1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Stevenson, Robert Lewis Balfour
|←Stevenson, Robert||1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 25
Stevenson, Robert Lewis Balfour
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STEVENSON, ROBERT LEWIS BALFOUR (1850-1894), British essayist, novelist and poet, was the only child of Thomas Stevenson, civil engineer, and his wife, Margaret Isabella Balfour. He was born at 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on the 13th of November 1850. He suffered from infancy from great fragility of health, and nearly died in 1858 of gastric fever, which left much constitutional weakness behind it. From the age of six he showed a disposition to write. He went to school, mainly in Edinburgh, from 1858 to 1867, but his ill-health prevented his learning much, and his teachers, as his mother afterwards said, “liked talking to him better than teaching him.” He often accompanied his father on his official visits to the lighthouses of the Scottish coast and on longer journeys, thus early accustoming himself to travel. As his health improved it was hoped that he would be able to adopt the family profession of civil engineering, and in 1868 he went to Anstruther and then to Wick as a pupil engineer. In 1871 he had so far advanced as to receive the silver medal of the Edinburgh Society of Arts for a paper suggesting improvements in lighthouse apparatus. But long before this he had started as an author. His earliest publication, the anonymous pamphlet of The Pentland Rising, had appeared in 1866, and The Charity Bazaar, a trifle in which his future manner is happily displayed, in 1868. From about the age of eighteen he dropped his baptismal names of Lewis Balfour and called himself Robert Louis, but was mostly known to his relatives and intimate friends as “Louis.” Although he greatly enjoyed the outdoor business of the engineer's life it strained his physical endurance too much, and in 1871 was reluctantly exchanged for study at the Edinburgh bar, to which he was called in 1875. In 1873 he first met Mr Sidney Colvin, who was to prove the closest of his friends and at last the loyal and admirable editor of his works and his correspondence; and to this time are attributed several of the most valuable friendships of Stevenson's life.
He was now labouring, with extreme assiduity, to ground himself in the forms and habits of literary style. In 1875 appeared, anonymously, his Appeal to the Clergy of the Church of Scotland, and in that year he made the first of many visits to the forest of Fontainebleau. Meanwhile at Mentone in the winter of 1873-1874 he had grown in mind under the shadow of extreme physical weakness, and in the following spring began to contribute essays of high originality to one or two periodicals, of which the Cornhill, then edited by Sir Leslie Stephen, was at first the most important. Stevenson made no attempt to practice at the bar, and the next years were spent in wanderings in France, Germany and Scotland. Records of these journeys, and of the innocent adventures which they encouraged, were given to the world as An Inland Voyage in 1878, and as Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes in 1879. During these four years Stevenson's health, which was always bettered by life out of doors, gave him little trouble. It was now recognized that he was to be an author, and he contributed many essays, tales and fantasies to various journals and magazines. At Fontainebleau in 1876 Stevenson had met Mrs Osbourne, the lady who afterwards became his wife; she returned to her home in California in 1878, and in August of the following year, alarmed at news of her health, Stevenson hurriedly crossed the Atlantic. He travelled, from lack of means, as a steerage passenger and then as an emigrant, and in December, after hardships which seriously affected his health, he arrived in San Francisco. In May 1880 he married, and moved to the desolate mining-camp which he has described in The Silverado Squatters. As Mr Colvin has well said, these months in the west of America were spent “under a heavy combined strain of personal anxiety and literary effort.” Some of his most poignant and most enchanting letters were written during this romantic period of his life. In the autumn of 1880 he returned to Scotland, with his wife and stepson, who were received at once into the Edinburgh household of his parents. But the condition of his health continued to be very alarming, and they went almost immediately to Davos, where he remained until the spring of 1881. In this year was published Virginibus puerisque, the earliest collection of Stevenson's essays. He spent the summer months in Scotland, writing articles, poems, and above all his first romance, The Sea-Cook, afterwards known as Treasure Island; but he was driven back to Davos in October. In 1882 appeared Familiar Studies of Men and Books and New Arabian Nights. His two winters at Davos had done him some good, but his summers in Scotland invariably undid the benefit. He therefore determined to reside wholly in the south of Europe, and in the autumn of 1882 he settled near Marseilles. This did not suit him, but from March 1883 to July 1884 he was at home at a charming house called La Solitude, above Hyères; this was in many ways to be the happiest station in the painful and hurrying pilgrimage of Stevenson's life. The Silverado Squatters was published in 1883, and also the more important Treasure Island, which made Stevenson for the first time a popular writer. He planned a vast amount of work, but his schemes were all frustrated in January 1884 by the most serious illness from which he had yet suffered. He was just pulled through, but the attack was followed by long prostration and incapacity for work, and by continued relapses. In July he was brought back to England, and from this time until August 1887 Stevenson's home was at Bournemouth. In 1885 he published, after long indecision, his volume of poems, A Child's Garden of Verses, an inferior story, The Body Snatcher, and that admirable romance, Prince Otto, in which the peculiar quality of Stevenson's style was displayed at its highest. He also collaborated with W. E. Henley in some plays, Beau Austin, Admiral Guinea and Robert Macaire. Early in 1886 he struck the public taste with precision in his wild symbolic tale of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the summer of the same year he published Kidnapped, which had been written at Bournemouth.
This, however, was a period of great physical prostration, so that 1886 and 1887 were perforce among the least productive years of Stevenson's life. In the early months of 1887 Stevenson was particularly ill, and he was further prostrated by being summoned in May to the deathbed of his father, who had just returned to Edinburgh from the south. He printed privately as a pamphlet, in June 1887, a brief and touching sketch of his father. In July he published his volume of lyrical poems called Underwoods. The ties which bound him to England were now severed, and his health was broken to such a discouraging degree that he determined to remove to anotner hemisphere. Accordingly, having disposed of Skerryvore, his house at Bournemouth, he sailed from London, with his wife, mother and stepson, for New York on the 17th of August 1887. He never set foot in Europe again. His memoir of his friend Professor Fleeming Jenkin was published soon after his departure. After resting at Newport, he went for the winter to be under the care of a physician at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks for the winter. Here he was very quiet, and steadily active with his pen, writing both the greater part of the Master of Ballantrae and many of his finest later essays. He had undertaken, for a regular payment greatly in excess of anything which he had hitherto received, to contribute a monthly essay to Scribner's Magazine, and these essays, twelve in number, were published continuously throughout the year 1888. Early in that year was begun The Wrong Box, a farcical romance in which Mr Lloyd Osbourne participated; Stevenson also began a romance about the Indian Mutiny, which he abandoned. His attitude about this time to life and experience is reflected in Pulvis et umbra, one of the noblest of all his essays. In April 1888 he was at the coast of New Jersey for some weeks, and in June started for San Francisco, where he had ordered a schooner, the “Casco,” to be ready to receive him. On the 28th of the month, he started, as Mr Colvin has said, “on what was only intended to be a pleasure excursion . . . but turned into a voluntary exile prolonged until the hour of his death”: he never again left the waters of the Pacific. The “Casco” proceeded first to the Marquesas, and south and east to Tahiti, passing before Christmas northwards to Honolulu, where Stevenson spent six months and finished The Master of Ballantrae and The Wrong Box. It was during this time that he paid his famous visit to the leper settlement at Molokai. In 1889, “on a certain bright June day,” the Stevensons sailed for the Gilbert Islands, and after six months' cruising found themselves at Samoa, where he landed for the first time about Christmas Day 1889. On this occasion, however, though strongly drawn to the beautiful island, he stayed not longer than six weeks, and proceeded to Sydney, where, early in 1890, he published, in a blaze of righteous anger, his Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr Hyde of Honolulu, in vindication of the memory of Father Damien and his work among the lepers of the Pacific. At Sydney he was very ill again: it was now obvious that his only chance of health lay within the tropics. For nearly the whole of the year 1890 the Stevensons were cruising through unfamiliar archipelagos (on board a little trading steamer, the “Janet Nicholl.” Meanwhile his volume of Ballads was published in London.
The last four years of his unquiet life were spent at Samoa, in circumstances of such health and vigour as he had never previously enjoyed, and in surroundings singularly picturesque. It was in November 1890 that he made his abode at Vailima, where he took a small barrack of a wooden box 500 ft. above the sea, and began to build himself a large house close by. The natives gave him the name of Tusitala. His character developed unanticipated strength on the practical side; he became a vigorous employer of labour, an active planter, above all a powerful and benignant island chieftain. He gathered by degrees around him “a kind of feudal clan of servants and retainers,” and he plunged, with more generous ardour than coolness of judgment, into the troubled politics of the country. He took up the cause of the deposed king Mataafa with extreme ardour, and he wrote a book, A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa (1892), in the endeavour to win over British sympathy to his native friends. In the autumn of this year he received a visit at Vailima from the countess of Jersey, in company with whom and some others he wrote the burlesque extravagance in prose and verse, called An Object of Pity, privately printed in 1893 at Sydney. Whenever the cultivation of his estate and the vigorous championship of his Samoan retainers gave him the leisure, Stevenson was during these years almost wholly occupied in writing romances of Scottish life. The Wrecker, an adventurous tale of American life, which mainly belonged to an earlier time, was written in collaboration with Mr Lloyd Osbourne and finally published in 1892; and towards the close of that very eventful and busy year he began The Justice Clerk, afterwards Weir of Hermiston. A portion of the old record of emigrant experiences in 1879, long suppressed for private reasons, also appeared in book form in 1892. In 1893 Stevenson published the important Scottish romance of Catriona, written as a sequel to Kidnapped, and the three tales illustrative of Pacific Ocean character, Island Nights' Entertainments. But in 1893 the uniform good fortune which had attended the Stevensons since their settlement in Samoa began to be disturbed. The whole family at Vailima became ill, and the final subjugation of his protege Mataafa, and the destruction of his party in Samoan politics, deeply distressed and discouraged Stevenson. In a series of letters to The Times he exposed the policy of the chief justice, Mr Cedercrantz, and the president, of the council, Baron Senfft. He so influenced public opinion that both were removed from office. In the autumn of that year he went for a change of scene to the Sandwich Islands, but was taken ill there, and was only too glad to return to Samoa. In 1894 he was greatly cheered by the plan, suggested by friends in England and carried out by them with the greatest energy, of the noble collection of his works in twenty-eight volumes, since known as the Edinburgh editions. In September 1894 was published The Ebb Tide, the latest of his books which he saw through the press. Of Stevenson's daily avocations, and of the temper of his mind through these years of romantic exile, a clear idea may be obtained by the posthumous Vailima Letters, edited by Mr Sidney Colvin in 1895. Through 1894 he was engaged in composing two romances, neither of which he lived to complete. He was dictating Weir of Hermiston, apparently in his usual health, on the day he died. This was the 3rd of December 1894; he was gaily talking on the verandah of his house at Vailima when he had a stroke of apoplexy, from which he never recovered consciousness, and passed away painlessly in the course of the evening. His body was carried next day by sixty sturdy Samoans, who acknowledged Stevenson as their chief, to the summit of the precipitous peak of Vaea, where he had wished to be buried, and where they left him to rest for ever with the Pacific Ocean at his feet.
The charm of the personal character of Stevenson and the romantic vicissitudes of his life are so predominant in the minds of all who knew him, or lived within earshot of his legend, that they made the ultimate position which he will take in the history of English literature somewhat difficult to decide. That he was the most attractive figure of a man of letters in his generation is admitted; and the acknowledged fascination of his character was deepened, and was extended over an extremely wide circle of readers, by the publication in 1899 of his Letters, which have subdued even those who were rebellious to the entertainment of his books. It is therefore from the point of view of its “charm” that the genius of Stevenson must be approached, and in this respect there was between himself and his books, his manners and his style, his practice and his theory, a very unusual harmony. Very few authors of so high a class have been so consistent, or have made their conduct so close a reflection of their philosophy. This unity of the man in his work makes it difficult, for one who knew him, to be sure that one rightly gauges the purely literary significance of the latter. There are some living who still hear in every page of Stevenson the voice of the man himself, and see in every turn of his language his flashing smile. So far, however, as it is possible to disengage one's self from this captivation, it may be said that the mingling of distinct and original vision with a singularly conscientious handling of the English language, in the sincere and wholesome self-consciousness of the strenuous artist, seems to be the central feature of Stevenson as a writer by profession. He was always assiduously graceful, always desiring to present his idea, his image, his rhapsody, in as persuasive a light as possible, and, particularly, with as much harmony as possible. He had mastered his manner and, as one may say, learned his trade, in the exercise of criticism and the reflective parts of literature, before he surrendered himself to that powerful creative impulse which had long been tempting him, so that when, in mature life, he essayed the portraiture of invented character he came to it unhampered by any imperfection of language. This distinguished mastery of style, and love of it for its own sake within the bounds of good sense and literary decorum, gave him a pre-eminence among the story-tellers of his time. No doubt it is still by his romances that Stevenson keeps the wider circle of his readers. But many hold that his letters and essays are finer contributions to pure literature, and that on these exquisite mixtures of wisdom, pathos, melody and humour his fame is likely to be ultimately based. In verse he had a touch far less sure than in prose. Here we find less evidence of sedulous workmanship, yet not infrequently a piercing sweetness, a depth of emotion, a sincere and spontaneous lovableness, which are irresistibly touching and inspiring.
The personal appearance of Stevenson has often been described: he was tall, extremely thin, dark-haired, restless, compelling attention with the lustre of his wonderful brown eyes. In the existing portraits of him those who never saw him are apt to discover a strangeness which seems to them sinister or even affected. This is a consequence of the false stability of portraiture, since in life the unceasing movement of light in the eyes, the mobility of the mouth, and the sympathy and sweetness which radiated from all the features, precluded the faintest notion of want of sincerity. Whatever may be the ultimate order of reputation among his various books, or whatever posterity may ultimately see fit to ordain as regards the popularity of any of them, it is difficult to believe that the time will ever come in which Stevenson will not be remembered as the most beloved of the writers of that age which he did so much to cheer and stimulate by his example.
His cousin R. A. M. Stevenson (1847-1900) was an accomplished art-critic, who in 1889 became professor of fine arts at University College, Liverpool; he published several works on art (Rubens, 1898; Velasquez, 1895; Raeburn, 1900).
R. L. Stevenson's other works include: Memories and Portraits (1887); The Merry Men and other Tales and Fables (1887); The Black Arrow (1888); Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1889); Across the Plains, with other Memories and Essays (1892), and the posthumous works, Songs of Travel and other Verses (1896), St Ives (1899), completed by Sir A. T. Quiller Couch; A Stevenson Medley (1899); In the South Seas: experiences . . . on the “Casco” (1888) and the Equator (1889) (1900). See the Letters of Stevenson to his Family (1899), with the critical and biographical preface by Mr Sidney Colvin; Vailima Letters, to Sidney Colvin (1895), and the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Graham Balfour (1901). See also Professor Walter Raleigh, R. L. Stevenson (1895), and Memories of Vailima (1903), by Isobel Strong and Lloyd Osbourne. A complete edition of Stevenson's works was issued at Edinburgh in 1894-1898. A Bibliography of the works of R. L. Stevenson by Colonel W. F. Prideaux appeared in 1903.
- (E. G.)