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Robert Louis Stevenson: A Memorial
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Mr. Henley's Spiteful Perversions
MORE unfortunate still, as disturbing and prejudicing a sane and true and disinterested
view of Stevenson's claims, was that article of his erewhile "friend," Mr W. E. Henley,
published on the appearance of the MEMOIR by Mr Graham Balfour, in the PALL
MALL MAGAZINE. It was well that Mr Henley there acknowledged frankly that he
wrote under a keen sense of "grievance" - a most dangerous mood for the most soberly
critical and self-restrained of men to write in, and that most certainly Mr W. E. Henley
was not - and that he owned to having lost contact with, and recognition of the R. L.
Stevenson who went to America in 1887, as he says, and never came back again. To do
bare justice to Stevenson it is clear that knowledge of that later Stevenson was essential -
essential whether it was calculated to deepen sympathy or the reverse. It goes without
saying that the Louis he knew and hobnobbed with, and nursed near by the Old Bristo
Port in Edinburgh could not be the same exactly as the Louis of Samoa and later years -
to suppose so, or to expect so, would simply be to deny all room for growth and
expansion. It is clear that the W. E. Henley of those days was not the same as the W. E.
Henley who indited that article, and if growth and further insight are to be allowed to Mr
Henley and be pleaded as his justification CUM spite born of sense of grievance for such
an onslaught, then clearly some allowance in the same direction must be made for
Stevenson. One can hardly think that in his case old affection and friendship had been so
completely submerged, under feelings of grievance and paltry pique, almost always bred
of grievances dwelt on and nursed, which it is especially bad for men of genius to
acknowledge, and to make a basis, as it were, for clearer knowledge, insight, and
judgment. In other cases the pleading would simply amount to an immediate and
complete arrest of judgment. Mr Henley throughout writes as though whilst he had
changed, and changed in points most essential, his erewhile friend remained exactly
where he was as to literary position and product - the Louis who went away in 1887 and
never returned, had, as Mr W. E. Henley, most unfortunately for himself, would imply,
retained the mastery, and the Louis who never came back had made no progress, had not
added an inch, not to say a cubit, to his statue, while Mr Henley remained IN STATU
QUO, and was so only to be judged. It is an instance of the imperfect sympathy which
Charles Lamb finely celebrated - only here it is acknowledged, and the "imperfect
sympathy" pled as a ground for claiming the full insight which only sympathy can secure.
If Mr Henley was fair to the Louis he knew and loved, it is clear that he was and could
only be unjust to the Louis who went away in 1887 and never came back.
"At bottom Stevenson was an excellent fellow. But he was of his essence what the French
call PERSONNEL. He was, that is, incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson.
He could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every
time he passed it; to him there was nothing obvious in time and eternity, and the smallest
of his discoveries, his most trivial apprehensions, were all by way of being revelations,
and as revelations must be thrust upon the world; he was never so much in earnest, never
so well pleased (this were he happy or wretched), never so irresistible as when he wrote
about himself. WITHAL, IF HE WANTED A THING, HE WENT AFTER IT WITH AN