For here we have a man of the finest creative instinct touching with perfect certainty and charm the romantic junctures of his story; and we find him utterly careless, almost, it would seem, incapable, in the technical matter of style, and not only frequently weak, but frequently wrong in points of drama. In character parts, indeed, and particularly in the Scotch, he was delicate, strong and truthful; but the trite, obliterated features of too many of his heroes have already wearied two generations of readers. At times his characters will speak with something far beyond propriety with a true heroic note; but on the next page they will be wading wearily forward with an ungrammatical and undramatic rigmarole of words. The man who could conceive and write the character of Elspeth of the Craigburnfoot,[34] as Scott has conceived and written it, had not only splendid romantic, but splendid tragic gifts. How comes it, then, that he could so often fob us off with languid, inarticulate twaddle?

It seems to me that the explanation is to be found in the very quality of his surprising merits. As his books are play to the reader, so were, they play to him. He conjured up the romantic with delight, but he had hardly patience to describe it. He was a great day-dreamer, a seer of fit and beautiful and humorous visions, but hardly a great artist; hardly, in the manful sense, an artist at all. He pleased himself, and so he pleases us. Of the pleasures of his art he tasted fully; but of its toils and vigils and distresses never man knew less. A great romantic--an idle child.


This essay first appeared in _Longman's Magazine_ for November 1882, Vol. I, pp. 69-79. Five years later it was published in the volume _Memories and Portraits_ (1887), followed by an article called _A Humble Remonstrance_, which should really be read in connection with this essay, as it is a continuation of the same line of thought. In the eternal conflict between Romanticism and Realism, Stevenson was heart and soul with the former, and fortunately he lived long enough to see the practical effects of his own precepts and influence. When he began to write, Realism in fiction seemed to have absolute control; when he died, a tremendous reaction in favor of the historical romance had already set in, that reached its climax with the death of the century. Stevenson's share in this Romantic revival was greater than that of any other English writer, and as an English review remarked, if it had not been for him most of the new authors would have been Howells and James young men.

This paper was written at Davos in the winter of 1881-2, and in February, writing to Henley, the author said, "I have just finished a paper, 'A Gossip on Romance,' in which I have tried to do, very popularly, about one-half of the matter you wanted me to try. In a way, I have found an answer to the question. But the subject was hardly fit for so chatty a paper, and it is all loose ends. If ever I do my book on the Art of Literature, I shall gather them together and be clear." (_Letters_, I, 269). On Dec. 8, 1884--the same month in which _A Humble Remonstrance_ was printed, Stevenson wrote an interesting letter to Henry James, whose views on the art of fiction were naturally contrary to those of his friend. See _Letters_, I, 402.

[Note 1: _Like a pig for truffles_. See the _Epilogue_ to Browning's _Pacchiarotto etc_., Stanza XVIII:--"Your product is--truffles, you hunt with a pig!"]

[Note 2: _The Malabar coast_. A part of India.]

[Note 3: _Jacobite_. After James II was driven from the throne in 1688, his supporters and those of his descendants were called Jacobites. Jacobus is the Latin for James.]

[Note 4: _John Rann or Jerry Abershaw_. John Rann I cannot find. Louis Jeremiah (or Jerry) Abershaw was a highway robber, who infested the roads near London; he was hung in 1795, when scarcely over twenty-one years old.]

[Note 5: "_Great North road_." The road that runs on the east of England up to Edinburgh. Stevenson yielded to the charm that these words had for him, for he began a romance with the title, _The Great North Road_, which however, he never finished.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book