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18 ...... Romance L ike a lot of people, when he felt restless or sulky or especially when he was too sick or run down to work, Stevenson looked for something to read that would both relax and stimulate him. “When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge; I take them like opium; and I consider one who writes them as a sort of doctor of the mind.” Serious art—Shakespeare, George Eliot, even Balzac—won’t do the trick. In these moods he needs old Dumas, or the Arabian Nights, or the best of Walter Scott; it is stories we want, not the high poetic function which represents the world.... We want incident, interest, action: to the devil with your philosophy. When we are well again, and have an easy mind, we shall peruse your important work; but what we want now is a drug. So I, when I am ready to go beside myself, stick my head into a story-­ book, as the ostrich with her bush.1 He liked to complain that there was nothing good to read in his cynical and prosaic age; contemporary fiction was either deadly serious or intolerably clever. “The great lack of art just now is a spice of life and interest; and I prefer galvanism to acquiescence in the grave.” Novels about modern life were “like mahogany and horse-­ hair furniture, solid, true, serious, and as dead as Caesar.”2 After a severe illness in 1884 when he was stuck in bed for days, Stevenson was desperate for a fix: “But I do desire a book of adventure —a romance—and no man will get or write me one,” he 19 ...... complained to W. E. Henley. “I want to hear swords clash. I want a book to begin in a good way. . . . O my sighings after romance, or even Skeltery, and O! the weary age which will produce me neither!”3 Skeltery was Stevenson’s coinage for the old-­ fashioned, melodramatic staginess of his bygone and beloved Skelt’s Juvenile Drama, a toy theater made of paper cutouts, plain and colored, that he purchased from a stationer’s shop in the Leith Walk, Edinburgh. He played with Skelt addictively . Skelt “stamped himself upon my immaturity” and planted in his soul “the very spirit of my life’s enjoyment.”4 Skelt magnetized his young imagination and colored his world with glamour. If you accept G. K. Chesterton’s theory, Skelt’s Juvenile Drama, with its pasteboard figures, castles, inns, and bright, contrasting colors, even had a part in the development of Stevenson’s style, such as his attraction to stark, vivid images and his “love of sharp edges and cutting or piercing action.” “It was because he loved to see on those lines, and to think in those terms,” observed Chesterton, “that all his instinctive images are clear and not cloudy; that he liked a gay patch-­ work of colour combined with a zigzag energy of action, as quick as the crooked lightning. He loved things to stand out; we might say he loved them to stick out; as does the hilt of a sabre or the feather in a cap.”5 Chesterton asserted that if there is one real sentence of autobiography in Stevenson’s works, it is from his essay on Skelt’s Juvenile Drama, “‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’”: “What am I? what are life, art, letters, the world, but what my Skelt has made them?”6 Maybe this is a disarming bit of hyperbole, thrown out for effect in a lighthearted memoir; and it’s unwise to speculate too much about the psychological sources of any artist’s work. Yet Stevenson also privately confessed his great delight in revisiting his favorite childhood pastime. “Give me an early proof of Skelt,” he begged his editor. “I love, I love that paper.”7 20 ...... ...... Skeltery is of “those direct clap-­ trap appeals, which a man is dead and buriable when he fails to answer; of the foot-­ light glamour, the ready-­ made, bare-­ faced transpontine picturesque .”8 It is an old wayside inn where “gentlemen in three-­ cocked hats” play at bowls, or “dank gardens that cry aloud for a murder,” or certain rocky coasts set apart for shipwreck, and the words “post-­chaise,” “the great North Road,” “ostler,” “nag”—words, Stevenson said, that “still sound in my ears like poetry.”9 Any story that is rich in incident and largely pictorial, that is morally interesting, deals with human...


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