The short life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) was as adventurous as almost anything in his fiction: his travels, illness, struggles to become a writer, relationships with his volatile wife and step-family, friendships, and quarrels have fascinated readers for more than a century. He was both engineer and aesthete, dutiful son and reckless lover, Scotsman and South Sea Islander, Covenanter and atheist. Stevenson's books, including Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnapped, have achieved world fame; others -- The Master of Ballantrae, A Child's Garden of Verses, Travels with a Donkey -- remain all-time favorites. His unique gift for storytelling and dramatic characterization live in the consciousness even of those who have never read his work: Long John Silver, with his wooden leg and his parrot, is more real to most people than any historical pirate, while "Jekyll and Hyde" has become a universally recognized term for a split personality.
No biography has yet done justice to the complex, brilliant, and troubled man who was responsible for so many remarkable creations. His interest in psychology, genetics, technology, and feminism anticipated the concerns of the next century, while his experiments in narrative technique inspired postmodern innovators such as Borges and Nabokov. Stevenson's recently collected correspondence shows him to have been the least "Victorian" of Victorian writers; he was a man of humour, resilience, and strongly uncoventional views. With access to this and much previously unpublishedmaterial, distinguished biographer Claire Harman has written the most authoritative, comprehensive, and perceptive portrait of Stevenson to date.
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Claire Harman's first book, a biography of the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, won the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in England, and her second, Fanny Burney: A Biography, was shortlisted for England's Whitbread Award. She has published acclaimed editions of Robert Louis Stevenson's essays, poems, and short stories. Harman teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts. She lives in New York City and in Oxford, England.From The Washington Post:
Though Robert Louis Stevenson remains among the best-known writers in the English language, his achievements seem oddly accidental. Not that he wasn't a highly self-conscious literary artist; as soon as he conceived the ambition to write, in adolescence, he thought of no other career (though he managed to pass his bar exams). But the two works that secured his fame were not central to his own conception of his work. Treasure Island began as a game to amuse his stepson: the drawing of a treasure map (which still exists and is pictured in Claire Harman's fine new biography). The story expanding on the map was published serially in a boy's adventure magazine, and Stevenson thought so little of its importance that, despite badly needing money, he let a couple of years go by before he published it as a book. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was conceived in a dream and written in a couple of weeks; when his wife, Fanny, raised some objections (it's not clear just what she disliked), he burned the manuscript and rewrote it just as quickly. He sold it for a small sum, and when he later traveled to America, he was amazed to find himself famous for it, mobbed at the docks by fans and the press. Meanwhile, Prince Otto, the novel he struggled over endlessly, was a failure and remains unread.
Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, the only child of hardy and long-lived Scots parents who believed themselves chronically ill or at least constantly threatened with ill-health. Young Lewis (as the family always called him, not the Frenchified "Louis") really was sickly and continued that way, making his health his parents' constant concern. He was tall and spookily thin, never able to gain weight; he coughed blood now and then (he also chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes). But according to a couple of well-known doctors (and some modern commentators), he did not in fact have the tuberculosis that everyone -- including himself -- assumed would carry him off.
Stevenson loved his parents, and they doted on him; he evaded his father's fierce Calvinism but could also be amazingly open and frank with the man. Stevenson seemed sure he could never lose his father's love -- even as an aesthete idling with painters and layabouts in France, where he had gone for his health. The belief that health was almost entirely dependent on environment accounts for a good deal of the Victorian middle class's endless travel. From France to Davos to Saranac to the Rockies to the South Seas, Stevenson pursued the air and the climate thought to be able to cure or relieve him. (Modern biographers -- including Harman at times -- can get swept up in this pursuit and talk as though they too believe their subjects' health is threatened by cold and damp.)
In that artists' colony in France, Stevenson encountered the third force -- after his Scots childhood and his health -- that shaped his life. It's always said that he fell in love with Fanny at first sight, and after their first meeting, he certainly was as committed to her as if it were so. Ten years older than Stevenson, Fanny Osbourne was an American with two children, a teenage girl and the boy to whom Stevenson later related Treasure Island. (A third, younger son had just died.) But Fanny was married to a silver prospector and traveling man out West, from whom she was trying to get a divorce or support or both. When she went back to California to try to settle things, Stevenson followed, crossing the country on an emigrant train, then setting up with Fanny and the children in a deserted shack in Silverado, the first of the many settlements that they would share over the decades.
It was an unlikely but apparently successful union. Stevenson seemed to need Fanny's American frankness and wholeness; she couldn't lead the delicate double life that cultivated British men and women did, and they disliked her for it, considering her "primitive," "brutal" or a "poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady" (that last crack was Henry James's). She and Stevenson conducted a rackety life filled with upheavals and uproar; he addressed letters to her as "Dear weird woman," "My dear fellow," "Dear Dutchwoman." They could genuinely hurt one another in their fights but remained entirely devoted. She cared for him in illness; he adopted her children.
A 1993 biography by Frank McLynn regarded Fanny as the evil sorceress in Stevenson's life, draining his powers to serve her own ends, a shameless promoter of her worthless children. Harman's judgment on Fanny is as balanced and yet definite as is her whole book: "Fanny was a humourless and self-deluding woman: wrong, certainly; mad, possibly -- but not bad."
If Stevenson's career was, as Harman says, "chaotic," perhaps that's because it was so radically unfinished. When Stevenson died in Samoa in 1894, he was, I think, on the verge of an entirely new stance toward the world and his own writing; the qualities of brutal frankness he knew in Fanny began to show up in his last tales of South Seas wastrels and conmen, which resemble Conrad (as Conrad recognized) without the turgidity. It is still unclear what caused Stevenson's death, though Harman assembles the best modern guesses; but if whatever he suffered from hadn't killed him at 44, the short shelf of classic romances that are his legacy might now be seen as the Victorian prologue to the works of a pioneering modern consciousness. Instead, as Harman finally declares, "When the new discipline of 'English Literature' emerged in the new century, Stevenson was nowhere to be seen. He had been popular, he had been a romancer, a writer for boys, a Scot." Only a further century has restored him. Claire Harman's judicious, witty and insightful life is as gratifying as it is poignant.
Reviewed by John Crowley
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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