The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson 18541890
Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny
I started out writing, some thirty years ago, largely because of Stevenson. He was the man who opened the magic door. His wit, his style, his courage, his wanderlust, all enchanted me; and they still do. He made England seem small, and the world look big. He made the dreams of childhood sing with adult possibilities:
I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie,
And, watched by cockatoos and goats,
Lonely Crusoes building boats…
Henry James, his great and surprising literary champion, once said that simply to read Stevenson was to meet him. “It was as if he wrote himself outright and altogether, rose straight to the surface of his prose….” This was my experience, beginning at the age of eighteen down in the Cévennes with that donkey. Nothing much has changed since, except that Stevenson by his centenary year (1994—he died when he was only forty-four) has got bigger and more complicated as an author.
In a curious way, he seems to have grown up with my generation. He has moved in our consciousness from the bright cinematography of Treasure Island (1883) to the darker shadow-play of The Ebb-Tide (1894). Or to put it another way, he has left Alexandre Dumas and approached Joseph Conrad. Yet he is still the same beloved RLS, crackling and sparking with a kind of furious life. (As he once wrote to his cousin Bob: “How about your work? Stick in; we shall never be swells, but we can be cheesy sort of shits, with a push.” Stevenson is an absolute literary swell in my view, so you can expect nothing impartial from me on the subject.
Stevenson is a demanding presence, and never very far away. One fine windy morning last April, I got a phone call from Saint-Malo in France. “It’s about le grand Stevenson—sa vie, ses oeuvres, sa gloire.” The Festival of Travel Writers (“Etonnants Voyageurs“) was celebrating Stevenson’s centenary in a big way down at the old pirate’s port. All his texts were being republished in French, under the direction of Michel Le Bris (who is also writing a fine, combative biography). The festival was doing him proud: displays of original editions, films of his books, exhibitions of illustrations, symposia on his literary theories (“the debate with James about Realism”). There were panel discussions about his European influence (“Borges, Greene, all that”); on the dynamics of “Suspense Narrative”; on the thematics of exile and marginalization (“the Bohemian context opens out into Primitivism, like Gauguin maybe”). It was just the basic Stevenson stuff, of course. So would I care to send “a statement,” please? Could I fax it that afternoon? They were counting on “un ami de Stevenson.” Ah, mais merci, Monsieur Holmes. You couldn’t wonder that Stevenson always loved France.
It wasn’t exactly the moment for Deconstruction. This had to be a single arrow-shot, aimed high. But it made me say what I really felt. Six hours later I dispatched the following.
When I think of Stevenson I think of a man striding over a hill. That hill could be anywhere: in Scotland, the Cévennes, California, Samoa, or even a jungle escarpment on Treasure Island, exploding with brightly colored parrots. But Stevenson is walking briskly, with his long legs, into some kind of adventure which makes him laugh. His steady uphill stride is like a well-written sentence, vivid and purposeful and clear, which carries a certain excitement as it moves, the excitement of a story going rapidly towards its destination, always just out of sight over that enchanted hill. Stevenson is a traveler, a poet, an essayist, a letter-writer: but always he is a story-teller—“Tusitala” as he was known in the South Seas—and with this magic gift he makes his way with wonderful steadiness into our imaginations and affections. The only thing to do with Stevenson is to follow him over that hill.
Incidentally, Stevenson once translated the Samoan “Tusitala”—teller of tales—as really meaning “Chief White Information,” which he regarded with a certain irony.
I never made Saint-Malo, but later that September slipped down for my own private centenary celebration on a hill in the Cévennes. For three days I climbed over Mont Lozère (5,000 feet), where Stevenson wrote the finest chapter of Travels with a Donkey, entitled “A Night Among the Pines.” Its themes, though lightly touched on, are central to all his subsequent wanderings: solitude and romance, journeys and homecomings, fathers and sons, loyalties and betrayals, buried treasure and buried evil, and the double life of modern man. It is also, crucially, about marrying his future wife and the companion in all his travels, the remarkable Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne. This is one of the hottest topics in Stevenson scholarship, and we will return to it.
Back in England the new Yale Edition of Stevenson’s Letters (edited by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew) was waiting on my desk. So far six volumes have been published (1854–1890), and Yale gracefully allowed me the final two Samoan volumes (September 1890–December 1894) in uncorrected proof. It runs to over 4,000 pages of text, and frankly I am still lost in it, journeying back and forth. But lost in admiration. It is a superb production, and in my view establishes Stevenson as our greatest nineteenth-century letter-writer after Byron.
Topographically alone, it gives pictures of Edinburgh, London, Paris, Davos, San Francisco, Hawaii, Sydney, Tahiti, and Samoa, which live glowing in the mind’s eye, like the glass plates of Stevenson’s magic lantern machine with which he always loved to entertain his visitors as he traveled round the globe. But these, brilliant as they are, can count as backdrops. The real travel letters are voyages inward, into Stevenson’s own heart and imagination. The well-known voice—tender, facetious, bawdy, reckless, teasing, extravagant, admirably descriptive, and self-dramatizing—continually modulates and drops into this inner world of passion, myths, and dreams. It is essentially a writer’s world, compact of tales and memories. And it is—the central revelation perhaps—a world of conflict and hauntings.
Take this letter written from Edinburgh, when Stevenson was twentyfour.
Last night, it blew a fearful gale; I was kept awake about a couple of hours, and could not get to sleep for the horror of the wind’s noise; the whole house shook…But the quaking was not what put me about; it was the horrible howl of the wind round the corner; the audible haunting of an incarnate anger about the house; the evil spirit that was abroad!…O how I hate a storm at night! They have been a great influence in my life I am sure; for I can remember them so far back—long before I was six at least… And in those days the storm had for me a perfect impersonation; as durable and unvarying as any heathen deity. I always heard it, as a horseman riding past with his cloak about his head, and somehow always carried away, and riding past again, and being baffled once more, ad infinitum, all night long. I think I wanted him to get past; but I am not sure; I know only that I had some interest either for or against in the matter, and I used to lie and hold my breath, not quite frightened but in a state of miserable exaltation.
One can find that storm again and again in his later life: on hilltops, on islands, at sea; in his poetry and in his fiction. One can also find it in his own household. It is these long, imaginative continuities—as “unvarying as any heathen deity”—that these letters reveal so profoundly within him.
Much I think will be new to the general reader. The original Tusitala edition of the Correspondence (1924) by Sidney Colvin contained some 800 letters, often censored or mutilated for reasons of propriety. The Yale Edition contains nearly 2,800 letters, of which 2,300 are from original manuscripts. Ernest Mehew’s footnotes are meticulous and nuggety; from miniature essays on Calvinism or Samoan politics, via a thousand biographical identifications and reminiscences, to a precise description of the medieval legend of Saint Geneviève depicted in the prints on the walls of Stevenson’s lodgings in Frankfurt in August 1872.
Mehew also provides an invaluable linking commentary between each section, measured and richly documented character sketches of each of Stevenson’s correspondents, and a moving epilogue on Stevenson’s death at Vailima, his house in Western Samoa. This last contains three unpublished manuscript accounts, by Stevenson’s wife and his two stepchildren, that I had never seen before. The former, by Mrs. Stevenson, the redoubtable Fanny, reads in part:
For several days I had been crushed by a sense of impending disaster, but more particularly that day; he had been trying to cheer me up, and one of the last things he did was to play a game of solitaire with cards for me to watch, thinking it would amuse me and take my mind off the terror that oppressed me. Then he said he wanted me to make a mayonnaise for him for his dinner. We both went out to a table on the back verandah where I began to mix the mayonnaise, he dropping the oil with a steady hand, drop by drop. Suddenly he set down the bottle, knelt by the table leaning his head against it. I cannot go on just now. It was the hand of death that had stricken him down. In less than five minutes he was profoundly insensible…
The striking narrative coherence of the entire edition is further emphasized by the unusually concentrated distribution of the letters. Over half are written to Stevenson’s parents, or to his four closest friends, all people of natural distinction but of widely different temperaments. He held each of them enthralled from the moment he met them, and they in turn reflect back intriguingly different aspects of his personality. Sidney Colvin was his literary advisor, the Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, and later Keeper of Prints at the British Museum: kindly, fussy, pedantic, and loyal, a sort of Polonius to Stevenson’s nomadic Hamlet (Colvin’s own description). Frances Sitwell was his first emotional confidante, an Irish woman of great intelligence and “sibylline” beauty, who had lived in Australia and India, separated from her boorish husband, and become Secretary to the College for Working Women in Bloomsbury. She was an independent spirit, who handled Stevenson’s rebellious side with great diplomacy, and later married Colvin after a long and discreet liaison.
W.E. Henley—Stevenson’s “dear Lad” and boisterous collaborator—was a swashbuckling poet and editor, piratical, one-legged, and mercurial, the bearded, roaring model for Long John Silver. His laddish circle of London writers—including young Stevenson, Wells, Kipling, and Conrad—was known as the Henley Regatta. (The shade of Bill Buford’s Granta circle is not so distant.) Stevenson outgrew him, and their quarrel in 1887 over an accusation of plagiarism against Stevenson’s wife is one of the most revealing personal episodes. Stevenson’s persistent generosity in the face of Henley’s professional jealousy thereafter shows the huge emotional (and financial) investment he put into his friendships, struggling to maintain them as he grew more famous and remote.