Romance, Dreams and the Gothic

A Chapter of Dreams

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Leonor Fini (1908-96) Red Vision (1984)

Date: Sun, 30 Dec 2001
Re: "A Chapter of Dreams"

To Trollope-l

Dear all

First off, thanks to Howard for the information about Bulwer-Lytton (under his truly remarkable pseudonym!) and to Ellen for her comments on 'A Gossip on Romance', which give plenty of food for thought.

Like 'A Gossip on Romance', Stevenson's essay 'A Chapter on Dreams' seems to get to the heart of Gothic and romantic literature, and show why this type of writing has such a strong hold on the imagination.

Stevenson suggests that the roots of many Gothic tales lie in the subconscious and in dreams, and looks back to his own childhood - he diffidently refers to himself in the third person, but it is clear from the start that he is delving back into his own memories.

I find it interesting that he suggests how much he was troubled by religious indoctrination at this early age - in his dreams he was haunted by "hell and judgment" and imagined himself having to recite a form of words which would save him at the "Great White Throne". Hell and damnation are threatening presences in many ghost stories, and perhaps, looking at Stevenson, the roots lie in just this sort of childhood terror.

For readers of Stevenson, the next passage is fascinating, surely carrying the germ of 'Jekyll and Hyde'. He describes how he began to "dream in sequence and thus to lead a double life - one of the day, one of the night". He dreamed that he was spending the day in the surgical theatre (shades of Dr Jekyll) and the night climbing stairs, brushed by poor people including women of the street (Mr Hyde). Stevenson says he ended up "trembling for his reason" and had to go to the doctor and get drugs, which restored him "to the common lot of man". But the dream surely remained and was later worked into his great horror story, along with the later dream he also describes where he saw Hyde taking the powder to turn himself back into Jekyll.

Last year I read a very interesting book by Christopher Frayling called Nightmare: The Birth of Terror, which tells how many Gothic writers used to deliberately bring on nightmares by eating heavy meals just before going to bed, in the hope they would dream something which could be turned to good account.

Stevenson hints that he did this sort of thing too: "When he lay down to prepare himself for sleep, he no longer sought amusement, but printable and profitable tales..." He recounts a dream in detail, insisting that this is exactly as it came to him, but the plot seems to be so well worked out that it is hard to believe he hasn't shaped and altered it to at least some extent - it really does seem like a plot which would have worked well for a sensation story. (I was slightly reminded of 'Lady Audley's Secret'.) Stevenson says he laid this plot aside because of "unmarketable elements", and I suppose these lie in the central immorality, the shock of the woman falling in love with her husband's murderer, plus the incestuous element. But, all the same, the story has power even in this brief version - and it is easy to think that Stevenson could have turned it into a classic horror story if he had so chosen.

The essay really shows how important dream material is in Gothic stories - this ties up with the discussion of pictorial elements in 'A Gossip on Romance', because often the central picture is the thing which is "given" in a dream, and then the plot is worked out while waking. Stevenson explains that this is how he created 'Jekyll and Hyde' - he dreamed the incident with Hyde taking the powder to turn back into Jekyll, and then consciously constructed the rest of the story.

Frayling's book tells how Bram Stoker wrote 'Dracula' after dreaming the 'brides of Dracula' passage where the women gather round Harker and are driven away by the Count, who insists "This man belongs to me". I've also read that Dickens often included dream material in his books and 'A Christmas Carol' was partly inspired by a dream where it was stated that somebody was "dead as a door-nail". Like RLS, he often noted down and remembered his dreams.

I feel the ghost stories we have been reading together often have a strong dream quality to them. The plot may well be unbelievable on the face of it - a carving turning into a sinister cat, a ghostly child searching for her mother - but it has a sort of strange logic of its own and pushes on to a terrible conclusion, which comes as a surprise yet with a feeling of inevitability, like the revelation RLS describes in his dream story. ("Do you not understand?" she cried. "I love you!")

At the end of the essay, Stevenson gets in a gentle dig at WD Howells, and he also criticises him in another piece, 'A Humble Remonstrance', included in 'Memories and Portraits'. In this interesting piece, RLS suggests that Howells deliberately chooses dull and limited subject matter, but transcends it despite himself. He writes: "A man, as I read him, of an originally strong romantic bent - a certain glow of romance still resides in many of his books, and lends them their distinction. As by acident he runs out and revels in the exceptional; and it is then, as often as not, that his reader rejoices - justly, as I contend."

I've never read anything by Howells but remember that Ellen mentioned him a while back and said he had some similarities with Trollope. I'd be interested to know if those who have read Howells think Stevenson is being fair or perhaps a little harsh.

He also criticises Henry James in 'A Humble Remonstrance' - the piece was written as a response to an article by James. But, despite his critical comments, this piece actually led to the two writers becoming close friends and James was heartbroken when Stevenson died.

Anyway, 'Memories and Portraits' is a lovely collection of essays by RLS, all written with a beautifully light touch and including a lot about his family, friends and evolution as a writer. I'd definitely recommend it for anybody who is looking for a change from fiction!

Bye for now
Judy Geater

December 31, 2001

Re: Stevenson's "A Chapter of Dreams"

To me this story -- for it's written as a story -- is one of the most interesting elucidations of the workings of the imagination I have ever come across. It combines the willingness to tell truths not usually told with conveying what the experience of imaginative life is for a narrative artist.

Among these truths are the story of a double self. Two selves, one moral, the other amoral, with the strong implication that the amoral is the stronger actuating self. Stevenson is not the first writer to talk frankly about two selves: the theme as far as I can tell begins in the 18th century. Samuel Richardson has an astonishing story of himself in a letter to Lady Bradshaigh whose content and tone recurs in Carl Jung's _Memories, Dreams and Reflections: the amoral self is the witty and corrosive, the saturnine mischievous and aggressive spirit in both; the moral self the gentleman who appears in the drawing room.

The opposition may seem a bit forced. In Proust and before him Diderot there are two selves who merge into one another, and these are the private self, the writing-artistic self who the public self exists to support. Both sides of the self merge into one another. This seems more true to Freud's portrait of the mind, but the oppositional variant does describe the way these two selves are often portrayed in literature, and not just in gothic stories. Marianne Dashwood is the inward and uncontrolled self within Elinor Dashwood; they are two sides of a sensibility. Stevenson's two selves are in pursuit of one another in his little story: as we find Frankenstein and his creator become so intertwined that one has become what he is as a result of the other, and neither can live but by preying on one another; Shelley's story is a transformation of the pursuit motive in her father's novel, Caleb Williams where we find the same dual pair.

It's a commonplace too: the devil in me made me do it :); the witch in me.

Stevenson goes yet farther by equating these two selves with the old Oedipal pattern with the son fighting with his father over a woman, the mother-sister figure. The son murders the father and the woman knows; she only half-hides this truth because she longs to become the son's woman. The woman plays a game with him, prying, scrutinizing, ferretting out secrets; he plays a game with her to see where she stands. What is this but Hamlet? I suppose there were indeed unmarketable elements in Stevenson's story.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not the only story where Stevenson manifests this fascination with duality: "Markheim" shows the same thing, an eruption of the dark inner self after a man murders a pawnshop keeper (very Crime and Punishment this story); a story called "Olalla" where the doppelganger seems to be a vampiric woman. I remember it also figures in the suicide club stories.

Trollope and a few others have frankly and startlingly described the atmosphere of reverie and shown themselves working up a story from a picture which came into their minds (e.g., "The Panjandrum"), but for the most part they are content to use Platonic metaphors which hide the sexual and violent basis of the experience and then rush on to tell us about their moral lessons and pride in their psychologized characters.

My favorite passages in the piece are the side-sarcasms about moralism, psychology, and story. For example when he says he sets his "little people" to work he tells his story "with guileful craftsmanship: The conduct of both actors is (in the cant phrase) psychologically correct, and the emotion aptly graduated up to the surprising climax." Stevenson suggests these art-terms used by writers, readers and critics alike are all rationalisations, ways of talking about the essential stuff which is this experience of release of a deeper self and desire in us which we keep repressed during our waking life.

Then there's how Stevenson relates as a writer to his material, how he uses it, manipulates it for a marketplace. That too is unusually frank: and for good reasons, it would quickly be used to denigrate the product. Art as art has little respect in our world.

The opening picture of him as a young child, the isolation and the development of the self is also of great interest. He tells us how it was when the figures were wispy and inchoate. How gradually they took on forms he got from his reading. How he learned to shape them into forms that would sell. His attraction to 18th century guise.

Borges was right about this piece: it's all there. You need say no more and how concise, candid (well as candid as most people until very recently and even now dare), lucid -- and entertaining to read. There will be sceptics and what are any words but metaphors, counters by which we try to fix in some permanent form phenomena we experience. I remember Margaret Oliphant in her Autobiography talking irritatedly about how Trollope described his imaginative life in his Autobiography: "if we must go on in this way, I suppose it's accurate". She regrets going on in this way. She doesn't want the reader to see; there's good reason for all the disclaimers that appear before fictions. One could say other artists have given us the same experience indirectly, self-reflexively here and there in their works, but it's rare to put it out there explicitly, undisguised by theories of personae and the like.


To Trollope-l

January1, 2002

Re: Stevenson on Wm Dean Howells

I never did respond to Judy's query on William Dean Howells. Stevenson's concluding words in "A Chapter of Dreams" suggest he had an ambivalent attitude towards Howells similar to that we glimpse in his association of Trollope with, on the one hand, clergyman fiction and diurnal social realities, and, on the other, the pictorialism and romance of his most famous strong scenes and books:

"For the most part, it will be seen, my Brownies are somewhat fantastic, like their stories hot and hot, full of passion and the picturesque, alive with animating incident; and they have no prejudice against the supernatural. But the other day they gave me a surprise, entertaining me with a love-story, a little April comedy, which I ought certainly to hand over to the author of A CHANCE ACQUAINTANCE, for he could write it as it should be written, and I am sure (although I mean to try) that I cannot. - But who would have supposed that a Brownie of mine should invent a tale for Mr. Howells?"

She quotes him in a more explanatory vein from "A Humble Remonstrance":

"A man, as I read him, of an originally strong romantic bent - a certain glow of romance still resides in many of his books, and lends them their distinction. As by acident he runs out and revels in the exceptional; and it is then, as often as not, that his reader rejoices - justly, as I contend."

There does seem to be jealousy and rivalry here: both Trollope and Howells's were respected central figures of their literary worlds at the time they wrote: both clearly wrote for adult audiences: no fear anyone would call their novels boys' books or adventure stories. Both made a lot of money -- which Stevenson had only begun to when he died; as I recall he needed his father's support and then inheritance to live the life he wanted to live (Richard will know much more about that than me). And both produce social fiction, fiction which seems to teach us social lessons, and prides itself on its realism as a central instrument for this.

As I take it, the comment on Howells from "A Humble Remonstrance" suggests that such social realism is restrictive; it precludes strong effects of emotionalism which are part of our lives though they may not appear in drawing rooms or even any where outwardly. How do you dramatize the dramas of the emotions, sexual and violent urges and dreaming mind? If you limit yourself to how these emerge in commonplace happenings (the probable is not the true, it's the usual), you must keep your imaginative gifts under control. Stevenson is also suggesting he could write the Howells' way if he pleased; that there are more connections between his way of writing and Howells than people see. Howells did not just write social fiction: A Hazard of New Fortunes is about a strike; but Indian Summer is pure romance in the Henry James fashion, about a love affair that occurs in Florence ( between an American and European). Howells has a novel whose title includes the world "April"; maybe "A Chance Acquaintance" is more in Howells's romantic vein than usual.

Howells did begin to get a very bad press shortly after he died -- resembling Trollope in this way. The old man was gone and the new young man wanted the field to themselves for a new sort of fiction, for fiction which did not observe the old proprieties of presenting sex and violence indirectly and marginally, for fiction which left the bourgeois and focused on other classes of people. Trollope did the latter in his short stories, and Howells was not always milk-toast: in fact Howells was a socialist, but he hid it to some extent, or didn't advertise the fact. A vitriolic piece by H. L. Mencken on Howells was written perhaps 20 years after Howells' death which summed up a whole group of bitter complaints against Victorian prudery, complaisance and inhibition and aimed them at Howells's fiction as containing them all. Howells has still not bounced back from this attack. Stevenson's words seem to me to look forward to Mencken's famous review article.

This is not to say that the new fiction writers were wrong to complain. The repression of sex, violence, the absence of a huge majority of mankind and their concerns in the fiction of the novelists we read on Trollope-l typically is a real limitation. However, Stevenson himself is very chary of presenting sex openly. I don't know how Richard views this, but I have thought that the reason there are so few women in Stevenson's stories is he was unwilling to present the phony picture of chaste women whose thoughts are wiped clean of subversive and aggressive ideas and yet did not feel his public would accept a real picture of women -- I understand that in some of his stories ("Thrawn Janet" -- written in Scots dialect) Stevenson does present such women, but then they are not the types the middle class reader would identify with. And then again maybe like Thackeray this unwillingness came from the writer, Stevenson's inhibitions. Did he ever present a woman like his Fanny? Thus today when someone films Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the form of the sequel/switched perspective of Mary Reilly, the film adaptator fills out hints Stevenson gives us to present Mrs Farraday. So Stevenson is as hemmed in as Howells and Trollope were.

Cheers to all,

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