Michael Dirda on Robert Louis Stevenson

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 14, 2008

There comes a time in the life of any young reader when nothing but adventure will do. It is the time when the old classics -- The Count of Monte Cristo, Journey to the Center of the Earth, King Solomon's Mines -- are suddenly the best stories in all the world. Which, of course, they are -- with the possible exception of those that begin this way:

The London fog rolls in, and out of the darkness emerge two figures. One is tall, eccentric in his habits, always in search of mysteries and puzzles; the other is his brave and loyal companion, clearly a military man. In the course of their adventures together they will fearlessly penetrate the inner sanctum of The Suicide Club, confront more than one master criminal and solve the theft of the accursed Rajah's Diamond.

Holmes and Watson? No, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and Colonel Geraldine, the dashing heroes of Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (volume I, 1882). As in the intricate tales that Scheherazade told, this duo's two extended adventures offer readers, especially young ones, what critic Mark Valentine describes as "a rare melee of crime, conspiracy, plots, disguises, the gloriously bizarre and the elaborately sinister; piquant characters, foolhardy gentleman adventurers, chases, escapes and alarums; all told with a sardonic humor."

Most readers know Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) as the author of the great boys' adventures Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886), the classic horror novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and -- to a lesser degree, especially these days -- the simple (and often saccharine) poems and lullabies of A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). This is a respectable amount of writing for a man who was sickly much of his life (tuberculosis) and who died at the young age of 44. But Stevenson wrote much else -- volumes of essays and letters, at least a half-dozen other novels and some masterly short tales of the supernatural ("Markheim," "Thrawn Janet," "The Bottle Imp"). One early critic compared him to Edgar Allan Poe, both writers having been serious artists -- with a taste for slightly mannerist excess -- who essentially originated several of the major subgenres of popular fiction.

Among these is one subgenre without a clearly established name. Building on Gothic romance, the more melodramatic city novels of Balzac and Victor Hugo and such sensationalist serials as Eugène Sue's The Mysteries of Paris, Stevenson imagined a romantic underworld hiding in the shadows of the modern urban metropolis. If you were lucky or persistent enough, you might pass into that nether-kingdom, where you would discover a realm of wonder and excitement, Baghdad on the Thames. This is the premise of the New Arabian Nights, and its influence can be detected in the Sherlock Holmes stories, O. Henry's tales of New York (a.k.a. Baghdad on the Hudson), G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, any number of spy novels and modern conspiracy-romances like The Da Vinci Code and even the dream-like Manhattan of Paul Auster.

The two multi-part tales of Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine typically present one bizarre situation after another: Why should a young man be forced to eat, or give to strangers to eat, dozens of cream tarts? Why has a mysterious gentleman rented a house for one night and then paid dozens of hansom cabs to pick up passersby and bring them to his party? Why should a pretty girl suddenly say to her admirer: "Whatever happens, do not return to this house; hurry fast until you reach the lighted and populous quarters of the city; even there be upon your guard. You are in a greater danger than you fancy. Promise me you will not so much as look at my keepsake until you are in a place of safety." And what is that keepsake?

Each of the multiple episodes in "The Suicide Club" and "The Rajah's Diamond" breaks off at a cliff-hanger moment, sometimes resolving one plot line in a hurried postscript, before starting up a further adventure. Such a technique ensures that we enjoy these stories as essentially cozy escapades, sheer romance.

That said, for all their complications, these two tales from the New Arabian Nights are virtually straightforward when compared to the intricate plotting of The Wrong Box (1889), a related, and underappreciated, comic novel co-written by Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne. Its principal action derives from an episode of the original Arabian Nights in which a series of people attempt to rid themselves of a corpse, with increasingly comical and macabre results. In Stevenson's updated version, all is brought to a happy conclusion through the machinations of Michael Finsbury, a rowdy solicitor with shady clients; Finsbury is "the Prince Florizel of this comic Arabian Night," as Stevenson once described him.

At the heart of the novel is a fortune derived from a tontine, a kind of raffle, pegged to longevity. Families place, say, 1,000 pounds in a common pool when their offspring are young. Interest accumulates over the years, and the entire fortune eventually goes to the last and now decrepit surviving member of the original group of children. In The Wrong Box, two elderly Finsbury brothers -- John and Joseph -- are the only ones from their tontine left alive. But when a train accident apparently kills Joseph, his unscrupulous nephew and heir, Morris, hoping that he can still somehow collect on the tontine, tries to make the world believe that his uncle is merely away in the country. I leave out myriad details, but in due course the supposed corpse of Uncle Joseph is hidden in a keg that is dispatched to Morris's London home. In transit, however, its address label is switched with that of an enormous box containing a stolen statue of Hercules. In the consequent comedy of errors, involving a half-dozen characters, everything is misperceived and misunderstood; and nothing turns out to be what it seems.

Michael Finsbury is largely the reason why: He possesses a childlike delight in playing games and going about in disguise. Nonetheless, he also seems to know all and see all, to be here and everywhere. As he tells his cousin Morris, "Every step you take is counted; trained detectives follow you like your shadow; they report to me every three-quarters of an hour; no expense is spared." This is all bluff, but the phrasing, like so much of the novel, possesses an irresistible histrionic flourish. Sometimes The Wrong Box recalls a P.G. Wodehouse romp, sometimes a Keystone Kops serial. In its way, it's really a kind of British good ol' boys' adventure. As Michael Finsbury observes of one soon-to-be-intoxicated friend: "I never saw a man drink faster. It restores one's confidence in the human race."

Both New Arabian Nights and The Wrong Box are available in paperback, though they're also readily available in second-hand cloth editions. Young people will enjoy each of them, though the novel, being more grounded in Victorian culture, may demand an initial effort. Yet at whatever age you discover them, these are wonderful comfort books, unduly overshadowed by Stevenson's more famous masterpieces. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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