Book: Generally exhilarating

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The Independent Culture
When The eight-volume complete edition of R L Stevenson's letters appeared between 1994 and 1995, it proved so revelatory and met with such a delighted response, that it was clear it would only be a matter of time before Yale University Press commissioned a one-volume edition. The logistics of the project were intimidating: over 2,800 letters, with all their accompanying footnotes and editorial apparatus had to be whittled down to about a sixth of their original bulk, without significant loss of the complexity that made the complete edition such an enthralling read.

Ernest Mehew has accomplished this task magnificently and created a selection which represents the spirit and content of the whole very closely. This is not a "greatest hits" from the original (also by Mehew), but a carefully shaped separate edition, with revised linking narratives and new notes incorporating information which the excluded texts would have supplied.

Stevenson was a faithful correspondent, extremely generous with his time and his talents, and he strove to entertain. The informality of his letter-writing style, his rapid changes of mood, tone and subject, his ribaldry, wit and malleable Scots/English register have a charm like good company. Free of the constraints his self-consciously well-crafted essays and fiction demanded, Stevenson "becomes simply the most spontaneous and unstudied of human beings ... pouring himself out in all manner of rhapsodical confessions and speculations", as his first editor, Sidney Colvin, observed.

When Stevenson gets his teeth into an anecdote, few comic writers can surpass him. "Really the whole of yesterday's work would do in a novel without one little bit of embellishment," he wrote to his mother, "few novels are so amusing." Few indeed, including perhaps his own, the composition of which his letters show to have been a matter of difficulty and anxiety: "Be it known to this fluent generation," he wrote to S R Crockett in 1893, "that I, RLS, in the forty-third year of my age and the twentieth of my professional life, wrote 24 pages in 21 days: working from six to 11, and again in the afternoon from two to four or so, without fail or interruption. Such are the gifts the gods have endowed us withal; such was the facility of this prolific writer!"

Stevenson's forthrightness about the chronic difficulties he faced over his health, his work and his relationships sometimes disturbed his friends. Edmund Gosse called Stevenson "the General Exhilarator" (making him sound like a patent medicine) and cavilled at signs of depression: "I take you for my emblem in life, and you talk of feeling lifeless." "I may seem to you 'the impersonation of life', Weg", Stevenson replied: "but my life is the impersonation of waiting, and that's a poor creature." The peculiar loneliness of Stevenson's last four years, living in pioneer squalor in Samoa with his wife and step-family, was expressed not just in the matter but in the length and detail of his journal-letters to Sidney Colvin, which Mehew has had to abridge more than any others. The neurotic edge of these letters has been blunted, as has the painful quarrel with W E Henley in 1888 which took place entirely through the printed word.

All the childhood letters have been omitted, and all but one of Stevenson's "letters about Germans" to the Times that so irritated Henry James on account of their irrelevance to Stevenson's writing career; these decisions were sensible and right. Mehew, who has spent more than 25 years on Stevenson's letters, knows the material like no-one else, and no-one could have made a better job of it. The result - beautifully produced and astonishingly cheap - is a literary landmark which will give pleasure to generations of readers.