5 JANUARY 1974, Page 13

Renny Green O n a dead man's chest

our own age Robert Louis Stevenson is °Isr.le of those writers who seems to have got dates wrong. Like Babbletongue Lacaulay, he appears, on every page that rs!ars his name, to be contemplating with faint "vtrilderment the fact that he is a Victorian at all, and to be sorely tempted to seek refuge in tjle orotundities of an obsolescent literary haclition. It .is said of Macaulay, idolater of "ante, that his oratory represents the last sanset glories of the Augustan style, although Whether he was really as bad as all that Rosterity has no way of knowing. But with !tevenson we do have a way of knowing; all :le have to do is to read a few of the thirtyhe collected volumes in the spirit he would

Ve wished, that is, in the pursuit of pure

easure, although to read him these days With any other end in view is an extremely rare action to take. For although he remains Vastly popular writer, he is a distinctly uniashionable literary figure, and has been for a 211g time. And that Stevenson, who was al"lost exactly contemporaneous with, say, Ostelair Wilde, should be a museum piece while e World still smiles over Oscar's giantesque !Tall talk is a mystery which requires an

swer. Fortunately, Stevenson supplied it "inisof, While most of the later Victorians either Peered • into the future, like Wells, or at least

?..vecasionally made a pretence of doing so, like tide, Stevenson spent his entire career rnarching hesitantly forward with his head ,Over his shoulder, almost as though informed ,u,Y a shrewd premonition . that,' as he was vestined never to outlive his own century, there was little point in affecting to worry about the next one. Instead, he ransacked the three centuries before his own in search of a ,srecondite vocabulary, of the inspirational oovver of history, of Style itself, sprinkling over those thirty-five volumes a quaint gallimaufrey of begirts and betwixts, halings fldscissjons, whelmings and surplusages, Wing his prose a carefully calculated patina antiquity, like a set designer spraying esLence of musk over cardboard stage furniture. many eyebrows have been raised since over his notorious confession that as an apprentice he copied other writers, not that there is ,.rlYthing ridiculous or dishonourable about Such a practice; on the contrary, there is no Other way to learn how to write. The real reason for our surprise is not that Stevenson hould have played the sedulous ape, but who

Played it to, Sir Thomas Browne, for ins'nee, Montaigne and Obermann

It was this reliance on a dusty past which so asPerated a committed modern like Stephen ',rane, quoted by Ford Madox Ford reading from Stevenson, "With interjected ;.i,nger he delayed pie motion of the -"rnepiece," and then exclaiming, "By God! :Pat man put back the clock of English fic"on fifty years." But as usual, Fordie's version not quite the true one. Thee is no sucn passage anywhere in Stevenson, and for once in his fondly imagined life, Fordie was guilty of underplaying rather than overplaying the facts. The actual Stevenson sentence occurs in that indifferent exercise in grand guignol, Markheint: "The horologist, with interjected finger, arrests the heating of the clock." It is a pity that Fordie smudged the picture because a word like "horologist" conveys exactly the degree of archaic effect which Stevenson seemed always to be looking for.

But Crane was as mistaken as Ford; it was not English fiction but only himself that Stevenson succeeding in putting back fifty years. Still, we know what Crane means, because like him we are torn between exasperation at Stevenson's tiresome insistance on walking backwards into the future, and unqualified admiration for his marvellous sense of place. One of the most revealing facts which Dr Daiches includes in his book* is that having drawn a meticulous map of an imaginary island for his stepson, Stevenson then "set about inventing a story to fit the map." The result was, of course, Treasure Island, one of the 'most accomplished adventure stories ever written, although it is perhaps faintly absurd of Dr Daiches to define the reader's ambivalence over Long John Silver's papier-mache iniquities as an example of Stevenson's preoccupation with moral ambiguities. But for the most part the text of Robert Louis Stevenson and His World is a godsend, Dr Daiches being not only thorough but also brisk. In fact, there are moments when he is a little too brisk, an effect arising out of his taste for strings of short, sharp sentences which tend to bounce like little peas of dogmatism against the drum of the reader's sensibilities. Otherwise he tells his story very well, it being an especially good story and one whichDr Daiches has told at least once before (Stevenson and the Art of Fiction, 1951). It is also a painfully romantic story. Dogged, not apparently by consumption as we always thought, but from bronchiectasis, where the lung, although permanently damaged, is not consumptive, Stevenson staggered on until just after his forty-sixth birthday, and one of the most valuable properties of Daiches's book is. the corrective he administers to the conventional picture of a languid bohemian

fading away in a mood of quietude in his polynesian paradise. The real Stevenson was a man of delightful fortitude, grasping with a brave smile the principle that his own impending death was a matter of no larger sig nificance to anyone but himself, a fatalist who believed deeply in the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, and hardly at all in the ceremonial niceties of their ritual.

But the most romantic thing of all about this excessively romantic man is the way he orchestrated his life to the climax of the isles of the Hesperides of his'imagination. There is no question that in pursuing his destiny to the South Seas, Stevenson, who had dwelt among the coral strands of dreamland all his life, was being not only medically prudent but artistically shrewd, not because the idyll in Samoa enabled him to write about Polynesia, but because the idyll in Samoa enabled him to write about Auld Reekie. There are two opposing views here; in a letter to Robbie Ross from Reading Gaol, Wilde writes:

Stevenson's letters are most disappointing. I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surrounding for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson would have written a new "Three Musketeers," in Samoa he writes letters to.717he Times about Germans.

Apart from the fact that it is silly and perverse of Wilde not to see that Stevenson had chosen Samoa not to preserve his art but to save his life, it is questionable that the theory is correct anyway. For of his later writing Stevenson could point to a remarkable double artistic triumph. Not only did he assimilate local colour deeply enough to produce pearls like that brilliant Jamesian fragment The Beach of Falesa, and The Ebb Tide, one of the calmest contemplations of evil of its era, but also, in the very end, he saw Edinburgh plain for the first time Dr Daiches is right to insist that

It is the tension between memory and new experience, between nostalgia and present commitment, that provided the clue to the way the later Stevenson's imagination often worked.

although even the good doctor seems to want to have it both ways by remarking a little later that

It may be that the cost of preserving his life and relative health for a few more years was too heavy, and that the sense of isolation together with increasing domestic worries impaired his maturing creative gifts.

But there is the irrefutable evidence of that remarkable fragment Weir of Hermiston to dispel all lingering doubts about whether or not Stevenson's muse was finally maturing. The delicate precision of his irony in that unfinished novel, the beautiful exactitude with which he managed in that ill-fated book to distance himself from the only world which ever really mattered to him, the world of pastness and Scottishness, is a revelation to anyone raised on the hearty muscularities of his more famous books. What is doubly astounding is that among those who realised none of this was Stevenson himself, who died under the mistaken impression that he had been writing all his life for boys, although what kind of boys he had in mind for a story like The Ebb Tide it is hard to imagine. As for Weir of Hermiston, which stands with The ,Last Tycoon and Edwin Drood as one of the great might-have-beens of literature, it was the signal that Stevenson had escaped at long last from the jollyrogered seas of his own over-prolonged youth. Not for the first time when it comes to the later Victorians, the best -horse-sense comes from Shaw, who wondered "what Stevenson's work would have come to if he had lived to bring it to its full realisation. His death seems to me a complete cut-off of a man who had never got to close quarters with life and who was only beginning to peep carefully over his pallisade of cleverness at it."

Today Stevenson has no disciples. His boosters went to dishonourable graves years ago, Colvin, who doctored the letters, Goose, who fussed like an old hen, and last and certainly least, Henley, surely the biggest journalistic jerk of the nineteenth century. As for the Noble Savage, the Island Paradise, the White Man's Burden, none of them are any longer viable, even as the stuff of escapist fiction; the Coke tins float off Papeete and the only music that drifts across the beach of Falesa is the sound of an amplified gutar.