These boys congregated every autumn about a certain easterly fisher-village, where they tasted in high degree the glory of existence. (140)
So this is the first sentence of "The Lantern-Bearers" (1888), an essay, not a story. Strange beginning, isn't it? Which boys? Which village? They did what, exactly?
Stevenson's boys, of which he is one, are in a resort town, on summer vacation. The glories of existence include fishing, penny cigars, tide pools, the illustrations in The London Journal, "bottled lollipops," a beach with the jawbone of a whale for a landmark, endless numbers of wonderful things. "[Y]ou might go Crusoeing, a word that covers all extempore eating in the open air," or even golf, although Stevenson writes "I seem to have been better employed." The most wonderful sport is to go lantern-bearing.
The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public; a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge. (144)
This sentence must be taken literally. Boys, led by young Stevenson, attached lit bull's-eye lanterns to their belts and essayed into the dark, but with the lanterns hidden by their overcoats. The boys could detect each other only by the smell of "blistered tin" issuing from their coats. The boys assembled in some isolated spot, unveiled their lamps, and "delight[ed] themselves with inappropriate talk." This was the height of pleasure.
"The Lantern-Bearers," perhaps the third-best thing Stevenson ever wrote, is a piece of literary criticism. Stevenson is lighting into the "realists" again, just as he was yesterday. Zola might faithfully record every detail and "turn out, in a page or so, a gem of literary art, render the lantern-light with the touches of a master, and lay on the indecency with the ungrudging hand of love" and yet have come nowhere near the real life of the scene.
To the ear of the stenographer, the talk is merely silly and indecent; but ask the boys themselves, and they are discussing (as it is highly proper they should) the possibilities of existence. To the eye of the observer they are wet and cold and drearily surrounded; but ask themselves, and they are in the heaven of recondite pleasure, the ground of which is an ill-smelling lantern. (148)
Stevenson suggests some models of realistic art – Anna Karenina, George Meredith, King Lear, “Dostoieffsky’s Despised and Rejected,” or, at least, key scenes from these books. But he is really talking about his own writing, what he is trying to do. In “The Lantern-Bearers,” he calls realistic novels romances, too, “in the hope of giving pain.” “Romances” are what Stevenson writes. The word is associated with adventure stories, with fantasy, but Stevenson here suggests another meaning, another goal: “the true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets to find out where joy resides, and give it a voice far beyond singing” (149).
I believe Stevenson would agree with me that he did not hit this mark too often in his own work. I think he did in “The Lantern-Bearers.”
Please venture to Emily’s Evening All Afternoon for a more humanistic look at “The Lantern-Bearers.”