Lecture 54: Robert Louis Stevenson

After Chesterton’s book on Robert Louis Stevenson was published in 1927, Edmund Gosse sent Chesterton a letter. Gosse had been a friend of Stevenson and one of his great champions. We can almost hear Gosse weeping with joy and gratitude as he writes that Chesterton really understands Stevenson, unlike any other modern critic. Just as Chesterton had rescued Charles Dickens from the scholars and intellectuals who were bent on dismissing him, so he rescues Stevenson, who had been “kidnapped” as it were by the prigs who spent a great deal of ink writing that Stevenson was not worth writing about.

Chesterton avoids the mistake that almost every other critic wants to wallow in: focusing on Stevenson’s life as opposed to his writing. While his life is certainly almost irresistible material, it was ironically dismissed as being too romantic instead of admired for being too adventurous. The tubercular Stevenson may not have been a swashbuckling pirate, but he really did defy death, crossing two oceans and a continent, coughing up blood, chasing love and words. Perhaps some of his books are forgettable and forgotten, but some are immortal. Whether or not they are great literature, they are lasting literature. And the test of literature, says Chesterton, “is whether the words are well or ill chosen, not for the purpose of fitting our own taste in words, but for the purpose of satisfying everybody’s sense of the realities of things.” Anyone who reads Stevenson knows at once that he passes the test. He captures not only our own experiences but our own dreams. And, according to Chesterton, he does something more: he testifies to a truth that he does not understand himself. This is what Chesterton wants to talk about, and so he resists the interesting person that Stevenson was and dwells on the even more interesting things that Stevenson wrote. Thus, he sets himself apart from other literary critics by penning literary criticism that is not biography or psychology but is actually about literature.

Chesterton is able to appreciate those books of Stevenson that we have never read and probably never will read, and his appreciation is something we can still appreciate. The mark of great criticism is that it is edifying even if we haven’t read the work that the critic is considering. We even imagine that we might read those books someday. So what if we won’t. But when Chesterton deals with the books with which we are familiar, then the waves start crashing over the bow. The excursion turns into a real adventure. Chesterton comforts us with things we don’t know, but he shocks us with things we do know. For instance, we think we know Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We don’t.

The real stab of the story is not in the discovery that the one man is two men; but in the discovery that the two men are one man. After all the diverse wandering and warring of those two incompatible beings, there was still only one man born and only one man buried. Jekyll and Hyde have become a proverb and a joke; only it is a proverb read backwards and a joke that nobody really sees… The point of the story is not that a man can cut himself off from his conscience, but that he cannot… The reason is that there can never be equality between the evil and the good. Jekyll and Hyde are not twin brothers. They are rather, as one of them truly remarks, like father and son. After all, Jekyll created Hyde; Hyde would never have created Jekyll; he only destroyed Jekyll.

As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, only heaven can create; hell can only destroy.

For the reader who wishes that Chesterton had written a book about Edgar Allan Poe, the wish is fulfilled in this book about Stevenson. But a book is not needed. Chesterton sums up Poe in one paragraph.

Dark wine, dying lamps, drugging odours, a sense of being stifled in curtains of black velvet, a substance which is at once utterly black and unfathomably soft, all carried with them a sense of indefinite and infinite decay…The point of Poe is that we feel that everything is decaying, including ourselves; faces are already growing featureless like those of lepers; roof-trees are rotting from root to roof; one great grey fungus as vast as a forest is sucking up life rather than giving it forth; mirrored in stagnant pools like lakes of poison which yet fade without line or frontier into the swamp. The stars are not clean in his sight; but are rather more worlds made for worms. And this corruption is increased, by an intense imaginative genius, with the addition of a satin surface of luxury and even a terrible sort of comfort… This dark luxury has something almost liquid about it. Its laxity seems to be betraying more vividly how all these things are being sucked away from us, down a slow whirlpool more like a moving swamp. That is the atmosphere of Edgar Allan Poe; a sort of rich rottenness of decomposition, with something thick and narcotic in the very air.

He sums up Henry James in one sentence. One short sentence: “No lady in Henry James ever skipped.”

In summing up Stevenson, Chesterton takes us back to the nursery, where our appreciation for stories begin. He concludes that The Child’s Garden of Verses is Stevenson’s most important work, coming “out of those depths of garden perspective and large rooms as seen by little children, white with the windows of the morning.” Here is where Stevenson really defies death. By writing about happiness, he defies the philosophy of pessimism that was taking over art and literature at the end of the 19th century and would lead to worse things in the 20th. It is good we should look back at a garden. That is where everything began.

If you would like to purchase this book, it is available in Vol.18 of The Collected Works.