In a two volume collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters to His Family and Friends, published in 1900, I find correspondence with Henry James and C. W. Stoddard, among many others. My children remember when we read Treasure Island and Kidnapped together. They have all grown up and gone, the shadows lengthen, but I go back to Stevenson again and again. This collection of letters I have had for some years. It is the sort of book one just dips into from time to time, invariably with delight.
Stevenson corresponded with Henry James over many years, his letters always hearty and slightly condescending. You have to remind yourself how frail Stevenson’s health was. He and his family enjoyed reading Roderick Hudson, but he found Portrait of a Lady worse than dull. What would he have made of Wings of the Dove? James often regretted his lack of popularity and envied that of F. Marion Crawford and Stevenson, but it can be fairly said that these authors retained a livelier sense of the novelist’s first obligation: to engage and interest the reader. Reading late James is too much like taking your medicine.
Stoddard was an adventurer who spent time at Notre Dame, knew Father Zahm and Teddy Roosevelt, and his writing on the South Seas influenced Stevenson and doubtless had much to do with his eventually ending up in Samoa. Stevenson spent much of his life looking for a healthy place to live. That such a sickly man should have written adventure novels is often noted, but the abiding mark of a Stevenson story is its moral gravity.
Action matters because it matters what the characters do, poised as they are before good and evil. What will they do? How will it affect themselves and others? The suspense of a good plot is a moral suspense, and it is that, far more than imagined danger and escape, that captivates us in Stevenson. We may never find ourselves on an island overrun with pirates, but that is merely a heightened setting in which one must act as well as he can in the circumstances provided.
A recent life of Stevenson by Frank McLynn makes a painful read. The author makes constant quaint appeal to psychoanalytical jargon in discussing his subject, as if there were some quasi-mechanical explanation for this decision or that. Whatever one makes of the mythical homunculi that supposedly inhabit the psyche, it would be wrong to see them as merely a pseudoscientific version of the age-old recognition that human agents come bearing much baggage they did not pack themselves—blood, upbringing, moods, and bent. But the drama and mystery of human life lie in our freedom despite such things and in the character that uses of freedom build.
Chesterton once rewrote “Old King Cole” in the manner of Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, and Swinburne. It would have been hilarious to have Chesterton try a Freudian version of Treasure Island. Of course it wouldn’t work. Not even Long John Silver blames what he has done on impersonal forces or his parents. It is worth realizing that fiction cannot be based on a determinist view of action. Georges Simeon professed to be a fatalist but, fortunately, this supposed belief had no influence on his novels.
Stevenson’s morality is firm enough to accommodate the mysterious diversity of the human heart. Long John Silver is one of the most complicated bad men in fiction and sympathetic because of that. In Doctor Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wrote an overt morality story, in the same neighborhood as The Picture of Dorian Grey. There are those who see the Calvinism seeping through. I am not one of them.
Stevenson’s Christianity is best seen in his defense of Damian of Molokai against a Protestant attack suggesting the saintly missionary had caught leprosy from misbehaving with those he cared for. Libelous, of course, but Stevenson goes on to contrast the comfortable clergyman far from the leper colony making disparaging remarks about a man who had given his life to these outcasts.
All but abandoned by the products of creative writing courses, the knack for story flourishes in thrillers and mysteries. There is more to good fiction than what happens next and whodunit, but where story—that is, plot—is absent, or so concealed and weighted down beneath an ocean of words as to be all but inaccessible, the reader will not stay. And with Stevenson the story constantly conveys more, most fundamentally a way of looking at the world that is at once shareable and unique.