April 15, 1893. The “Island Nights’ Entertainments.”
I wish Mr. Stevenson had given this book another title. It covers but two out of the three stories in the volume; and, even so, it has the ill-luck to be completely spoilt by its predecessor, the New Arabian Nights.
The New Arabian Nights was in many respects a parody of the Eastern book. It had, if we make a few necessary allowances for the difference between East and West, the same, or very near the same, atmosphere of gallant, extravagant, intoxicated romance. The characters had the same adventurous irresponsibility, and exhibit the same irrelevancies and futilities. The Young Man with the Cream Cakes might well have sprung from the same brain as the facetious Barmecide, and young Scrymgeour sits helpless before his destiny as sat that other young man while the inexorable Barber sang the song and danced the dance of Zantout. Indeed Destiny in these books resembles nothing so much as a Barber with forefinger and thumb nipping his victims by the nose. It is as omnipotent, as irrational, as humorous and almost as cruel in the imitation as in the original. Of course I am not comparing these in any thing but their general presentment of life, or holding up The Rajah’s Diamond against Aladdin. I am merely pointing out that life is presented to us in Galland and in Mr. Stevenson’s first book of tales under very similar conditions–the chief difference being that Mr. Stevenson has to abate something of the supernatural, or to handle it less frankly.
But several years divide the New Arabian Nights from the Island Nights’ Entertainments; and in the interval our author has written The Master of Ballantrae and his famous Open Letter on Father Damien. That is to say, he has grown in his understanding of the human creature and in his speculations upon his creature’s duties and destinies. He has travelled far, on shipboard and in emigrant trains; has passed through much sickness; has acquired property and responsibility; has mixed in public affairs; has written A Footnote to History, and sundry letters to the Times; and even, as his latest letter shows, stands in some danger of imprisonment. Therefore, while the title of his new volume would seem to refer us once more to the old Arabian models, we are not surprised to find this apparent design belied by the contents. The third story, indeed, The Isle of Voices, has affinity with some of the Arabian tales–with Sindbad’s adventures, for instance. But in the longer Beach of Falesá and The Bottle Imp we are dealing with no debauch of fancy, but with the problems of real life.
For what is the knot untied in the Beach of Falesá? If I mistake not, our interest centres neither in Case’s dirty trick of the marriage, nor in his more stiff-jointed trick of the devil-contraptions. The first but helps to construct the problem, the second seems a superfluity. The problem is (and the author puts it before us fair and square), How is Wiltshire a fairly loose moralist with some generosity of heart, going to treat the girl he has wronged? And I am bound to say that as soon as Wiltshire answers that question before the missionary–an excellent scene and most dramatically managed–my interest in the story, which is but halftold at this point, begins to droop. As I said, the “devil-work” chapter strikes me as stiff, and the conclusion but rough-and-tumble. And I feel certain that the story itself is to blame, and neither the scenery nor the persons, being one of those who had as lief Mr. Stevenson spake of the South Seas as of the Hebrides, so that he speak and I listen. Let it be granted that the Polynesian names are a trifle hard to distinguish at first–they are easier than Russian by many degrees–yet the difficulty vanishes as you read the Song of Rahéro, or the Footnote to History. And if it comes to habits, customs, scenery, etc., I protest a man must be exacting who can find no romance in these while reading Melville’s Typee. No, the story itself is to blame.