(Robert Louis Stevenson)
Here’s a quiz question: what do the following have in common? Henry Thoreau, Billie Holiday, Arshile Gorky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maya Deren, Joseph Roth, Anton Chekhov, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, J. G. Farrell, D. H. Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Louis Stevenson?
Answer: they all died at the age of forty-four. (Mathematicians – you must have a theory.) A few by accident or suicide, not surprisingly, but mostly from natural causes, though exacerbated in several cases by alcohol or other drugs. But so short a life doesn’t rule out extraordinary productivity, as witness the cases of Chekhov, Lawrence – or Stevenson.
Stevenson (born 13 November 1850) is the sort of writer whom a lot of bookish people read when they were younger but, if they go back to him later, are apt to murmur about ‘guilty pleasures’. In fact, he’s one of those rare beasts who manages to combine huge popularity with admiration from fellow-writers—Borges, Henry James, Kipling, Proust, Nabokov—(along with some stern dismissals, it has to be said) and who has survived to become the focus of a great deal of critical and scholarly attention. A dozen novels; half a dozen volumes each of stories, essays and travel writing, books of poems—for adults and for children—and letters that fill eight volumes in the Yale University Press edition. Irresistibly attractive to cultural critics, psychoanalytical critics, specialists in Scottish literature, sexual politics and others. The stage and screen adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde run to some one hundred and twenty; there have been over two hundred biographies of Stevenson.
It wasn’t that long ago that I read through my fat copy of The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson. Eleven hundred and twenty pages in all, New Arabian Nights, The Dynamiter, The Beach of Falesá, and much more; I had a whale of a time.
Stevenson at his writing desk 1885
‘“Listen,” said the young man; “this is the age of conveniences, and I have to tell you of the last perfection of the sort. We have affairs in different places; and hence railways were invented. Railways separated us infallibly from our friends; and so telegraphs were made that we might communicate speedily at great distances. Even in hotels we have lifts to spare us a climb of some hundred steps. Now, we know that life is only a stage to play the fool upon as long as the part amuses us. There was one more convenience lacking to modern comfort; a decent easy way to quit that stage; the back stairs to liberty; or, as I said this moment, Death’s private door. This, my two fellow-rebels, is supplied by the Suicide Club.’”
Or this, from John Wiltshire: ‘I was dreaming England, which is, after all, a nasty, cold, muddy hole, with not enough light to see to read by’. And, of the priest: ‘He was a good-natured old soul to look at, gone a little grizzled, and so dirty you could have written with him on a piece of paper.’
‘Now, to be properly enjoyed,’ Stevenson wrote, in Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes, ‘a walking tour should be gone upon alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic.’
And again: ‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.’
Here’s the wonderful John Singer Sargent portrait (he did three in all) of Stevenson and Fanny:
John Singer Sargent, Robert Louis Stevenson (Private collection )
Stevenson crops up in an astonishing range of contexts, not least in the customary use of the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ without reference to, and usually without thought of, the story’s author. In Bristol—the city Jim Hawkins made his way to in order to sign on as a sea cook on the Hispaniola—it’s not uncommon to see groups of eager children taken on tours of Treasure Island–related points about the city by pirate captains armed to the teeth. I recall that, in John Buchan’s novel The Three Hostages (1924), Sandy Arbuthnot’s notes are signed in the names of supposed Derby winners. The first is ‘Buchan’ and the third, genuine this time, is ‘Spion Kop’ (named after the Boer War battle). In between these two came ‘Alan Breck’, which had been the name of Buchan’s own horse when he was in South Africa c.1902; but it was also, more famously, the name of the Jacobite hero of Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
Stevenson was buried on the summit of Mount Vaea, Samoa. The Samoans, led by Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, had cleared a path to the top of the mountain overnight, to be able to bury Stevenson.
(That detail is taken from the very impressive Robert Louis Stevenson website here:
Why does that remind me of the burial of Ernest Fenollosa? Answers on a million pound note to. . . No, but certainly that sort of respect shown to a figure from quite another culture is a striking image.
Ernest Fenollosa is best known now as the author of the two-volume Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art (1912) and as the source of the literal translations from Japanese Noh plays and the Chinese poetry from which Ezra Pound brilliantly fashioned the poems of Cathay (1915). Fenollosa died in London in September 1908 and his ashes were interred in Highgate Cemetery but, on the first anniversary of his death, they were reburied, as he had wished, in Uyeno Park, Tokyo, the hills overlooking Lake Biwa and the gardens of Miidera temple. The legend inscribed on the Fenollosa monument reads: ‘To the merit of our Sensei, high like the mountains and eternal like the water.’
In the closing lines of Pound’s long Canto LXXXIX, we read:
I want Frémont looking at mountains
or, if you like, Reck at Lake Biwa.
Frémont was an explorer who, with four others, climbed the loftiest peak in the Rockies in August 1842. One leading Pound critic remarked that Frémont and Fenollosa are here ‘made to stand at the threshold of the “mountainous” heaven’ of Cantos XC to XCV. Michael Reck wrote of visiting Fenollosa’s grave at a temple overlooking Lake Biwa in June 1954 and describing that visit in a letter to Pound, who ‘recorded it in the last line of his Canto 89.’
 The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Victor Gollancz, 1928), 19-20.
 ‘The Beach of Falésa’, The Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, 620, 621.
 Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 256.
 Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, 163.
 Buchan, The Three Hostages (1924; edited by Karl Miller, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 106, 126, 120. For Buchan’s horse, see plate 3, in Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier, London: Constable, 1995), 128-129.
 Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 35.
 The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 604.
 Massimo Bacigalupo, The Forméd Trace: The Later Poetry of Ezra Pound (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 257.
 Michael Reck, Ezra Pound: A Close-Up (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 174-175.