BOOKS / Absolutely fabulist: 1994 is the centenary of Robert Louis Stevenson's death. Ian Thomson assesses his place in English literature

Robert Louis Stevenson died in 1894, a fortnight before Christmas. He had gone to fetch a bottle of wine from his cellar when he was cut down by a stroke. Word of his collapse (on a coral island in the South Seas) came over the wires like the worst of news. Henry James refused to believe it; Rudyard Kipling was so devastated that for a month he could not write. RLS had been kidnapped by death at the age of 44.

Yet almost a century on, the importance of Stevenson as a writer remains an issue. Is Treasure Island a fabulous allegory, or merely the trimmings of an old costume-chest? And what of RLS himself, this consumptive Edinburgher in a velveteen smoking jacket? Is there not the suspicion of pose in the sepia photographs that survive? One of them shows RLS on a Hawaiian beach wearing a cowrie shell necklace, a Victorian beatnik. His hollow, haunted face - pale and phthisical, with those huge, brown, liquid eyes - is strangely mirrored in the prose itself. Light and airy, it is like the fluttering of a mind concerned less with real life than with the make-believe.

Soon after Stevenson died at Samoa, critics began to ask if there was much solid stuff in what he wrote. 'It is not to be expected that posterity will take much interest in him,' one of them sniffed. 'He is the mistletoe of English literature whose roots are not in the soil but in the tree.' Bloomsbury was more lofty still. Its sneering attitude to Stevenson is manifest in the character of Leonard Bast from E M Forster's novel, Howards End; culturally on the make, a man of unrefined tastes and a chequered education, Leonard is 'the typical sort of RLS admirer'.

The Thirties and Forties saw the ebb tide of Stevenson's critical reputation. No one protested when F R Leavis dismissed him from the canon of English literature as a 'second-rate' eccentric writing in the windswept tradition of Sir Walter Scott. By the time Graham Greene was commissioned to write a biography in 1949 (it was never completed), academics had already banished Stevenson to the frivolous pastures of the literary bagatelle.

And that was that - until J L Borges announced: 'If you don't like Stevenson, there must be something wrong with you.' In 1960 the Argentine fabulist elaborated: 'I like hourglasses, maps, 18th-century typography, the roots of words, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson.'

Other contemporary writers have also placed the highest value on his prose; far from merely superior fustian, it is spare and frugal like a piece of music by Bach. Italo Calvino, Borges' Italian counterpart, paid impish homage to Stevenson in his 1951 classic, The Cloven Viscount. One of its characters - Squire Trelawney - is lifted from Treasure Island.

Publishers have been busy preparing for 1994, the centenary of Robert Louis Stevenson. There will be two new biographies, by Ian Bell and Brian Bevan (to add to this year's, by Frank McLynn), and a personal appreciation (In Search of RLS) by Hunter Davies. Edinburgh University Press is bringing out Collected Works and Collected Poems, Yale the Collected Letters. In the meantime The Complete Short Stories have been published. An essential publication, superbly edited and introduced by the Scots writer and journalist, Ian Bell, it may mark a new era for RLS. A fine visionary talent shines on every page; it is difficult to see why Virginia Woolf pooh-poohed Stevenson as a 'poor writer because his thought is poor . . . and his style obnoxious'. What strikes most is the timbre of the voice that speaks to - but never at - the reader. It is the voice of an old acquaintance lost too long.

Ian Bell has included The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on the grounds that its economy of words, and its symbolic force, belong more to the short story than to the novella. It is also the most serious of Stevenson's tales, a work of high philosophic intention that touches some elemental fear in us. Vladimir Nabokov considered it 'a masterpiece' belonging 'to the same order of art as Madame Bovary or Dead Souls'. Yet it originally appeared (just before Christmas 1886) as a shilling shocker.

The Jekyll story is no piece of Victorian Gothic. It is a fabulous (Andre Gide called it 'wonderful') exploration into the recesses of the human mind and the power of evil. The terrible scene where Hyde tramples over a child's body in a London street - treading down innocence - still evokes pity and horror. 'Most of us at some epoch of our lives have been upon the verge of developing a Mr Hyde,' J A Symonds wrote to RLS.

Stevenson was familiar with the concept of double identity (he was a member of the London Society for Psychic Research). At heart, though, he was a religious moralist. For all his quarrels with the Calvinism of his upbringing, RLS frequently broods in these stories on the evil in the world and man. The Merry Men tells of a Hebridean wrecker unhinged by his unconfessed sin of murder. Markheim, a minor masterpiece of concision, is the story of a man convinced that his violent crime has been overheard by neighbours on Christmas Day: 'All, by their own hearths, prying and hearkening and weaving the rope that was to hang him.'

Beneath the lightness of touch - the skilled and graceful sentence structure - there often lies in Stevenson a dark apprehension. A simple morality wins out (with a good and happy ending) but RLS has revealed his fears. Markheim, the murderer, confronts his double and repents. 'To have often resisted the diabolic', Stevenson wrote in his 1888 A Christmas Sermon, 'and at the end to be still resisting it, is for the poor human soldier to have done quite well.' It could serve us as a tonic, this doomed Calvinistic conscience, for our moral confusion in the Nervous Nineties.

All his brief life Stevenson was 'an ardent dreamer' and his darker stories obeyed the logic of nightmare. He dreamed his Spanish vampire fable Olalla (an intoxicated romance with cardboard characters, this is not the best of RLS), and Jekyll itself is a classic example of unconscious cerebration. Stevenson's stepson Lloyd Osbourne recalled its genesis: 'One day he came down to luncheon in a very preoccupied frame of mind; hurried through his meal - an unheard of thing for him to do - and on leaving said he was working with extraordinary success on a new story that had come to him in a dream, and that he was not to be interrupted or disturbed - even if the house caught fire . . .'

The result was the ideal fable, a moral allegory. Of course, it is impossible for a chemical compound to alter the physiognomy of Dr Jekyll. But it does not hurt to believe it. Much of what Stevenson wrote, even the dandified books of travel by canoe and donkey, was an honourable alternative to realism. In 1884 Stevenson gave one of the earliest statements of the modernist position in writing: 'Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical,' he maintained. 'And the novel which is a work of art exists . . . by its immeasurable difference from life.'

Stevenson was at odds with the tradition - still in the ascendancy at the time - of the 19th-century realist novel. His credo came close to the French poets of the decadent movement who championed a symbolist art independent of life. They wrote a rarefied verse, and lived as bohemian drop-outs. The sleaze that RLS naively sought as a law student in the brothels of Edinburgh ('Give me the publican and the harlot') was very much after Baudelaire. And the French admired the extreme lucidity, the cool rationality of Stevenson's prose. Writing to T S Eliot in 1911, Alain-Fournier praised RLS and his Highland romance Catriona: 'I have found some very French qualities in it - subtlety, charm and heroism, the talent of a very fine and precise novelist put to the service of the most resolutely incredible adventures.'

Charm - 'grace in French' - is a key to Stevenson. He is always a delight to read, and enchantment is one of the special qualities a writer must have. As Borges said of RLS: 'Without enchantment, the rest is useless.'

Having renounced the family trade of lighthouse engineering, Stevenson was determined to become a professional writer. His literary apprenticeship was rigorous; the famous prose style was developed, RLS tells us, by playing 'the sedulous ape' to Hazlitt, Sir Thomas Browne, Defoe, Montaigne, Baudelaire. He refined his craft until it had reached a Flaubertian ideal of perfection. Artistry for Stevenson did not mean, as F R Leavis implied, 'fine writing'; it meant complete control over the materials of fiction.

It is Stevenson's sense of place that enchants the reader; he could imprint a scene on the mind's eye with a sensuous weave of words. Here is the opening to The Beach of Falesa, the most perfect of his novellas from the Samoan period:

I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond. The land breeze blew in our faces and smelt strong of wild lime and vanilla: other things besides, but these were the most plain; and the chill of it set me sneezing . . .

The description is sensory. Nabokov enthused about the 'delightful winey taste' of RLS's prose, and a contemporary critic claimed he had become 'sunburned' while reading it.

The most enchanting fables in this collection, though, are taken from New Arabian Nights. Weirdly imaginative, these miniature detective sto

ries offer us 'the wonderful in the frankest, most delectable form'. Henry James approved. Stevenson's sleuth - the absurdly named Prince Florizel of Bohemia - corresponds to the Caliph Haroun Al Raschid in The Thousand and One Nights; and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Geraldine, to the Vizier. 'Two of the silliest men in England', they tromp round London (or Baghdad?) in search of extravagant adventures which RLS narrates in the dulcet tones of Scheherazade.

Stevenson invented with these fables a new literary form, which the Spectator in 1882 called 'a grotesque romance'. Others have followed, most notably Italo Calvino and G K Chesterton. Borges, who delights in telling us that there in no newness under the sun, observed that the fantastic London of Father Brown would not exist if Chesterton had not read Stevenson. And Stevenson would not have written the adventures of Prince Florizel if he had not read The Thousand and One Nights.

Stevenson was conscious of his literary inheritance (as well as an ancestral one). As Calvino said, his writing mirrored 'all adventures, all mysteries, all conflicts of will and passion scattered throughout the books of hundreds of writers'. The Scottish adventures - Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae - were informed by Stevenson's deep reading of 18th-century accounts of Flora Macdonald, Culloden, the Highland Clearances. He passed his boyhood in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle; even in the South Seas his imagination was haunted by the Pentland hills. Stevenson was both a Scottish romantic (his chilling short story, Thrawn Janet, is composed in Lallans dialect) and a cosmopolitan fabulist.

The Scottish side of his work was drawn largely from memories of boyhood, and appeals, perhaps, to the child in readers. As a boy Stevenson would 'go Crusoing' in the lowlands of East Lothian, creeping about the heather at night with a lantern. Thirty years on, little had changed: 'Fiction', proclaimed the now tubercular writer, 'is to the grown man what play is to the child.' G K Chesterton hailed Stevenson as the first writer to treat seriously the aesthetic instincts of youth. And he warned not to confuse the child with the boy: 'The child sees everything freshly and fully.'

Henry James praised the author of Kidnapped for his ability to imagine 'physical states'. In the tense action across loch and moor, the thrilling flight through heather is a foreshadowing of The Thirty Nine Steps. After John Buchan came Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household, thriller writers in the tradition of RLS. A thirst for physical experience marked the young Stevenson (he was the only Victorian novelist of note who went down in a diving suit) as it marked the young Graham Greene. A cousin twice removed of RLS, Greene wished that he had been able to consult Stevenson about his first novel, The Man Within. A Jekyll (or Hyde) certainly lurks in the title.

Greene is a true 20th-century heir of Stevenson. Like his Scottish ancestor, he was a writer in exile. In the tropical Pacific, RLS was working on Weir of Hermiston the day he died. This is his unfinished masterpiece, the work that reconciles all strands: adventure story, fable, Presbyterian morality. RLS was now no longer a purveyor of mere words, the young fop who had cruised the Royal Mile with a brandy flask. With Weir the old velvet-coated prose had disintegrated and, as Greene said, 'the granite was coming painfully through'.

Stevenson had always been on the move. He had roughed it to California to marry for love, and there had been spells at Davos in Switzerland and by the Mediterranean. He had been through France on a donkey the size of a large Newfoundland dog. In Weir, though, RLS had returned to the Edinburgh and Lowlands of his youth. It was a sort of homecoming before his sudden death.

The Samoans buried Robert Louis Stevenson like a chief on the top of a mountain, a million miles from Auld Reekie. It is useless to ask what sort of writer might RLS have become had he lived. On the basis of these short stories alone, Stevenson is a writer of the first importance. His reputation has gone downhill for a century now; it is time we looked at him again.

'Robert Louis Stevenson: The Complete Short Stories', edited by Alan Bell (Mainstream, pounds 20).

(Photographs omitted)