Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson; drawing by David Levine

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, a High Tory, and a builder of lighthouses—finished as a childless colonial paterfamilias. Henley wrote a poem about the contradictions to be glimpsed in his friend’s personality: he was Ariel but also the Shorter Catechist, and so on.

These contradictions may be thought to have run deep. His refusal of the ways of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie led him to behave as a pleasure-lover, and—though this is someone else again—as a man who could say that had he had his time over again he would have wanted to “honour Sex more religiously.” Yet his books make a point of reproving the pursuit of pleasure, and he can sound, on this subject, like a sermon. In his story “Olalla,” a Spanish woman who is drawn as the embodiment of a mind-melting sexuality is forsaken on the grounds that there is bad blood in her, and that she is the descendant of a line of hidalgos who have been guilty of unspeakable cruelties: the pains and pleasures to which he wished to call attention in his stories were liable to prove unspeakable. “Olalla” offers a parting text which teaches “that pleasure is not an end, but in accident; that pain is the choice of the magnanimous; that it is best to suffer all things and do well.” His father would not have minded any of that.

In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Henry Jekyll’s “Statement” or “confession” explains that he had “concealed” his “pleasures,” while granting that he had also experienced pleasure in doing good, and tells how, by means of a chemical experiment, he separated off that part of his nature whose pleasures were shameful. The acts performed by the monster to whom he gives birth—Hyde is dwarfed by Jekyll’s clothes and sometimes seems to count as his son—are acts of cruelty: the battering of an old man, the trampling of a child. The reader who expects revelations of sexual misdemeanor encounters a perfunctory sadism, which will not appear to be a period phenomenon: these are not the pleasurable pains which have found their scholar in Lord Annan. All that seems clear is that there was some constraining association in Stevenson’s mind between sex and cruelty, and that he was in two minds about the ordinary pleasures of sex.


Dr. Jekyll uses chemistry to expel an animal nature: Hyde is treated as an ape as well as a rebellious son. In another fable of the same time, H. G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau uses surgery on beasts to much the same ends: he tries to “burn out” the animal in them. Such undertakings (for all that Wells may be commenting on the process of natural selection) suggest a certain traditionalism in two sophisticated writers. A quarter of a century later, D. H. Lawrence was using the buggery of women, critics say, so that a “burning-out” of shame might be achieved by some of his characters. Shame and burning are scarcely less traditional a pairing than shame and animals. This is a context in which Lawrence’s feeling for animals can make him seem very advanced.

Nineteenth-century Scotland was well aware that one man could be two men. From German literature and the tradition of the Gothic novel, Romanticism had derived a preoccupation with Doppelgängers and double lives, and this had united with, and encouraged, a native curiosity, pious and superstitious in character, concerning spectacular secrecies, hypocrisies and turpitudes, undercover activities and hellish compacts. In the background lay the teachings of those magical psychologists who practiced Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism and invoked Metempsychosism: all this is implied by the “transcendental” medicine which Dr. Jekyll mentions in his confession. And the strain of confessional Gothic “strangeness” which was the medium, in the literature of Western Europe and America, for its concern with doubles, disappearances, and transmogrifications was revived by Stevenson for the telling of his tall tale.

Jekyll’s “Statement” points out: “It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” Stevenson seems to have believed both that there were some fellows who were “two fellows,” and that “every thinking creature” is likely to feel himself to be such. He kept up with contemporary psychological and psychical research, and while he was ready to protest his own doubleness, he may safely be assumed to have been skeptical of the more conspicuous absurdities of transcendental medicine. His position was, I think, that there must be something in the critique of consciousness which it afforded, and this was a position shared by many others who could not be called dupes of the occult. Earlier in the century, orthodox medicine could on occasion attempt to physiologize the two principles which may contend in someone’s nature, and the scientific psychologies which were being developed at the end of the century were also responsive to the old dualisms. Among adepts and amateurs of the subject alike, that response has yet to die out.

Modern psychologies still refer to an individual’s personalities, to the contention of selves produced by the contradictory impulses which he may experience within him, and the strange case of the British MP John Stonehouse, who disappeared from the face of the earth and was discovered to have absconded to Australia, illustrates some of the difficulties to which this may give rise. Stonehouse recently confessed: “I suffered a mental breakdown last year which a psychiatrist’s report indicated was due to the frustration of my idealism in a hostile political and business world.” Not a very likely story, but Stonehouse has had even stranger things to tell. Earlier, he had confessed that a new self had ousted an old one and had inspired him to fake passports. This statement may have been his own, or it may have been obtained from his psychiatrist: as with those of Stevenson’s statements which may be felt to affirm a divided self, it is hard to say how much is due to a habit of interpretation which persuades people that their lives are like that, and which persuades them to fulfill its prophecies. In these two cases, the habits of interpretation have something in common, and Stonehouse has looked rather like the nineteenth-century-Gothic Justified Sinner.

Certain psychologists appear to have decided that the literary notion of the double life is a way of expressing the process whereby someone may try to separate off the rebellious or parricidal drives which are thought to ensue from the oedipal conflicts of childhood. Some color is provided for this interpretation by Stevenson’s break with his father, by their reconciliation, and by his celebration of the bad father in Weir of Hermiston, his best work, composed in the South Seas during the last months of his life. He grew up at a high point in the history of authoritarian parenthood in Scotland, at a time when middle-class life was gripped by strong rules and sanctions which only someone with a strong will, and a capacity for commitment, could hope to outface. That Stevenson admired his father to the last need not mean that the resistance he brought to the Edinburgh values upheld by his father ceased to matter to him and to require amends: to require, indeed, two minds and a species of double life. This, at any rate, may be part of the case for thinking of Stevenson as “split.”


He has been thought remarkable for seeming to live out his own fictions, for being Jekyll and Hyde in the form of a bourgeois dropout who does not desert the fold, and for camping on Treasure Island, casting himself away there at the head of a Scots Family Stevenson. Such a person, an eminent Victorian who was also an eminent bohemian, was bound to invite a double debunking: Stevenson has come in for exposure in the past, and James Pope-Hennessy’s equable biography has provoked more of it. The debunking of eminent Victorians sometimes has a Gothic air, being a matter of detecting the Hyde, the prowler or pornography buff, within the saint or sage. But the upsetting, along these lines, of the Stevenson worship which prevailed during his lifetime and after has not gone very well.

After his death, his friend Colvin and his widow, who spent her later years on a sort of self-promotion through the promotion of Stevenson, tried, with others, to embalm the writer in respectability. Various researchers worked to blow the posthumous cover that had been conferred on him, revealing him as having been friendly with prostitutes in his young days and even devising a proposal of marriage to one. These charges were sorted out in a thorough account of his life by J. C. Furnas, Voyage to Windward. But it is apparent that Stevenson, who can still excite readers and critics, can also still attract the type of commentator who is excited by scandal.

Perhaps the tendency now is, and will be for a while, to reverse the first disparagements and to detect Jekyll in the eminent bohemian. But his respectability will probably be credited with an unusual if inactive sex life. It has been put about by “critics” that Stevenson may have been impotent, wishfully homosexual, father-fixated, mother-fixated. Rehearsing this testimony, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer of Pope-Hennessy’s biography made play with a more or less sexless marriage and claimed that Stevenson and his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, felt passionately about each other. Fanny was then cast in the role of the predatory nurse who went mad when her husband’s health picked up in the South Seas. A critic’s work is never done.

The TLS critic thinks that Stevenson’s books are scarcely worth bothering about, and his energy is reserved for aspersions on his conduct: “Louis courted death in San Francisco in order to qualify to be ill enough for Fanny to marry him.” Stevenson’s liking for older women, praised at times for their sterling male attributes, his avoidance of female characters, his enthusiasm for orphans and doubles, for the forlorn and the disobedient, his wish to be read by and to glamorize the young—these things are worth wondering about. But their significance is rather uncertain. Stevenson’s lifelong ailing condition, that of a moriturus, is worth wondering about too, and is perhaps easier to interpret. In certain respects, it was decisive, as Lawrence’s was. But neither his sufferings—from what appears to have been a recurrent pulmonary tuberculosis—nor the courage and grace with which he bore them are examined by the TLS reviewer for much longer than it takes him to refer to Stevenson’s “hysterical gaiety in the face of fatal illness.”

Marriage does not talk about itself. On this if on nothing else, a couple will often agree: there is too much at stake for them to abandon their reserve. And the character of a marriage is commonly the last of the privacies which a biographer can expect to penetrate. Stevenson’s will never be fully understood, and might be accounted a strange story. Summoned to California by a wild telegram from Fanny in 1879, he set sail to join his divorcée—doing so in secret as far as his parents were concerned. They felt affronted and humiliated, and inclined to banish themselves from Edinburgh: “Is it fair,” asked his father, “that we should be half-murdered by his conduct?”

Stevenson roughed it across the country in an immigrant train, to Monterey. Fanny then broke down and held back, and her suitor was left exposed on the slopes of some mountains and was lucky to survive. Presently, however, she married him, and, bossy and frowning, tended him thereafter, possibly prolonging his life while clouding it with tantrums. She herself had roughed it in her time: her previous marriage had seen the inside of a Nevada mining camp. In fact, the story only begins to look really strange when it is embellished with guesswork. The marriage may not have been all that peculiar, despite its tensions and travels and exotic settings.

Stevenson’s books fall for the most part into two kinds: the boys’ books and the Gothic tales. In a sense, though, the two kinds should not be separated off. They bear about the same relation to each other as do his orphans and his doubles, which may be interpreted as images of disobedience dreamed by a loyal son. In his essays, style meant much, and meant playing the “sedulous ape” to senior authors: there’s an image of loyalty to be caught here as well, and this was a very different animal from the irresponsible ape expelled by Dr. Jekyll. Treasure Island and Kidnapped, and many other narratives, are quite untroubled by anything approaching the purple of the more obedient essays. Weir of Hermiston and the story in Scots, “Thrawn Janet,” do have too much language in them; they have a virtuosity which can disturb, and which enables a contrite heart, in the case of the first, to pay an excessive homage to its hanging judge. But it is not surprising that both stories continue to be read and approved. Several of the poems, both in Scots and in English, are very enjoyable, and have been undervalued. Jekyll and Hyde is still lively—for all its melodrama, conjuring tricks, and transcendental medicine. Once more, the ridiculous has been seen to last, and to be literature.

Toward the end of his life, in 1894, Stevenson wrote to Colvin: “I am a fictitious article and have long known it. I am read by journalists, by my fellow-novelists, and by boys.” What genius he had, he added, “was for hard work.” And he said that he could not take himself seriously. This confession cannot be taken altogether seriously either, but there is some truth in it, and it makes you think. It makes you think of Scotland, among other things. Part of its interest is the prospective justice it does to the resemblance between Stevenson and another fictitious article, an elegant, diligent fellow-novelist, fellow-journalist, fellow Scots romantic professional who also acted out his books and was read by boys, and who ended as a real governor-general. Here again there are two fellows, and the other one is John Buchan.

James Pope-Hennessy was murdered just after he had completed this biography. His previous book had been about Trollope, and he had already started researching a life of Noel Coward. I gather that, in response to the wishes of his American publisher, he may have intended to carry out a final revision in the course of which he would have changed the opening to include an assessment of Stevenson’s writings. This would perhaps have been a pity, since the present opening is apt and compelling, with its stress on nursery fears and on the “feverish desire for consideration” ascribed by Stevenson to his youth, and since he does not seem to be very interested in these writings.

The book has a buoyant readability, marshals its material well, and comments sensibly and charitably. But it is a less successful work than Verandah, the story of Pope-Hennessy’s grandfather, who was a governor of Mauritius, and-it causes one to doubt whether the progress he made from royal to colonial to literary subjects was taking him in the right direction. It may be that while Samoa obviously intrigued him, Stevenson did not, which seems to be why the student of colonial enclaves does most of the work in the concluding sequences of the book. There are slips and inadvertences. He writes of the “Covenanting” places of worship in the Edinburgh of Stevenson’s youth, and Lord Braxfield, the judicial monster and admired feudal lawyer on whom Weir of Hermiston was based, is called “illiterate”: the historian Henry Cockburn calls him that, and Pope-Hennessy may have had the passage in mind, but Cockburn meant that Braxfield lacked an interest in literature. There is no new biographical evidence, so far as I can make out. There is no treatment of the Gothic tradition, and no news of any double life.

For some people, it will be a mark of his common sense that he declines to sing that particular song. But it would have been worth trying to find out what it may mean to think of Stevenson as a living witness to the plausibility of Gothic surmise. Gothic surmise on the subject of double identity has its strong and its weak senses, which often coincide: it astonishes the world with its strange stories, which are barely distinguishable from superstition, while also yielding insights into tensions and dilemmas of a kind which most people would admit to experiencing. With some display of prescience, Jekyll and Hyde declared that the human condition would be recognized as a “polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens,” and Stevenson himself gave a convincing impersonation of just such a polity. It is not ridiculous to ask whether the rigors of Victorian Scotland helped to make him strange, in the sense of especially divided, or to ask what fictions helped this fictitious article to imagine, and to name, an impossible state of mind which a huge and various readership has effortlessly understood.

This Issue

May 29, 1975