The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 23. R. L. Stevenson

Of all this group, the greatest was Robert Louis Stevenson. Versatility was one of Stevenson’s most conspicuous qualities, for, besides being the foremost essayist since Lamb and a master of fiction, whether in the form of romance or in that of short story, he was also a dramatist and a poet. The essay, however, was the form in which he first gave promise of his future distinction, and the publication of Ordered South may be regarded as his real entrance upon literature. Ordered South lifts the veil from Stevenson’s life and gives insight into conditions which profoundly affected all his work. It is the essay of an invalid, and an invalid Stevenson was destined to remain till the end. But he was an invalid with the spirit of a robust adventurer. A victim to tuberculosis, who, at times, could scarcely breathe and who seemed to need all his energies in order merely to live, he was a lover of the sea and a daring voyager, and, long after he had reached manhood, still played, with tireless zest, a war-game of his own invention. In his case, broken health did not quench, but rather stimulated, the heroic in his nature. Hence, feeble as was his hold on life, in forty-four years he accomplished far more than the vast majority of those who live the full span in the enjoyment of vigorous health. The body was weak, but the spirit was indomitable. It was the eagerness of his spirit and his keen sympathy with men of action that saved Stevenson from the besetting sin of the artist in words, the temptation to subordinate meaning to sound.

It was not until the publication of Treasure Island as a separate volume in 1883 that Stevenson was generally recognised as a great writer; but, prior to that, he had written and published some short stories and many essays. The records of personal experience which are embodied in An Inland Voyage and in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes are essentially essays. Fugitive papers were gathered into volumes, intimate and confidential, as in Virginibus Puerisque, or critical, as in Familiar Studies of Men and Books. Both in matter and in manner they were excellent, but they did not make their author famous. Other volumes, akin in spirit and substance, were added in later years—fragments of autobiography and travel, such as The Amateur Emigrant, The Silverado Squatters and In the South Seas, and collections of miscellaneous papers, such as Memories and Portraits and Across the Plains. In all his work of this class Stevenson is easy, graceful and friendly, except on occasion, when, as in A Christmas Sermon, the tone is too lofty for these adjectives. But there, too, he is intimate, and there, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else, he reveals the moral interest which underlies most of his work.

The body of short stories grew along with the essays, and Stevenson was a master of story-craft no less than of essaycraft. He never surpassed some of his earlier tales: The Pavilion on the Links and Thrawn Janet both appeared before Treasure Island. But, among English-speaking people, it is difficult to make a great reputation out of short stories. The stories published under the title The New Arabian Nights were supposed to be responsible for the unpopularity and failure of London, the periodical in which they originally appeared. Stevenson might, therefore, have added masterpieces such as Markheim and The Beach of Falesa, and still have remained obscure. But, after Treasure Island, he was obscure no longer, and the brilliant success of that excellent story for boys won readers for the essays and the short stories who, save for it, would have paid no heed to them. It made Stevenson a prosperous man, and did much to determine the direction of his subsequent efforts. It was followed by a series of romances—Kidnapped, with its sequel Catriona, The Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae and others, down to his masterpiece Weir of Hermiston and the unfinished St. Ives. In these romances, Stevenson is at his best, like Scott, when he is dealing with his native land; but a comparison with the Waverley novels shows that, fine as his work is, it falls decidedly short of the greatest. Only in Weir of Hermiston does he for a moment rival Scott. Stevenson was growing till he died, and the wonderful creation of the old judge, one of the best drawn characters in prose fiction, deepens the regret that his days were numbered. Like Dickens, he had the excellent habit of identifying himself with his characters, and this, no doubt, explains his success. He acted their parts while he dictated, and imitated their voices.

In other departments, Stevenson’s work was less excellent. The dramas wherein he collaborated with Henley were not very successful; but it must be added that their failure was largely due to imperfect acquaintance with the conditions of the theatre. Both writers were too highly gifted to produce work destitute of literary merit, and Beau Austin, in particular, seems, from this point of view, to deserve more success than it won.