It has been noted by other reviewers that Murray utterly fails to substantiate his claim regarding “the influence of fiction upon society” (vii). He claims that fiction is the reason why “Christianity is a thing of the past for most people in Britain today” (3), and that “books were the main means by which it came about” (4).
I bought and read this book because Robert Louis Stevenson was reported to be treated prominently, and as I find Stevenson’s fiction to be delightful and profound, I wondered what dangers Murray found in it. Though he has an entire chapter devoted to Stevenson and a few reflections in a later chapter on him, in all of it Murray gives not a single example of Stevenson’s fiction producing the effects he claims.
Instead, he focuses on Stevenson’s personal life, and his rejection of the strict Scottish Calvinism of his parents, and indeed of Christianity itself. Having recently finished a full length biography of Stevenson, I can attest that this is all true, but really beside the point, if the point is that his fiction is what did the damage to Britain.
Further, I’m afraid Murray’s treatment of Stevenson is a bit unfair in places. In one place he quotes W.E. Henley’s criticism of RLS as “incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson,” i.e. highly self-absorbed (66). However, a look at the context of their relationship reveals a disgruntled Henley, extremely bitter over a perceived slight on the part of Stevenson’s wife, and perhaps a long-standing jealousy. Is a quote from Henley following a major falling-out really a fair way to portray Stevenson? Hardly a reliable perspective.
As a way to prove a point, Murray points out that “the last three years of Stevenson’s life were deeply unhappy” (69). However, knowing the context again elicits compassion rather than victorious comparisons. Stevenson’s wife suffered from mental illness and her behavior was a source of deep trouble for RLS. Nevertheless, he stayed with her to the end, and did his best to accommodate her. Stevenson’s physical ailments also were a source of pain, and his poor diet and alcohol and tobacco consumption didn’t help either. I read the same biography that Murray quoted from here, and my reaction was the opposite.
His personal life aside, I actually think the opposite is true of Stevenson’s fiction. He explores the complexities of human nature, of relationships, and of our experiences of good and evil in ways unlike any other writer. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most famous treatment, but The Master of Ballantrae, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, even the boyish Treasure Island and the much maligned (but a personal favorite) Prince Otto all push the reader to wrestle with a reality which is often more messy than our preferred idealized constructions. Stevenson makes you feel like few other writers to, and I think his fiction should be welcome to a thoughtful Christian, contrary to Murray’s (unsubstantiated) claims.