci racconti di commento a Stevenson (2004) [Tin lanterns. Ten short stories as a commentary to Stevenson] consists of ten stories about the small pleasures and treasured memories that give a meaning to life, commentaries or exemplifications of Stevenson’s presentation of the importance of the imaginative life in ‘The Lantern Bearers’ (an essay that Meschiari, a lecturer in moral philosophy at the Scuola Normale di Pisa, first met with through William James, who praises it in The Will to Believe, 1897). The essay is never directly named, but in the seventh story a traveller from Scotland asks the narrator if he knows ‘the story of the lantern-bearers’ and later on in the same story a part of the essay is quoted and paraphrased.. The first story, an evocation of childhood holidays in the country, ends with the grandfather showing him a secret lantern: ‘It doesn’t give much light, it’s true, but when you’re grown up you’ll realize it’s all the light we have’; and the last story, table talk about treasured memories of small pleasures, ends with ‘It was night once again, darkness all around, no land in sight, the lighthouse to the north-west no longer visible, and up above not even the stars. I raised my tin lantern on the tossing deck among the waves. It didn’t give much light, to tell the truth, but it was the only light I had’.
Jean-Marie Le Clézio has written narratives in the tradition of Stevenson, e.g. Le Chercheur d’or (1985, which includes a relationship between the narrator and the indigenous woman Ouma, a name borrowed from ‘Falesá’), La Quarantaine (1995), and Poisson d’or (1997). In an interview in 2001 he declares that his favourite authors are Stevenson and Joyce:
Mes romanciers préférés sont Stevenson et Joyce. Ils puisent leur inspiration dans leur premières années d’existence. A travers l’écriture, ils revivent leur passé et tentent d’en comprendre les « pourquoi » et les « comment ». (Interview in the Internet magazine Label France 45 (12/2001)). He also wrote a short appreciation for the special Stevenson issue of Europe: revue littéraire mensuelle 779 (p. 15): ‘Stevenson a été, avec Conrad et Dickens, un des auteurs que j’ai lu quand j’étais enfant… De Stevenson, L’île au trésor, bien sûr, et aussi ce roman moins connu, Kidnapped…il y avait là… tous les éléments qui pouvaient faire rêver un jeune garçon, le jeune héros jeté malgré lui dans l’aventure, et devant faire face aux situations nouvelles avec sa force de caractère. La solitude, la rencontre avec Stuart, la haine d’Ebenenezer, la traversée de la guerre, la rencontre avec des hommes de légende (le récit du duel à la cornemuse entre Stuart et MacPherson me semblait d’une étrangeté admirable). Je crois que, dans ce roman, plus encore que dans L’île au trésor, Stevenson était, pour un jeune lecteur épris d’aventures, le conducteur d’une initiation comparable à celle qu’il aurait pu trouver, en autres temps, dans le récit d’un mythe.’
Michel Le Bris, writer and essayist, has written a biography of Stevenson’s early life and an edition in French of his letters and has published many translations with introductions of his works. In a 2002 interview he says ‘He’s a living author, a writer to speaks to me, who I feel as close to me. There are some authors who make you feel that you are reading yourself, you’re discovering yourself. I wanted to mention his relevance for the present. His ideas on the adventure novel are extremely modern.’
Australian novelist Helen Garner says in an interview in 2004: ‘Right now I’m re-reading Kidnapped. Robert Louis Stevenson can depict a simple series of actions in the freshest and most engaging way. I so admire the way he gets his rhythm by the meticulous placement of commas and semi-colons’. http://www.theage.com.au/news/Books/Tickling-our-fancy/2004/12/09/1102182406687.html
In an interview in 2006, Margaret
Atwood says Kidnapped was one of her favourite books as a child and that
she has also enjoyed re-reading Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde recently (Interview with Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer [
Alblas, Jacques B.H.
Early Production and Reception of Stevenson's Work in
Ambrosinbi, Richard (forthcoming). 'The Miracle: Robert Louis Stevenson’s position in the history of European literature'. In Ambrosini, Richard & Richard Dury (eds.) (forthcoming) European Stevenson. ****
Ambrosini, Richard & Richard Dury (2006). ‘Introduction’. Robert
Louis Stevenson, Writer of Boundaries.
Baker, William. ‘The Nineteenth century: The Victorian Period. 2. The Novel’. Year’s Work in English Studies 85.i (2006): 694-5.
Balderston, Daniel (2007). 'A Projected Stevenson Anthology (Buenos Aires, 1968-70)'. In Variaciones Borges 23.
Barenghi, Mario, ed. (1995). Italo Calvino, Saggi 1945-1985, vol. I. Milano: Mondadori.
Calvino, Italo (1955). “L’isola del tesoro ha i suoi segreti”. In Barenghi 1995: 968-9.
------ (1959). “Risposte a 9 domande sul romanzo”. In Barenghi 1995: 1528-9.
----- (1983). ‘Il dottor Jekyll tradotto da Fruttero & Lucentini’. In Barenghi 1995: 982-8.
Benson, E.F. (1925). 'The Myth of Robert
Furnas, J. C. (1951). Voyage to Windward.
The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Jolly, Roslyn (2007). [Review: Richard Ambrosini and Richard Dury (eds), Robert Louis Stevenson, Writer of Boundaries]. English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 50.iv: 454-57.
& Wim Tiggs (eds.) (1996). Beauty and the Beast: Christina Rossetti, Walter
Pater, R.L. Stevenson and their Contemporaries.
Maixner, Paul (1981). Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. 1896. “Sur Robert-Louis Stevenson.” In Œuvres complètes, vol. II. 1979. Paris : Gallimard (La Pléiade). 879-80.
Mehew, Ernest (2004). ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’. H.C.G.
Matthew & Brian Harrison (eds.).
Niederhoff, Burkhard (2005). “Robert Louis Stevenson’s Arrival on the Academic Scene: A Survey of Recent Studies”. Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht 38.4 (2005): 319-37.
Swinnerton, Frank (1914;
2nd ed. 1923). R.L. Stevenson: A Critical Study.
(1) Calvino and Stevenson
Italo Calvino (1923-85), wrote three newspaper articles and a book introduction about Stevenson, a writer whom he greatly admired (as can be seen from his early novels). These articles can be found in: Calvino, Italo (a cura di Mario Barenghi) (1995). Saggi : 1945-1985. Milano: Mondadori (I meridiani), pp. 967-988.
(1) Calvino, Italo (1955). ‘L’isola del tesoro ha il suo segreto’ [Treasure Island has its secret]. Unità (1 April 1955). Repr. in Saggi (ed. Barenghi 1995), 967-71.
Compares Stevenson to Ariosto and Cervantes, all of them post-romance
modern writers. For Stevenson the only way to present adventure without
parodying it was to through the eyes of a child. Stevenson’s idea of childhood
as desire to act is expressed in ‘his
very careful style, miraculously simple and unadorned’ [il suo stile
attentissimo e miracolosamente semplice e pulito] (968). In contrast to the
verbiage of romantic writers of romance, Stevenson had learned from Flaubert
‘verbal exactitude and economy’ [esattezza ed economia verbale] (968). The
first part of
(2) Calvino, Italo (1973). ‘Nota introduttiva’. In Robert Louis Stevenson, Il padiglione sulle dune. Torino: Einaudi. Pp. v-ix. Repr. as ‘Robert L. Stevenson, Il padiglione sulle dune’ [Robert Louis Stevenson ‘The Pavilion on the Links’] in Saggi (ed. Barenghi 1995), 972-6.
‘“The Pavilion on the Links’ is a great game of hide-and-seek played by adults’ (972). The story is generated by a particular landscape which gains the interest of the reader, who therefore doesn’t mind that the psychological tale and the sentimental tale aren’t fully worked out. What finally dominates is pure romance. The reader is immediately attracted by the idea of the refined pavilion in these wild surroundings; the entry to find the table laid but no-one there is a fairy-story element imported into a romance. The differences between the magazine version and that contained in the New Arabian Nights volume; Calvino’s preference for the revised version. Calvino says ‘I consider this one of the best of Stevenson’s short stories’ [considero questo racconto uno dei più belli di Stevenson]. Stevenson’s uncertainty about how to shape the story ‘is to a certain extent part of the quality of this game of hide-and-seek with oneself in this story of a childhood that one would like to prolong, while knowing all too well that it is already over’ [in qualche modo connaturata al gioco a nascondersi con se stesso di questo racconto d’una infanzia che si vorrebbe prolungare pur sapendo bene che è finita] (976).
(3) Calvino, Italo (1982). ‘I cinque tavoli di Stevenson’ [Stevenson’s five tables]. La Repubblica 2 Dec. 1982, p. 20. Repr. in Saggi (ed. Barenghi 1995), 977-80.
A review of ‘new publications of the year […] of interest to Stevensonians’ (979): ‘An Old Song’ and ‘Edifying Letters of the Rutherford Family’ (the text in Barenghi omits the paragraph concerning the editorship of Swearingen), and Attilio Brilli’s edition of Stevenson’s principal novels, short stories and essays. In ‘An Old Song’ Calvino notes Stevenson’s ‘exclusion of any judgment or comment’ (978). He appreciates Brilli’s choice of essays. ‘Stevenson’s lucid and concrete understanding of literary techniques and their effect on the reader are extraordinarily modern and precise’, his observations in ‘Technical Elements of Style’ ‘anticipate the phonetic and phonological analyses of Roman Jakobson’ (980). The ‘treat’ of the volume is ‘The Ideal House’, including the specification of the writer’s five working tables.
(4) Calvino, Italo (1983). ‘Tra Jekyll e Hyde è meglio Utterson’ [The better one of Jekyll and Hyde is Utterson]. La Repubblica (18 June 1983). Repr. as ‘Il dottor Jekyll tradotto da Fruttero & Lucentini’ [Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde translated by Fruttero and Lucentini] in Saggi (ed. Barenghi 1995), 982-8.
A review of a new translation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by the collaborative writers Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini. ‘Contrary to what one might believe[…] Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a very difficult text’ (982). Calvino comments on choices that show the translators’ sympathy with Utterson as ‘the real hero of the story’ (983). Utterson is sober and austere, with no aspiration to redeem his fellow man but ready to help him. The opposition in the story is not so much between Jekyll and Hyde as between Jekyll-Hyde and Utterson (who has mild respect for others and for their independence). ‘As for Jekyll and Hyde, the most important thing is the moral asymmetry between the two’ (985). ‘The problem that interests the author in not that of good and evil in itself, but of doubleness (or multiplicity) of the personality’ (985). ‘Jekyll and Hyde are visually distinguished not so much by physiognomy (always kept rather vague) but by topography and architecture’ (986).
(5) Other references to Stevenson in Calvino’s essays:
‘that surprising lightness and clarity that is almost an upside-down image of the world that was being formed in the minds of the people of his time’ [quella sorprendente levità e limpidezza che è quasi un’immagine capovolta del mondo, quale s’amdava configurando alla conscienza degli uomini del suo tempo] (‘Natura e storia del romanzo’ in Saggi ed. Barenghi 1995: 42).
‘On this ideal bookshelf of mine Conrad has a place alongside the airy Stevenson, almost his opposite, in his life and in his literary style’ [Su questo mio scaffale ideale, Conrad ha il suo posto accanto all’aereo Stevenson, che è pure quasi il suo opposto, come vita e come stile.] (‘Classici’ in Saggi ed. Barenghi 1995: 815).
‘I love Stevenson because he flies’ [Amo Stevenson perchè vola] (‘Sul romanzo’ in Saggi ed. Barenghi 1995: 1528-9).
‘At the end of the century […] in England we find a type of refined writer who loves to dress up as a popular writer, and succeeds too because he doesn’t do it condescendingly but from a mixture of fun and professional commitment, and this is only possible when you know that without professional technique any artistic wisdom means nothing. R. L. Stevenson is the most successful example of this mind-style.’ [Alla fine del scolo […] [è] in Inghilterra che si caratterizza un tipo di scrittore popolare, e ci riesce perché non lo fa con condiscendenza ma con divertimento e impegno professionale, e questo è possibile solo quando si sa che senza la tecnica del mestiere non c’è sapienza artistica che valga. R.L. Stevenson è il più felice esempio di questa disposizione d’animo’] (‘Territori limitrofi: il fantastico, il patetico, l’ironia’ in Saggi ed. Barenghi 1995: 1663).
‘When I started to do my own things with The Cloven Viscount, Stevenson came out everywhere, maybe without me realizing it. Borges was a great admirer of Stevenson too, and Borges is the typical writer who goes back to something already written’ [E proprio quando ho cominciato a fare delle cose “mie” con Il visconte dimezzato, veniva fuori Stevenson da tutte le parti, magari anche senza che io me ne rendessi conto. Anche Borhges ama molto Stevenson, e Borges è il tipico scrittore che si rifà a qualcosa di già scritta] (‘Furti ad arte’ (conversazione con Tullio Pericoli) in Saggi ed. Barenghi 1995: 1806).
Italo Calvino graduated from the University of Turin in 1947 with a thesis on Joseph Conrad. Though he admired the writer, he stoutly refuses to accept the widespread critical approach of seeing him as superior to Stevenson. Here is a key passage quoted from the thesis (from: Martin McLaughlin and Arianna Scicutella (2002). ‘ Calvino e Conrad: dalla tesi di laurea alle lezioni americane’. Italian Studies 57: 113-132; 118-19.), translated here by Richard Dury.
Pure, non bisogna esagerare per questa via; come fa Cesare Pavese che dice: ‘il mare del Sud è veramente per C. un luogo dell’anima, non l’alto -mare di Melville, titanico e insieme biblico, non quello di Stevenson, stazione climatica di nobili leggende e interessanti istituzioni [...]’. È facile giocare con i concetti nella critica e Stevenson rimane grandissimo anche se i suoi preziosissimi valori possono passare per limitazioni. Il magico gioco della sua fantasia, tutta esteriorizzazione e favola, è qualcosa che si fa spesso rimpiangere, quando riandiamo a certe disarmoniche macchine conradiane costruite per far ruotare su tutti i lati le sue psicologie esacerbate. [...] E la lieve felicità del suo linguaggio, così classica e impersonale quanto inimitabile è olimpicamente più forte del pastoso verbosismo di troppe pagine di C. Still, one should not exaggerate in this direction, like Cesare Pavese when he says, 'the South Seas are for C. a truly spiritual setting, unlike Melville’s high seas, titanic and biblical, or Stevenson’s South Seas, a health resort of noble legends and interesting cultures [...].' Critics like to play with concepts in this way but Stevenson remains great, although his greatest qualities may appear to be limitations. The magical play of his imagination, all surface patterning and simple narrative [literally: all externalization and fable], is something we often regret when we consider certain discordant Conradian ‘machines’, built to illustrate every aspect of his exasperated psychological analyses. [...] And the lightness and justness of Stevenson’s language, as classical and impersonal as it is inimitable, is serenely stronger than the vague wordiness of too many pages of C.
Still, one should not exaggerate in this direction, like Cesare Pavese when he says, 'the South Seas are for C. a truly spiritual setting, unlike Melville’s high seas, titanic and biblical, or Stevenson’s South Seas, a health resort of noble legends and interesting cultures [...].' Critics like to play with concepts in this way but Stevenson remains great, although his greatest qualities may appear to be limitations. The magical play of his imagination, all surface patterning and simple narrative [literally: all externalization and fable], is something we often regret when we consider certain discordant Conradian ‘machines’, built to illustrate every aspect of his exasperated psychological analyses. [...] And the lightness and justness of Stevenson’s language, as classical and impersonal as it is inimitable, is serenely stronger than the vague wordiness of too many pages of C.