Sacramental Liquid

Drink, in Robert Louis Stevenson's works, both reveals and debases


“Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife” (1885) by John Singer Sargent

Like many novelists, Robert Louis Stevenson occasionally dramatised character through drink. In Catriona, for instance, the lack of stable principle in the Jacobite exile, James More, is revealed by a conversation about breakfast drink. Asking David Balfour, “What is it you drink in the morning, whether ale or wine?”, and on being told that he took only water, More puts his young companion right:

“Tut-tut,” says he, “that is fair destruction to the stomach, take an old campaigner’s word for it. Our country spirit at home is perhaps the most entirely wholesome; but as that is not come-at-able, Rhenish or a white wine of Burgundy will be next best.”

More’s betrayal of Alan Breck is faintly foreshadowed in that touch of indifference about drink. As with rum in Treasure Island, drink for Stevenson is often what both reveals and debases — and the epitome of drink in this sense for Stevenson is the concoction which boils and smokes in the glass before it transforms Henry Jekyll into Edward Hyde.

But Stevenson used wine more positively in a novel about the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, which he began but then abandoned in May 1892, and which survives as only a fragment of a dozen or so pages.

The Young Chevalier derives from one of the anecdotes collected by the flamboyant Jacobite fantasists and frauds John Sobieski Holberg Stuart and his brother Charles Edward Stuart (really, John and Charles Allen), and published in 1847 as Tales of the Century. This collection of short stories and tales of the hundred years from Culloden to the date of publication was concocted to support the Allen brothers’ pretence to being direct descendants of the royal Stuart line. A legitimate son had been secretly born to the Young Pretender and Louise von Stolberg; the infant had been brought up in secret for fear of assassination; and his two sons, who had fought for Napoleon at Dresden, Leipzig, and Waterloo, were none other than the brothers who had compiled Tales of the Century.

Stevenson’s attention was caught by one of the fragments that made up this crazy edifice of fantasy. After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Young Pretender (or Chevalier, to his supporters) took refuge in the papal city of Avignon, where he lived for some three months between December 1748 and February 1749: this much is well-attested fact. The Jacobite myth of his ensuing adventures is given in a fictitious letter from his equerry, Henry Goring; and it is this “document” which is printed in Tales of the Century. Scottish strangers arrive in Avignon. The Young Pretender absconds with Henry Goring to Lyons and Strasbourg. The Young Chevalier rescues from a fire a beautiful girl, but does not take advantage of her sudden passion for “Le Comte d’Espoir” (the Pretender’s incognito). He moves on to Germany, is attacked by assassins, and performs great feats of valour. He frequents foreign courts, including Berlin, and becomes attached to the Polish Princess Radziwill, whom he promises to marry once he is restored. In fact, on leaving Avignon the Young Pretender travelled to Dijon, then to Paris, and finally to Venice.

All we have of The Young Chevalier is the Prologue and the first few pages of Chapter One, which shows the Young Pretender in his desolate lodgings in Avignon consoling himself with Rhine wine. Stevenson’s description of the Pretender’s face shows how far he himself was from being a card-carrying Jacobite, while also hinting at the deep appeal Jacobite material held for his romance instincts: “He had beautiful brown eyes, a beautiful bright open face; a little feminine, a little hard, a little weak; still full of the light of youth, but already beginning to be vulgarised; a sordid bloom come upon it, the lines coarsened with a touch of puffiness.” The narrative breaks off while the Young Pretender is both consoling and depressing himself with recrimination:

The minutes followed each other into the past, and still he persevered in this debilitating cycle of emotions, still fed the fire of his excitement with driblets of Rhine wine: a boy at odds with life, a boy with a spark of the heroic, which he was now burning out and drowning down in futile reverie and solitary excess.

From two rooms beyond, the sudden sound of a raised voice attracted him.

 “By . . .

For the Pretender wine both reveals and undermines, and this we may say is the standard Stevenson way with drink, visible also in Catriona and Treasure Island.

But in the “Prologue” to “The Young Chevalier”, Stevenson had used wine in a different way. The “Prologue” is sub-titled “The Wine-Seller’s Wife”, and it is set in a wine-shop “as you went down to the river in the city of the Anti-popes” — presumably the network of steep streets and alleys behind the Petit Palais is intended. The wine shop is owned by Paradou, “built more like a bullock than a man, huge in bone and brawn, high in colour, and with a hand like a baby for size”. His wife, Marie-Magdeleine, is the Beauty to Paradou’s Beast: “She was of Marseilles, a city of entrancing women, nor was any fairer than herself. She was tall, being almost of a height with Paradou; full-girdled, point-device in every form, with an exquisite delicacy in the face; her nose and nostrils a delight to look at from the fineness of the sculpture, her eyes inclined a hair’s-breadth inward, her colour between dark and fair, and laid on even like a flower’s. A faint rose dwelt in it, as though she had been found unawares bathing, and had blushed from head to foot.” Paradou is insanely jealous of his wife, loving her “like a glutton and a brute”. Marie-Magdeleine is stupefied by the intensity of her husband’s passion and is caught between desire and sickness, like “Europa in mid ocean with her bull”.

Two Jacobite exiles frequent Paradou’s wine-shop. One of them, Balmile, has aroused the curiosity of Marie-Magdeleine with his air of melancholic vacancy: “She tried to conceive what manner of memory had thus entranced him; she forged for him a past; she showed him to herself in every light of heroism and greatness and misfortune; she brooded with petulant intensity on all she knew and guessed of him.” When their eyes meet, the spark of love is struck: “The blood beat back upon her heart and leaped again; her obscure thoughts flashed clear before her; she flew in fancy straight to his arms like a wanton, and fled again on the instant like a nymph.” And wine is the sacramental liquid of their incipient attraction: “She poured the wine, he drank of it; and that link between them seemd to her, for the moment, close as a caress.” We are far here from the brutal stimulants sold at the “Admiral Benbow”.

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