BOOK REVIEW / Buried treasures: A new collection of Robert Louis Stevenson's letters restores the wit and passion previous editors suppressed. Clare Harman discovers a man as spirited as the great stories he wrote

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ROBERT Louis Stevenson has been famous as a correspondent since the Letters to His Family and Friends, edited by his executor, Sidney Colvin, were published in 1899. Henry James said the book assured Stevenson 'a place with the very first' in the genre, and there seemed little reason to dispute this.

Only a handful of scholars and Stevensonians guessed at how much material had been undiscovered, overlooked or suppressed by Colvin in his proper desire to protect concerned parties in the years following Stevenson's death in 1894 - not to mention his improper anxiety over his friend's vulgar streak. Ferguson and Waingrow's 1957 edition of Stevenson's letters to Charles Baxter gave the general reader some idea of what was missing from Colvin's sanitised account, and hinted at the sheer quantity of letters to other correspondents, but this was a lone gesture, and Stevenson's papers remained scattered in archives around the world without dates or context and in a notoriously variable and elusive hand.

Now the first two of eight projected volumes of the collected letters have been published, to a standard of scholarship few could fault, and Stevenson studies will never be quite the same again.

The opening up of this gold-mine has been the work of Ernest Mehew, who has spent more than 25 years revising and completing the project begun by the late Professor Bradford A Booth in the 1960s. His research has been exhaustive and the results are dramatic. At last we can read texts which are clear, as complete as possible, in the most likely chronology, with their full complement of explanatory matter, and a classic set of highly informative and dryly sardonic footnotes. Most dramatic is the extent of the work: the complete set of the new edition will contain nearly 2,800 letters, two-and-a-half times the number previously published. The portrait of Stevenson which emerges from this labour of love is not just like a picture cleaned and repaired by a painstaking restorer, but like one that proved to have extra canvas hidden round the back.

Colvin's version of the letters skirted over Stevenson's early years, so much of the material in the first two volumes is 'new'. The earliest letter here was dictated by Stevenson to his mother when he was three; at five he was using the same agency to compose his first book, a History of Moses, and at 15 had written a history of the Pentland Rising which his father had privately printed. It seems incredible that Stevenson's devoted parents ever really believed that he was going to join the distinguished family firm of engineers. If anyone was both born and made a writer it was Stevenson, and it is exhilarating to witness his vertical take-off into style at around the age of 16. The self-deprecating humour, the in- jokes and quotations are all there, as is his motivation - to entertain. Here, writing to his parents (ostensibly about harbour works in his capacity as apprentice engineer), he describes a visit to Wick: 'This morning I was awakened by Mrs S at the door. 'There's a ship ashore at Shaltigoe]' As my senses slowly flooded, I heard the whistling and the roaring of wind, and the lashing at the wind of gust-blown and uncertain flaws of rain. I got up, dressed and went out. The mizzled sky and rain blinded you.'

Engineering news does not figure large in this letter - 'I can't look at it practically', Stevenson admits, 'that will come I suppose with gray hair or coffin nails'. He stuck at lighthouses for another three years before giving them up in favour of the law. Some of his most amusing letters belong to this period, which predates the painful break with his family over religion and his anxious early years as a would-be writer; they are high-spirited, sophisticated and full of anecdotes: about a performance of a German melodrama which left Stevenson 'only very tranquilly happy', his introduction to

an 'English-speaker' in Frankfurt who could just say 'al-wes-Besy', or this account of a dinner at the Argyll Hotel: 'At last 'the supreme moment comes', and the fowl in a lordly dish, is carried in. On the cover being raised there is something so forlorn and miserable about the aspect of the animal that we both roar with laughter. Then Bough, taking up knife and fork, turns the 'swarry' over and over, shaking doubtfully his head. 'There's an aspect of quiet resistance about the beggar', says he, 'that looks bad.' However, to work he falls until the sweat stands on his brow and a dismembered leg falls, dull and leadenlike, onto my dish.

To eat it was simply impossible.'

These youthful letters are written mostly to his parents, and testify to a frank and affectionate relationship. They also stand in marked contrast to the long letters Stevenson began writing in 1873 to Frances Sitwell,

the 35-year-old matron for whom he developed a deeply purple passion. His huge correspondence with her was severely edited by Colvin, who was himself in love with Mrs Sitwell, whom he eventually married. Colvin not only cut away all the most characteristically rapturous and melancholic parts of the letters, but neutered what remained, changing words he considered indelicate, and removing vocatives such as 'my dear' and 'darling'. The impact of the new versions is disturbing, partly because they are so long and replicate with ghastly clarity the longeurs of separation, partly because they dramatise the difficulties Stevenson was having in defining the relationship. He tries out a number of names for Mrs Sitwell: Claire (from an autobiographical novel he was contemplating), Consuelo (from George Sand); Maud (Tennyson), Madame, the Lady Superintendent, Mother and, most often, Madonna. The names chart his own tortured modulations from suitor to friend, via son, acolyte and priest: the language is wild, gushing and horribly earnest - in a 'paroxysm of virtue', as his friend Baxter put it: 'O my dear, you know, you see - you must feel, in what perfect faith and absolute submission I am writing. ( . . .) Remember always that you are my Faith'.

There is a telling moment in the juxtaposition of one wildly rhapsodic letter to Mrs Sitwell with one to Stevenson's mother, both describing the same week convalescing in Menton. The former swoops from an opium-induced outpouring about the first violet (ejaculation is the only appropriate word) to pages of Werther-ish introspection, the latter - to his real mother - is given over to gossip, including the fact that he has been taking opium and became over-stimulated by the scent of the first violets. No Freudian would have trouble unpicking this, but there is something particularly interesting in his choice of enclosures: Mrs Sitwell is sent the single 'first violet', Mrs Stevenson a bunch of them: what is left over from the one will seem complete to the other.

Under the influence of Mrs Sitwell, and in the hope of pleasing her, Stevenson was struggling to produce his first magazine article, 'Roads', which was to direct him away from the law (he needed little encouragement) and towards writing. Nothing else he wrote can have cost him so much effort per paragraph. The new letters show the struggle going on all through 1873, the irony being that he could write of his difficulties with such facility.

By the time that Stevenson fell in love with his future wife, Fanny Osbourne, in 1873, he was an established minor essayist, but poor. His purpose in turning to other forms of writing seems to have been to earn enough to support her and her two children: without that spur there might well have been no Treasure Island; no Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, no Kidnapped, but just a succession of his beautifully-turned aphorisms in Cornhill magazine.

The second volume of letters ends with Stevenson, aged 28, in a state of suspended animation, waiting to hear from Fanny, who had gone back to her husband in California. There are no letters here to this pivotal figure in Stevenson's life; as he wrote of her to Colvin, 'All that people want by letters has been done between us. We are acquainted; why go on with more introductions? ( . . .) But between friends it is not so. Friendship is incomplete, and lives by conversation - on bits of knowledge not on faith. And I want to write to you for this reason, that I find I am losing my voice and can no longer declare myself in talk.' The fascination of this kind of conversation, presented to us now in an authentic form through this great work of scholarship, is almost limitless. Repossessed of his faults, his salty humour and his numerous spelling mistakes - 'I could not write to Myrrha - her name is so hard to spell' - this great writer is at last being allowed to have his say.

'The Collected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson' Volumes I and II

ed Bradford A Booth & Ernest Mehew are published by Yale at pounds 29.95 each.

(Photographs omitted)