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The Real RLS

Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson, A Biography

by Ian Bell
Holt, 296 pp., $25.00

1.

When Robert Louis Stevenson died in Samoa in 1894, Henry James told Fanny Stevenson “how much poorer and shabbier the whole world seems, and how one of the closest and strongest reasons for going on, for trying and doing, for planning and dreaming of the future, has dropped in an instant out of life…We are smaller fry and meaner people without him.” Other literary friends—Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse—lamented the delightful companion, the brilliant talker, who had perversely exiled himself to the South Seas. Polite Edinburgh—which had disapproved of the young poseur who had idled at college, refused to enter the family firm of engineers, toyed with the law, preferred the low bars of the Lothian Road to the drawing-rooms of Heriot Row, and who had even challenged his father’s religion—now saw him as the charming, velvet-jacketed bohemian, who had yet lived adventures as stirring as his stories and could bring honor to his native town. There was a packed memorial meeting presided over by a former prime minister, Lord Rosebery; a relief panel of Stevenson by the American sculptor Saint-Gaudens was later unveiled in St. Giles Cathedral;1 Stevenson societies were founded in Edinburgh and London. He was becoming the belovèd RLS.

Such adulation provoked a reaction, notably from Stevenson’s one-time friend and collaborator, W.E. Henley, who used the appearance of the authorized life in 1901 (by Graham Balfour, a younger cousin of Stevenson) to deliver a bitter attack on the cult of RLS, and on Stevenson himself. He was justified in attacking those who had made a “barley-sugar effigy of a real man” (though the worst excesses of this came later); but his charges against the man himself were based, as Henry James commented, on “long, discomfortable jealousy and ranklement turned at last to posthumous (as it were!) malignity…an ugly act.” Young Scottish writers, impatient of the cult, found Stevenson dandified and precious. “His modish Bohemianism,” said the Glasgow-bred John Buchan, “is simply Edinburgh gentility up-ended.”

It was Stevenson’s personality that fascinated both devotees and detractors, especially after the publication in 1899 by Sidney Colvin of Letters to his Family and Friends. In a long review Henry James noted how “we feel, indeed, that we are living with him” and concluded that

It has been his fortune…to have had to consent to become…a Figure…There he is—he has passed ineffaceably into happy legend.

It is the legend of the delicate only child, the literary vagabond, the romantic lover who traveled the hard way to California to meet his mistress and bring her back as his wife, the plucky invalid who finally sought health in the South Seas, Tusitala the teller of tales, who was carried by Samoan friends to his grave on top of a mountain. When Balfour’s biography appeared, James told Edmund Gosse that “Louis, qua artist, is now, definitely, the victim thereof. That is, he has superseded, personally, his books, and this last replacement of himself so en scène (so largely by his own aid, too) has killed the literary baggage.”

As we approach the centenary of his death, we might look back on what has happened to the literary baggage. For years there was little critical attention paid to his books. “Stevenson has simply fallen out of the procession,” wrote Edwin Muir in 1931: “He is still read by the vulgar, but he has joined that band of writers on whom, by tacit consent, the serious critic has nothing to say.” Many who had once revelled in Treasure Island and Kidnapped put Stevenson behind them along with other juvenile enthusiasms; many had unhappy memories of Stevenson’s well-wrought essays being held up as models for their own laborious assignments. I was one such, and remember my surprise when, as an incipient highbrow and literary snob, well into James, Forster, and Virginia Woolf, I read Percy Lubbock’s Craft of Fiction and found him discussing The Master of Ballantrae as well as The Wings of the Dove. Then I read James’s novel reviews, where he gave Stevenson the same close attention as to Turgenev and Maupassant.

The stories I had first raced through at ten or eleven years old were now reread with James’s insights: that Treasure Island is also a subtle evocation of young feelings; that the character of Alan Breck in Kidnapped is a study of the love of glory; that in the short story “Thrawn Janet” Stevenson had been able to create an atmosphere of supernatural evil—and yet tell the gruesome tale in the homely dialect of a Scottish village. It was surely an unusually versatile writer who could move confidently from the yo-ho-ho’s of the pirates to the Scots tongue of Balweary.

I went on to discover that James had regarded Stevenson as a fellow-craftsman, with whom he could discuss the key and tone of a novel, the lighting of an incident, the point of view. Sending The Tragic Muse out to Samoa, James had written,

I can’t (spiritually) afford not to put the book under the eyes of the sole and single Anglo-Saxon capable of perceiving—though he may care for little else in it—how well it is written.

The sole and single Anglo-Saxon”—James looked to France for intelligent discussion of the novel; and to French writers and critics the RLS of legend was less interesting than the writer. Charles Péguy, Jacques Rivière, Alain-Fournier, and André Gide were among his earlier perceptive admirers.

Literary rehabilitation was slower among the Anglo-Saxons; but by the time of the centenary of Stevenson’s birth in 1950 the tide had begun to turn. That year saw a spate of articles and radio talks concerned as much with the books as with the man. Soon after there came David Daiches’s critical study (Stevenson and the Art of Fiction, 1951) and J.C. Furnas’s splendid Voyage to Windward (1951), a biography where the writer was not overshadowed by the legend. Jorge Luis Borges startled Cambridge students by including Stevenson among the writers he most admired. There were essays by V.S. Pritchett, Graham Greene, and Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Kiely’s study Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure (1964). Recently Jeremy Treglown has edited a selection of Stevenson’s essays, The Lantern-Bearers, which charts his progress from the self-conscious writing of the apprentice learning his trade of words to the spare prose of the mature master whose aim was “to get out the facts of life as clean and naked and sharp as I could manage it.”

The tales that have been most discussed are those written after Stevenson left Europe—The Master of Ballantrae, Catriona, The Beach of Falesá, The Ebb-Tide, Weir of Hermiston—when, as Greene put it, “his fine dandified talent began to shed its disguising graces, the granite to show through.” Earlier novels had proved his power of narrative, his capacity to evoke a landscape, to convey conflicting loyalties, and the struggle between good and evil within one character. All these strengths were there in the last unfinished work, together with a new understanding and tenderness in his portrayal of women, the two Kirsties. If death had not cut it short, Weir of Hermiston would have stood beside Red-gauntlet and Old Mortality, works of Stevenson’s great predecessor in his prime.

Along with this literary rehabilitation has gone a restoration of Stevenson’s texts. There was a great deal to put right. The manuscripts of poems not printed in his lifetime were sold in New York in 1914–1915, after the death of his widow, by his step-daughter Isobel Strong. The collectors who bought them treated them as relics rather than texts. They appeared in various editions, all riddled with error. (One glaring example: where the mature Stevenson, looking over a notebook of his early poems, had scribbled under some high-flown lines “Quite so; jes so”—the sardonic comment was printed as part of the poem.) Mercifully, when the manuscripts came on the market again in 1949, most of them were acquired by a collector with a scholarly conscience, Mr. E.J. Beinecke. By his gift of these and a multitude of other Stevenson manuscripts now housed in the library at Yale that bears his name, he made it possible for Stevenson’s texts to be recovered. Publication of the Collected Poems in 1950 helped to restore order.

In his various editions of Stevenson’s Letters, Sidney Colvin bowdlerized and expurgated the texts, with no indication where he had used the blue pencil. The outstanding literary event of the centenary year will be the publication of the first six (out of eight) volumes of the Yale University Press edition of the Letters. This will give us for the first time the full texts, including a great many letters never previously published, from the Beinecke Library, the National Library of Scotland, and other collections. The first two volumes, for instance, will publish in full all the letters (of which Colvin had only given snippets) where the young Stevenson poured out his hopes and his troubles to his confidante, Mrs. Frances Sitwell. The editor is Ernest Mehew, a mine of information about Stevenson, whose expertise has been freely shared with many others. He is also the editor of the first authentic edition of The Wrong Box (1989), based on Stevenson’s manuscript and corrected proofs (both in Beinecke). These proofs, with substantial alterations, had arrived at Scribners from Honolulu too late for publication in 1889.

Over the next ten years the Edinburgh University Press is publishing a new edition of Stevenson’s collected works, starting later this year with Weir of Hermiston, The Ebb-Tide, and the first of two volumes of the Complete Poems. The Edinburgh University Press has also published a collection of the Scottish Stories and Essays, introduced by Kenneth Gelder.2 In America there are to be several new collections of Stevenson’s short stories: The Complete Shorter Fiction (including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) edited by Peter Stoneley, from Carroll and Graf; Tales from the Prince of Storytellers, edited by Barry Menikoff, from Northwestern University Press; and, later this month, The Complete Short Stories, edited by Ian Bell, in two volumes from Henry Holt.

This is all good news; but one hopes that the editorializing doesn’t get out of hand. There is an awful warning of what may happen if Stevenson is clutched too closely by academe in an edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recently produced for students of English at the University of Bergamo. There the proliferation of notes—on several pages they take up more room than the tale—puts a barrier between the reader and the book. The live story has become a dead text, a cadaver necessary for the dissection class.

2.

Ian Bell, born and raised in Edinburgh, declares himself a journalist and not an academic, engaged on a Life and not literary criticism. Yet the merit of his biography is that he never loses sight of the writer, from the tyro who “chose to begin as a craftsman” to the confident artist who, days before his death, could say of Weir of Hermiston “I never felt so sure before in anything I ever wrote.” For Mr. Bell the heroic adventure of Stevenson’s life is in his determination to write, with death at his elbow. Again and again, in face of illness, “he bore it, fought it, and tried to write through it. He learned from his skirmishes with mortality.” In these pages we meet a tougher character, a stronger writer, than the “Figure…of happy legend” which Henry James feared was to be Stevenson’s fate.

A shilling life will give you all the facts”: Mr. Bell deals out his many-shillingsworth in a brisk and lively way, here and there adding to the familiar tale. He has one character not met in previous biographies: David Angus, a fellow-junior in the Stevenson engineering firm, who shared the young Louis’s liking for the outdoor work that took them to remote coasts and harbors, and dislike of the office routine of drawings and calculations. But Angus stuck to it, and went on to build the Ailsa Craig lighthouse and railways across South America.

I find Mr. Bell most interesting when he is discussing Stevenson’s relations with his father, his literary friends, and his wife. He sees Thomas Stevenson “not entirely the bleak patriarch” some writers have suggested, but a man with a sense of fun and a capacity for affection who was yet “manacled to his beliefs and duties…. he knew his own character to be deeper, more generous, and more natural, than his Calvinism allowed.” On many occasions “Thomas preferred to indulge his son rather than remain obedient to his duty as a Victorian parent”:

Lou’s antics around the pubs, his failure to study, his impudence at table (for so some of the Stevensons’ friends saw it), his decision to disavow the family’s profession, and, last and worst of all, his lack of faith, were each borne with a stoicism that even a modern parent can only admire.

Louis’s allowance from his father was never stopped.

The three men who helped Stevenson into print were Sidney Colvin and Edmund Gosse, future pillars of literary London, and W.E. Henley, later the buccaneering editor of a string of periodicals. All were charmed by Louis and “that flood of mingled poetry and slang which used to pour from him in speech,” and impressed by what he later called his “pretty little trick of style.” Most of the writings which they steered into the Cornhill, Macmillans, London, and other havens were essays: the future they saw for Stevenson was as a man of letters turning out polished pieces on books and writers, short stories with a touch of fantasy like Will o’ the Mill and the New Arabian Nights, and from time to time a book of travel in the happy vein of An Inland Voyage and Travels with A Donkey in the Cévennes.

Colvin and Henley felt strongly possessive. They knew what was best for Stevenson, and were appalled when, against their advice, he departed for America and Fanny Osbourne, whom they strongly resented. Henley told Colvin that it was “absolutely necessary that [Louis] should be brought to see that England and a quiet life are what he wants and must have.” Later they doubted whether good work could come out of the South Seas: “Within a three-mile limit of Charing Cross is the literary atmosphere, I suspect” was Gosse’s verdict. For the future writer of The Master of Ballantrae and the novels that came after, it was essential to get out from under those Mr. Bell calls “the mother hens of London.” From the time he left Europe for good, Stevenson was making his own literary way.

A hard figure to like,” says Mr. Bell of Fanny Stevenson: in this he is one of many. But unlike other dislikers (notably Frank McLynn in a recent biography published in Britain) he is fair, and comes to a grudging respect:

If she was impressionable, over-wrought, and sometimes even disturbed, the events of her busy life—“like a dazed rush on a railroad express”—often gave her cause. Free to go her own way, she could be selfish and petulant; tested, as she often was, she was brave and resolute.

Fanny Osbourne was ten years older than Stevenson. Born in Indianapolis, she was something of a frontiers-woman (“If you like the gulch and canyon you will like her,” Henry James told Owen Wister), and something of a New Woman, with ambitions to paint and write, who had swept off from California to Europe with her three children to escape from a philandering husband. She mothered Stevenson, she nursed him in illness, she followed him to places where she wasn’t happy—but she wanted to be valued as more than his wife. There were arguments and rows in plenty.

Yet he lived with her for fifteen years, never straying, taking her part against all comers, even when she was unhinged (as she was on Samoa) or merely in the wrong. For him it was a great romantic love. It is less easy to say what it was for her.

Her story, from her birth in 1840 to her death at Santa Barbara in 1914, has lately been told at length by Alexandra Lapierre whose Fanny Stevenson: entre passion et liberté has been a best-seller in France.

Ian Bell has a fellow-Scot’s understanding of Stevenson’s complex relationship to his country. He loved Scotland for its burns and moors, mountains and seas, its tangled and romantic history—“the velvet and bright iron of the past”; but he hated it for its repressive Calvinism, its denial of spontaneity, and above all for its climate. It was “that blessed, beastly place,” never more vividly present than when he was far away. As his title implies, Ian Bell is much concerned with the effect of exile on Stevenson as a man and as a writer: how it sharpened his sense of the country he would never see again. Scotland’s past was always with him, helped him to understand the tribal feuds and loyalties of Samoa, and involved him in its politics. His support of the exiled chief Mataafa (seen as a Jacobite “King over the water”) made him unpopular with the officials of the three powers—America, Britain, Germany—which shared the government of the island. His help to Mataafa’s followers jailed in Samoa led, on their release, to their offer to build him a proper road to Vailima.

On one Samoan affair Mr. Bell is, happily, mistaken. At the time he was writing there were stories that the Mormons had bought Vailima and were turning it into a Stevenson Museum “complete with souvenir shop and a cable car to the grave site on the summit of Vaea.” The truth is that three rich American businessmen who happen to be Mormons (and not the Mormon Church) have been granted a lease of Vailima from the now independent Samoan government. (Some years ago the same trio bought a forest due to be felled by a Japanese company and gave it to Samoa.) The house badly needed repairs; when restored, part is to be used by the government, the rest will be a Stevenson Museum. There will be no cable car up Mount Vaea; the overgrown paths to the summit will be cleared in time for the pilgrims who may come in December 1994. For the rest of us the occasion might best be celebrated by reading the new volumes of Letters and re-reading some of the works of the Samoan years, The Beach of Falesá, Catriona, Weir of Hermiston, and the poems where from half a world away Stevenson looked back to Scotland:

Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors today and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Last summer, walking in the Ardèche, I looked across the limestone gorges to the whaleback ridge of Mont Lozère, whose summit is the highest point of the Cévennes, where Stevenson and his donkey followed stone waymarks across the bleak uplands. A few weeks later, in the Yorkshire Dales, an innkeeper who knew nothing of my interest in Stevenson suggested I should try a bottle of wine from the Ardèche. It was a very pleasant vin du pays, and the label read “Cuvée Modestine,” and showed a donkey laden, not with Stevenson’s sleeping-bag but a pannier overflowing with grapes. In this year of celebration, I am glad to think that Stevenson’s hardly-done-by companion—bought for sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy—is also having her moment.

  1. 1

    It was derived from the medallion made in New York in 1887 which showed Stevenson sitting up in bed, smoking. In St. Giles his bed has been replaced by a couch, his cigarette by a pen.

  2. 2

    The Edinburgh University Press editions are distributed by Columbia University Press in the United States.

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