Robert Louis Stevenson
Painted By John Singer Sargent
Any man who creates the Master of Ballantrae, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the palmy shores of Treasure Island must be a romantic. All swashbucklers, both real and literary, have something warm-spirited and generous in their nature, and as such, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was not a writer to let the Christmas season pass unremarked.
Christmastime 1887 found Stevenson in Saranac Lake, mostly miserable. The temperature was freezing, the weather was wretched and Stevenson found himself “grey and harsh.” He was recovering from a lung ailment there, under the care of Dr. E. L. Trudeau, and writing much of his masterpiece, The Master of Ballantrae. The bleak and uncompromising weather may have had significant influence on some of the gloomier set pieces of the novel, including the wonderful moment where the two brothers nearly kill each other during a midnight swordfight and the closing moments in a desolate and deserted American forest.
He also wrote many essays, among them, A Christmas Sermon. Stevenson’s sermon is available on the invaluable Manybooks.net for download to your Kindle or e-reader, and can also be found in its entirety here: http://www.thefullwiki.org/A_Christmas_Sermon_(Stevenson). It can be read in a single sitting and comes highly recommended.
I think what is so refreshing about Stevenson’s Christmas thoughts is just how little Christmas is to be found in them. Instead, Stevenson questions the motives of professional moralists, those who seek to control or condemn the behavior of others without taking time to think of the wrongs they do themselves. In this age when questions of morality have taken down one presidential hopeful and counting, it is a refreshing change. As Stevenson says, 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.
Stevenson is one of the great novelists of the 19th Century; initially a popular writer who has eventually been embraced by academia and the literati (a process that can sometimes take a surprisingly long time.) Readers seeking literary art along with concise and vivid storytelling could hardly do better than Stevenson. Ballantrae (written in 1889 and already covered in these pages) is highly recommended, as are Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886).
Let’s close with a few more Christmas thoughts from the man who was both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life's endeavor springs in some degree from dullness. We require higher tasks, because we do not recognize the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold, arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us, which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unraveled.
To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends but these without capitulation—above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself—here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year's end or for the end of life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no despair for the despairer.