- Robert Louis Stevenson and Stanley J. Weyman:Reviving Romancers or Aging Adventurers?
In the summer of 1897 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch attempted to complete Robert Louis Stevenson's unfinished adventure novel, St. Ives.1 Struggling to understand Stevenson's final plot twist—a balloon-flight from Edinburgh and the unlikely rescue of the hero by an American privateer sailing in British waters2—"Q" was also troubled at the balancing act demanded by this particular example of the adventure genre: "It has seemed to me throughout," he wrote to Sidney Colvin, "that to make it plausible at all one must make it extravagant, if that's not too much of a paradox. But as soon as you take the adventure seriously, it becomes absurd."3 When engaged in his own struggles with St. Ives in 1894, the year of his death, Stevenson was also working on Weir of Hermiston, again unfinished but critically acclaimed almost immediately as a novel consistent with the increasing seriousness of his fiction.4 St. Ives, in comparison, was something of an anomaly. Although the advertisement for posthumous publication by Scribner's claimed that "Stevenson's inimitable and characteristic style is in evidence on every page" the author found the novel difficult to complete.5 Dictating much of the 800 pages of manuscript to his stepdaughter, Isobel Strong, Stevenson progressed in fits and starts, hoping for the financial success that would help him meet the demands of the household he supported in Samoa—"a mere story: to tickle gudgeons and make money for a harmless fambly"—but also a return to form which might assuage the anxieties of his London friends after his "unfortunate" excursions into Samoan politics.6
Yet while Stevenson was frequently dismissive of the novel, and although it lacks the apparent weight of Weir of Hermiston, St. Ives—as Quiller-Couch recognized—is no straightforward adventure. Rather it is in dialogue with the historic romance at this late stage of the century. [End Page 176] The focus of its challenge—the dynamic between youth and age that lies at the heart of the genre—is, moreover, one also found in two novels by Stanley J. Weyman, whose work Stevenson devoured "with the greed and gusto of a pig" in the last year of his life, while working on St. Ives.7 Weyman's early fiction, while offering an attractive recreation of Dumas-style adventure, articulates unease with the continuing viability of the romance mode. If understood as a creative exchange with Weyman, with earlier romances by Radcliffe, Holcroft, Scott, Dumas and Ainsworth, and with the moment of romance revival itself, St. Ives becomes a text that reveals as much about Stevenson's later preoccupations as Weir of Hermiston. It suggests that for Stevenson, at this point in time, the renewed flourishing of adventure romance, generally celebrated as creating a new manliness in fiction, demanded a more complicated engagement with revivification.8 This article argues that in historic romances produced by Weyman and Stevenson towards the end of that moment of revival, the contradictions of youth and age are explicitly addressed in ways that makes easy consumption of the romance form difficult.
Historical romance is drawn to heroes who are young or disingenuous, pitting them against older, more cynical, more repressive regimes or characters: in The Three Musketeers Dumas presents a classic example of this "ritual of the cult of young manhood," a trajectory in which youth is tested and educated and youthful ideals protect against political stratagems and dissolution of chivalric values.9 The form's structure depends upon this opposition of youth and age. In its readerly dynamics too, romance involves oscillation between the youthful and mature: it allows a child's belief in the possibilities of adventure to be played out in a world of adults and with adult understanding of history. The adult reader can participate in adventure with a child's enthusiasm and an adult's consciousness.10 When Stevenson in his critical essays reflected on the evocative power of reading adventure tales, he emphasized this discursive opposition of adult recognition and youthful immersion: adventure permits a return to a time in which "we read so closely...