Robert Louis Stevenson and William Robertson Smith: A Study In Contrast
The High Victorian era produced three Scotsmen of indisputable genius: James Clerk Maxwell, Robert Louis Stevenson and William Robertson Smith. All three men died young Maxwell in 1879 at the age of 48 and both Stevenson and Smith in 1894 at 44 and 48 respectively. Each left significant legacies to the twentieth century Maxwell’s pioneering researches into electro-magnetism, for example, stamped their mark on every aspect of modern life. However, it is the interesting and largely unknown association between the other two which I want to consider here. The life and work of RLS is common knowledge to most Scots, at least in broad terms, and need not be rehearsed here; the initials WRS may be less familiar and some brief biographical details are therefore due.
William Robertson Smith
Following the Disruption of 1843, when the Free Church of Scotland came into being, Smith’s father, William Pirie Smith, was persuaded to leave his comfortable headmaster’s post at Aberdeen’s West End Academy in order to minister to the tiny Free Kirk congregation of Tough and Keig within the Howe of Alford in rural Aberdeenshire. William, the eldest son and second of seven children, was born in 1846 and educated at home, as were all the children, until he progressed to Aberdeen University at the age of 15, accompanied by his 14 year old brother George, who died shortly after the two graduated in 1865.
A year later, WRS made his way to New College, the Free Kirk’s theological seminary in Edinburgh, already bearing a reputation for immense intellectual ability in every sphere of academic learning. By 1870, at the tender age of 24, he had been appointed Professor of Hebrew at the Aberdeen Free Church College and seemed destined for an uneventful life of scholarship in what many regarded as a northerly outpost of extreme Presbyterian orthodoxy.
Student and teacher
Surprisingly, Stevenson and Smith had encountered each other in Edinburgh by that time. Smith’s mathematical prowess had come to the attention of Peter Guthrie Tait, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, who invited the young prodigy to become his sole assistant in the University’s Physics department.1 Tait’s letter offering WRS the post is still extant:
That was certainly an underestimate of the work involved, but Smith was possessed of inexhaustible mental energy in addition to his own theological studies and Tait’s physics duties, he found time to act as paid tutor to the junior Hebrew class at New College.
RLS meantime, as an unwilling engineering undergraduate at Edinburgh University, was fated to become one of those students whose blunders in maths and physics fell to be corrected by WRS. It is reported however that Stevenson found it all too easy to distract Robertson Smith from his duty by tempting him with innumerable questions on matters theological. That story (told by Donald Carswell3 amongst others, but never mentioned by either of the participants) is circumstantial yet colourable, being entirely consistent with the characters of the two men. Much later, RLS was to write a rose-coloured, nostalgic account of his College days4, wherein he reminiscences on Tait’s class-room cupola and all and describes his practised end of term pleading to be granted a class attendance certificate despite his reckless and inveterate truancy:
RLS was a self-confessed idler at University; WRS was a workaholic who throve on intellectual stimulation of all kinds. Stevenson’s school education had been patchy in the extreme, with long periods of absence due to his delicate health; Smith, though similarly an ailing child6, had been brilliantly educated at home by a father who had a natural gift for pedagogy and who was as capable of imparting to his children the latest ideas in geology, mathematics and physics as of teaching Greek, Latin, Hebrew and English literature7. The relationship between Smith and his father, moreover, was always a warm and positive one: William Pirie Smith expected much of all his pupils but was quick to detect the eldest son’s potential and the boy himself drank insatiably at the well of knowledge. Stevenson, as we know, had an indulgent but curiously melancholic father, who possessed little taste for learning in itself.
The impact of religion
In childhood, both boys had been fed a diet of strict Calvinism and the fact that the two families were on opposite sides of the Scottish ecclesiastical divide the one Established Church, the other Free Kirk made little real difference to the content of that spiritual fare. But RLS was far more emotionally susceptible than Smith to its harsher aspects and describes vividly the mental torments he suffered:
WRS suffered no such agonies as a child: his own perceptions, of God as a benevolent father-figure and of religion as a natural, joyous communion between man and his creator, were to dwell with him throughout life and unconsciously coloured all his anthropological descriptions of primal religion in later life:
Those words come from Smith’s last book, The Religion of the Semites, based on his series of Burnett lectures delivered in Aberdeen during 1888, and they represent the surprisingly pragmatic and non-mystical view of religion which proved the eventual outcome of a uniquely enlightened upbringing. They contrast vividly with Stevenson’s life-long agonisings over matters of faith, for which he later was to blame in part his nurse, Alison Cunningham (Cummy), but which must at least equally be attributed to his mother's physical and emotional remoteness and his father’s peculiar mixture of worldliness and dark Calvinism. Smith’s consciously harmonious relationship with his father similarly contrasts deeply with those long and stormy wranglings over religion between Thomas Stevenson and his son which are so graphically documented in the family correspondence. On the surface, it was Stevenson who turned pagan, while Smith held to the simple evangelical faith of his childhood until death. The truth is far more complicated, however. It was Stevenson who wrestled constantly with the torturing moral problems of good and evil, as his novels and essays so clearly illustrate; it was Smith, on the other hand, who became ever more rationalistic in his relentless analysis of the Biblical text, while simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically retaining faith in the beneficence of a divine Father. In terms of William James’ celebrated dichotomy10, Smith’s religion was of the healthy-minded kind while Stevenson’s was of the soul-sick variety. Smith successfully adapted his Scottish Calvinist inheritance to meet the challenge of his intellectual explorations; Stevenson, on the other hand, never truly escaped its chill hand:
RLS enjoyed only the fantasy of being a bonny fechter and spent his life running from this horror and terror. WRS, physically small, fiercely pugnacious and (who knows?) an unconscious model for that bold, desperate customer, Alan Breck, was the real bonny fechter, as subsequent events were to prove dramatically.
The two budding encyclopaedists
By 1871, the Edinburgh publishing firm of Messrs A. and C. Black were actively contemplating a new edition of their Encyclopaedia Britannica to become the celebrated ninth edition and in 1873 Thomas Spencer Baynes was appointed chief editor.12 The plan, as set out in Baynes’ Prefatory Note to the first volume (published in 1875), was to provide an authoritative view of current knowledge by securing contributions from the more independent and productive minds who were engaged in advancing their own departments of scientific enquiry.13 Taking part in this great enterprise, Baynes implied, would thereby bestow the status of being at the cutting edge of Victorian thought and critical discovery a tempting inducement for young aspiring writers and scholars, eager to make their mark in contemporary society. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that both Smith and Stevenson were attracted by the proposition.
In the case of RLS, it is clear that Sidney Colvin recommended him to Baynes. Colvin and Stevenson had met in 1873 through Frances Sitwell14 and the latter’s youthful infatuation with the woman whom Colvin was eventually to marry is well-known. Already a journalist and art critic of some eminence, Colvin had just become Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge and, though only five years older than RLS, gave him every support in the furtherance of a literary career. From the outset, Colvin was a contributor of articles for the new EB15 and automatically became a talent-spotter for Baynes. Thus, by 1874, RLS was delighted to know he had been contracted to tackle two topics for the Encyclopaedia: Béranger and Burns.
For WRS similarly, it was a matter of personal recommendation. He had been introduced to Baynes in 1871 when holidaying with Professor Tait at St Andrew’s and it undoubtedly helped that he simultaneously met (and played golf with) Thomas Huxley and Clerk Maxwell, both of whom were to become semi-official scientific advisers to Baynes and the EB.16 The definitive contact though was probably John F. McLennan, a young Edinburgh advocate, close friend of WRS and the source of Smith’s emerging interest in anthropology.17 Like Stevenson therefore, the young Robertson Smith was initially commissioned to tackle a variety of topics for the second and third volumes of the EB they comprised Angel, Ark of the Covenant, Baal and (most notoriously) Bible.
Success and failure: RLS
Pierre Jean de Béranger and Robert Burns seemed ideal subjects for RLS. His French was fluent and Béranger’s exuberant satirical songs appealed greatly to him. Both Béranger and Burns moreover had by now achieved popular recognition as national bards within their respective countries. Stevenson’s article on Béranger is carefully crafted to meet the needs of an encyclopaedia entry, being admirably factual and objective as well as exactly the right length (just three columns) relative to the importance of the topic. It is intriguing moreover to see how closely RLS empathises with his subject:
Stevenson goes on to describe how Béranger was rescued by Judith Frère, who became his life-long lover just as RLS must in the beginning have fantasised the outcome of his own relationship with Fanny Sitwell. The biographical account of Béranger is followed by a shorter critical assessment (set in smaller print, in conformity with conventional EB practice). Stevenson’s review is a model of its kind and well illustrates the characteristic degree of assiduous polishing which RLS put into all his writings.
Stevenson’s excitement at obtaining these two commissions for the Encyclopaedia Britannica is evident from his letters. In June, 1875, he wrote to Fanny Sitwell, My father a little grumbly but pleased about the Burns19; in July to Colvin, Hoopla! I’ve got Burns and seemingly Béranger20; and, in August, enclosing the article to Baynes: If necessary I could cut it down of course, a good bit; but it is cut to the quick already21. The EB, after all, was only at the letter B and was to take up a further 21 volumes before reaching Z in 1888.22 Prospectively therefore, the opportunity of becoming a regular contributor to the EB was a valuable investment for the future: not only would it provide a modest but steady income but more importantly the appended initials RLS would keep him in the public eye and guarantee an assured literary reputation by association with those who were established writers, whether specialist or generalist.23
Stevenson’s hopes were to be rudely dashed with his second article, Burns. He had worked extremely hard at the commission throughout the autumn24 but early in 1876 the manuscript was returned to him with an apparently unequivocal rejection. All that we can deduce on the matter comes from the surviving correspondence: Stevenson wrote hotly to the publishers in March:
Who that third party was remains a mystery conceivably it was Colvin himself. At any rate, RLS wrote Colvin in June:
I am in a fine exercisy state. Baynes is gone to London. If you see him, enquire about my Burns. They have sent me £5:5 for it, which has mollified me horrid. £5:5 is a good deal to pay for a read of it in MS; I can’t complain.26
Baynes had in fact written an apology to RLS by then, explaining that he had been ill when the decision had been made to reject the article.27 Stevenson’s reply is interesting:
A certain amount can be inferred from these words but not as much as one would like. On the one had, RLS seems to suggest that he had tried to maintain a properly objective and dispassionate tone throughout, as befitted an encyclopaedia article; on the other hand he had clearly made overmuch, for the EB’s liking, of Burns’ feet of clay, perhaps at the expense of his poetic merits and reputation as Scotland’s national poet. Three years later, Stevenson did publish an essay on Burns Some aspects of Robert Burns but it is difficult to make any firm judgment as to how much of the original EB article is retained.29 In the essay though, there is a clear echo of his words to Baynes:
It was the wild side, of course, that RLS found it most congenial to identify with; the hagiographic style in any case was not for him and in the published essay he protests against Principal J.C. Shairp’s bourgeois attempt at a biography of Burns which regretted that the poet should have ever stooped so low as to pen Holy Willie’s Prayer or The Jolly Beggars. Judging by the Béranger article, RLS would have striven to maintain an appropriate encyclopaedic objectivity; and if his Burns essay is an amplification of the EB article, then it is certain that he would have given a wholly balanced appraisal, warts and all. RLS unquestionably admired Burns’ talents, both as writer and as lover, yet his Calvinistic conditioning obliged him to protest against Burns’ random affections31, his Don Juan character32, his idleness and dissipation33. All those weaknesses constituted the Hyde-like elements which RLS recognised in himself and which both fascinated and terrified him. It is hardly surprising that he devotes so much space to them in his essay. Yet his succinct verdict on Burns is a just one:
Success and notoriety: WRS
That same year, 1876, was to bring even greater distress to Robertson Smith though in a completely different form. His first EB article, Angel, had raised a few eyebrows for WRS, it appeared, was cautiously sceptical about the existence of angelic beings but his sentiments in this regard were on the whole reasonably consonant with good Protestant theology, and it was to be the article Bible which truly set the heather alight. Published in the same volume (ATH–BOI) as Stevenson’s Béranger, in December, 1875, Bible carried an unmistakable whiff of heresy, first detected by the acute nose of an anonymous reviewer in the Scotsman of April 15, 187635, who wrote, not without a distinct element of sectarian malice:
The book of Deuteronomy, it appeared to the reviewer’s horror, was not written by Moses, nor indeed were any of the first five books of the Bible, as traditionally believed. Indeed, the whole Hebrew Bible had, according to this young professor, been subjected to a long process of editing, reordering and revision, giving rise ultimately to a compilation that possessed the quality (in the reviewer’s words) of a religious magazine. The prophets, mirabile dictu, were simply religious reformers rather than makers of long-term predictions and the Scotsman’s reviewer wondered caustically:
None of this was new in academic circles. Such views were already entertained widely by certain Continental theologians and even closer at hand the Anglican Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, had precipitated ecclesiastical panic in England a decade previously by raising questions over the Mosaic authorship and factual accuracy of the Pentateuch. Robertson Smith himself had been quietly teaching his students the elements of this revolutionary higher criticism ever since his inauguration to the Aberdeen professorship in 1870 and had even voiced those views discreetly within scholarly journals. But the Free Kirk of Scotland was a bastion of orthodoxy some on the other side called it hyper-orthodoxy and was acutely sensitive to any questioning of traditional beliefs from within its own ranks, particularly if such issues were given public prominence. And the Courant reviewer unerringly put his finger on that aspect of the matter:
All this was bitterly embarrassing for the Free Kirk, which promptly initiated an inquiry, or heresy hunt, through its College Committee. The cumbersome legal process appeared at length to have reached a conclusion in 1880, when Smith’s forensic brilliance enabled him to escape with no more than a formal admonition that he should be more guarded in future. But only three weeks later, volume eleven of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared, with Smith’s latest article, Hebrew Language and Literature. A year later, the Free Church General Assembly formally dismissed Robertson Smith from his professorial post in Aberdeen.
The five years’ trial at the bar of the General Assembly of the Free Kirk wore WRS down, both mentally and physically, but the publicity value was tremendous. Stevenson would have revelled in such public notoriety. Robertson Smith immediately became joint editor (with Baynes) of the EB and, as Baynes’ health worsened, the younger man gradually assumed full responsibility for the editorial work, while contributing countless articles, small and large, signed and unsigned, to its pages. After Baynes’ death, Smith became Editor-in-Chief until the encyclopaedia’s completion in February, 1889. In 1883, he moved to Cambridge as Lord Almoner’s Reader in Arabic; in 1885, he was appointed Cambridge University Librarian; and in 1889, five years before his death, he became Professor of Arabic at Cambridge.
Today, WRS is remembered with gratitude by most (but not all!) theological scholars as the man who liberated British biblical criticism from the straitjacket of traditional literalism. Still more importantly, he is regarded as the founding father, in this country, of comparative religion and religious anthropology. Emile Durkheim, pioneer of modern sociology, acknowledged his personal debt to WRS, while Sigmund Freud hailed him as the man whose last book, The Religion of the Semites, had given him the final clue to workings of the Oedipus complex. Intellectually, Robertson Smith towers (along with Clerk Maxwell) over his Scottish Victorian contemporaries. Only Robert Louis Stevenson, for very different reasons, has the same claim to our lasting admiration and affection.
If RLS’s flirtation with the Encyclopaedia Britannica ended with a rude jilting, Smith became progressively more firmly wedded to the EB. WRS never married and in a very real sense the Encyclopaedia became surrogate lover and mistress to him over a span of thirteen years. Beyond his mother and sisters, Smith seldom had contact of any kind with women and seems to have successfully sublimated his sexual drive into intellectual pursuits. For Stevenson, as we know, it was quite otherwise. In Smith’s case, one may infer an early resolution of the unconscious Oedipal struggle with his father that re-emerged at adulthood (as Freud would have predicted) in the form of fierce intellectual controversy with the elders of his tribe, by whom he was in the end ritually sacrificed only to rise again in the apotheosis of Cambridge Fellow and encyclopaedist par excéllence. Stevenson’s own Oedipal struggles were woefully protracted: indeed they were never successfully worked through and are all too plainly documented in his letters the on-going battle against old Thomas on the one hand and the life-long desire to possess a mother-figure to compensate for his childhood abandonment by the distant Margaret Stevenson. For as long as his father remained alive, RLS was trapped in an angry, helpless state of child-like dependency upon his parents. WRS, by contrast, quickly become wholly independent of parental support, both at Aberdeen University and at New College, through the many scholarships he gained and the remunerative work in teaching (Physics and Hebrew) he was so readily offered at Edinburgh.
Both WRS and RLS were ambitious, striving men but Smith’s rise to eminence seems at first sight to have been the more rapid. Intellectually, he had matured quickly indeed his father said of him that he was never young in the ordinary sense39 and he rapidly acquired the art of penning incisive scholarly papers which bore from the outset the stamp of a lucid and remorselessly analytic style. Stevenson, as we know, found it hard to develop his literary art, although his potential was detected by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Colvin for example from the moment he came under Fanny Sitwell’s spell. RLS, after all, was four years younger than WRS and was only 24 when George Grove published (in Macmillan’s Magazine) that fine essay on invalidism, Ordered South –Stevenson’s first real literary breakthrough. Smith in fact was the same age when he became Professor of Hebrew at Aberdeen Free College and had his first major theological paper published in the British Quarterly Review.
Did they meet again?
There is no record of any contact between Stevenson and Smith in later days; but there exists one suggestive clue. By 1875, both men had been elected members of the Savile Club in London40 and we know that both stayed at the Club during their visits to London41. WRS (probably nominated by A. P. Stanley, Dean of Westminster) became a member of the Savile after his appointment in 1874 to the Old Testament Review Committee, which met at Jerusalem Chambers in Westminster; RLS was almost certainly nominated by Colvin, who had been a founder member of the Club from 1868. Writing to his mother from the Savile Club in July, 1879, RLS adds a terse postscript: N.B. Robertson Smith is great fun.42 Perhaps Stevenson was simply owning, with a certain Schadenfreude, to his enjoyment in reading press accounts of the heresy trial, then at its height; but I would prefer to believe that the two had spent a convivial evening at the Savile Club and that RLS had at last discovered something of Smith’s brilliant though often cutting wit and repartee. Both men certainly sparkled in congenial company and Stevenson would have found that Smith was no longer the priggish young physics tutor who had written to his father in 1868 of his Hebrew students:
Yet, if indeed the two men did meet again at the Savile Club, as seems very probable, how are we to account for the seemingly contemptuous tone of Stevenson’s couplet in The Scotsman’s return from abroad?
Those lines, however, are always taken out of context. The whole poem is one of RLS’s role-playing games of versification with Charles Baxter, from Mr Thomson to Mr Johnstone and it satirises, not Robertson Smith, but the sectarian prejudices of the Scottish church-going public, epitomised in the dour sectarian intolerance of Stevenson’s own father:
And so I propose that Stevenson and Smith, outwardly such contrasts in temperament, born on opposite sides of the great ecclesiastical divide of Victorian Scotland, and fated to have such different careers, had far more in common than would first appear. Ironically, both men came to be pilloried cruelly in their later days by W.E. Henley, who had been Stevenson’s close friend for so many years before the explosive quarrel in 1888. Of WRS, Henley wrote in 1889:
And of RLS, Henley contended:
It is a sad epilogue that the embittered, limping Henley chose to use his undoubted talents to malign both men at the close of their short lives. Certainly he possessed the shrewdness to detect their respective vulnerabilities, charging Robertson Smith with lacking tact and patience47 and deriding Stevenson for being a Seraph in Chocolate and a barley-sugar effigy48; but those bitterly vindictive character distortions perhaps serve only to highlight the true stature of the men and, more than a century on, help to bring them together as figures worthy of our continuing admiration and as Scottish coming century.