Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography
A lion in his lifetime, at his death in 1894 Robert Louis Stevenson fell from fashion. For the Schlegels in EM Forster’s Howard’s End (1910), the name Stevenson is a touchstone of literary bad taste. The Bloomsburys despised him as dated and shallow. FR Leavis did not notice him. As Claire Harman writes in this very good new biography, Stevenson was all that the English modernists hated: “He had been popular, a romancer, a writer for boys, a Scot.”
The revival in Stevenson’s reputation began after the second world war, first in Scotland, inaugurated by David Daiches and Janet Adam Smith, and then in the United States with JC Furnas’s Voyage to Windward (1952). Nabokov and Calvino were fans. In Borges y Yo (1960), the “real” or Jekyllian Borges likes hourglasses, 18th-century typography, the taste of coffee ” y la prosa de Stevenson “. In his preface to the Italian translation of The Isle of Voices, the Argentine remembers Stevenson as a species of happi ness: ” Fin dall’infanzia Robert Louis Stevenson è stato per me una delle forme della felicità’. ‘
Sunny enthusiasm appeals more than goose-pimpled disdain. Stevenson’s use of popular forms is now seen as a fresh direction in Victorian literature, his plays and potboilers are forgotten, and a busy age prefers its masterpieces as shockers ( Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ) or as fragments ( Weir of Hermiston ). A good letter-writer in an age of good letter-writers, Stevenson is a gift to biography. Unlike Jenni Calder (1980) and Ian Bell (1992), Harman has the use of the eight-volume Yale edition of Stevenson’s letters, which came out in 1994-95.
Stevenson was born on the edge of the Edinburgh New Town on November 13 1850, into a family – lucky man – of lighthouse engineers. A sickly and, probably, asthmatic child and youth, he was bred to engineering and then the Scots law, but barely practised either. Plagued all his life by mysterious respiratory illnesses, he took to travel. In France in 1876, he met Fanny Osbourne, an American divorcee 10 years his senior who became his wife. After dabbling in essays and travelogue, he tried his hand at a story, Treasure Island, in a serial for boys in 1882. In 1886, he published Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , the one a critical success, the other an American bestseller.
With his stern father dead and money in his pocket, Louis set off with Fanny and his widowed mother to the United States, chartered a yacht in San Francisco, and cruised the South Seas before landing in 1889 in Samoa. There he built his Abbotsford, a rambling and extravagant house called Vailima. Surrounded by shiftless Osbourne relations, he meddled in local politics and wrote Catriona , The Master of Ballantrae and The Ebb-Tide. He never returned to Scotland. On Monday, December 3 1894, he stepped on to the back veranda of Vailima to help Fanny make a mayonnaise, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died.
Henry James, who loved and respected Stevenson, saw in his friend a renunciation of adult life. (Perhaps he was thinking of himself.) “The idea of making believe,” James wrote in a careful review of the first Stevenson Letters in 1900, “appeals to him much more than the idea of making love … Why should a person marry when he might be swinging a cutlass?”
The answer, Harman says briskly, is he can do both. Her Stevenson is both an adventurer and, in his own words, “hopelessly entangled in apron strings”. Sex, love affairs, clothes, underlinen, quarrels, medicines, travel arrangements and a household of restless girls and useless boys elbow out the capital preoccupations of the first generation of Stevenson biographers, which were religion in its Scots variety and the literary enterprise launched by Walter Scott and theorised by Stevenson as “romance”: his belief that, as it were, “certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder”.
All his life Louis was entranced by older women: his mother, his beloved nurse, Alison Cunningham, the unhappy Fanny Sitwell, the American bohemian Fanny Osbourne. Cunningham’s very nickname – Cummy – sounds like a Bowdlerism. Osbourne, in particular, emerges from the shadow of London’s literary disapproval. She is not so much “poor, barbarous and merely instinctive” as Henry James called her, as sex-on-a-stick.
At the same time, to men such as John Addington Symonds struggling with their homosexuality, the handsome and foppish Stevenson was a conundrum. “His affect was almost entirely ‘gay’,” Harman writes. I think it is unwise to apply such clear-cut descriptions to a period when homosexuality was only just emerging as a bohemian social posture. Anyway, it seems it was only Stevenson’s affect, whatever his affect was.
As for Stevenson’s pathology, Harman quotes all manner of speculative post-mortem diagnoses while recognising that Stevenson’s symptoms had their uses. “Going home not very well,” Louis wrote to Sitwell in 1874, “is an astonishing good hold [as in wrestling] for me.” It surely must have helped that “except when coughing or kissing”, Louis was never without a cigarette. His father’s death seems to have lowered the pitch of his illness and he was able in Samoa to match Walter Scott in both building and literary industry.
Harman’s Stevenson is much happier than we have been used to. For Janet Adam Smith, who came right out of Stevenson’s world, the Calvinist lived on to torment the aesthete, the hobo and the beachcomber. “My skill deserts me,” Stevenson wrote from Samoa, “such as it is, or was. It was a very little dose of inspiration, and a pretty little trick of style, long lost, improved by the most heroic industry.” Or, again: “I ought to have been able to build lighthouses and write David Balfours too.”
Driven out of Edinburgh by the squalls of Princes Street, religion and the law, the town remained Stevenson’s capital inspiration. Dispersed through his brilliant and neglected guidebook, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes of 1878 , are the vestiges of stories written ( Deacon Brodie, Weir of Hermiston ) and unwritten. Deacon Brodie, town council body by day and burglar by night, is a familiar not just of Stevenson’s imagination but that of an entire city. Jekyll and Hyde have their counterpart in the West Port murderer Thomas Burke. As the lawyer Henry Cockburn, who saved Burke’s common-law wife from the gallows, wrote: “Except that he murdered, Burke was a sensible and what might be called a respectable man.”
Yet this delusive and implacable Scotland could also generate the beautiful sentence Harman quotes from the unpublished papers at Yale. Stevenson is sitting as a boy on the stairs of his uncle’s manse in Colinton, just outside Edinburgh, as his aunt comes hurrying down in her full skirts: “I heard a quick rustling behind; next moment I was enveloped in darkness; and the moment after, as the reef might see the wave rushing on past it towards the beach, I saw my aunt below rushing downwards.”
That is the sort of sentence Borges had in mind.
· James Buchan is the author of Capital of the Mind: How Edinburgh Changed the World (John Murray).
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