Penguins on Parade: The Weir of Hermiston!
Robert Louis Stevenson started writing The Weir of Hermiston in late 1893 in Samoa in a whirlwind of rejuvenated creativity. He’d felt himself scraping the splintery inside edges of his prodigious talent in the course of that year, but he’d found frankly unexpected renewal in writing the dark, near-perfect sections of The Beach of Falesa (and in collaborating with his stepson on The Ebb-Tide), and the novel that wanted to become The Weir of Hermiston seized him with the easy absorption with which all strange books commandeer their authors. He remarked over and over that the sheer clarity of the book almost frightened him.
Then he died, abruptly. He was straining to open a bottle when he suddenly stopped, looked at his wife, said “What was that?” and collapsed. He was 44. The Weir of Hermiston practically ends in mid-sentence. Stevenson critics, fully aware of its truncated state, have sometimes called it his greatest work.
Karl Miller, founder of The London Review of Books, edited a slim edition of the book for Penguin Classics in 1996, supplementing and slightly superseding the version Paul Binding did for Penguin in 1979. Miller is a voluminous reader and a first-rate critic, a master of making deeply-contemplated observations seem tossed-off, as when he writes, “It’s common enough for people, and not least for expatriates, as they grow older and grow conscious of their deaths, to want to return to their early days and to their early words, and this is what the absent and endangered Stevenson wanted to do.” He gives his readers a quick overview of The Weir of Hermiston: sensitive young Archie Weir, son of a coarse and hilariously brutal Edinburgh judge and his weepy, wallflower wife, is sent to live with a local grandee at Hermiston, where he begins to fall in love with one of the two women called Kirstie who polarize the book like opposing centers of gravity.
Of course, Miller is equally prone to crusty-old-scrub pronouncements that don’t particular hold up under scrutiny, as when he writes about Stevenson, “His Kirsties do away with the idea that he was some sort of queer fellow whose reticence on the subject of sex was that of a writer who was unable to do justice to heterosexual love,” but such things can be forgiven in the balance of his marvelous Fleet Street roving curiosity, not to mention his welcome brevity – most writers would view the comparative brevity of the book as an open invitation to bloviate.
Reading the book itself again only reinforces the sadness that comes with thinking about it, because Stevenson was right to be somewhat frightened; imagine if Melville, who expressed the same kind of wondering fear when in the grip of Moby-Dick, had died while writing “Stub Kills a Whale.”
“We are all grown up and have forgotten the days of our youth,” Stevenson writes at one point, and certainly The Weir of Hermiston has more sheer complexity and incredibly rich ambiguity than in anything else Stevenson wrote, and it’s of a different kind as well, deeper, more completely controlled, showing everywhere an positively Byronic capacity for simultaneous sadness and mirth. When gruff old Hermiston launches into one of his dinner table tirades about the poor quality of his food, readers are both horrified and tickled:
“You and your noansense! What do I want with a Christian fam’ly? I want Christian broth! Get me a lass that can plain-boil a potato, if she was a whure off the streets!”
When his poor soul wife is anatomized by our author, he slips in a murderously effective little phrase to unsettle our complacency about her worth:
Mrs Weir’s philosophy of life was summed up in one expression – tenderness. In her view of the universe, which was all lighted up with a glow out of the doors of hell, good people must walk there in a kind of ecstasy of tenderness.
And when the good lady suddenly dies and the judge lumbers in to look upon her body, the most solemn moment is shot through with such weird humor that no self-respecting reader will know quite what to do:
“Her and me were never cut out for one another,” he remarked at last. “It was a daft-like marriage.” And then, with a most unusual gentleness of tone, “Puir bitch,” said he, “puir bitch!”
For a little over a hundred pages, this crystalline brilliance plays out before us, and even though we know full well the story behind the novel, we’re caught off-guard by the abrupt ending; on some fundamental level, it just doesn’t feel right that such a book could fail to go on. Had Stevenson finished it, The Weir of Hermiston would have been one of the greatest of all Victorian novels – and that’s saying a great deal.
As it is, we have a long, tantalizing fragment – and one of the best dedications ever written by an author, this one to his long-(and loud-) suffering wife:
Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who
Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,
Held still the target higher, chary of praise
And prodigal of counsel – who but thou?