BOOK REVIEW / Samoa the merrier: 'Robert Louis Stevenson' - Frank McLynn: Hutchinson, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT IS Edinburgh, 1853. Wrapped in blankets, safe in the arms of his nursemaid, the infant RLS stares from his window into the winter darkness; the street lamps glow and he can see gas burning behind other windows, where other small, fevered children wait interminably for morning. When he was not kept awake by illness, Louis's nights were fragmented and fearful with nightmares. At the nursery fireside his devoted nurse told him tales of body-snatchers, ghosts and the vengeful God of Calvinism. These were supplemented by his father's bedtime stories and his dreams, tangled in monsters and Jacobite conspiracies, hooded horsemen, infinite tenement staircases. The romance of the past, the terror of the supernatural, the unrelenting anger of God provided an imaginative reality as solid as the cool Hanoverian terraces of the New Town, as menacing as the swooping wynds and seething slums of the old.

The awful weather and the marvellous landscape (Stevenson said that the climate made the Scot metaphysical), the Calvinist ethos of sobriety and the Celtic tendency to intoxication, the yearning for order and the desire for a world free from duty: all conspire to rack the Scottish psyche. So it was in Stevenson's day and so it is now. He found the sound of Edinburgh's sabbath bells one of the world's most dismal uproars, and by the age of 22 had fallen out seriously with his parents over what he saw as 'the disloyalty to Christian love' of Presbyterianism.

He did little work at Edinburgh University, but read and wrote for his own pleasure. He avoided most lectures on the grounds that the act of concentration might bring on brain fever. His father overlooked this as he assumed that Louis would be following him into the family tradition of lighthouse engineering. Their relations grew worse as Louis began to publish reviews in the Cornhill Magazine and wandered off to France, spending time with painters and loose women in Grez and Barbizon. He returned to Edinburgh and qualified as an advocate, but his legal career earned him only four guineas in his whole life. Money, 'ie happiness', was to remain a desperate desideratum and a humiliating tie with his parents.

But meanwhile, in Paris, he had met and fallen in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married woman 10 years older than himself. Fanny had left her faithless husband, Sam, in California and with two children was staying in the Anglo-American colony of painters at Grez. She was dark- haired and olive- skinned, a heavy smoker and a gun-

toting sharp-shooter. She had artistic pretensions but little talent. At first she was more attracted to Louis's beloved cousin Bob, who was himself more attracted to her daughter Betta. She clearly did have feelings for Louis, but was equally drawn by the prospect of his father's money. She returned to California to arrange a divorce from Sam, while Louis set forth on the walking tour in the Cevennes which became Travels with a Donkey. The donkey reminded him distressingly of his absent love, and when the book came out it was much criticised for its sexual overtones.

At last, Fanny obtained her divorce and in 1880 they were married. His parents were desperate that he should come home and offered him pounds 250 a year. His health had deteriorated under the stresses of his new life and he had experienced his first haemorrhage, but he was reconciled with his father. Years of travelling about Europe in search of the ideal climate for his chest problems ensued. Fanny also became ill, usually in places where RLS felt better. Despite gathering anxieties, he wrote constantly, short stories and then Treasure Island, his first public success. His parents bought them a house in Bournemouth and this was the improbable venue for the writing of Jekyll and Hyde. He achieved the first draft in three days while ill in bed. At last, with the death of his father, he had some financial security and he set out with Fanny, her son Lloyd and his mother for America and ultimately for the Pacific islands. In Samoa he found a climate which suited him; they built an extravagant house and made a garden and a farm. For a while Louis was wildly happy: 'There is nothing so interesting as weeding.'

They played cricket with unripe oranges, gave extravagant parties for native chiefs and visiting warships, and ran an extended household containing 19 island servants headed by the pleasingly named Henry Simile. For Stevenson this life had elements of the chieftain/clan relation of his chivalric fantasy and the island people appealed to his Jacobite sentiment. But he felt isolated from his literary friends, and he began to miss Scotland, 'that indescribable bite of the whole thing at a man's heart which is - or rather lies at the bottom of - a story'. On 3 December 1894 he suddenly collapsed and died two hours later from a brain haemorrhage. Such are the bare facts.

Frank McLynn tells the story vividly, with a well-judged accumulation of detail. He is particularly good at creating a sense of place, often using the words of Stevenson himself, whose wit, charm and astonishing courage dazzle throughout. McLynn also allows space to those whom RLS loved most: his father, his cousin Bob, Colvin and Henley. The glaring exception to this is his treatment of Fanny and her children. Fanny may have been a flawed and difficult woman, but it is inconceivable that Louis would have tolerated and loved her all those years if she had been the monster depicted here. The most damning thing Stevenson has to say of her is 'I am what she has made me . . . the embers of the once gay RLS', and this was in the midst of his row with Henley and during a period of deep depression, a condition which recurred throughout his life and alternated with euphoric serenity.

McLynn discusses the work to moderate effect, most interestingly when he traces the influence of Melville and most boringly when he becomes psychoanalytical. Stevenson knew himself and was his own modest assessor. Three of his remarks contain much of his essence: 'Man is not truly one but truly two'; 'What genius I had was for work'; and 'I ought to have been able to build lighthouses and write.'

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