Book review., Books, Detective fiction, Diamonds, Eugène Sue, Father, Harun al-Rashid, Literary criticism, Misanthropy, New Arabian Nights, Paternalism, Prince Florizel of Bohemia, Revolution, Robert Louis Stevenson, Romance, The Arabian Nights, The Rajah's Diamond
Each of the short stories within Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1878) adopts a needy young man as their subject. In the three stories from “The Suicide Club,” we meet the anonymous young man with the cream tarts, the American tourist Silas Q. Scuddamore, and one Lieutenant Brackenbury Rich. Although only the Lieutenant is explicitly described as an “orphan,” the preceding young men seem to be equally adrift on the world without parents or worthwhile mentors. The repeated references to Scuddamore’s “Republican” tendencies advertise this character’s fundamental estrangement from patriarchy. We meet three more fatherless or apparently-fatherless young men in the next story cycle, “The Rajah’s Diamond”: the secretary Harry Hartley, the Reverend Mr. Simon Rolles, and the scrivener Francis Scrymgeour. It is up to the fourth temporary-central character, a nameless detective, to break the cycle for good.
This queue of characters is in effect filing past the throne of the stories’ paternalistic hero, Prince Florizel of Bohemia, but not all of them will be recipients of his “well-considered generosity.” Although Stevenson’s descriptions of Florizel usually teeter upon naked sarcasm, he never scoffs openly at his hero or allows his apparent fund of private derision to intrude upon the Prince’s world. Perhaps he cannot afford to. The carefree brilliance with which these tales are narrated will never dispel the almost histrionic obsession with parental absence which makes them such a painful affair.
Biographical readings of “The Rajah’s Diamond” proceed with a fluency which does not seem wholly reputable. How can there be this much raw life in the stories, along with so much wondrous artistry?
1873 saw Stevenson on the wrong side of his father Thomas, a darkly Presbyterian designer of lighthouses, who was disappointed with his son’s decision to become a writer and appalled by his atheism. Stevenson subsequently lamented of his parents in a letter to his friend Charles Baxter that, “what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.” This was ostensibly a war of religion, but it was really an independence struggle. When justifying his atheism to Baxter, Stevenson insists that he is an adult who believes “as much as they do,” rather than a childish “light hearted scoffer.” Stevenson was approaching his mid-twenties, but he remained financially dependent upon his father and still sensible of parental ambitions for his own career.
It may seem plain that the young men who appear throughout the New Arabian Nights have been cut from their author’s own cloth. Yet the paradox of Stevenson’s Arabian tales is that he has introduced shadows of himself to the realm of romance, of which the defining purpose is to escape the adult world and its responsibilities; whilst the creative will to power at the heart of these stories simultaneously corresponds with his desire to become an adult and wrest independence from his parents. Until these childish romances set the world on fire, he would have to remain dependent upon their patronage rather than that of the reading public.
Florizel paternalistically assists disadvantaged young men; Stevenson knew that he could prosper only from using his own initiative. Florizel’s wisdom and kindly paternalism may reflect the heroic qualities of Stevenson’s father, but the problem remains the paternalism. Moreover, for all of his feudal gallantry, the Prince is at heart an incorrigible misanthrope, and his hair-raising tributes to the dire majesty of the Rajah’s diamond should be more accurately understood as a faith in human weakness. He maintains that, “There is no honesty too robust for such a trial,” and he melodramatically describes the diamond as being “as loathsome as though it were crawling with the worms of death.” For him, this bauble automatically inspires “crimes and treacheries.” He is even generous enough to concede that, “if I look at it much oftener, I shall begin to grow covetous myself.”
Florizel is based upon the incognito adventurer Harun al-Rashid from the original Arabian Nights, whilst he equally constitutes a reappearance of the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, the hero of Eugène Sue’s 1843 novel The Mysteries of Paris. The Rajah’s diamond may be borrowed with similar freedom from Wilkie Collins’ pioneering detective mystery The Moonstone (1868), which recounts how an Indian diamond with a lurid history is stolen from its latter-day owner. The Rajah’s diamond is also recognisable as a fictional cousin to both the famous Indian diamond the Koh-i-Noor, which was presented to Queen Victoria by the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire in 1850; and the Hope diamond, which like the Rajah’s diamond was stolen (from the Garde Meuble during the French Revolution) and, unlike it, successfully cut. Yet Stevenson’s story predates the first newspaper accounts of the legendary curses which were attributed to the Hope diamond by at least a decade.
As we shall see, it is unclear whether Florizel’s fixation with the diamond’s demonic lustre is held sincerely or assumed cynically. The Prince may be too sweet-natured to attribute evil to the human beings who covet the diamond, and so he resorts to ascribing sinister powers to the jewel itself. This stance has, however, the ultimate advantage for Florizel of justifying his various paternalistic interventions. He alone, it seems, possesses the wisdom and authority to save all of humanity from the diamond.
There is no qualitative difference between the fortunes bestowed by the Prince and the diamond. The latter advances General Vandeleur “from an obscure and unpopular soldier into one of the lions of London society,” whilst Francis Scrymgeour will experience a similar transformation at the Prince’s hands. Whilst both the Prince and the diamond can make men’s fortunes, a survey of the young men who we meet throughout this story suggests that Florizel’s moral authority is just as mythical as the diamond’s corrupting powers.
The first temporary-central character, Harry Hartley, may be the simplest from the series, but he is paradoxically the most subversive. We may assume that he is too pathetic to ever feasibly come to the Prince’s attention, but the diamond itself, despite being mentioned, also fails to make an appearance during his adventure. We see only the “bandbox” which contains it (it effectively arrives wrapped), whilst the corrupting powers which Florizel attributes to the diamond are instead manifested in the person of the young secretary. A succession of shrewd and roguish females are enchanted by Hartley’s good looks: Lady Vandeleur declares him “positively too pretty to be unattached,” and she will later entrust her entire fortune to this bimbo. Hartley charms every maid he meets into helping him and when he is caught with his mistress’s jewels by an unscrupulous gardener, his bonny looks will once again save him.
The gardener comments sarcastically upon Hartley’s “trim” and “finery” and calls him “my little man,” only to be rewarded with a “great treasure of diamonds.” This is a topsy-turvy rendition of the folk scenario in which the peasant chances upon a fairy (it was over a decade until the term “fairy” would first refer to homosexuals), but the traditional terms of the bargain are reversed. It is now down to the peasant to grant the fortune. The gardener is amazed by his own generosity: “I could pocket the whole of these pretty pebbles, if I choose, and I should like to see you dare to say a word; but I think I must have taken a liking to you…”
This perfectly needless generosity represents the very opposite of the “crimes and treacheries” which Florizel will later credit to the Rajah’s diamond. Yet the diamond does not in fact count amongst the nurseryman’s hoard. Bizarrely, despite its oft proclaimed size, it has been overlooked and “trodden heavily underfoot.” Such a treatment of the diamond is further reflected in Lady Vandeleur’s retort that she would not marry her husband again had he “a diamond bigger than your head.” These are not the words of somebody who has been corrupted by a diamond’s enchantments; they instead reflect the commonsensical wisdom that great riches are usually more trouble than they are worth. She grows similarly disenchanted with her secretary.
The Vandeleurs are neither a permanent family nor anything other than temporary custodians of both the diamond and the equally bewitching Hartley. He may let them down, but Lady Vandeleur is compelled to rely upon him in the first place because he is the closest thing that her marriage has produced to a son. The biographical reading here proceeds with its customary if objectionable fluency, so that the Vandeleurs come to afford an outrageous caricature of the family from which Stevenson had felt increasingly exiled. Significantly, however, Hartley will never meet Florizel, the ultimate paternalist, and he will achieve “a new and manlier life” without the Prince’s patronage.
If only a plane of symbolism, the Prince’s fellow patriarch General Vandeleur interacts with Hartley in his stead, but the General will be reduced to a forlorn and impotent figure. It is a Bohemian revolution in microcosm. The General cannot make Hartley’s fortune because he loses his own (with Hartley’s help), whilst the secretary will inherit a tidy sum from a “maiden aunt in Worcester,” which frees him to pursue a new life in the tropics. Although Hartley may seem an unlikely figure to clothe in Stevenson’s own fantasies, the author had coveted the freedom which Hartley procures and he would also emigrate to warmer climes once he had obtained it.
Florizel’s misanthropic assumptions are once again disqualified, albeit temporarily, when the diamond inspires the same provisional solidarity between Reverend Rolles and the “Dictator” Jack Vandeleur as we had witnessed previously between the secretary and the gardener. There is no doubt some distant rebuke to Thomas Stevenson in the fact that Rolles is hindered as an adventurer by his priestly education and underdeveloped romantic flair. Once his hands are on the diamond, Rolles appeals to the “Fathers of the Church” for help and finds them “conspicuously ignorant of life.”
Although Rolles concedes of Florizel that “there was something in his air which seemed to invite confidence and to expect submission,” his crowning mistake is to appeal to the wrong patriarch: the brother of General Vandeleur and former “Dictator of Paraguay,” Jack Vandeleur. Paraguay had only ever actually had one “Dictator,” and he, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, was of indigenous stock; whilst Vandeleur is an Irish name of Dutch origin. Stevenson may have regarded Paraguayan dictatorship as the epitome of the modern, since Francia was a disciple of Rousseau and his regime was utopian in ambition and authoritarian in practice, at one point nationalising the Catholic Church.
Like the now-deceased President of the Suicide Club, Jack Vandeleur provides an antithesis to Florizel’s feudal glamour. Whilst the Prince talks beautifully about everything in the newspapers, the Dictator has got his hands dirty committing real “exploits and atrocities.” Rolles is dazzled by the contrast between “the man who spoke boldly of his own deeds and perils, or the man who seemed, like a god, to know all things and to have suffered nothing.”
Rolles will presume to approach Jack Vandeleur as an equal, but Francis Scrymgeour does not even know the identity of this benefactor. He instead accepts the principle alone of patriarchy. “Scrymgeour” was the name of an old Fife family, and earlier Scrymgeours had ridden in the armies of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. It is curious to note in light of Stevenson’s Unionist sympathies that his own Scrymgeour abandons his baldly Scottish name and family history after entering into an apparently advantageous contract (“Scrymgeour” may sound like “scrounger” to modern ears, but this word was not yet in circulation). After a lawyer mentions in passing that the elder Scrymgeour “is not your father,” Scrymgeour discovers “in his heart an invincible repugnance to the name of Scrymgeour, which he had never hitherto disliked… he observed little defects of manner in his adoptive father which filled him with surprise and almost with disgust.”
In assuming that a father will settle his destiny for him, Scrymgeour reduces himself to a child: “Father!.. I will obey you with my life; treat me as a son, and you will find I have a son’s devotion.” The consequent humiliation is awesome. Vandeleur pronounces that, “You are no son of mine. You are my brother’s bastard by a fishwife, if you want to know,” and for a second time Scrymgeour’s ancestry has been dashed with a few choice, casual words.
Both Hartley and Scrymgeour attach themselves to the Vandeleur family and both find themselves on the receiving end of a Vandeleur brother’s scorn. Yet the General conceivably sues for a reconciliation with his illegitimate son after the calamitous substitute, Hartley, has alerted him to what he has lost and what he is missing. Such is the importance of paternity that amidst all of the drama, news of Scrymgeour’s long lost mother, the unnamed “fishwife,” is automatically forgotten. Happily, the equally nameless Miss Vandeleur (even her father calls her this) steps forward to volunteer a mother’s warmth and sympathy.
Miss Vandeleur’s treatment of the diamond as a mere “keepsake” may be as brutal as striking a knife to her father’s heart, or else she is unconcerned with its value and her spontaneous generosity represents a further example of the diamond’s failure to exert its supposedly sinister influence. Nonetheless, even as his daughter and nephew are united in open rebellion, Jack Vandeleuer grieves for the loss of his diamond rather than his family, “roaring between grief and rage, like a lioness robbed of her whelps.”
Just as Colonel Geraldine had fleetingly restaged a production of the Suicide Club when seeking seconds for Florizel’s duel, Scrymgeour will re-enact Hartley’s flight from his substitute father (and his own genuine father). The role of Mrs Vandeleur is assumed by Miss Vandeleur; the streets of London are replaced by those of Paris. In both pursuits, neither Harry nor Francis knows that they are carrying the diamond.
The Prince’s intervention at the end of the story may restore Scrymgeour’s faith in benevolent patronage, but when Scrymgeour tells the Prince that, “I know not who you are, but I believe you to be worthy of confidence and helpful,” he is replicating Rolles’ disastrous approach to the erstwhile Dictator of Paraguay. Unlike Vandeleur, who initially accepts Rolles as an equal, the Prince simply commands, “give me the diamond” and the casket is “handed over.” The Prince rustles up a marriage and fortune for Scrymgeour so effortlessly that one may overlook the reality that, with a bit of initiative, Scrymgeour could have achieved the same for himself without surrendering the jewel.
Rolles may be right to lament that he has “neither the virtues of a priest nor the dexterity of a rogue,” but he seriously needs to cultivate either priestly wisdom or roguish cynicism if he is regarding the conceited Florizel as Christ. He pleads to Florizel “suffer me to touch your hand,” but the snobbish reply is noli me tangere. Florizel advises Rolles to “go to Australia as a colonist, seek menial labour in the open air, and try to forget that you have ever been a clergyman, or that you ever set eyes on that accursed stone.”
Accepting comparable freedoms to Hartley may be wiser than yielding to the Prince’s patronage, but Rolles is back at his original stance betwixt knavery and virtue. There is no reason why he should exchange his priestly ways for the Australian outback, and it is not clear why he is listening to the Prince’s advice in the first place, since they are both alike in pocketing the stolen diamond.
If Florizel believes that the diamond exerts a destabilising influence over human affairs, it is perhaps significant that he ends up conflating it with himself. “Do not provoke me,” he snarls at Jack Vandeleur, “or you may find me harder than you dream.” Petulant, but with his shine fading, he rails at Rolles that, “I have not yet sat down… you have treated your superior in station with discourtesy.” This bluster will not work, however, with the nameless “detective” who is waiting for Florizel at the end of the story. Wooing the detective with the sudden notion that they are equals, Florizel volunteers that “I had rather, strange as you may think it, be a detective of character and parts than a weak and ignoble sovereign.” Since the story had previously described “the detective that there is in all of us,” and detection is intrinsically more egalitarian than princely power, in being based on the universal faculty of reason rather than privilege, Florizel has essentially agreed to an existential demotion.
For a head of state to be apprehended with a stolen diamond would presumably rock the politics of Europe. The Prince’s hammy overture to the diamond’s “worms of death” may be heartfelt, but it also saves his own skin. Once the jewel is safely at the bottom of the Seine, Florizel can proceed to bribe and bully the awaiting Prefect, who probably has a price.
Florizel’s story about an Indian officer who was corrupted by the diamond is no doubt pure fiction – another Arabian Night within an Arabian Night. Yet if the Prince relates how this figure “betrayed a body of his fellow-soldiers, and suffered them to be defeated and massacred by thousands,” the same fate conceivably awaits the Prince’s supporters once he is given the boot in Bohemia.
Florizel is now keeping “a cigar store in Rupert Street” but it would strain even Stevenson’s storytelling powers to describe his wise and admirable conduct whilst he was being toppled by revolutionaries. Although a revolution may be the ultimate destination for Stevenson’s dismissal of paternalism, a Tory such as Stevenson was never likely to endorse any sort of revolution. He simply allows the romance to disintegrate like cigar smoke. We are left with a picture of the credulous narrator listening to a tobacconist’s account of how he used to be a Bohemian potentate. Alas, as a Habsburg dependency, Bohemia never had a successful revolution.
[Tychy previously reviewed Prince Florizel’s earlier adventure “The Suicide Club.”]