Books Letters: Conversations with absent friends

THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON Vols 7 & 8 eds Bradford A Booth & Ernest Mehew, Yale pounds 29.95 each
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The Independent Culture
The final two volumes of Ernest Mehew's magnificent edition of Stevenson's letters (which was begun three decades ago by the late Professor Bradford Booth) cover the most intriguing and revealing period of the author's life, his residence in the South Sea island of Samoa from September 1890 until his sudden death four years later. Ill-health had taken Stevenson there, and the demands of a large dependent household kept him hard at work turning out books and articles, quite apart from the back-breaking labour of establishing his estate.

Samoa was no Paradise, as these letters show clearly for the first time in an unexpurgated form. And although Stevenson's inextinguishable pleasure in life animates every page, the presiding impression is of the chaotic nature of these years, with all their half-cooked, half-cocked schemes, delusions and disappointments, the disintegration of the former intimacy of his marriage and the increasing strain he felt on himself as a writer.

Samoa had not been a random choice. It had a monthly mail service by steamer to San Francisco, which was Stevenson's only remaining link to friends and professional contacts in England and America. But letters to England took a month and often disappeared in "the capacious maw of the Post Office", even when registered. "It seems absurd to write," Stevenson complained to one old friend. "We have every reason to suppose nobody ever receives them."

To counteract these difficulties, Stevenson began to write long monthly bulletins addressed to his literary executor, Sidney Colvin, which he hoped would be circulated among their mutual friends and also form the basis of a book about life in the South Seas. Colvin was an obvious but not a good choice as recipient; he did not approve of Stevenson's removal, or sympathise with his new preoccupations, and sent back carping notes about how boring it was to read of natives and hurricanes and pioneering in the jungle.

"Your infinitesimal correspondence has reached me, and I have the honour to refer to it with scorn," Stevenson replied, understandably annoyed, but in a way Colvin's disappointing response was helpful. It defined the fact that no real form of correspondence was any longer available to Stevenson, and, in a pivotal passage about imaginary conversations with absent friends, Stevenson stumbles on the truth that his "virtual" friendship with Colvin was not only more pleasurable than the real thing, but also more real:

"I scarce pull up a weed, but I invent a sentence on the matter to yourself; it does not get written; autant en emportent les vents; but the intent is there, and for me (in some sort) the companionship [...] I would not change my circumstances - unless it were to bring you here. And yet God knows perhaps that intercourse of writing serves as well; and I wonder, were you here indeed, would I commune so continually with the thought of you: I say I wonder for a form; I know, and I know I should not."

The physical and intellectual isolation that Stevenson suffered in Samoa had many effects, from the obsessional interest he began to take in Polynesian politics, writing a series of long and fairly impenetrable letters on the subject to The Times, to the systematic questioning of his own achievement. There was an aggressive new ambition towards realism in his writing, possibly fuelled by the difficulty he had in "explaining" Samoa. As a consequence, his non-fiction took on a rather dour journalistic tone: Stevenson's essays on the South Seas and A Footnote to History have never yet caught the public imagination and they differ violently in style from the charming, witty essays and travel books with which he first made his name in the 1870s.

It is also clear from his letters to Henry James and to Colvin in these volumes that however radical his ideas about writing, he was in no position to put them into practice wholesale. Constrained by the expense of maintaining the Vailima household, he was forced to continue producing commercially viable books such as the frothy romance St Ives and Catriona, the sequel to Kidnapped, while at the same time experimenting with subjects suggested by his new surroundings which he realised "that great hulking, bullering whale, the public" would probably reject on the very grounds of their novelty. He was also beginning to broach the problem of how to deal with sex in his fiction, a subject he had veered away from for years, knowing that anything true he could say about it would sound gross. When his story "The Beach of Falesa" was condemned as immoral, he wrote to Colvin, "I feel despair weigh upon my wrists."

Stevenson was intrigued to think of himself as "the farthest, I suppose, of all that ever blackened paper with printed English words", but his exile was impenetrable to all but the hardest travellers, and he knew he was never going to see his friends again. The voice of these letters is, subsequently, a voice soliloquising, sermonising, cracking dry jokes against itself and speaking as if from some ante-chamber of the after- life with more energy, resilience, and wit than ever before. Enriched by Ernest Mehew's faultless scholarship and editing, Stevenson's letters can now be read in their entirety, the most substantial and revealing addition to the canon since the author's death.