Book review., Books, Children's fiction, Detective fiction, Duelling, Eugène Sue, Harun al-Rashid, Literary criticism, Mystery, New Arabian Nights, Prince Florizel of Bohemia, Realism, Robert Louis Stevenson, Romance, Suicide, The Arabian Nights, The Flâneur, The Suicide Club
Robert Louis Stevenson’s three tales about the Suicide Club emerge from a heartfelt appreciation of romance, which is at once startlingly idealistic and profoundly conservative. Although adult readers may value the ambition and modernist maturity of “The Suicide Club,” these stories paradoxically hark back to the simplicity of children’s literature.
In 1878, the same year that “The Suicide Club” was serialised in the London Magazine, Stevenson authored an essay entitled “Child’s Play,” which defined what would be today termed “the flâneur,” an idler amongst city streets, as a fundamentally adult figure. Stevenson observed that whereas children are “wheeled about in perambulators or dragged about by nurses in a pleasing stupor,” the adult will “walk the streets to make romances and to sociologise.” Through his pointed idleness and detachment from the passing city, the flâneur wins unprecedented adult freedoms, whilst simultaneously remaining on the royal road to romance, an avenue which runs straight from the workaday world and adult responsibilities. It is here that we encounter Stevenson’s crime-busting detective and adventurer, Prince Florizel of Bohemia.
He is not an original creation. He shares a name and title with the dreamy, flowery hero of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Fanny Stevenson, writing in 1924, claimed that her husband had based Florizel upon the ageing playboy, Edward, Prince of Wales; but he is equally modelled upon specific literary precedents. In his Marginalia, Edgar Allan Poe would describe:
-a work of unquestionable power – a museum of novel and ingenious incident – a paradox of childish folly and consummate skill… Admitting, for instance, the possibility of such a man… and of such a state of society as would tolerate his perpetual interference, we have no difficulty in agreeing to admit the possibility of his accomplishing all that is accomplished.
This may be “The Suicide Club” in a nutshell, but the year was 1846; the work in question was Eugène Sue’s novel The Mysteries of Paris; and the “such a man” was Sue’s Grand Duke of Gerolstein, an absentee head of state who anonymously explores the Paris underworld. In The Mysteries of the Cities (2012), the literary historian Stephen Knight identifies five “lengthy, serially published stories of crime, mystery, and revelation” from the 1840s which generated “enormous public excitement.” Along with Eugène Sue, Paul Feval, George Reynolds, George Lippard and Edward Judson each portrayed cities which were “growing beyond comprehension or control” and where “systems of public order, moral order, health, sanitation and even sanity were all at serious risk…” Knight maintains with general plausibility that “these dramatic events had not been represented before in literature in any coherent and extended way.” Stevenson might claim, however, to have come across something of the unfathomability of modern cities within the translations available to him of the Arabian Nights.
It is in the Nights that we arrive at the ultimate source for Florizel’s character: the fifth Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), who turns up in various unlikely tales, roaming the Baghdad night in disguise and accompanied by trusted subordinates. Harun’s Baghdad was, like the cities analysed within Knight’s study, “growing beyond comprehension or control.” The historian Hugh Kennedy describes the eighth-century city as “a vast, rambling, unplanned metropolis” and “the largest city in the world outside China.”
Stevenson had chanced upon a potentially more authentic means of evoking modern London within stories which had originated in eighth-century Baghdad than in the prevailing realism of Victorian literature. He is plunging into history and diving down to raid a literary shipwreck, intent upon retrieving glamorous treasure. There are obvious dangers to classifying the Arabian Nights as a sort of cultural infancy, but Stevenson nonetheless viewed it as such, and this general abandonment of modern literature accords with his esteem for fantasy and childishness. In his “Gossip on Romance” (1882), Stevenson equated “romance” with child’s play:
Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child… when the game so chimes with his fancy that he can join in it with all his heart, when it pleases him with every turn, when he loves to recall it and dwells upon its recollection with entire delight, fiction is called romance.
Stevenson had mused in his earlier essay on children that:
““Art for art” is their motto; and the doings of grown folk are only interesting as the raw material for play… Children are even content to forego what we call the realities, and prefer the shadow to the substance.
Preferring “the shadow to the substance,” “The Suicide Club” is bathed in the glamour of the urban night, where all the world is a stage for the flâneur; whilst looking forward to a time when dark and dangerous city streets would be lit up like a theatre. In 1878, the same year that “The Suicide Club” was written, electrical arc lamps were first used on British streets (at the Thames Embankment and the Holborn Viaduct). Stevenson was paying tribute to a characteristically nocturnal literary phenomenon when opting to publish “The Suicide Club” under the general title of the Latter-Day Arabian Nights. Not only were the stories in the original Nights narrated and frequently set in the small hours, but their realism was eclipsed by mystery and glamour.
Stevenson was so committed to the purity of romance that he could dismiss Shakespeare out of hand as a great artist. His reading of Shakespeare’s canon elevates the original Prince Florizel over Hamlet, or even rescues Florizel from bad company. Stevenson described the Arabian Nights as “more generally loved than Shakespeare,” not least since there “you shall look in vain for moral or for intellectual interest.” There is gladness to his criticism that, “No human face or voice greets us among that wooden crowd of kings and genies, sorcerers and beggarmen.” In his 1888 “A Chapter on Dreams,” Stevenson recounted how his storytelling had first emerged from bedtime “tales where a thread might be dropped, or one adventure quitted for another, on fancy’s least suggestion” – a ready description of (his) Florizel’s own nocturnal adventures.
Yet “The Suicide Club” does not uncritically spurn realism for romance. Delving into dreams or regressing to child’s play may license a purer form of fiction, but dispensing with realism altogether may prove suicidal to the intellect. Frank McLynn reports in his 1993 biography of Stevenson that, “it is quite clear from a detailed examination of his correspondence that Stevenson did seriously contemplate suicide on at least three occasions” prior to writing “The Suicide Club.” McLynn may fail to cite the relevant passages in Stevenson’s letters, but the mission to escape reality remains quintessential to Stevenson’s early fiction.
Escapism is the common flavour of both the Suicide Club, whose members literally escape the world, and Stevenson’s own storytelling, which affords a departure from adult life. Only moral weaklings are wafted to the Suicide Club and Florizel successfully slips into the spirit of the place when recounting that, “I have no more money… It brings my sense of idleness to an acute point.” This club, with its decadent, socially-superfluous members who would rather die than grow up, suggests a wry allegory of the most probable readers of Stevenson’s book: those young men who flock to romance and escapism.
Stevenson, an author who would later attain greater realism in the South Seas, knew that escapism was a moral impossibility. For us, Florizel’s escapism is never credible or complete, and it always advertises what has been left behind. The Prince declares that he and his manservant “pass our lives entirely in the search for extravagant adventures,” but they must be possessed with an optimism which is scarcely sane to look for anything other than stories of misery and hardship amongst London’s backstreets. Then again, Florizel tosses a hundred pounds worth of banknotes into the fire “and they went up the chimney in a single blaze,” so he is perhaps not a man with the most sophisticated sense of his responsibilities (in 1880 the average labourer would have earned about thirty pounds a year). Stevenson may have had Florizel in the back of his mind when jibing to his stepson, “What man… would ever have the courage of a woman of the streets?” When compared with the genuine horrors of the urban night, as later evinced in the Whitechapel murders of 1888, Florizel’s antics may strike some readers as being in decidedly poor taste.
Yet Florizel’s escapades are distinguished by an earnest, or even laboured, childishness. They begin with a visit to an oyster bar where the lingering prostitutes are replaced by a young man’s greatly more innocent “cream tarts.” Whatever tart-related “adventures” the incognito Prince hitherto hoped to find in a disreputable bar we can only guess, but the childish tone of this episode can never completely dispel the seediness of its setting. When the young man swallows his crushed cream tarts in nine gulps, one would have to indeed be a child not to vaguely think of oral sex. It is effectively a challenge and one which we have no hope of meeting. We remain a spectator who is prevented from suspending their disbelief, and the nervous actor is all too evident beneath the clowning and cream. We glimpse the young man’s “violently” trembling hands and discern the “sudden and surprising inflections” in his voice.
Cream tarts also make an appearance within the original Nights. A genie discovers the sorrowful Bedreddin Hassan sleeping in his father’s tomb at Damascus; he transports Bedreddin to Cairo, as magically as the scene changes in the theatre; and stage-manages Bedreddin’s loss of virginity. Back in Damascus, Bedreddin is adopted by a pastry chef and until a fortuitous mishap with some cream tarts, he will struggle to convince the child he sired in Cairo of his rightful parentage.
Like the adventuring Florizel, Bedreddin has absconded from the social elite and dropped into the disreputable world of pastry cuisine. Yet in being whisked through the air to Cairo, Bedreddin bears more in common with the succession of fatherless or apparently-fatherless young men whose fortunes will come to be paternalistically stage-managed by Florizel. “The Suicide Club” revels in just this domain of flimsy theatricality and genie contrivance.
With its murders unfolding beyond its walls, the Club assumes the backstage atmosphere and intrigue of a theatre dressing room. The Club’s actors will give up their real-life existences through innovative, impromptu street performances. They may be required to act out the performance of a murder, whilst the suicides perform the corresponding role of victim. Of course, the murders are consensual and the performances are secret affairs, without audiences or applause, and definitely without publicity. Florizel’s own death will be enacted “along the Strand… on the left-hand pavement,” awarding this preposterous character with “false whiskers and large adhesive eyebrows” a deservedly artificial demise.
“Can I begin an adventure so entrancing and not follow it to an end?,” Florizel demands. It is a curious choice of words, for amongst the ends that this romancer can feasibly expect is an enforced suicide. He otherwise attends the Club for a second night without any tactics or strategy, taking no steps to gather evidence for the authorities or to protect himself from being bumped off. On this nocturnal adventure he might as well be sleepwalking.
At this point in the performance, Florizel’s own fortunes are being stage-managed by the Club’s President, who will never live up to the various tributes to his dark grandeur, remaining nothing more than a director hovering in the wings. The paralysis of his crony, Mr Malthus (ironically named after the most infamous nineteenth-century opponent of population growth), is somewhat more theatrical. On being nominated for suicide, he “rose from his seat and sat down again, with no sign of his paralysis.”
Like actors, the Club’s members dedicate themselves to achieving an impression of substance and authenticity. The young man with the cream tarts describes himself as “a person full of manly accomplishments.” The President tells the Prince that, “You are a man who is a man,” even though the Prince’s manly moustache will come away with a firm tug. The sneering Malthus will admit that “I am a coward!,” and that he attends the Club to get a more substantial sense of life. When the Prince is sentenced to death, he tells himself that, “Come, come, I must be a man.” He lies his way into the Club by telling the young man with the cream tarts that, “I have said so, and I am not accustomed to have my word remain in doubt.” His “word” is nothing more than a line and his manliness is hardly less theatrical.
After losing both his fake identity as a would-be suicide and his designated role as a murder victim, Florizel will assume control of the production. The President is packed off to France on “a little tour” with “Colonel’s Geraldine’s young brother,” and this pair, who are supposed to be swotting up for a duel, come to perform a recognisable impersonation of Florizel and the original Geraldine. Another murderer, the seedy Dr Noel, is called to unexpectedly perform the part of a wise, benevolent patron and a further impersonation of Florizel. A later walk-on part, Lieutenant Brackenbury Rich, offers another shadow of Florizel, in roaming the streets of London in search of (and note the choice of words) “the shadow of an adventure.”
When the Prince complains that the President has thrown off two “well-trained spies,” the irony is that his words are being overheard by an unperceived audience, in the person of Silas Q Scuddamore: a character so voyeuristic and devoid of initiative that he can fill no other role than spectator. Lieutenant Rich will later assume Scuddamore’s part as a spy, not least after Scuddamore has blundered on to the stage and acquired an audience which “jeered at his indecision and followed him to the carriage with insulting remarks.”
Gender is also recruited to underscore the artifice and theatricality of Florizel’s production. If Colonel Geraldine possesses a more natural or suitable forename than his comically old-maidish surname, it remains forever undisclosed (it may be even worse). He will later ham up “a feminine coquetry and condescension… which charmed the hearts of all.” When falling prey to intrigue, Scuddamore is regaled by “a lady cast in a very large mould and with somewhat stately features, but bearing no mark of severity in her looks.” Her defining characteristic is that she refers repeatedly to the fact that she is a woman: “a woman whose only fault… A woman loves to be obeyed… a woman’s reputation… we poor women,” giving her femininity an exaggerated, theatrical quality. This is evidently the President himself, dabbling in drag.
With the President departing from the script, Florizel finds himself no longer in charge of the performance, just as the President had previously lost all control of his Club. If the Prince is watched over by a manservant with the unflattering title of “master of the horse,” Geraldine’s great mistake is to allow the horse to decide the direction of travel. Geraldine saves the Prince’s life (at least since it does not occur to Florizel to muddy his hands fighting off an assassin) and in return he loses a brother. Significantly, the corpse of Geraldine’s otherwise-nameless brother, who we only ever encounter as a prop rather than as a performer, will end up amongst the Prince’s “baggage.”
“Does the dog imagine we are all playing comedy?” Florizel snarls. “The thing is in deadly earnest, Geraldine.” The Prince is nonetheless “playing” in choosing to stage and direct a re-enactment of the President’s own production. In the final story, we are once again whisked by Hansom cab to a private party, where there is drinking and gambling and a ritualised arrangement which will require two nominated gentlemen to enact a scripted role at a killing. Florizel’s adaptation only differs from the original in its feudal strain. The killers at the Club are selected randomly and openly from amongst equals; Geraldine’s house party conceals an elitist process which is designed to separate betters from their inferiors. Yet the escapism is alike: the Prince’s old-fashioned penchant for duelling and the President’s innovative, entrepreneurial “convenience” both represent an escape from modern civic society.
The house party will be dismantled like stage scenery: “First, the guests, who were no real guests after all, had been dismissed; and now the servants, who could hardly be genuine servants, were actively dispersing.” The Suicide Club was based in Box Court whilst Geraldine’s brother ended up in a Saratoga trunk, and the recurring symbol of the box vaguely suggests a theatre once stripped of its performances.
If Stevenson would later famously capture the duality of human nature with his “character” Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, in “The Suicide Club” the designated hero and villain similarly blur into one. Florizel’s resort to duelling provides a non-judicial framework for consensual murder which is exactly like the Suicide Club. The President is technically just an accessory to assisted suicide until the murder of Geraldine’s brother, whilst the Prince will formally commit murder in his combat with the President. The romance wears thin and the irascible Florizel grows realistic, snapping that, “to give the rogue his choice of weapons would be to push too far a point of etiquette. I cannot afford to lose my life in such a business.” Like the original subscribers to his Club, the President dies off-stage, whilst the man behind the role remains as nameless as Geraldine’s lost brother.
In reality such a “cynical” character as the President would probably favour the disgrace of prosecution over an honourable death. We never see what would happen if the President had insisted upon standing trial under criminal law, rather than accepting a punishment inflicted with Florizel’s caliphal authority. A good lawyer might get the President off (even if the authorities could accrue the evidence, he would have to be extradited to Paris to stand trial for murder), but when fighting his second duelling partner, the President characteristically re-enacts the romantic gamble of Florizel’s second visit to the Club. Through his actions speak Stevenson’s whole philosophy of escapism: “Can I begin an adventure so entrancing and not follow it to an end?”