Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman (2005)

Relevance of biography for Stevenson

Normally I don’t like biographies of writers, since they take you away from the hard-earned riches of the fictional text, and drag you back down into the everyday world of contracts and illnesses, of gossip and hearsay.

Thus Harman spends some pages trying to decide whether Stevenson’s penis entered the vagina of his older, married friend, Miss Sitwell, or whether the penis of his friend Sidney Colvin had already had that pleasure – or whether neither penis gained entry until Colvin and Sitwell married years later. This concern about who ‘became lovers’ with whom, exactly when and where, is precisely the kind of Hello magazine tittle-tattle I despise, and so I skipped these parts.

But a biography of Stevenson is worth reading because his published writings are so scattered and diverse – plays, poems, ballads, fables, ghost stories, horror stories, short stories, novellas, children’s adventures, adult tales, essays, reviews, appreciations of other writers, travel books – as to be difficult to reconcile and grasp as a complete oeuvre. It helps a lot to make sense of Stevenson’s output to understand the shape of his life and why he produced what he did, when.

An account of his life is necessary to show a) how all the different writings fit together b) what his own attitude towards them was; crucially, for me, how his thoughts about style and approach changed, evolved, or were deployed, for different texts.

Harman’s biography

There have been half a dozen biographies of Stevenson, from the circumspect one by his cousin Graham Balfour in 1901 to Frank McLynn’s magnum opus in 1994. Harman’s is the most recent one and takes advantage of the availability of more manuscript material, and especially the eight volumes of the Yale edition of Stevenson’s letters, which were published in the mid-1990s.

The main ideas which emerge are:

Stevenson the Unfinisher

  • Stevenson wrote a phenomenal amount, some thirty published books as well as scores of short stories and hosts of essays, as well as thousands of letters. This is why the Tusitala edition of his complete works amounts to an impressive 35 volumes.
  • BUT he was a chronic beginner of stories which he never finished. He was a starter not a finisher. Harman describes some stories he wrote for his school magazine, all of which ended with the phrase To be completed… and none of them ever were, and neither were scores of other plans. He was a great maker of lists of projects, Harman details the plans he made at one point at university: plans for thirteen plays, umpteen essays, long epic poems – ideas spurted out of him endlessly.
  • A complete guide to his prose works lists over 300 projects of which only some 30 were ever published. A biography of Hazlitt, a massive history of his own family, various plays, books of essays… the biography is littered with abandoned projects and ideas…

So Stevenson was the possessor of a striking fecundity, but a troubled fecundity, and this sheds immediate light on the works I’ve been reading towards the end of his career:

  • The Bottle Imp intended as just one of a volume of supernatural tales the rest of which were never written
  • Weir of Hermiston unfinished
  • St Ives unfinished.

It also sheds light on the speed and hastiness of many of his finished works, which often seem thrown together, written at tremendous speed, before the afflatus and inspiration fade and he abandons them.

Sometimes the speed is somehow captured in the text itself as energy and excitement – hence Treasure Island, Kidnapped.

Sometimes it isn’t transmuted into the text which feels more like a list of incidents than a narrative which engages and transports you, as with The Black Arrow.

And in his three collaborations with his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, the Osbourne factor amounts to a tremendous slowing down of Stevenson’s usual pell-mell effect – most notable in the grindingly slow first half of The Wrecker, which takes an age to get into gear and move towards the fast-moving and violent climax.

Doubles

Like everyone else who’s ever written about Stevenson, Harman is entranced by the really blindingly obvious idea of ‘doubles’ in his fiction, taking the duality which is blindingly central to Jekyll and Hyde and then detecting it in other ‘double’ stories, like Deacon Brodie or Ballantrae and so on. Of course it’s there to some extent, but an obsessive focus on it obscures the many many other aspects, themes and elements of his work.

Rebellion against parents

His father and his father before him were engineers, members of what became known as ‘the lighthouse Stevensons’, the dynasty which built many of the lighthouses around the notoriously dangerous Scottish coast. Stevenson was a rarity in the extended family, in being an only son, and his father made every effort to force him into the family business, making Stevenson study engineering for three years, touring the lighthouses his family had built and studying the ports and harbours where new ones were planned.

He remained a flop as an engineer, unable to tell one type of wood from another, incapable of the mathematics and physics required, but the extensive travel around the Scottish coast, meeting and staying with poor peasants in remote locations, stood him in very good stead when it came to writing his Scottish fictions.

Bohemian pose

The biography gives a fascinating account of Stevenson’s life as a very reluctant engineering student in dank and foggy Edinburgh, and his student-y predilection for roughing it in low-life pubs and brothels, sitting in the corner of smoky taverns while prostitutes plied their trade and dockers argued and fought. He and his friends were living La Vie Boheme before the term was coined and Stevenson is thought to have slept with one or more of the prostitutes he knew, experimented with hashish, and been a devotee of the debauched poetry of Charles Baudelaire. This taste for low life, again, stood him in good stead when he moved on to Paris, when he imagined life among bandits and outlaws and pirates for his adventure books, when he found himself among emigrants and cowboys in America, and then in his final guise, as friend and defender of South Sea Islanders against the incompetent colonial authorities.

Sick and well

Though always extremely thin and weedy in his young manhood, Stevenson was nonetheless extremely active, playing the gay blade at the artists’ colony in Barbizon, northern France, restlessly pacing up and down rooms, his feverish eyes drinking in his surroundings and his mind pouring forth an endless stream of repartee and humour. He is sent to the south of France and Switzerland to try and cure his lung disorders, but it is far from clear what he actually had. Was it TB or some form of syphilis?

The ill health seems to crystallise during the arduous journey across the Atlantic and then by train across America in 1879. By the time he arrives at Fanny Osbourne’s house he was really unwell, and it was during his stay in California that he experienced his first bad haemorrhage.

At some level, being accepted by Fanny – 10 years his elder – coincided with his official advent to the condition of invalid; somehow their relationship skipped the ‘lovers’ stage directly to ‘mother’ and ‘invalid’, and there it was to stay until his death.

The elusive masterpiece

Harman makes the point that right up to his death (in 1894, aged just 44) Stevenson’s friends and fans were hoping against hope that he would finally deliver The Masterpiece that would cement his place as a Master of English Literature. His precocious essays and stories promised so much, it was hard for everyone, including the man himself, to accept that he just couldn’t produce the kind of solid, consistent, three-volume novel typical of Dickens, Eliot, George Meredith. But he couldn’t and he didn’t. Instead, Stevenson’s oeuvre is a) extremely scattered b) littered with unfinished projects.

Worse than the non-arrival of The Masterpiece, was the way that his entire output from the South Seas was viewed by many as a calamitous abandonment of a conventional career. Instead of a bigger better Kidnapped or Ballantrae his fans were subjected to a pamphlet defending a missionary who worked with lepers, a series of rather boring letters to his friend Sidney Colvin, the long travel book In The South Seas which, unlike his other short witty travelogues, was long and weighed down with pages of local history and culture which quickly became boring. The few fictions seemed desperately diverse and unfocused: was The Bottle Imp the beginning of a series of fables setting a kind of Arabian Nights fantasy in Tahiti? And what to make of the short novel The Ebb-Tide which combined grotesque levels of violence with what seemed to be a sustained attack on Western civilisation in a fiction in which almost every white character is despicable.

Against this backdrop Harman makes the interesting point that the unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston, when it was finally published, was greeted with relief by Stevenson’s fans because it was so obviously a return to the Scottish setting of some of his greatest works and showed, without any doubt, a significant progress in psychological portrayal of character.

Thus Hermiston was enshrined as the pinnacle of his achievement – which involved ignoring the long potboiler, St Ives, which Stevenson had brought much closer to completion but is a regrettable reversion to the smash-bang-wallop style of earlier shockers – and, much worse, I think, involved downplaying or just ignoring the South Sea fictions, The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide, which are, I think, masterpieces of a completely new realistic-but-grotesque style, something new in his writing and immensely promising.

What I’ve learned

From this time round reading Stevenson, the main findings have been:

1. The travel books are brilliant. I thought they’d be dry and dusty and irrelevant, but they turn out to be short, punchy, engaging, funny and full of fascinating and vivid character studies, as well as providing a fascinating experiment in autobiography in instalments.

2. Stevenson’s emigration to the South Pacific led to a typical explosion of writing in all sorts of genres – travelogue, local history, cultural analysis, essays, pamphlets, letters to the press, letters home to friends, parables and fables. But head and shoulders above them stand the two longer fictions – The Beach of Falesá and The Ebb-Tide – which I wish someone had recommended to me years ago, and I think are among his greatest achievements.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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