Robert Louis Stevenson
by James Pope-Hennessy
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $9.95
One day in the winter of 1889 a small party of strangers was to be seen making its way along the main street of the port of Apia, on the South Sea island of Samoa. Apia was known as “the Hell of the Pacific,” and it was the rainy season. The street looked out onto a coral reef and a bay: access to the bay, from the reef, was blocked by the hulks of American and German naval craft, sunk by a hurricane. The party included a sallow male scarecrow of about forty, whose ailing look had a kind of charm or promise, a woman in a straw hat, carrying a guitar, and a young man carrying a ukelele and wearing gold earrings and dark-blue glasses. Rovers? Beachcombers? Holy dropouts—who had traveled hopefully to their Katmandu? An Anglican missionary who watched them guessed that they were a variety troupe, come from San Francisco to sing to whatever audience could be gleaned from the island’s community of European masters and derelicts and Polynesian chiefs and estate-workers. He was wrong. This was Robert Louis Stevenson, his American wife Fanny, and Fanny’s son by a previous marriage, Lloyd Osbourne.
Before long, the party presented a different aspect. At Vailima, on the same island, they set themselves up in a grand house, referred to by Stevenson as Abbotsford, after Walter Scott’s grand house, on an estate with two waterfalls and other impressive features. They took sides in the quarrels of the island’s native patriciate, quarrels which formed part of the contentions of the interested colonial powers, and they were attended by a household of native servants, the males handsome and colorfully skirted, with bare brown torsos and loyal hearts. When Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage five years later, sturdy Samoans toiled with the corpse to the summit of a nearby mountain and buried it there. A photograph depicts the household as the Swiss Family Robinson surrounded by the entourage of a governor-general at one of the further-flung outposts of empire. Stevenson was a dropout who was also a chief, a wanderer who was able to live off his royalties and who ended as a landed proprietor.
From his early days in Scotland till the last chapter of his life as enacted in Samoa, it is possible to think that there were at least two Stevensons: the respectable and the bohemian, the successful and the delinquent, the man of letters and the prototypical hippie. Travels with a donkey, adventures among the doxies of the Edinburgh underworld, did not prevent him from qualifying as a lion of the Savile Club in London, or from becoming the respected friend of leading literary figures such as Henry James, Gosse, and Henley: he was familiar with a set of diners-out in whom the cultivation of Art and Style could be seen as a species of propriety, rather than the road to Reading Gaol. The agnostic who had fought with his father—a Calvinist …