The Real RLS

Dreams of Exile: Robert Louis Stevenson, A Biography

by Ian Bell
Holt, 296 pp., $25.00

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; 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 …

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