BOOK REVIEW / A Scot adrift in the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of exile - Ian Bell; Mainstream pounds 14.99

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'I AM a fictitious article and have long known it,' Ian Bell quotes Robert Louis Stevenson as saying. He meant that he knew his considerable fame was nevertheless slender, based on the appeal of his adventure stories and journalism, and a certain respect for the craft of his prose. Stevenson was a writer, to borrow his own distinction, who even with 'the most heroic industry', perhaps because of that industry, had not yet become an author.

But he was only 44 when he died, and he had become something else: the inventor of major modern myths, characters who leave their books to become legends and proverbs, recurring parrots and pirates, smooth-faced Jekylls turning, again and again, into hairy Hydes. It is not that Stevenson is now obscured 'behind an electronic veil', as Bell rather piously puts it. Stevenson is the veil, or part of it; he has become his adaptors.

Stevenson may also have felt that there was something fictitious about the biography he had created for himself, a Scot self-exiled to the South Seas, dying on Samoa with the winds of Edinburgh in his head.

'His feelings are always his reasons,' Henry James said, but the reverse was also true. Stevenson could always put his heart where his mind was; he was a passionate and rational anti-imperialist when few others were. But his feelings and his reasons were volatile, a play that he seems to have provoked but never fully controlled.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1850, to a family of ministers and engineers; battled against illness as a child; worked through illness as an adult. He often coughed up so much blood that his mouth was full and he could not speak. He married an American woman older then himself and took her children as his own. He travelled extensively in

Europe, America and the Pacific, surviving conditions that would have killed many a healthier person. What did kill him, in 1894, was none of his many previous ailments, but a stroke caused by a clot on the brain.

'Stevenson's was an enthusiasm for the other,' Bell writes, and for once that much-waved, much-italicised word makes direct sense. Stevenson loved his Samoan friends and was loved by them in return. 'We were in prison, and he cared for us,' an old man said in eulogy over Stevenson's body. 'We were sick, and he made us well. We were hungry, and he fed us. The day was no longer than his kindness.' Not everyone, even sick and reckless, would share a cigarette with a leper, casually passing it to and fro as courtesy required.

As early as 1872 Stevenson was arguing that American literature compared well with English - England seems to have been the one realm of the other which held no attraction for him - and he was famously interested in the others we create within ourselves. In a letter of 1887, quoted by Bell, Stevenson is very clear about the moral mechanism which releases the brutal and impatient Mr Hyde: 'The harm was in Jekyll, because he was a hypocrite - not because he was fond of women . . . The hypocrite let out the beast Hyde . . .'

Or, as Bell acutely glosses the story, 'Hyde is a monster not because he is an alien creature but because he is Jekyll, with his repressions dissolved utterly, out of control'. So Stevenson's enthusiasm for the other was not a static, self- flattering stance, a taste only for the exotic. Otherness, sought out and cherished, is precisely what our affection might in the end abolish, if we could manage to be honest and unstrangled enough.

This is an admirable biography, full of intelligence and scruple, and often beautifully written ('Stevenson's feeling for the movement of time, the way in which the texture of memory could catch in his throat, was a remarkable thing'). An interest in Stevenson has not turned Bell's prose to treacle, as he rightly says it does that of many Stevenson fans. Bell is particularly good on the haunting Scottishness of Stevenson's life and works, and the book's only faults, as far as I can see, are a slight over-indulgence in the would-be pithy phrase ('Sometimes he stared into the encroaching darkness') and a dour distrust of all mythologies.

The thing about myths is that they conceal truths as well as tell lies, and throwing myths out entirely is apt to leave us with no story at all. Stevenson's years of early manhood were not scandalous, Bell says, vainly trying to defeat an enduring Edinburgh legend. Stevenson was not the father of illegitimate children, not homosexual, not 'a Scots Rimbaud'. He was not, in other words, 'so very different from many other young men'. But he was different, and Ian Bell knows and shows it. What speaks here is Bell's modesty, not his belief.