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.
Finally, there was the dour and faithful Charles Baxter, his business adviser, a shrewd, hard-drinking Scottish lawyer, Stevenson’s intimate companion from his student days in Edinburgh, the man to whom he wrote most frankly about his private affairs in the Pacific, a steadfast rock in every crisis. This continuity, which stretches across twenty years and half the globe, itself says a great deal about Stevenson’s astonishing gift for friendship and loyalty. It also gives us a range of tone—from ribald to bleakly philosophical—which again I can only compare with Byron’s.
Many of the sequences, with their new manuscript interpolations, enormously intensify our impression of Stevenson’s character: his imaginative genius, his eccentricity, his unflinching determination. From Volume I one might pick out the religious struggle with his adored father, Thomas, the Victorian patriarch and lighthouse builder (a symbolic conjunction in Stevenson’s mind).
What a damned curse I am to my parents! As my father said, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” As my mother said, “This is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me.” And, O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have just damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.
But then follows the quick, retuning sentence (the essentially artistic returning, as James might have observed, and which all biographers omit). “You see when I get incoherent, I always relapse a little into the Porter in Macbeth.”
This conflict with the Victorian values of his parents produced a sense of duality, of split loyalties, which gradually emerges in Stevenson’s fiction as a series of haunted doppelgängers, mirror images of good and evil, who erupt most famously in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), but are already present in the early melodrama Deacon Brodie (1882), and continue in the obsessive pursuit stories of Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893). It was a conflict that almost defines one aspect of late-Victorian British fiction, the revolt against the father-figure, seen variously in the fairy-tale battles of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) or the acute psychological portraiture of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907). It is significant that both Barrie and Gosse were great admirers of Stevenson, and regarded him as a sort of spiritual pioneer whose eventual “escape” to the Pacific in 1888 gave him a legendary authority in the literature of filial rebellion, steadily deepening into adulthood.
In Volume II there is the long, strange series of confessions to his first love and “madonna” muse, Frances Sitwell. This love was surely platonic (though his French biographer does not think so), but it weirdly foreshadows the second older woman in his life, Fanny Osbourne in the South Seas. Stevenson woos Mrs. Sitwell through the erotic imagery of three Elgin Marble goddesses (which they had visited together in the British Museum). He had pinned their pictures, along with Mrs. Sitwell’s, opposite his writing desk.
I can conceive a great mythical woman, living alone among inacessible mountain tops or in some lost Island in the pagan seas; and ask no more…. But I can think of these three deep-breasted women, living out all their days on remote hilltops, seeing the white dawn and the purple even, and the world outspread before them forever…I cling to you, madonna, my mother; think of how you must be to me throughout life the mother’s breasts to suckle me, and be brave…
Fanny Osbourne herself bursts into Volume III, a refreshing wind from the Far West or, if you prefer, a small but formidable transatlantic tornado. Stevenson strides from the Cévennes to California in her pursuit (a journey that appalled his parents and London friends), and nearly kills himself in the process. Here begins the terrible history of his lung hemorrhages, endlessly repeated over fourteen years, a bloody deadline that hangs over all his subsequent writings. But here, precisely, begins his unshakeable commitment not only to Fanny but also to his art. His famous phrase “a marriage in extremis” seems to me to apply to both. He finished the account of his American journey, The Amateur Emigrant, on what everybody including Fanny thought was his deathbed. Here the note of grim, authorial pride—a conscious, flinty heroism—enters his letters, never to depart:
God only knows how much courage and suffering is buried in that MS. The second part was written in a circle of hell unknown to Dante; that of the penniless and dying author. For dying I was…I feel sick even to think of it.
Volumes IV and V take us back to Europe and the great adventure novels; volume VI to North America and the first essays of deep introspection, such as “A Chapter on Dreams”; and volumes VII and VIII go whirling into the South Seas. The movement is ceaseless, and the interest unflagging, and I do not attempt to summarize it here. There is the voyage on his long-dreamed schooner, the Casco, which launches the idea for a new kind of historical travelogue, part reportage and part anthropology, to be called The South Seas. There are commercial battles with his American editors, Scribner and Samuel McClure, who value his picturesque copy but doubt his capacity to sound the murkier depths of Pacific life. There is, as heroic proof of that capacity, the profoundly disturbing visit to the leper island at Molokai, and Stevenson’s blazing defense of the old, derided leper priest Father Damien. This notable pamphlet, published in Australia (1890), upon which Stevenson risked bankruptcy in a libel suit, has always struck me as a premonition of Graham Greene’s whisky priest in The Power and the Glory. Certainly Greene championed the later Stevenson, and wrote perceptively of his Pacific fiction in an acute essay collected in The Lost Childhood. “It was only in the last six years of his life—the Samoan years—that his fine dandified talent began to shed its disguising graces, the granite to show through.”
There are the long, and now uncensored, diary-letters to Colvin from Vailima, which show both that granite and its stubborn gaiety. They describe the daily struggles with Samoan politics, the Quixotic combination of farming and fiction-writing, and the dual roles of gallant clan chief and driven author. They reveal most that can be known of Fanny’s mental breakdown in 1893, and Stevenson’s endless patient efforts to restore her. (The way his stepchildren, Belle and Lloyd, rally to him in this crisis suggests family loyalties far deeper than some biographers have implied.) There is much heartache and self-searching—“I am a fictitious article and have long known it….I ought to have been able to build lighthouses and write David Balfour too….”—yet never, in a single letter, is there real disillusion, far less despair.
But there is, perhaps most important of all, the steady, unflinching stride into the colonial heart of darkness, which produces the artistic revelation of the first sentence of The Ebb-Tide. “Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease.” This novella, the tale of three Pacific beachcombers who gamble everything on a stolen ship, is a kind of black Conradian retelling of Treasure Island. The three adventurers are broken men, European flotsam, whose last desperate search for wealth destroys them through greed and self-betrayal, setting them at the mercy of a vengeful island trader, who rules his remote outpost like a penal (or leper) colony, where they are marooned.
Beautifully narrated scenes of sailing and landfall, and delusive visions of tropical paradise, bring forth a tragedy of human violence and spiritual humiliation as grim and artistically compact as anything Stevenson ever wrote. As an allegory of colonial and mercantile self-destruction, it is unsurpassed, even I believe by Conrad himself or Kipling. It was seized upon by Henry James, and later by Greene, as a masterpiece of its kind, though it is still not widely known. It is one of the four defining short fictions, or romance fables, of Stevenson’s entire career: the others being Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll, and The Beach of Falesá (1891). Taken together, with their astonishing developments in narrative technique and ever-deepening moral subtlety and unease, they suggest an artistic genius still undervalued and popularly misplaced. Until you have read that last, completed novella, and what led up to it in his life, you cannot claim to have met Stevenson.
If I had to pick out one thread from the gorgeous, shimmering tapestry (and there is a sort of weaving movement about Stevenson’s whole life, a kind of unnerving phosphorescence which grows and spreads) it would be this. The letters show a passionate artist, in the Flaubertian sense. (He often mentions Flaubert in the latter days, as he sweats and coughs on his verandah.) Stevenson reveals a critical consciousness, a theoretical awareness of his literary task to “render the world,” which has not been appreciated. His old allies the French are surely right in this. He is continually matching himself not only against Walter Scott and Dumas but also against Balzac and Zola. His ideas of fine craft, of severity of workmanship, still seem strikingly modern.
Here is an early letter of 1883, written to his cousin Bob (a painter) at the time of Treasure Island:
Were you to re-read some Balzac, as I have been doing, it would greatly help to clear your eyes. He was a man who never found his method. An inarticulate Shakespeare, smothered in forcible-feeble detail. It is astounding, to the riper mind, how bad he is, how feeble, how untrue, how tedious; and of course, when he surrendered to his temperament, how good and powerful. And yet never plain nor clear…. He would leave nothing undeveloped, and thus drowned out of sight of land amid the multitude of crying and incongruous details. Jesus, there is but one art: to omit! O if I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knew how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.
But it is more than practical crafts-manship. What the French call “the debate with James about Realism” emerges as a fundamental discussion about the aesthetics of the novel. James had argued in his key essay, “The Art of Fiction” (1884), that the novel should “compete with life,” in its freedom of subject and amplitude of treatment. Stevenson had replied directly to James in “A Humble Remonstrance” (1884). He argued that the novel is “not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity.” This artistic simplification to “the one creative and controlling thought,” which should command every aspect of narrative, dialogue, and character, produced his own particular concept of the “romance” fiction, with its single driving story line, always pressing toward fable or allegory. “Realism” was too diffuse, too shapeless. Stevenson’s fiction had to be more intense than life, more symbolically charged. His letters explore these ideas steadily, taking them to a new stage after virtually every novel is finished, finally reaching a discussion of what he called “naked writing” after The Ebb-Tide.
His endless search for the “significant simplicity” of romance did not exclude the sexual theme either, as is so often claimed. The beautiful native wife Uma, in The Beach of Falesá, is an explicitly physical presence in the narrative, commanding an emotional loyalty from the white trader Wiltshire upon which the whole drama turns (the novella was originally to be named after her). The Pacific letters are radiant with sensuous impressions of both men and women. While anyone who believes that Stevenson could not describe the direct heat of sexual feelings in his female characters should read the chapter entitled “The Wine Seller’s Wife” in the unfinished novel The Young Chevalier.
The greatest praise I can give the Yale Edition is that it renders Stevenson with a force and richness that will eventually require a new biography. But two recent attempts (written without its benefit) deserve proper consideration, and more perhaps than can be given here. Both (as I promised) turn on his relationship with Fanny Osbourne, and give largely different assessments of it. Both, in their own ways, are provocative and a pleasure to read. Neither, to my highly partial eyes, is wholly adequate to give us the creative power and conflict of that extraordinary marriage and partnership over more than fifteen years. But then marriage—especially a writer’s marriage—is in my view perhaps the most difficult of all biographical subjects to enter and reconstruct. After all, it is among the most difficult (and rewarding) objects to construct in the first place. But Stevenson said, it should be recalled, less than two years before his death, that it was “the best move I ever made in my life. Not only would I do it again; I cannot conceive the idea of not doing it.”
Frank McLynn’s Robert Louis Stevenson takes the form of a long, well-paced traditional life study, with a strong undercurrent of Freudian analysis. It presents Stevenson as a radically divided man, torn between his Scottish Calvinist inheritance and his “Jacobite” romantic longings for escape. He emerges, to a large degree, as an “Oedipal” victim, in lifelong conflict with his father figure, and continuously manipulated by powerful matriarchal women. Stevenson struggles heroically against this, and out of that struggle (mythologically defined in his wonderful fable “The House of Eld”) comes forth his fiction of pursuing doubles. But the pressure on him is immense. His male friendships—especially with Henley, Gosse, and Colvin—are glossed as “homoerotic.” They distrust his marriage and mourn his departure to the South Seas. Fanny is presented as essentially unstable, driven by sexual anxiety, jealousy, and financial greed. Battened on by the whole “greedy, grasping” Osbourne family, Stevenson ends up writing himself to death in a stoic attempt to support them at Vailima, a “martyr.”
All this is argued with much greater sophistication than I can summarize. If it is tendentious, it is also fascinating. It reveals certain groundswells in Stevenson’s life, which any future biographer must contend with. It also opens up the fiction in a remarkably effective way, and there are formidably good accounts of both Dr. Jekyll and the last, unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston, which extends its theme of doubles and betrayals. “All the characters in this novel,” McLynn writes,
appear to be aspects of Stevenson, illustrating both the motif of role confusion noted in RLS’s early life…. and the fulfilment of the prophecy in Jekyll and Hyde: “Man is not truly one, but truly two. I say two, because the state of my own knowledge does not pass beyond that point. Others will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines; and I hazard the guess that man will ultimately be known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.”
Weir is set in a feudal eighteenth-century Scotland, but with odd echoes of Stevenson’s tribal Samoa of warring chieftains and family blood loyalties. The autobiographical undertones are powerful and provocative. The gentle Archie Weir is in revolt against his father, a terrifying old patriarch and hanging judge, Adam Weir, who will eventually condemn his own son to death. Archie is also divided in his affections between the beautiful young Kirstie and her passionate mother, the elder Kirstie. McLynn explores the implications of these multiple, dangerous crosscurrents of feeling with brisk, analytical confidence.
There is a Lawrentian feel to the passage where [the elder Kirstie] lies tossing in bed, beset by an insane sexual jealousy. Both Kirsties present aspects of the desired RLS female—one nubile and desirable, the other a matron and significantly childless; the wish for the ideal female to be both sex-object and mother is clearly on view here, and we begin to understand how the puzzling marriage to Fanny relates at a deep level to Stevenson’s oedipal confusion.
But in McLynn’s biographical portrait of Fanny, this briskness is unaccountably transformed into relentless hostility, fiercely partisan and even vindictive. (A Freudian biographer should, perhaps, have stopped to ask himself why.)
She is introduced as a “coarse coquette” and an “adventuress,” and her conduct throughout is described as “bizarre,” “visceral,” and “neurotic.” Her breakdown at Vailima is defined as “psychotic,” a final revelation of her true personality. She deliberately sets out to alienate Stevenson’s friends in England, and she secretly hates much of his traveling abroad and gets “ill” whenever she has the opportunity. Her endless nursing of Stevenson is frequently dismissed as “a legend.” Her children, Lloyd and Belle (who worked so closely with Stevenson in the last years), are characterized as “mercenary” and “selfish.” Lloyd in particular is presented as “utterly ruthless,” falsifying the story of his collaborations, and at one point “injecting poison.” The biography, for all its other merits, becomes a polemic against the whole Osbourne tribe. However shrewdly McLynn identifies the undoubted tensions in the Stevenson household, the picture is fatally reductive—and, finally, not believable.
Well, these are controversial matters and always were. Henley, for one, would probably have agreed with McLynn. But my belief is that no sustained reading of the Yale Edition will support such a negative view. One might instance the fact that Fanny was the most successful mediator with Stevenson’s father; that her nursing RLS through ghastly fevers and bleedings continued through three continents; that she was a highly intelligent literary adviser; that she supported years of hardship in log cabins, boats, tents, and huts that no English literary dame would have put up with for a moment. One might instance the extraordinary fun and affection that radiates from the Vailima letters. Or one might simply say that she was loyal, quarrelsome, eccentric, and brave: just as Stevenson was. And that I think is the distinguishing, and absent, truth: they were a match for each other in marriage. It is Stevenson’s own word. She had, said Henry James gently, “a personality almost as vivid as his.”
Yet Frank McLynn is right in one sense: the marriage is a profound puzzle, almost one might say an historical anomaly. It seems clear that Stevenson’s hectic energy, his mad generosity, his necessary vanity, always required a unique partnership to sustain him. One could say that it was he who battened on the Osbourne tribe, always dragging them back to Vailima, his precious adopted family stockade, to keep his dreams alive in the wilderness. Again, read the letters. When one considers other Victorian literary marriages—Hardy’s, say, or Dickens’s—Stevenson’s is something phenomenal, dynamic, explosive. It contained energies, tempests, fireworks, and sheer anarchic excitement that would have obliterated any conventional household. To find anything like his relationship with Fanny—and the comparison is significant in the largest way—one would have to look forward to Lawrence and Frieda.
To re-create the atmosphere and force field of such a marriage requires not merely accurate scholarship, but a sort of barometric imagination and sympathy; and one might add (at one’s peril) a feminine touch. Two women writers have got close: Margaret Mackay in The Violent Friend (1969), and Jenni Calder in RLS: A Life Study (1980). But a new book by Alexandra Lapierre, Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny, takes enormous risks to get even closer.
Lapierre brings a refreshing, outsider’s vision to the Stevenson saga. She is a successful French novelist, with an unusual literary background. She is a graduate both of the Sorbonne and the University of Southern California (where she won the rather dashing-sounding “Jack Nicholson Award for Screen Play Writing”). Her father is Dominique Lapierre (the novel Is Paris Burning?). She dedicated five years to researching Fanny’s life, “tracking her more than 60,000 miles,” and drawing extensively on archive sources in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, the Silverado Museum at St. Helena, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and elsewhere, in what is clearly a labor of love and genuine scholarship. Her thirty pages of academic notes, with glimpses of her travels, themselves make vivid reading and are referred to with great respect by Ernest Mehew. The book itself emerges on an epic scale: sprawling, vigorous, and highly colored. It immediately became a best seller in France, winning prizes and shifting more than 200,000 copies. It is by far the most subtle and energetic portrait of Fanny that we have had so far.
But to get at her subject, Lapierre took a daring decision. She decided to revive the peculiarly French form (once championed by André Maurois) of the “romanced biography.” The approximate American equivalent might be the works of Irving Stone (Lust for Life, on van Gogh), though the comparison does not do justice to her acute sense of textual authority and hard-won historical fact. Throughout she uses fictional techniques to reconstruct Fanny’s vertiginous life, and moves freely into the world of Fanny’s own thoughts and emotions.
Whole scenes are narrated and dramatized like a novel. Letters and memoirs are cunningly spliced to produce invented dialogue. Fanny’s diaries and correspondence are transformed into stream-of-consciousness. Landscapes, houses, clothes, and even weather are graphically realized with the clarity of film treatments. Yet there is a constant, meticulous reference to historical sources. Genuine texts are printed in italics, and often re-assert themselves into the commanding story line. Problems of evidence are explained and debated in the first person (so that Lapierre herself sometimes becomes one of her own characters). Minute visual details are carefully confirmed. One typical note reads:
The jewelry worn by Mrs. Thomas Stevenson in this scene still exists, notably the bracelet of braided hair with a large medallion holding a picture of Louis as a child. This jewelry is part of the collection of Mr. Roger E. Van Dyke, of Hawaii
Yet against this the descriptive prose is often lush and loose, and the emotional tone often overheated and unconvincing.
What is one to make of it all? Lapierre’s Fanny is certainly an intense and always engaging creation. There are many brilliant imaginative successes: the first meeting with Stevenson in France; the feline conversation about Fanny between Gosse and Colvin in the Savile Club; the arrival in the South Seas. The arguments with Stevenson—about work, about money, about Belle and her ne’er-do-well husband, Joe Strong—are shrewdly presented, and wonderfully fill out our sense of the marriage in its light and shade.
There are many crucial rediscoveries, for which one example must serve. A passing sentence in Frank McLynn’s book states that Sam Osbourne, Fanny’s first American husband, “took” her west to the Californian gold rush at the age of twenty-three. In fact Lapierre establishes that Fanny Osbourne traveled there alone (with the six-year-old Belle), a nightmare journey by ship and train via Panama. Lapierre gives some forty pages to the reconstruction of this tortuous voyage (based on timetables, shipping lists, guidebooks, letters, and memoirs).
This immediately alters our whole perception of Fanny’s courage and capacity, her gypsy daring and her pioneering spirit, and it echoes even into the last Vailima days. We also incidentally learn that she could shoot, ride, grow vegetables, roll cigarettes, take photographs, paint pictures, make clothes, decorate houses, and write startling descriptive travel letters.
On the other hand, these fine moments of psychological development and historical placing are constantly smothered by romantic fustian. Again, one example among many must serve.
The midday sun shone hot on the glass. As she leaned her temple against the window, her cameo profile, her straight nose, her drooping mouth, seemed framed against the ocher landscape of the Nevada desert. Suddenly a flame ignited in her gold-and-blackberry eyes. She no longer saw the Scottish mists, or the eternal snows of Davos. Instead, a blue vastness rose before her like a powerful breath. A dream—she had a dream in her head for the first time in eight years!
One can survive such passages. Lapierre’s enthusiasm for her heroine carries us through to the end. Yet the sense of authenticity is, nevertheless, damaged a good deal. The solid central portrait, so tough yet so mysterious, somehow melts away into rainbows at the edges. Again, one doesn’t quite believe it. Perhaps the most striking impression is simply that Fanny Stevenson’s own words—her letters, her diaries—are always more powerful than the fictionalized “romance” around her. So often they burn a hole in Lapierre’s own pages. The biographical puzzle remains.
But perhaps Stevenson himself would have liked that. We have to go on climbing his hill.
June 8, 1995