Louis and Henry
By Max Byrd
It is entirely possible that Henry James was in love with Robert Louis Stevenson.
Certainly, their long, warm—and unlikely—friendship seems to call for some such explanation: how else could the author of Treasure Island and the author of The Portrait of a Lady have hit it off so well? How else could the American novelist of drawing rooms and sensibility have so much to say to the Scots novelist of Hebredian landscapes and swinging cutlasses?
Yet hit it off they did. When Stevenson lived in Bournemouth, James, then forty-one, visiting his sister there, came so often to the house that a chair was formally designated "Henry James's chair." Stevenson, seven years younger, wrote poems to celebrate his elegant visitor, including one (spoken by the Venetian mirror James once gave him) that concludes: "I wait until the door/Opens, and the Prince of Men, /Henry James, shall come again." Apart, they wrote each other often, and with a mutual affection far from common in the envy-shredded friendships of most authors.
The mirror suggests one facet of the attraction: James was nothing if not sexually ambiguous. And Robert Louis Stevenson, despite his lifelong battle with consumptive illness, appears to have possessed a remarkable physical beauty. The ambiguity was, however, all on one side. Stevenson was long and faithfully married to Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcée. There is no record of his having had a homosexual experience, and notwithstanding a modern (and wrongheaded) impression that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about homosexuality, nothing in Stevenson's life and writings has even the faintest shading of homoeroticism.
And yet, as biographer Claire Harman says, Stevenson's "affect"—his way of dressing and speaking—struck people as unmistakably "gay." Many men, gay or not, found him "mesmerizingly attractive." His friend Andrew Lang thought "Stevenson possessed, more than any man I ever met, the power of making men fall in love with him." Mark Twain, of all people, described Stevenson's "special distinction and commanding feature, his splendid eyes. They burned with a smoldering rich fire under the penthouse of his brows and they made him beautiful." It does not require a devout Freudian to think of this seductive beauty when Henry urges Louis in far-away Samoa to continue writing: "Roast yourself, I beseech you, on the sharp spit of perfection, that you may give out your aromas and essences!"
But this summons to write—to "perfection"—points to another, less speculative, explanation for the friendship. Almost alone among their contemporaries, James and Stevenson were deeply serious about the craft of writing.
Their friendship began when Stevenson replied to James's article, "The Art of Fiction," published in late 1884. There, James argues that the novel, far from being simple "make-believe," actually "competes with life." It records experience and looks for truth in the same way an historian does, though James's idea of experience is impossibly gossamer—"an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness." The novelist must be one of "those people on whom nothing is lost."
Stevenson replied to this article by insisting that a novel could not really compete with life. It had to be "make-believe." Life is "monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant." But art makes it "neat, finite, self-contained, rational." Stevenson, in fact, took a boy's delight in "make-believe." His creative springs only began to flow when, playing with his stepson Lloyd, he drew a map on a sheet of paper, studied it for a long moment, then, with what we can only imagine was a shout of joy, called it "Treasure Island," and began to write a story around it, his first novel. The work he did, he once explained, was "to play at home with paper like a child." James, recognizing this elan, responded with generous tact: "The native gaiety of all that you write," he told Stevenson, "is delightful to me."
In fact, it is greatly to their credit that each of them saw the different virtues of their very different kinds of fiction. James admired Stevenson's "divine prose," his "love of brave words as well as brave deeds." Stevenson replied, "I recognize myself, compared with you, to be a lout and slouch of the first water." As opposite in many ways as Inside and Outside, both seem to have imagined stories in "scenes" and worked tirelessly to make them, in James's word, "transparent." Each understood the writer's calling as a matter of high, intense, and painfully demanding Art—"perfection."
There is one other explanation for their surprising friendship. At first Stevenson's personal situation must have struck James like the donnée of one of his own stories—an artist of genius, a feverish invalid, determined to give full rein to his genius, yet bustled about and smothered by an entourage that could not possibly understand him or his transcendent art. James, always gallantly polite to her, was often baffled by Fanny Stevenson's role—"Poor lady, poor barbarous and merely instinctive lady." But dimly he understood her importance to the artist, if not as muse, then as something like a mother (Fanny was nine years older than her husband). If the Stevenson household had not existed, James could have invented it.
But James, whose stories so often are about the pursuit of a larger life—the dread of timidity and reticence and dullness, the horror of missed chances—came to see that Stevenson in fact lived such a larger life. Despite his treacherous and hemorrhaging lungs, Stevenson played out in the open, fearlessly—he trekked alone through France, he camped among the silver miners in California, he canoed in Belgium, he crossed North America by train, and spent his last years building a home in the jungle of Samoa. He was one of those people on whom nothing is lost, though not precisely in the sense James meant.
Their correspondence is filled with discussions of fellow writers, the latest novels from France, ordinary chit-chat—Louis sends Henry cloth from the South Seas, and Henry charmingly replies: "I have covered a blank wall of my bedroom with an acre of painted cloth and feel as if I lived in a Samoan tent." They both gently mock the London literary scene ("Kipling the infant monster," "the good little Thomas Hardy").
But entertaining as these letters are, I find myself thinking back to their earliest meetings in dreary Bournemouth. Henry comes through the door, out of the cold, rubbing his hands together shyly as he approaches the fire. He has a beard, his hair is close-cropped in the Paris fashion. His manner, as Gosse says, choosing his last adjective with extraordinary insight, is "grave, extremely courteous, but a little formal and frightened."
Louis rises to his feet, also rubbing his thin hands together against the cold, smiling, saying something in French with a Scots burr. There is Henry James's chair. There are the books. There are the two friends, who like most friends complete each other, which is one definition of love.