Wednesday, October 6, 2010

More rounding up - Robert Louis Stevenson's novels

For all of the Robert Louis Stevenson I have read in the past year, I have perversely avoided writing about his novels.  I read all of the most famous ones, all, except for Jekyll and Hyde, for the first time, but not a peep about them – except for The Ebb-Tide, which is not remotely well known and as a result was a great shock.  What I’ve read:

Treasure Island, 1883
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886
Kidnapped, 1886
The Master of Ballantrae, 1889
Catriona aka David Balfour, 1893, sequel to Kidnapped
The Ebb-Tide, 1894, co-written with Lloyd Osborne, Stevenson’s stepson
Weir of Hermiston, 1896, unfinished

And there are six more novels, of which one is unfinished, and three co-written.  Eleven novels and two substantial fragments in twelve years, along with numerous stories, travel writing and essays.  The quality of Stevenson’s writing given that pace is startling, but perhaps we have here a hint about my uneasiness with Stevenson’s novels.  They’re narrow, by which I mean they do not always do much.

Most of these novels are boy’s books, adventure novels.  By itself, the genre puts a severe limit on the scope of the novel.  Treasure Island and Kidnapped must be among the dozen best boy’s novels.  Individual scenes – the battle in the rigging in Treasure Island, or the entire beginning of the novel, really, in the inn, or the siege of the ship’s cabin in Kidnapped – are unsurpassable.  Whatever Stevenson chooses to do with his novels, he does as well as almost anyone.  Honor, friendship, tolerance, integrity – the stories explore meaningful subjects.  They just can’t go too far, or they become something else.

Catriona, for example, is, ethically, quite a bit richer than Kidnapped, and becomes something else.  The political plot may be a bit too complex, actually.  As an adventure novel, it’s succeeds only sporadically, a good thing, as I see it, since it demonstrates Stevenson extending his reach,* with a strong payoff in the South Seas fiction, and, to the extent that one can judge from what we have, Weir of Hermiston.  Poor Stevenson – he died at a creative peak.

Treasure Island has, essentially, no female characters.  No women in Kidnapped, either, or Jekyll and Hyde, or The Ebb-Tide.  Stevenson had trouble writing women, and knew it.  One solution – write about pirate ships and the like.  Another – work on the problem.  I’m almost sad to report that the two women in Catriona are as interesting and alive as the men, and the heroine of Weir of Hermiston promises to be as good.  Why sad?  Because I think Stevenson had genuinely solved the problem, just before his early death.  So now his best female creations are in 1) a fragment, and 2) a little-read sequel.  What bad luck!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an exception to everything I have said.  Form, style, and subject blend as nowhere else in Stevenson’s fiction.  The Ebb-Tide is a different sort of book, too, an anti-adventure novel.  And they’re all dang good, every one I read. Like I expect every novel to do everything!  Henry James was almost irritated by Treasure Island, irritated by such good writing and imaginative power put in the service of something he was not sure was worth doing.  But he genuinely, publicly, admired Stevenson’s writing and creativity, and so do I.

* Catriona also contains my favorite Scotch dialect piece of Stevenson’s, a first-rate ghost story.


  1. Jekyll and Hyde is an astonishing read! Will you say more about form, style, and subject matter? I think it's interesting that R.L. Stevenson avoids descriptions of Hyde's amorous pursuits, as though they're simply beyond the pale of Victorian prudishness, but renders acts of physical brutality and violence with McCarthyesque flair: the whacking of that dude in the street with a heavy cane, complete with the loud snaps and cracks of busting bones! Great stuff, in a literary kind of way...

  2. I'm interested to hear about Henry James's irritation. I find that same irritation in other critics, who, I think, often don't want to give credit where credit is due when good writing is to be found in the service of entertainment. ("Genre writing" is a pejorative term for some people, but Patrick O'Brian, say, is a master, even though he uses his mastery for seafaring stories. Maybe because he does, what do I know?) And anyway, Henry James wrote ghost stories, so where does he get off? Hmm, maybe I have Feelings about this.

  3. Kevin, are you writing about Stevenson next week? I'd be happy to save Jekyll and Hyde until then, or later. My "thoughts" are not so inspiring right now. I could just quote some good bits and admire them.

    I had noticed the horrible mangling and so on, but never noticed until now that the source of all the grisly, juicy details has to be that maid, the only witness. That's amusing.

    Nabokov thinks the veiling of Hyde's vices is a flaw. It has to be up to a point, but I guess it also let's Hyde be as decadent as the reader's imagination allows, which is also amusing. The more innocent the reader, the more puzzling the story.

    Jenny, the James essay is "The Art of Fiction" (1884), which I wrote about earlier this year. James is actally doing what you want, defending genre fiction (via Treasure Island), pulling it into the main body of literature. He is arguing that fiction does many things, is big.

    James's criticisms of Stevenson move up a level. Specific to Stevenson, he is arguing not about worthy vs unworthy, but best vs less-than-best. I have some sympathies with James, but Stevenson (in "A Humble Remonstrance") clearly wins the argument.

    Stevenson and James became friends after (because of) these articles, and apparently had numerous serious discussions about writing, but they were all face to face, so we don't really know what they talked about.

  4. I'm finally reading Jekyll and Hyde. If you write about it next week I intend to have something to say.

  5. Dear Wuthers, yes, next week, or maybe early the following week. I won't have anything profound to say, just an observation or two about the role of wills, letters, and manuscripts (multiple forms of writing from multiple perspectives) in a story about multiple identities in an individual. Originally, I was playing around with the idea that Hyde has a great redeeming quality - making him not so revolting after all - but decided that his motive in self-slaughter is either ambiguous, unknowable, or self-serving, and so gave up the argument. My, it is a delightful book. Even now, thinking back on it, I thrill at the wine, the dim lights, the wet streets, and the mystical effect that Hyde has on people, as though they see him with their nose rather than their eyes. Cheers, Kevin

  6. Next week it is. End of the week. Proust, Dickens, Stevenson. Don't know, or care, how that all fits together. Maybe Proustovich gets squeezed out. Excellent.

    The wine, yes, it's a strangely vinous book. Lots of good ideas on your list.