From an Aesthetic Realism Seminar
By Barbara Allen of There Are Wives

Includes Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson
(Fanny Van de Grift Osborne)

Part I 

Though the doctors told him that he couldn't expect to live much longer, Stevenson felt marrying Fanny would make him stronger. They were married on May 19, 1880 and to everyone's surprise, he lived for fourteen more years with his wife. He wrote of his marriage this way in 1881 in a letter to a friend: 

It was not my bliss that I was interested in when I was married; if was a sort of marriage in extremis; and if I am where I am, it is thanks to the care of that lady, who married me when I was a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom. [p. 77] 

They travelled together all over the world in search of a place where Robert's health could be maintained--to the mountains, to Mount Saint Helena; they spent months aboard ships; and they finally settled in Samoa, where they lived for five years. In every place Stevenson wrote his stories which the world came to love. 

What Eli Siegel says here about the criticism of ourselves is true also of what two people are looking for in marriage: 

Criticism of self must be severe and stirring, ruthless and kind. If this is so criticism of self is like a painting, severe and flowing; a poem, tough and elusive, exact and palpitating; music, structural and reassuring.   The criticism of self consequently, is like the criticism of anything else; indeed, it is like the seeing and valuing of tree, water, pole, or animal.Like most married couples the Stevensons' criticisms of each other were not always given with good will, with that oneness of severity and encouragement that would cause them to think well of themselves. Sometimes the very qualities they cared for in each other were a cause of discontent. For instance, soon after they were married Fanny called Stevenson's old friends "fiends disguised as friends" and "banned them" from the convivial "junketings" that she felt endangered her husband's health. She interfered for his good and Stevenson liked her interference and didn't like it. Fanny sometimes felt her husband was entirely too cheerful and it got on her nerves; Robert felt his wife was constantly nagging him and much too gloomy. He wrote to their mutual friend, the writer Henry James in January 1887, a lively, though regretful account of one of their arguments, and you can see some of the feeling husbands and wives have when they know they have said things to hurt, and not to encourage. Stevenson writes:  She is a woman (as you know) not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine; and she has recently laboured in this field not without success or (as we used to say) not without a blessing. It is strange: "we fell out my wife and I" the other night; she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear; presently it was discovered that there were two dead combatants upon the field, each slain by an arrow of truth, and we tenderly carried off each other's corpses. [Stevenson and His World, Daiches, p. 69]In this account Stevenson is treating something lightly that must have caused a good deal of pain. Married people know the sensation of having said things that are in some way true, but are motivated by the desire to wound the other person, which is ill will. Fanny felt her husband could have respected her more. She writes in her Samoan diary of being depressed for some days because he called her a "peasant" and not an artist. Yet this was belied by the fact that he asked her to be a critic of his writing. 

These were the times when criticism had as its purpose consciously "the seeing and valuing" of a thing exactly. Mrs. Stevenson wrote an account of their days to her sister: 

My husband usually wrote from the early morning until noon, while my household duties occupied the same time. In the afternoon the work of the morning was read aloud, and we talked it over, criticizing and suggesting improvements. This finished, we walked in our garden, listened to the birds, and looked at our trees....[p. 108]These conversations were often heated, but Robert Louis Stevenson respected the criticism of his wife. The most outstanding example of this was the day he brought her the first manuscript of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde saying, "It is the best thing I have ever done." Mrs. Stevenson read it and thought it was the worst thing she had read, and she was so upset that her opinion differed so much from her husband's that she became physically ill. Writes her biographer:
She fell into a state of deep gloom, for she couldn't let it go, and yet it seemed cruel to tell him so, and between the two horns of the dilemma she made herself quite ill. At last, by his request and according to their custom, she put her objections to it, as it then stood, in writing, complaining that he had treated it simply as a story whereas it was in reality an allegory. After reading her paper and seeing the justice of her criticism,...he burned his first draft and rewrote it from a different point of view. His wife was appalled that he burned the first draft, but when asked why he did, he said he didn't want to be influenced by it. The result is the powerful, critical description of the dual nature of the self that is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that stunned, and educated the world. Eli Siegel had such respect for this book that it is on the required reading for all Aesthetic Realism consultants. 

The story, though it has its remarkable elements, is about good and evil in every person. How intimately Stevenson saw these forces working in himself and in his wife, Fanny, is for us to consider. Dr. Jekyll is a respected man in the community an Mr. Hyde the other side of him, committed to evil. In Dr. Jekyll's confession, Stevenson writes: 

...I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to swell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. [From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, p. 82]At the time this book was published, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson were traveling from Northhampton to New York on a tramp steamer because aboard ship was the one place he could breathe. When they reached New York in 1887 they were very surprised to see it  ...has made a tremendous impression on the reading public; the idea of dual personality was being discussed on all sides; ministers preached sermons about it. Stevenson was amazed and bewildered, though immensely pleased. [p. 125]

It is thrilling to see how one of the most critical stories ever written, terrifying in its criticism, was loved so much and has kept on being loved. "Criticism of self," wrote Eli Siegel, "must be severe and stirring, ruthless and kind."

Continued -- Parts II & III, click here

Copyright © 2000-2015 Barbara Allen, Aesthetic Realism Consultant