BOOK REVIEW / A seraph in chocolate: Godfrey Hodgson on the Oedipal struggle that marked Robert Louis Stevenson's life. 'Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography' - Frank Mclynn: Hutchinson, 20 pounds
Saturday 22 May 1993
When Balfour's biography duly appeared in 1901, seven years after his death, it made obeisance to a legend: that of the heroic, saintly artist, racked with tuberculosis, to which he would long ago have succumbed had it not been for the nursing of his devoted wife. The wife was predictably savaged by one of Stevenson's oldest friends, the poet W E Henley.
Henley might be, as he proclaimed in a poem favourite in his day, the captain of his soul, the master of his fate, but he was a poor earner and a worse manager. He had been reduced to accepting, not just Stevenson's charity, but his charity as scaled down in accordance with the wishes of his wife, who never forgave Henley for - accurately, but unwisely - accusing her of plagiarism. With unforgiving rage, Henley had his revenge, not only on Fanny, but on his former friend, whom he called the 'seraph in chocolate', the 'barley-sugar effigy' and 'the Shorter Catechist'.
In this magnificent biography, like a white wizard rescuing a victim turned to stone by the wands of wicked enchanters, Frank McLynn has freed Stevenson both from the barley-sugar myth of his wife's devising, and from the resentful calumnies of the enemies who were his friends. A good archaeologist must both know how to dig, and possess the flair to interpret what he exhumes. McLynn has both these qualities. Combing the sources, including the memoirs and the letters, but also the autobiographical elements more or less visibly woven into Stevenson's fiction, he has unearthed much that is little known, if not wholly new. Above all he has succeeded in looking past the distracting glare of previous interpretation of the man and the writer.
Not for nothing was Stevenson the creator of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. His whole life can be all too easily summed up in terms of opposite pairs: the sensual Calvinist, the Tory radical, the consumptive celebrant of action, the passionate Scot who chose to live anywhere but in Scotland. At the heart of these multiple contradictions, as McLynn interprets him, was the conflict between father and son.
Thomas Stevenson, like his father before him, was an engineer. His life work, and Robert Louis Stevenson more than once expressed his apprehension that it was a more worthy work than the writing of fiction, was the girding of Scotland's coasts with lighthouses - an archetypal Victorian achievement.
The author of Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae, romantic admirer of Jacobites and bitter foe of the modernisation of the savage South Seas, might not look like a typical modernist. Yet Stevenson's struggle with his father opposed religious scepticism to Calvinist certainty, sexual experimentation (McLynn believes that Stevenson probably contracted syphilis as a young man) to straitlaced domesticity, art to business. In short, his life was a classic instance of the Oedipal struggle against the values of the patriarchal bourgeoisie which was the essence of late 19th- century modernism.
Classically, too, RLS tried to escape from the tyranny of Scots Calvinist patriarchy into the bohemian liberation of Barbizon and Montmartre, only to submit to another domination. For the rest of his life he was subjected to the matriarchal despotism of Fanny, an American divorcee with two children to support and neither capital nor skills to do it with.
Frank McLynn takes a hard line with Fanny. He interprets her behaviour largely in terms of self-interest, indeed pretty much in crassly financial terms. It is true that, thanks to her extravagance and that of her children, RLS, for all his heroic capacity for work and in spite of inheriting a substantial fortune from his father, never had a day free from financial worries. Yet he adored her, and without illusions. That shines through the description of her he gave to J M Barrie, who had never met her. 'Infinitely little, extraordinary wig of grey curls, handsome waxen face like Napoleon's, insane black eyes. His passion for her was as romantic as any cherished by Jacobite chevalier for a Highland chief's daughter.'
McLynn may also underestimate her sheer insanity. Tout comprendre, tout pardonner. As Stevenson wrote to Colvin when her mental illness was no longer deniable, 'at first she annoyed me dreadfully; now of course one understands, it is more anxious and pitiful'.
This biography succeeds brilliantly in evoking the successive places of Stevenson's life: the parental nursery in Heriot's Row and the little boy trembling with terror at the vision of hellfire he was threatened with by his nurse; Barbizon and its rustic bohemia; the sanatorium in Davos, about which Thomas Mann wrote The Magic Mountain, and where John Addington Symonds, refined historian of the Italian Renaissance, spent his sickly hours scheming to seduce Swiss waiters and grooms; the endless 'fetches' of the South Pacific in which cosy schooners bobbed under 90-ft waves; and the Scottish magnificence of Vailima, his sprawling house in the forest.
He has brought to life the strange gallery of people: Fanny Sitwell, in so many respects a precursor of Fanny Osbourne, and her husband, the bloodless Sidney Colvin; 'Burly' Henley; the tormented parents and the awful, predatory tribe of the Osbournes. He has dealt intelligently with the work, that strangely flawed shelf of books: the wistful poetry, teetering on the brink of mawkishness, the immortal yarns, the growing grasp of the psychological and structural refinements of the novelist's craft; but also the unaccountable failures, the grotesque ending of The Master of Ballantrae, the ill-judged collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne on The Wrecker.
All this Frank McLynn does admirably. If there is some truth in the charge that this generation prefers reading the biographies of writers to reading what they have written, at least Robert Louis Stevenson was one writer whose life was as absorbing and as full of surprises as his books.
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