1The Savile Club was founded in 1868, initially known as the ‘New Club’, a name announcing that this club was to be different from other gentlemen’s clubs in London at the time. A few years later, the club changed its name to the Savile Club when it moved to larger premises on Savile Row; both locations were removed from the area around Piccadilly, Pall Mall and St James’s Street known as Clubland.
2The Club prided itself on its three founding principles: a thorough simplicity in all arrangements; the mixture of men of different professions and opinions, and a careful process of election; early Evening Meetings once or twice in the week (Stephen 1). Sidney Colvin, one of the prominent early members, tells us that ‘[t]his little society had been founded on a principle aimed against the stand-offishness customary in English club life, and all members were expected to hold themselves predisposed to talk and liable to accost without introduction’ (Colvin 119). The Club’s Prospectus announced that its members came together for the ‘purpose of conversation’ (Anderson 10), rather than to find a haven of silence and privacy. Instead of the separate meals at private tables found in most other clubs, the Savile instituted a table d’hôte, a long, communal table, serving a common meal to all, initially at the fixed price of three shillings. We have one account of these meals, from Robert Louis Stevenson, writing to his mother in his early flush of excitement at joining the Club: ‘I like my club very much,’ he says; ‘the table d’hôte dinner is very good: it costs three bob: Two soups, two fish, two entrées, two joints and two puddings; so it is not dear; and one meets agreeable people’ (Letters, 2: 27).
3‘It soon became the custom,’ we are told, ‘that anyone looking lonely or lost in any of the public rooms should be welcomed into the general company if he so wished, irrespective of whether he was already known or not’ (Anderson 2). Along with its ‘essentially friendly character’, one historian of the Club comments, the Savile differed from those clubs ‘already in existence, less in its general scheme than in its economical management’ (Stephen 13). The entrance fee, for instance, was initially only £2, though after the club moved to Savile Row, this rose to £10.10. Costs were kept low thanks to a simple décor, and inexpensive food—though there seem to have been many complaints about the quality of the food, which was provided by outside caterers. The wine, however, was of good quality and was provided at reasonable prices. Cigars—to be smoked only in the smoking room—were provided as part of the members’ subscription (Anderson 18).
4This ‘economical management’ was needed because the Club welcomed what they called ‘men of promise’ (Anderson 2)—younger men at the start of their careers, ‘members in general,’ Colvin recalled, ‘being for the most part young men drawn from the professions of science or learning, of art, literature, journalism, or the stage’ (Colvin 120). Yet as well as these ‘young men’, the list of members included some of London’s richest men, as well as lords, prominent academics, senior editors and noted churchmen, men of science, law, medicine, engineering, and civil servants. These established personages, however, were probably enlisted primarily to provide useful contacts for the young men, and probably did not attend very often. Stevenson says, for instance, that he ‘saw, just saw’ the celebrated Walter Pater when he once showed up at the Savile (‘Memoirs’, 166).
5Although, as we have seen, there were several clergymen in the Club, it seems there was a common thread of opposition to religion. Many of the early members were noted freethinkers, if not outright atheists. And despite the principle of taking ‘men of promise’, a young man probably had a better chance of acceptance if he had already achieved something. A story was passed around about the witty lawyer who remarked, ‘Oh, I know the Savile; it’s an awful swell club. They won’t elect you unless you’re an atheist or have written a book’ (Anderson 17).
6This was the club that Stevenson was introduced to by his friend Sidney Colvin. Five years older than Stevenson, Colvin was an established writer, especially on art. He took on himself the task of advising Stevenson about his writing and, more importantly, of using his contacts (many of them through the Savile Club) to have Stevenson’s essays and reviews printed in prestigious magazines. Stevenson was elected to the Savile Club in June 1874, surely as one of the ‘men of promise’: only twenty-three years old, and having so far published only two essays (one under a pseudonym) and one review, though he had just heard that his substantial essay on Victor Hugo’s novels had, thanks to Colvin’s connections, been warmly welcomed by the prestigious Cornhill Magazine. He had almost no income at this point, except what his father gave him, and even the Savile’s modest entry fee was beyond his immediate means. ‘To make my calling and election sure,’ he wrote to Colvin, ‘I must dub up £10.10: which I can’t, having lent my all to a needy friend. However, I must get advances I suppose’ (Letters, 2: 22).
7For the next five years Stevenson made the Savile Club his London home, as he passed through the city on his frequent journeys between Edinburgh and France. The club served as a convenient London address and a quiet place where he could write. He told his mother, ‘I work three hours every morning here in the club on the brouillons; and then three in the afternoon on the fair copy. In bed by ten; here again in the morning, to the consternation of the servants, as soon as the club is open’ (Letters, 2: 293).
8Colvin remembered years later that ‘on his visits to London [Stevenson] generally lunched [at the Savile], and at the meal and afterwards came to be accepted and habitually surrounded as a radiating centre of good talk, a kind of ideal incarnation of the spirit of the society. Comparatively rare as they were, I believe that both his presences in those days and his tradition subsequently contributed as much as anything towards the success and prosperity of the club’ (Colvin 120). This image of Stevenson the conversationalist is confirmed in an early biography: ‘If [after lunch at the club] he were so fortunate as to find any congenial companions disengaged, or to induce them to throw over their engagements, he would lead them off to the smoking-room, and there spend an afternoon in the highest spirits and the most brilliant and audacious talk’ (Balfour 1: 177). Another member described him ‘as he sat on the arm of a chair in the Savile Club smoking-room, [reading] out a set of verses’ in such an animated way that people forgot the verses and just remembered the energy (Hammerton 145).
9And Stevenson certainly took his part in the anti-religious exuberance we have already seen as a feature of the Club. ‘Noisy atheism,’ he said, about the days when he was frequenting the Savile Club,
[n]oisy atheism was indeed the fashion of the hour; even to the fastidious Colvin, the humblest pleasantry was welcome if it were winged against God Almighty or the Christian Church. It was my own proficiency in such remarks that gained me most credit; and my great social success of the period . . . was gained by outdoing poor [Kingdon] Clifford [a notorious and violent atheist] in a contest of schoolboy blasphemy (‘Memoirs’, 166–67).
10He appeared, as his cousin Graham Balfour labelled him, ‘of all men the most clubbable’ (Balfour 1: 149).
11There was business to be done at the Club, too. If we look at the magazines Stevenson contributed to in the 1870s, we find that most of the editors were, or had been, members of the Savile Club. ‘Je suis l'intime des rédacteurs’, he boasted to his friend Charles Baxter (Letters, 2: 24). Members of the Savile Club included Kegan Paul, editor of the New Quarterly Magazine and publisher of Stevenson’s first three books, and Leslie Stephen, editor of the Cornhill Magazine, one of the top literary monthlies, which published twenty of Stevenson’s essays from 1874 to 1882, and several stories. At the Savile were also John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review and later of the English Men of Letters series, Charles Appleton, founder and editor of the Academy and Walter Pollock, editor of the Saturday Review. As J. C. Furnas puts it, ‘A writer can go a long way, even clear to the top, without such connections, but they do no harm whatever’ (Furnas 101).
12And yet, there was something not quite right. This young man (his youthful face and excited movements made him look younger than he was) did not quite fit into the Victorian social world, even the relatively relaxed society of the Savile Club. It was not just his bohemian appearance: dark flannel shirt, red tie, black velveteen jacket, highwayman’s cloak and hat in a style that no one could identify. His actions at the Savile Club hint at some kind of instability, some uneasiness that made him unable to take his time there very seriously. His friend Edmund Gosse describes his days at the Savile ‘as about the idlest and silliest part of Louis’s existence . . . consumed in rather foolish jesting’ (Letters, 2: 320n).
- 1 Gosse tells us that ‘[a]t this time [Stevenson] must not be thought of as a successful author. A ve (...)
13Robertson Nicholl remarked that many of the Savilians ‘did not estimate Stevenson very highly’ as a writer. ‘The affection felt for Stevenson by his friends was evident, but their critical judgment was qualified and cautious. Of this Stevenson himself was conscious enough at the time’ (Hammerton 271–72).1 We have seen that people were likely to remember Stevenson’s energy but not what he was saying. Were these people really taking him seriously? Was he, nervously perched on the arm of a chair, really quite at home? Even Stevenson himself describes his atheist blasphemies as ‘schoolboy’. Something about this club was blocking Stevenson’s true self from expression.
- 2 See R. L. Abrahamson, ‘“Of all men the most clubbable”? RLS at the Savile Club and the Cornhill Mag (...)
14I have discussed elsewhere my sense that Stevenson was treated by all but a very few of his London friends and acquaintances as an outsider: Scottish, not English, not educated at Oxford or Cambridge, ‘a poor relation’, appreciated for his liveliness but treated a bit like the pet Bohemian with his eccentric clothes and manners and style, charming, but a little ‘vulgar and immodest’.2 Even his solidarity with the noisy atheists did not last long, since his references to God became more frequent (though far from orthodox) as the decade progressed. ‘[I] cling to God,’ he wrote two years after joining the Savile Club; ‘to a nice immoral old gentleman who knows a bit more about it all than I do.’ And to his father, with whom in his early twenties he had quarrelled violently about religion, he says, ‘Tis a strange world, indeed, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him’ (Letters, 2: 177, 241). Given this ambivalent attitude towards the Savile Club, it will be interesting to see how Stevenson depicted the Club when, as was inevitable, he represented it in his writings.
15There is only one place in Stevenson’s work where the Savile Club specifically appears: in a fragment of a story called ‘Diogenes at the Savile Club’, probably written in the early 1880s (Swearingen 196), at a time when Stevenson, seldom coming to London, was not often seen at the Club. The tone of the piece, like its companion fragment ‘Diogenes in London’, is facetious, almost silly. Diogenes—the Greek cynic who roamed the streets looking for an ‘honest man’—is shown to the door of the Savile Club by, of all people, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who admits, ‘I often take my chop there of a morning’ (‘Diogenes’, 195). He advises Diogenes to ask to see ‘Besant-and-Rice’, a composite figure of Walter Besant (a member of the Savile) and James Rice (not a member), who collaborated to write several popular novels in the 1870s and early 80s. Entering the Smoking-Room, Besant-and-Rice explains that ‘This is the place known by fame to many; to few by sight.’ Great men sometimes visit, ‘not without awe’, but they
are not its true inhabitants. Here gather daily those young eaglets of glory, the swordsmen of the pen, who are the pride and wonder of the world, and the terror and envy of the effete pensionnaires of the Athenæum. They are all young . . . . They are all clever authors; and some of them, with that last refinement of talent, old as Job but rare as modesty, have hitherto refrained from writing. . . . And they are all Rising. (‘Diogenes’, 196)
16In the room at the moment are several successful authors—Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan among them—‘Men who had Risen [seeking] counsel and countenance from the great caucus of the Rising Men. . . . Naked genius here strangled serpents in its cradle. What it might do next, the heart quailed to fancy.’ Diogenes is then ‘installed in a chair upon the table’ while each of the Rising Men ‘presented himself unabashed before the cynic, and in a few heartfelt strains proffered his claims to be a Man’ (‘Diogenes’, 197). The fragment breaks off here, but we are surely led to believe that Diogenes will find no true man here any more than he found one on the streets of Athens long ago.
17It is not easy to define the tone of this piece. Is it just friendly mockery of the self-important pretensions of the Savile Club, or of the young writers whose mere membership in the Club seemed to confirm their authority to judge the work of more established writers? Or is there something more bitter—a condemnation of the whole genus irritabile of Savilians who sat around talking in the Smoking-Room, but actually none of them doing any honest work worthy of Diogenes’ approval? Maybe this question will become clearer a little later on.
18The Savile Club features more importantly—though in disguise—in the ‘Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’, the first of three episodes that comprise ‘The Suicide Club’, part of a series of stories Stevenson wrote in 1878 for the weekly newspaper London, under the general title of Latter Day Arabian Nights. Stevenson wrote quite a lot for London in 1878, a short-lived paper edited by his friend W. E. Henley. Because the circulation of the paper was so low, there was not much at stake, and Stevenson’s writing for London is almost always playful and experimental.
19When the stories were published in book form in 1882 as New Arabian Nights, they were well received by the critics. (It may be worth mentioning in the present context that three of the main reviewers—George Saintsbury, William Pollock and Daniel Lathbury—were fellow members of the Savile Club). The book went into a second edition in a few months. In America, New Arabian Nights was taken up by the New York avant-garde and turned Stevenson into a cult author.
20The ‘Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’ begins with ‘the accomplished Prince Florizel of Bohemia’ playing the role of an urbane bohemian pleasure-seeker residing in London, often wandering the streets in disguise with his faithful friend Colonel Geraldine. One night they meet a young man offering cream tarts from a tray some attendants are carrying. If people refuse a tart, the young man eats it himself until there are no more left. He explains to Florizel later at dinner that this has been the final silly act in his life of silly dissipation. He is ruined, and with his final £40 he intends that night to join the Suicide Club. Intrigued, Florizel assures the young man that he and Geraldine are also ruined gentlemen, intent on ending their lives, and accepts an invitation to join the Suicide Club along with the young man.
21At the Suicide Club Florizel finds the smoking-room occupied by about eighteen men, smoking and drinking and talking nervously and aimlessly. Soon they all assemble around a long card table where the President deals a card in turn to each of the members until the two black aces have appeared. The man who receives the ace of spades will die that night; the man with the ace of clubs will kill him, in a way to be explained privately later by the President. Florizel and Geraldine receive harmless cards, but the young man with the cream tarts is given the ace of clubs. He must murder Mr Malthus, a diseased, depraved roué, who has lasted for several years at the club without drawing the death card, and has delighted in watching the others facing death.
22Despite Geraldine’s protestations, Florizel—whose honour is bound by the strong oath he had taken on joining the club—determines to attend, as required, the next night’s session. He has determined to do all he can to put an end to this evil, but this time it is he who is dealt the ace of spades. He leaves the club full of regret for his folly, knowing that his murderer will, at some point along his walk home, kill him. But on leaving, he is grabbed by his own servants and whisked away in a carriage. Geraldine had prepared this ambush, and has captured the President and all the members of the club. Later in the evening, dressed in his full ceremonial princely robes, Florizel judges the President worthy of death, but since he had sworn not to involve the law—and since they are all, no matter what, gentlemen—he arranges for the President to face one of Florizel’s men in a duel to the death. The Prince redeems the other members of the Club by offering them money and employment. A happy ending, at least to this first episode. The Suicide Club itself does not appear in the other two episodes, which are concerned primarily with the attempt to kill the dastardly President in a gentlemanly way.
23It is clear that the Suicide Club bears many resemblances to the Savile Club. The Club is ‘not far from Charing Cross Station’ (‘Suicide’, 13), within sight of the river, just as the first home of the Savile Club, a few years before Stevenson became a member, was on Spring Gardens, off Charing Cross (Colvin 119). Besides the obvious activity at the gaming table, the main feature of the club, like the Savile, seems to be the conversation in the smoking-room; perhaps the members’ ‘feverish hilarity’ (‘Suicide’, 16) as they talk before the card game reflects something of Stevenson’s own conversational style, sitting restlessly on the edge of the chair, engaged in his ‘rather foolish jesting’ and ‘schoolboy blasphemies’. The fittings of the Suicide Club reflect, though perhaps exaggerated, the simplicity that the Savile Club promoted: the furniture is sparse; the board and lodgings ‘very fair, . . . and clean, although, of course, not luxurious; that could hardly be, considering the exiguity . . . of the subscription’ (‘Suicide’, 19).
24Perhaps the most conspicuous detail that identifies the Suicide Club as a version—or perversion?—of the Savile Club is the President’s assurance that anyone can speak to anyone else even if not formally introduced; ‘all such formalities’, he says, are needless (‘Suicide’, 18). And lastly, in a reverse of the Savile Club’s pride in its ‘men of promise’, here the members show ‘little promise of strength or the quality that makes success’ (‘Suicide’, 16).
25There undoubtedly are other parallels those in the know would have recognised, but we can see enough to suggest that this Suicide Club is some sort of gruesome inverse of the Savile Club, perhaps even a brief glimpse into the hidden soul of the place. What does that glimpse reveal?
- 3 The young man explains, ‘this is the age of conveniences, and I have to tell you of the last perfec (...)
26First of all, the Suicide Club seems to mock the respectability of the whole world of gentlemen’s clubs. It appears to be a normal club with a vetting process and an entrance fee, the obligatory smoking-room and gaming table. Like all clubs, it offers a service to its members. In fact, we may be led to assume at first that the service the club offers these men who are tired of living is some sort of entertainment or amusement that will relieve the pain of their lives and stimulate their jaded tastes. But the only entertainment on offer is the macabre show of fear on each member’s face at the gaming table. The gentlemen’s club, as Sarah Ames has said, is part of ‘a capitalist world spiralling around supply and demand, and suicide has become the latest convenience in which to indulge’ (Ames 151). On the surface, this convenience of suicide, as the young man with the cream tarts explains, is merely the logical extension of all other modern conveniences: ‘There was one more convenience lacking to modern comfort: a decent easy way to quit [the] stage.’3 This arrangement is no less logical than Jonathan Swift’s modest proposer’s scheme to eat Irish babies in order to relieve Irish poverty: the scheme will achieve its purpose; it is perfectly reasonable on a theoretical level, but abhorrent once we see what it actually entails.
27But in fact, the club does not offer the convenience of suicide. Instead it may force its member to become a murderer and it certainly will give him a sudden and probably violent death. And there’s another twist. The club offers its members not suicide, properly speaking, but simply death, which is, after all, what these men really seek. Yet, through the suspenseful agony of the gaming table, turning death into a gamble (a more intense version of life outside the club), the club actually awakens these men’s love of life, as seen in the great relief on the faces of those who do not receive the ace of spades. They came thinking the club would confirm their desire for death, but it cheated them into rediscovering a love of life—yet it held them bound by oath to continue attending the gaming table. (‘Nothing could be conceived more passive than the obedience promised [by the new member signing the entrance oath], or more stringent than the terms by which the juror bound himself’ [‘Suicide’, 16]). However we look at it, the Club is a fraud.
28Does this understanding of the Suicide Club invite us to question the potential fraudulence of the whole institution of gentlemen’s clubs? Is a club not so much an exclusive luxury of the privileged classes (that is, of the men in these classes), as a commodity gentlemen pay for like any other commercial transaction, with, like all business transactions, always the potential to be defrauded?
29The story not only undercuts clubs, but also those who join clubs. Who are these members of the Suicide Club? They seem to be all gentlemen by birth, whose education has left them unfit for life, like the young man with the cream tarts, who confesses that his upbringing has left him able to play the violin
nearly well enough to earn money in the orchestra of a penny gaff [low-class theatre or music hall], but not quite. The same remark applies to the flute and the French horn. I learned enough of whist to lose about a hundred a year at that scientific game. My acquaintance with French was sufficient to enable me to squander money in Paris with almost the same facility as in London. In short, I am a person full of manly accomplishments (‘Suicide’, 6).
30Awake to the inadequacies of their gentlemanly world, they have rebelled against respectable society, having, as the young man explains, ‘grown heartily sick of the performance in which they are expected to join daily and all their lives long’ (‘Suicide’, 10). They are ‘people in the prime of youth’ (though a few are over thirty and ‘not a few ... still in their teens’ [‘Suicide’, 16–17]), men who have chosen to stand aside from life, adopting the fashionable role of the flâneur, the bohemian, and whose life has centred on self-indulgence, silliness, and sometimes outright crime.
31Like the others, Florizel, the Prince of Bohemia (that is, the chief of all bohemians) is ‘not without a taste for ways of life more adventurous and eccentric than that to which he was destined by his birth’ (‘Suicide’, 1) and has rebelled against his duties as prince in order to amuse himself in London. And now they are all ruined men, overcome with despair, unable to face life, and seeking their own death.
- 4 Stevenson had been working on an essay on Whitman at least since 1873, but in December 1877 he told (...)
32There are two exceptions to these men desiring their own death: Florizel and Geraldine, who are only playing this role. There is something that saves them from complete despair. A clue to this something can be found in one phrase at the beginning of the story. We are told in the opening paragraph that Florizel was ‘accustomed to take the world with as much philosophy as any ploughman’ (‘Suicide’, 1). We can take this as a witty paradox (‘a ploughman philosophical? What a contradiction!’), but at the same time as he was writing ‘The Suicide Club’, Stevenson was defending at some length the philosophy of the ploughman, in his essay on Walt Whitman.4
33In this essay Stevenson sets up an opposition between the ‘comparatively innocent and cheerful’ views of the ploughman and the cynical views of some modern gentlemen. ‘The great refinement of many poetical gentlemen,’ he writes—and observe how he is describing the members of the Suicide Club—
The great refinement of many poetical gentlemen has rendered them practically unfit for the jostling and ugliness of life, and they record their unfitness at considerable length. . . . This literature of woe, as Whitman calls it, this Maladie de René, as we like to call it in Europe, is in many ways a most humiliating and sickly phenomenon. Young gentlemen with three or four hundred a year of private means look down from a pinnacle of doleful experience on all the grown and hearty men who have dared to say a good word for life since the beginning of the world.
34We had better beware of the poisonous influence these ‘poetical gentleman’, who, zealously promoting their sophisticated culture to ordinary people like ploughmen, might at the same time be infecting these less sophisticated (but wiser) people with the crippling maladie de René. Stevenson goes on:
It would be a poor service to spread culture, if this be its result, among the comparatively innocent and cheerful ranks of men. When our little poets have to be sent to look at the ploughman and learn wisdom, we must be careful how we tamper with our ploughmen. . . . It is better to leave him as he is than to teach him whining. It is better that he should go without the cheerful lights of culture, if cheerless doubt and paralysing sentimentalism are to be the consequence. (‘Walt Whitman’, 62–63)
35We might say it is Florizel’s ploughman philosophy that enables him to move beyond the ‘cheerless doubt and paralysing sentimentalism’ of the other members of the Suicide Club and to perceive—and respond to—the devil in the place. He is able to affirm life and act, taking up his next role as deus ex machina.
36We are watching Stevenson here attempting a redefinition of a gentleman, a theme that runs through much of his writings. The assumed definition of ‘gentleman’ refers to one’s social class and often to one’s finances (and not least to the way one receives one’s income). But most of all, it refers to how well one obeys the social code. The members of the Suicide Club had been raised as gentlemen, and we have seen how ill-equipped that left them, and how, ‘grown heartily sick of the performance in which they are expected to join daily and all their lives long’, they rebelled. Unfortunately, their rebellion seems to have been only superficial, as they shifted from the social role of gentleman to the social role of bohemian. In both roles they were just taking part in a conventional performance, and found themselves just as alienated as before. If following the gentleman’s code left them unfit for life, following the bohemian code led them to desire death but to be unfit even to effect their own death.
37The problem is that, as Stevenson discussed a few months later in an early draft of ‘Lay Morals’, a young man who thinks he is rebelling by becoming a bohemian is often not ‘the true Bohemian’ but a replica of ‘the imaginary Bohemians of literature’.
The Bohemian of the novel, who drinks more than is good for him, and prefers anything to work, and wears strange clothes, is for the most part a respectable Bohemian, respectable in disrespectability, living for the outside, and an adventurer. But [the true Bohemian] lives wholly to himself, does what he wishes and not what is thought proper, buys what he wants for himself and not what is thought proper, works at what he believes he can do well and not what will bring him in money or favour. (‘Lay Morals’, 46–47)
The behaviour of the members of the Suicide Club, as they gather nervously in the smoking-room over champagne and cigars, illustrates this kind of effete Bohemianism, ‘living on the outside’, alienated from their authentic selves. Florizel recognises them as men ‘with every show of intelligence and sensibility in their appearance, but with little promise of strength or the quality that makes success. . . . some talked well, but the conversation of others was plainly the result of nervous tension, and was equally without wit or purport.’ Some are boasting about the disgraceful deeds that led to their desire for death; others listen without any disapproval of these deeds. Living only on the outside, they have lost touch with their moral nature and cynically accept everything. ‘They drank to each other’s memories, and to those of notable suicides in the past. They compared and developed their different views of death ….’ All this disgusts Florizel. ‘If a man has made up his mind to kill himself,’ he says, ‘let him do it, in God’s name, like a gentleman. This flutter and big talk is out of place’ (‘Suicide’, 16–18). That is, if they are going to be cynical bohemians, let that cynicism be authentic and manifest itself in action.
38That is all very well, but how might these young men find their authentic self and heal their maladie de René? To begin with, Stevenson agrees that the state of the world certainly encourages despair. As Barry Menikoff points out, ‘Despair is the defining motif in “Story of the Man with the Cream Tarts”’ (Menikoff 345). In a post-Darwinian world we see that nature and society are indifferent to our authentic self. We face failure and death at every step. One way to endure such a vision of life, as Stevenson often demonstrates, lies in writing playfully and extravagantly about this bleak condition. Here are a few sentences from essays written around the time he wrote ‘The Suicide Club’:
This world itself, travelling blindly and swiftly in overcrowded space, among a million other worlds travelling blindly and swiftly in contrary directions, may very well come by a knock that would set it into explosion like a penny squib (‘Æs Triplex’, 1878).
We live the time a match flickers; we pop the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant (‘Æs Triplex’).
[W]e may compare the headlong course of our years to a swift torrent in which a man is carried away; now he is dashed against a boulder, now he grapples for a moment to a trailing spray; at the end, he is hurled out and overwhelmed in a dark and bottomless ocean (‘Crabbed Age and Youth’, 1877).
[The dinner table is] a deadlier spot than any battlefield in history, where the far greater proportion of our ancestors have miserably left their bones! (‘Æs Triplex’)
For marriage is like life in this—that it is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses (‘Virginibus Puerisque’, 1876).
- 5 In a later episode of ‘The Suicide Club’ an experienced soldier, contemplating ‘the mystery of four (...)
39Notice these last two quotations, which bring us to one of Stevenson’s favourite images: life as a battlefield. Once we accept the overwhelming difficulties and disappointments of life, we can move beyond despair by engaging these difficulties as a soldier engages in battle.5 (And we will almost always fail, but that’s another story). A significant shift in the tone of the ‘Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’ occurs when Florizel and Geraldine find themselves waiting in the President of the Suicide Club’s sparsely furnished, tattered cabinet. ‘What sort of den is this?’ Geraldine asks. ‘That is what I have come to see,’ replies Florizel. ‘If they keep live devils on the premises, the thing may grow interesting’ (‘Suicide’, 13). Florizel speaks here like a melodramatic hero, but he is now much more alive than the urbane lounger he had been playing in the earlier pages. In touch with his authentic self, he is aware (as the potential suicides are not aware) he has only been playing the role of bohemian. This awareness gives him the freedom to act.
40Another way to overcome the maladie de René is to enlist help from art, which has the power to engage us, even if life does not. (Whitman’s poetry, for instance, lifted Stevenson out of his adolescent despair). In one sense Stevenson prepares his Arabian Nights stories to do the same thing for us, as he transforms the inhuman and sordid world of nineteenth-century London and Paris into a vivid battlefield between good and evil, with its disruptive uncertainties and its arresting imagery. Barry Menikoff highlights: ‘[t]he old man’s scream as he falls to his death in “Cream Tarts,” the noise of his bones as they hit the pavement’; these ‘are unforgettably graphic’ (Menikoff 346). Images like these can awaken the moral values that our bohemian posing has lulled to sleep, and can thus inspire us to engage with, not retreat from, the world.
41Old fashioned stories of heroism can do the trick, too. In his essay ‘The English Admirals’, which was being sent out to magazine editors around the time he wrote ‘The Suicide Club’, Stevenson gives us some picturesque descriptions of famous British seamen, particularly as they faced certain death with bravado, ‘brought to the test and giving proof of what we call heroic feeling’. And at this point in the essay Stevenson unexpectedly drags us back to the Savile Club, for a contrast to this heroism. Notice that he cannot speak of these ‘men of promise’ at the Savile without a mockingly inflated diction.
Prosperous humanitarians tell me, in my club smoking-room, that they are a prey to prodigious heroic feelings, and that it costs them more nobility of soul to do nothing in particular, than would carry on all the wars, by sea or land, of bellicose humanity. It may well be so, and yet not touch the point in question. For what I desire is to see some of this nobility brought face to face with me in an inspiriting achievement. A man may talk smoothly over a cigar in my club smoking-room from now to the Day of Judgment, without adding anything to mankind’s treasury of illustrious and encouraging examples. . . . Greenville chewing wineglasses at table makes no very pleasant figure, any more than a thousand other artists when they are viewed in the body, or met in private life; but his work of art, his finished tragedy, is an eloquent performance; and I contend it ought not only to enliven men of the sword as they go into battle, but send back merchant clerks with more heart and spirit to their book-keeping by double entry. (‘The English Admirals’, 94)
42In a different version of the literature of woe vs. the philosophy of the ploughman in the Whitman essay, here we see the ‘prosperous gentlemen’ of the Savile Club smoking-room, talking nobly but infected with ‘cheerless doubt and paralysing sentimentalism’ vs. the poor merchant clerk, able to do his work and endure one more boring afternoon at his desk because open to the healthful inspiration of a good story.
43We seem then to have three options. We can choose to be respectable gentlemen, following the social code, fortified with the right bank account, the right clothes, the right clubs. Playing this role can offer us a certain amount of security and comfort in this wild world, but in accepting this security we surrender our integrity and let our inner selves die. Joining a gentleman’s club, in this sense, is tantamount to joining a Suicide Club. (And remember, the ace of clubs is the card that delivers death).
- 6 ‘They have made so many studies that it has become a habit; they make more, the walls of exhibition (...)
44Or we can rebel against this gentleman’s code and become bohemians. We dress in a different way, we gossip about art, we ruin our finances. But we are false bohemians; we are still just following an external code. We are unsuited for action, or life. We become like those ‘snoozers’ Stevenson described in the artists’ colony in Fontainebleau: artists who know all about the latest radical style of art, but produce nothing but ‘studies’.6 Overcome with the maladie de René, we seek to end our lives, and join the Suicide Club.
- 7 Florizel himself fails dismally. His function in the story over, the author sends him ‘topsy-turvy (...)
45Or, it seems, we can move beyond the despair present in life by seeking the philosophy of the ploughman, or as a true bohemian we can ignore all external codes and follow our authentic preferences and beliefs. We are not sheltered from life, and will have no guarantee of success of any kind: ‘faithful failures’, as Stevenson put it. But we are free to act, and we continue living.7
46To end, we ought to return to that fragment we looked at earlier: will Diogenes find his true man at the Savile Club? I think not; these young ‘eaglets of glory’, so proud of being ‘men of promise’, can only talk, or compete in schoolboy blasphemies with each other, with a ‘feverish hilarity’ not too dissimilar to the members of the Suicide Club. They are snoozers. What chance does Diogenes have here?
47But wait. One more twist. Could it be that this sedate activity of smoking-room talk is, in fact, one of the only battlefields left in the modern world, at least for intellectuals of a certain social class? ‘The spice of life is battle,’ Stevenson affirms in his essay ‘Talk and Talkers’, and a spirited talk is like an engagement in battle. ‘[T]he excitement of a good talk lives for a long while after in the blood, the heart still hot within you, the brain still simmering, and the physical earth swimming around you with the colours of the sunset’ (‘Talk and Talkers’, 72, 74). Maybe these Savilians are indeed ‘swordsmen of the pen, . . . the pride and wonder of the world, and the terror and envy of the effete pensionnaires of the Athenæum’. Perhaps the Savile Club, with its purpose of bringing men together for conversation, was the very antithesis of the Suicide Club, giving even the most jaded of its members (which would include the young Stevenson) an arena to fight off suicidal despair. But only if the whole business is treated with a light, playful touch, and with the ambiguous mockery found in ‘Diogenes in the Savile Club’, the ‘Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’ and even ‘The English Admirals’.