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

THE CENTENARY of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson this month has provoked numerous publications, reprints and broadcasts, and anyone might be forgiven for presuming that the last word must have been spoken about him by now. "Since Byron was in Greece," Edmund Gosse once wrote to him, "nothing has appealed to the ordinary literary man as so picturesque as that you should be in the South Seas," and in the 20 years following Stevenson's death in Samoa, in December 1894, something approaching RLS mania broke out. When the first biography appeared in 1901, it provoked W E Henley's famously vituperative reaction against "the Seraph in Chocolate". The friend whom Henley had known so intimately and collaborated with for years had disappeared under a mass ofhagiographical half-truths, and it is only just now becoming possible to unpick them, with the continuing publication of Stevenson's collected letters in this masterly eight-volume edition.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas