BOOKS / The end of the line for the seraph in chocolate
THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON ed Bradford A Booth & Ernest Mehew, Vols 3 & 4, Yale University Press £29.95 ea ch THE TELLER OF TALES by Hunter Davies, Sinclair-Stevenson £17.99
Sunday 18 December 1994
Volumes Three and Four cover the early years of Stevenson's marriage to Fanny Osbourne. He signed himself "Uxorious Billy" even before his marriage, writing lightly of the privations he suffered in the months spent waiting for Fanny to divorce her first husband. Stevenson spent his life in the vicinity of death's door, but the prolonged crisis of health he suffered in California went almost unnoticed in the context of the emotional watershed he had reached, for his journey across America and marriage toFanny were the decisive acts of his life. The subsequent break with his friends and family is charted in painful detail, from Stevenson's exasperated cry "you don't understand: this is a test", to the machinations of his friends to get him back, even ifhe was encumbered with an ageing, strong-minded wife. Mehew's method of incorporating letters between other members of the Stevenson circle, both in the text and footnotes, is extremely revealing, showing the shrewish side of Sidney Colvin, the possessiveness of Henley, and the inability of any of them to accept the fact that Stevenson was in love. "My sympathies and interests are changed," Stevenson said in gentle rebuke to the sermons he received by post. "I want to be married, not to belong to all the damned clubs in Christendie."
The book which came out of this experience, The Amateur Emigrant, was greeted with horror by his friends, and suppressed by Stevenson's father, who felt it "unworthy". The sacrifice of the book (unpublished in his lifetime) was clearly an attempt to placate his family, but triggered an aimlessness in Stevenson's work which lasted through the two miserable winters he and his wife spent at the health resort of Davos. These years were characterised by wild plans, such as a history of the Act of Union, a biography of Hazlitt, and Stevenson's hare-brained application for the chair of History and Constitutional Law at Edinburgh University. All the time he and his step-family were living at the expense of the Stevenson parents, and under pressure to establishthemselves. The tone of many of these letters is embattled, almost paranoid. Their oddity comes from Stevenson's fixation on his second-rate works and casualness about his first-rate ones; he rhapsodised over his projected magnum opus about Viscount Dundee while dashing off Treasure Island on a wet holiday.
The fourth volume contains letters from Stevenson's residence in the South of France, where he described his life in a rented mock-chalet as "Eden and Beulah and the Delectable Mountains and Eldorado and the Hesperidean Isles". His spirits lifted so markedly that he could not so much as send a cheque to his old friend and literary agent, Charles Baxter, without breaking into verse, or pictures, or scurrilous pastiche. The charm of his letters - and there is a particularly delightful example in a previously unpublished letter written to Fanny's son Lloyd as if from his dog Chuchu - goes a long way to explaining why so many of the manuscripts survive. Ernest Mehew's achievement in collating and reassembling these texts can hardly be overpraised. Working from one end of the globe to another, he has recognised missing pages, restored lost paragraphs, dated and re-arranged on the most scholarly and rational bases, even recognising a probable mistake by Stevenson's first editor, Colvin, in the title of one of Colvin's own works. The footnotes are an education in themselves.
Mehew's work spells the end for the "Seraph in Chocolate" and its lingering aftertaste, strongly present in the tired old sobriquet for Stevenson, "Teller of Tales". This is a literal translation of "Tusitala", the name given him by the Samoans, but could be better translated as "Storyteller", or perhaps "Novelist". In the Gilbert Islands, Stevenson was called "Ona", a corruption of "Owner", in appreciation of the splendid yacht Casco. Ten years earlier, the Samoans would no doubt have called Stevenson "Contributor to Cornhill Magazine" - yet the portentousness of "Teller of Tales" persists.
Hunter Davies's use of the name as title prepares the reader for a book mainly devoted to "soaking up the atmosphere" at Stevenson sites around the world. Davies clearly had doubts about the interest he could muster this way even in a centenary year and,most unwisely, decided to pad out his book by sending his subject "little letters, telling him what had happened to the places he once knew". The results are toe-curlingly awful and silly, full of asides reminding Stevenson of what he did and to whom hewas related.
There is one interesting section at the very end of the book, an interview with Robert E Van Dyke of Waikiki, the owner of the world's biggest and most valuable collection of Stevensonia, but the rest is pure deja lu, alleviated by moments of unintended comedy such as Davies's helpful definition of "romance" for those who might think he means Mills & Boon, his description of La Trappe ("the church itself is totally church-like"), his revelation that "her feet were a quiet joy to Fanny" and his sombre chronicling of Stevenson's death: "Louis passed away, without regaining consciousness." "Uxorious Billy" would have been the first to laugh at that.
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