Archive for March 18th, 2016

“Weir of Hermiston” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Of all unfinished novels, Stevenson’s Weir of Hermiston is the one I most wish had been completed. There’s Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course, but that’s really Dickens trying to do a Wilkie Collins: I’m sure it would have been very good – even the unfinished stump we have is very good, if not, perhaps, quite top drawer Dickens – but it would still have been Dickens dressed in the borrowed robes of Wilkie Collins. But Weir of Hermiston is pure Stevenson. While the literatures of England and of Ireland have contributed some of the very finest of novels, Scottish literature, frankly, hasn’t. Even the odd masterpiece it has produced – Confessions of a Justified Sinner, say, or Sunset Song, seems to elude widespread international recognition. Weir of Hermiston, had it been finished, could well have put the Scottish Novel more firmly on the literary map.

I wonder to what extent Scott may have been responsible for all of this. In his own time, and possibly for at least a century afterwards, Scott was, arguably, the most famous, and, perhaps, the most influential novelist in the world. Since the death of Scott, the novel developed in all sorts of ways, but I wonder whether it was the case that Scottish novelists felt themselves too much under Scott’s shadow. I really do not know: those better read in Scottish literature, and, indeed, in Scott’s novels themselves, are in a better position to answer that. But the shadow of Scott is very apparent here. And what seems remarkable to me is that, far from being intimidated by it, Stevenson seems, if anything, inspired.

The time is the early years of the nineteenth century, when the aftershocks of the French Revolution were still being felt; and the place is between Edinburgh and the Scotland-England border. Indeed, it’s the very time and place in which Scott himself had lived, but which, by the 1890s, when Stevenson was writing this, had become “historical”.

The central tale concerns a conflict between father and son. The father is Weir, laird of Hermiston, and a hanging judge. In the brilliantly drawn early chapters, Stevenson narrates, with all the verve and concision of the master storyteller that he so undoubtedly was, the melancholy facts of Weir’s marriage: Weir had married for social position, and once married, had, within that very patriarchal society, treated his wife with the utmost contempt: he had, effectively, bullied the unfortunate woman to her death. The story of the marriage could have made a remarkable novel in its own right, but it is here a prologue to the principal drama – the conflict between Weir, and his son, Archie.

Stevenson’s art was that of a storyteller. He was certainly aware of the various developments that had taken place in the novel, and was no dab hand himself at the various other elements that, already by the 1890s, was displacing the story, the plot, away from the centre of interest: nonetheless, it was the plot that Stevenson was primarily interested in. And the plot that Stevenson sets up is fascinating. Weir’s son, Archie, a law student in Edinburgh, witnesses to his disgust the casual and unfeeling contempt his father displays in court for a man he sentences to hang. Interestingly, Stevenson does not tell us what the crime of this man was: it is the routine disregard his father shows for the life of a fellow human being – reflecting as it does the similar disregard he had shown for the life of his own wife, Archie’s mother – that disgusts him. Unable to hide his feelings, Archie makes clear in public what he thinks of his father; and his father, who, despite everything, actually loves his son, orders Archie back to his family estate in the border country, away from the public eye.

In the border country, we are very much in Walter Scott territory. Like Scott – and also like Burns, to complete the triumvirate of Great Literary Scots – Stevenson loved folklore, and he loved the sounds and rhythms of the local dialects. The story of the brothers Elliott, and the terrible revenge they took on the man who had killed their father, is almost mythical, like some ancient story handed down through generations. One can but imagine the delight Stevenson must have taken in revisiting in his imagination the sights and sounds of his homeland, and refashioning its folklore, while writing under the torrid sun of the South Sea Islands.

The plot is beautifully set up. Archie, now nominally the Laird of Hermiston, falls for the Elliotts’ sister, Kirstie; meanwhile, a friend from Edinburgh, whom Archie doesn’t quite trust, comes to visit. Everything seems set up for a stirring drama. But then, it all stops abruptly: in 1894, with only one third or so of the novel written, Stevenson died of a brain haemorrhage. What may well have been the Great Scottish Novel remained unfinished.

Stevenson had not quite decided on how the plot was to continue, but the ideas he was playing with are fascinating. What he knew would happen was that Archie would kill his Edinburgh friend. He had initially planned for Archie to be tried by his own father, who would have no choice but to sentence his own son to the gallows, but since Scottish law wouldn’t have allowed a son to be tried by his father, Stevenson had to give up that idea. Plan B was to have the wrong person charged with the crime, and Archie’s father, in trying this person, to realise who the real killer was, ordering the defendant to be released, and recommending the arrest of his own son. What would happen after that remained unsure. In some of his notes, it seems Stevenson played with the idea of the daring Elliott brothers rescuing Archie from prison, but it’s hard to see how such a gung-ho plot development could fit in with what was becoming, by this stage, an intricate psychological study. But it is all conjecture: there can be no right answer to “what happened next?” since Stevenson himself seemed to have been undecided.

Stevenson is remembered primarily as among the finest of storytellers: it would be a sad day indeed if children no longer grew up with Treasure Island and Kidnapped. He was also the author, of course, of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Nabokov surprised everyone by writing about this, alongside such undoubted masterpieces as Madame Bovary, Bleak House and Metamorphosis, in Lectures on Literature, but I for one have never doubted that Stevenson’s story deserves to rub shoulders with the very best: in terms of brilliance of conception as well as mastery of execution, it is a tremendous achievement. There are also a handful of short stories of the highest quality, as well as essays, travel books, and a quite delightful collection of children’s poetry. What is missing in his oeuvre is, I suppose, a full-length novel. Of course, there’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but, for all their merits, these were books aimed specifically for children; and other novels – The Black Arrow, Catriona, The Master of Ballantrae – all display potential rather than its fulfilment: indeed, they are all essentially children’s novels. There is no major full-length novel aimed specifically for an adult readership. Weir of Hermiston could have been that novel. Here, far from being intimidated by the legacy of Scott, Stevenson happily embraces it, and renews the tradition for his own times. It seems terribly sad – and not just for the history of the Scottish novel – that it remains unfinished. But what was completed remains, I think, a quite fascinating read.