Robert Louis Stevenson and Victorian Moral Realism

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent

            When George Eliot wrote what could be viewed as the manifesto of Victorian Moral Realism—her 1856 essay “The Natural History of German Life”—she explored the need to depict the lower classes in the most truthful manner possible. If this could be achieved, then it could form the framework for “wise social policy” that would be based “on the Natural History of social bodies.” The sympathies generated for these individuals through various forms of art could then be put to the best benefit of others. But what is the purpose and use of sympathy? How is it best achieved and conveyed? And once an individual or society are moved to sympathy, what role should it have in the improving of society? About twenty years after Eliot’s benchmark writings, a young essayist named Robert Louis Stevenson would revise the mainstream concepts of realism established by Eliot. In his published essays along with his breakthrough work of short fiction, “The Pavilion on the Links” he departed from the popular moral realism that sought to change society by reorienting public sympathy and, in the process,  created a body of work that is meant to inspire people to life to the fullest. In doing so, he set his own standard for how the world should view the conditions of those who are known as the lower classes, and charted a course for the best way to help them rise from their humble circumstances. 

            In “German Life,” Eliot outlines the foundational principles intended to guide society in the proper evoke sympathy for the lower clases. She outlines the importance of a real understanding of poor laborers as a requirement to be able to best help out of their humble circumstances. She also condemns the practice of portraying rustics as idyllic and jocund as a “grave evil,” because it conceals their real struggles as they go through life. She wrote in “Natural History” the following:

But no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry. The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humour twinkles, — the slow utterance, and the heavy slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel, than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant. (Eliot)

If altruism is the intent, Eliot insists that no law or social movement can or should be created until there is a true understanding of the needs and wants of individuals. This is especially true if the intent is to make them moral. “Falsification here is far more pernicious than in the more artificial aspects of life.” She continues:

The thing for mankind to know is, not what are the motives and influences which the moralist thinks ought to act on the labourer or the artisan, but what are the motives and influences which do act on him. We want to be taught to feel, not for the heroic artisan or the sentimental peasant, but for the peasant in all his coarse apathy, and the artisan in all his suspicious selfishness. (Eliot)

            The awakening of social sympathies to reality is the goal in realism. To create art that shows how common people really are, not some abstract concept of them as seen in a painting or written about in some pastoral poetry. The goal is realistic representations that can inspire moral sentiments among all in “a millennial state of altruism, wherein everyone is caring for everyone else, and no one for himself.” This was Eliot’s ultimate vision. Therefore, the call for more understanding of the lower classes serves as a call to action, and those sympathies, in Eliot’s view, must not only inspire to action, but must also direct the altruistic activities. She wrote, “If we need a true conception of the popular character to guide our sympathies rightly, we need it equally to check our theories and direct us in their application (Eliot).”

            Robert Louis Stevenson was only six years old when George Eliot wrote these words. In fact, he read Eliot’s obituary in The Cornhill Magazine a mere five months after his short story “The Pavilion on the Links” was published in that same periodical (Hammond, Chronology, 32). Therefore it’s safe to say they weren’t contemporaries. He grew up in Scotland and was the son of a lighthouse engineer in a respectable middle-class family. His youth was troubled by persistent ill health which eventually led to his adult bohemian lifestyle of traveling around the world in search of a climate suitable for his persistent bouts of tuberculosis (Hammond, Companion, 3-4). He knew enough of suffering in his own life and no doubt would have been the object of sympathy from those around him. This is a perspective that gave him the understanding that even though people have struggles in life, there is also the possibility of happiness in spite of it all.

            As Stevenson was beginning his career as a writer, he read the works of Eliot, but expressed some dissatisfaction with Eliot in correspondence with Australian writer, Arthur Patchett Martin. In a discussion regarding Eliot’s novel Daniel Dederonda, Stevenson refers to the title character as a “meloncholy puppy and humbug” as well as “the Prince of prigs.” He also refers to George Eliot as “a high, but may we not add? – a rather dry lady.” He seems to regret the harshness of his words, however, when he adds, “…Hats off all the same, you understand: a woman of genius (Letters of RLS, 141).” In Stevenson’s life of convalescence, his optimistic attitude lifted him out of his sick bed and led his imagination on grand adventures that explored the inner workings of man and how morality should operate in society. Ultimately he favored honest storytelling that wasn’t weighed down by too much by sentimentalism. In 1892 he wrote, “I am a realist and a prosaist, and a most fanatical lover of plain physical sensations plainly and expressly rendered (Valima Letters, 273).” Rendering sensations in word and evoking them in the readers’ minds were his passion with his aim, ultimately, to entertain above all else.

            Stevenson took his influences from a different group of nineteenth century minds, two of which he mentions in an essay entitled “Books Which Have Influenced Me.” These authors were Walt Whitman and Herbert Spencer. 

            From Whitman, Stephenson gained the perspective that “new truth is only useful to supplement the old; rough truth is only wanted to expand, not to destroy, our civil and often elegant conventions (“Books”, 162),” Stevenson’s perspective was that the old ways of looking at the world need not be wholly disposed of in relating to the motivations and sentiments of the classes. There still could be joy found in the lower walks of life that don’t need to be pitied or couldn’t be romanticized to some degree in the effort to expand conventions, and not do away with them. 

            In an in-depth essay on Walt Whitman, Stevenson refers to Whitman’s exhortation to his disciples “to confront the growing arrogance of Realism (Essay on Walt Whitman, 59)” which notes an observed high-minded superiority in the attitudes of many Realists. Stevenson expounds on Whitman’s precepts by giving his own response to some of the sentiments put forth by Eliot. Stevenson is cautious about what impact on the serenity of mankind too much meddling in their affairs can cause. He argued that these people often, in their own sphere of life, were indeed happy. Stevenson wrote:

When our little poets have to be sent to look at the ploughman and learn wisdom, we must be careful how we tamper with our ploughmen. Where a man in not the best of circumstances preserves composure of mind, and relishes ale and tobacco, and his wife and children, in the intervals of dull and unremunerative labour; where a man in this predicament can afford a lesson by the way to what are called his intellectual superiors, there is plainly something to be lost, as well as something to be gained, by teaching him to think differently. It is better to leave him as he is than to teach him whining. It is better that he should go without the cheerful lights of culture, if cheerless doubt and paralyzing sentimentalism are to

be the consequence. (47-48)

            Stevenson concluded, “let us teach people, as much as we can, to enjoy, and they will learn for themselves to sympathize (48).” He was concerned that too much interference with people in their lifestyles would breed discontent and disrupt whatever happiness that individual might have in their own situation. In his mind, courage was the best antidote to indifference (48).

            This transformative ingredient, courage, is a concept explored in Stevenson’s short story,  “Pavilion on the Links.” In this story, the main character, Frank Cassilis, lives the life of a vagabond, “tramping” and “gypsying” all over England and Scotland with little more than a cart and tent. This lifestyle is something Cassilis is totally contented with as the first-person narrative explains, “It was a life in which I delighted; and I fully thought to have grown old upon the march, and at last died in a ditch (‘Pavilion’, 308).” Cassilis was indifferent about his life and relations. He had previously been friends with a man named Northmour, but their association had ended after they both left college, Cassilis without a degree, on account of the temperamental nature of Northmour. Nine years later, Cassilis follows a whim and wanders back to the pavilion the two used to share on the Scottish coast.

            To Cassilis’ surprise, he finds Northmour with two companions, an old banker named Huddlestone, who is on the run from a band of Italians he swindled money from, and the banker’s lovely daughter, Clara, who has been promised to Northmour as wife if he would smuggle Huddlestone out of the country. Upon discovering the intriguing situation, Cassilis is shaken from his indifference, inspired by his sympathy and sudden love for Clara and desire to rescue her from the danger her father has placed her in by his crimes. Stevenson’s words describe the instant Cassilis’self-estrangement from society changed to a desire for human companionship: “She had a firm yet airy motion of the body, and carried her head with unimaginable grace; every step was a thing to look at, and she seemed in my eyes to breathe sweetness and distinction (317).” From this moment on his only aim is to protect her from whatever is causing her pain.

            Through the first-person narrative we understand the motives of Cassilis as he summons up his courage to speak with Clara, investigates the Italians who have congregated in a nearby town, and ultimately confronts mortal danger as he, Clara, and the others barricade themselves in the pavilion. The final test of his mettle comes in the form of a confrontation with his long-time associate, some-time adversary, Northmour, who still holds claim upon Clara as the promised prize for the task he had undertaken. 

            This instillation of courage transforms Cassilis from a person content to be apart from society into someone who desires companionship and ultimately begins a married life with children. This is illustrative of the concepts Stevenson sets forth in contrast to Eliot. Where Eliot would delve into the lives of the lower classes to achieve understanding so that society can better them economically and morally, Stevenson would let them alone in their own sphere of contentment, only influencing them by entertainment and inspiration to have the courage to live life to the fullest and be active. 

            This need for an internal drive to be the motivating factor in the changing of people’s lives is a principle spoken of by another of Stevenson’s influencers, Herbert Spencer, of whom Stevenson wrote, “I should be much of a hound if I lost my gratitude to Herbert Spencer (‘Books’, 163).” Herbert Spencer, wrote:

Inevitably, then, this law in conformity with which each member of a species takes the consequences of its own nature; and in virtue of which the progeny of each member, participating in its nature, also takes such consequences; is one that tends ever to raise the aggregate happiness of the species, by furthering the multiplication of the happier and hindering that of the less happy. (Spencer, 190)

When a person takes courage and improves their own capacity happiness and for sustaining their own lives, then society is improved as those traits are passed down through generational influence. When originally published, “The Pavilion on the Links” was framed as the narrator, Cassilis, relating the story to his children of how he met their mother, a direct example of how his conversion to a life of happiness and interest in the lives of others is being passed down directly to his progeny.

            Stevenson was no stranger to the need for courage in his own life, and knew what he was speaking of. With his persistent ill health and doctors’ warnings of a potentially abbreviated life, his attitude was that if “the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week (‘ÆS Triplex.’, 53).” At the time “Pavilion” was being written, Stevenson was anticipating the marriage to his long time sweetheart, Fanny Osborne, who was in America seeking a divorce from her first husband who had abandoned her and her son years before. Although he was in poor health in early 1880, he travelled across the Atlantic and then travelled across America to California, a trip that almost killed him. After he arrived, he was able to marry Fanny and begin his life with her. Like Frank Cassilis, Stevenson was inspired into action by love and was willing to ignore much of reason and thoughts of self-preservation in order to marry her (Hammond, Companion, 9). 

            As Herbert Spencer wrote, “the acts which make continued life possible, must, on the average, be more peremptory than all those other acts which life makes possible; including the acts which benefit others (Spencer, 197-8).” It is often a simultaneous occurrence, though, when acts of egoism beget altruism, as in the case of the fictional Frank Cassilis, and the real Robert Louis Stevenson. Their love for someone other than themselves became the egoistic, self-sustaining force required for their own happiness. That force spurred on their immediate altruistic activities that benefitted those around them. Even the service that Stevenson did as an author to the world in bringing us his wonderful tales of world travel and adventure, were his own egoistic therapy to occupy his mind during his long hours convalescing in his sick bed.

            Stevenson’s love for life was ultimately the driving philosophy behind his many works, and an active life above the rest. “For surely the love of living,” Stevenson wrote, “is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution (‘ÆS Triplex’, 49).” To continue his work to the end was his intention, and that is what he did. Stevenson left many works unfinished upon his death at the age of forty-four in Samoa. He fervently believed that life goes down with “a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas (53).”

            This attitude to life may shed light on the reason many of his stories were epic tales of adventure. Stevenson commented on the fleeting qualities of words and author commentaries in the tales we read, “but these epoch-making scenes, which put the last mark of truth upon a story and fill up, at one blow, our capacity for sympathetic pleasure, we so adopt into the very bosom of our mind that neither time nor tide can efface or weaken the impression (‘Gossip’, 106-7).” For Stevenson, the combination of sympathy and adventure was more magical and enduring than merely documenting life in everyday society. The impressions his grand scenes make upon the mind are carried back to the work-a-day lives of the readers to reflect upon. 

This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character, thought, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind’s eye. This is the highest and hardest thing to do in words; the thing which, once accomplished, equally delights the schoolboy and the sage, and makes, in its own right, the quality of epics. (107)

            The reader of “Pavilion” is introduced to the world of Cassilis and his pleasant life as a vagrant, then we experience the change of focus and desires along with him as he forgets himself and begins to live for the lovely Clara. The adventure of the story aids in embedding in the reader’s mind the potential for happiness and the rewards of an inner change.

            In the climactic scene of “The Pavilion on the Links” Cassilis, Clara and the others are barricaded in the Pavilion in danger from the Italians that are pursuing Clara’s father. Here we see an interesting dynamic as Clara’s father isn’t willing to do what it would take to save the life of his own daughter, which is to surrender the money that he illegally obtained in dealings with the Italians. Cassilis and Northmour, on the other hand, have other motivations for remaining in the pavilion: Northmour remains out of obligation to the bargain he made to protect the banker, and Cassilis remains out of love and a desire to protect Clara. In the end, the banker is killed, Northmour relents any intentions he had towards the bargain for Clara’s hand in marriage and the real victor is Cassilis, who was the only one with pure motivations. Thus, Cassilis is rewarded for his selfless efforts and now can pass this new perspective on life to his children. 

            Eliot’s contemplative approach to understanding the motives of individuals hinted at an end goal of changing people’s situations through moral sentiments and public policy—an outside-in strategy. Conversely, Stevenson saw the value in people’s existing in their own spheres until they were inspired to change their own lives:

 Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have neither one nor other. It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom Christ could not away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say “give them up,” for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people. (A Christmas Sermon, 11-12)

Stevenson understood, perhaps more than most that life was temporary and fleeting. Whatever measure of happiness that people can achieve in the time that they have on Earth shouldn’t be hindered or tampered with by external moralists attempting to improve society. Why shed the light on perceived negativities in the lives of “simpler people”only to disrupt their contentment.

            Stevenson’s more conservative approach to society has left a legacy for future authors and audiences to read about and enjoy. On the surface his stories may appear to be , simply, epic tales of excitement and romance. It doesn’t take very long, however, to see that his stories are really explorations on the virtues of embracing courage and overcoming personal obstacles no matter weak you are or how simple your circumstances may be.

            This attitude towards a courageous life is reflected in a prayer Stevenson wrote for his family and household one morning, entitled “Sunday,” which supplicates:

Go with each of us to rest; if any awake, temper to them the dark hours of watching; and when the day returns, return to us, our sun and comforter, and call us up with morning faces and with morning hearts — eager to labour — eager to be happy, if happiness shall be our portion — and if the day be marked for sorrow, strong to endure it. (Genung, 31)

            That evening while sitting at the dinner table, Robert Louis Stevenson suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away, leaving his family and the world “marked for sorrow” (Hammond, 15). His death left many projects unfinished except for the project of his life, which was to remain active in until the very end. That is what he did. And by doing so showed that a philosophy is only good if it will lead men to happiness in whatever scope of life they may be in. 

Works Cited

Eliot, George. “The Natural History of German Life.” Westminster Review July 1856, pp 51-56, 71-72. st-andrews.ac.uk. Web 1 Apr 2014

Genung, John Franklin. Stevenson’s Attitude to Life. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, 1901. Print.

Hammond, J.R. A Robert Louis Stevenson Chronology. London: MacMillan Press LTD, 1997. Print.

Hammond, J.R. A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion. London: MacMillan Press LTD, 1984. Print.

Spencer, Herbert. The Data of Ethics. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882. Print

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “ÆS Triplex.” Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. William Lyon Phelps. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906. 43-54. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Books Which have Influenced Me.” Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. William Lyon Phelps. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906. 159-167. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Christmas Sermon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900. Print

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Essay on Walt Whitman. Ed. Elbert Hubbard. Aurora: The Roycroft Shop, 1900. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Gossip on Romance.” Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. William Lyon Phelps. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906. 101-117. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. Sidney Colvin. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Pavilion on the Links,” The Cornhill Magazine. Vol. 42. London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1880. Print.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Valima Letters. Ed. Sidney Colvin. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896. Print.

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