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

LONG before his early death, both Stevenson's friends and his family - and by the time Fanny Stevenson had finished with them, the two groups were mutually exclusive and mutually hostile - clearly understood that he was a master, and would become an icon. When he did die, there was a sharp passage of literary arms in which the family, represented by Fanny and RSL's unpleasant stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, prised the task of writing his life from the biographer chosen among his friends, Sir Sidney Colvin, and gave it to their creature, RLS's kinsman Graham Balfour.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape