Robert Louis Stevenson: a biography by Claire Harman

And which Robert is with us today?
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The Independent Culture

The subtitle of the American edition of Claire Harman's excellent new biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, "Myself and the Other Fellow", expresses much more appositely than its bald British counterpart the duality that is present in so much of Stevenson's writing, as well as the multiple personalities that appeared to some contemporaries to co-exist within Stevenson's fragile frame.

The subtitle of the American edition of Claire Harman's excellent new biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, "Myself and the Other Fellow", expresses much more appositely than its bald British counterpart the duality that is present in so much of Stevenson's writing, as well as the multiple personalities that appeared to some contemporaries to co-exist within Stevenson's fragile frame.

Sidney Colvin, the professor of art who was perhaps Stevenson's closest friend, once wrote that he could "flash on you in the course of a single afternoon, all the different ages and half the different characters of man, the unfaded freshness of a child, the ardent outlook and adventurous day-dreams of a boy, the steadfast courage of manhood, the quick sympathetic tenderness of a woman". And in a sonnet by another, less faithful, friend, W E Henley, there is a similar recognition of the kaleidoscopic quality of Stevenson's character: "A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck / Much Antony, of Hamlet most of all / And something of the Shorter Catechist."

Stevenson crammed several lives into his brief allotted span of 44 years: as an Edinburgh engineer, following in the family tradition of lighthouse building, as a student reading for the bar, his long-haired bohemianism and velvet jackets somehow belying the seriousness of that profession, and then as a writer, not just of some of the most popular stories ever written, but of a versatility rarely equalled in his own time or since. Finally, his self-imposed exile in the South Seas, on his plantation of Vailima in Samoa, in an effort to halt the decline in his health (he had started to spit blood when he was 30 and had come close to death), invested him with a glamour that climbed to almost Byronic proportions among the natives and his readers left behind at home.

In the 1870s, when his work began to appear in periodicals, Stevenson's friends wondered whether he would excel as essayist, playwright, poet or historical novelist. In fact, he produced hundreds of works across all these genres - and initiated many others, which he never completed - but he achieved worldwide success with his "shilling shocker", The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde , published in 1886, when Stevenson was in his mid-30s. As Harman points out, this is a book, like Stevenson's other celebrated work, Treasure Island, so embedded in popular culture, not least through its manifold film and television adaptations, that it hardly exists as a work of literature. Yet her analysis of the book reminds us of the complexities at the heart of its gestation (the original idea came from one of Stevenson's dreams), its reception, and critical assessment. Jekyll and Hyde, so manifestly full of latent sexual meanings, is clearly an exploration of "doubleness"; but does the story deal with unspeakable homosexual or heterosexual practices, and how exactly does it pick up on Stevenson's own "doubleness" as an effeminate-looking man? The book became even more sensational in the wake of the Jack the Ripper murders, two years after its publication, when a stage version of Jekyll and Hyde was taken off at the Lyceum as a gesture to public taste.

Claire Harman appropriately puts the writing at the centre of her biography of Stevenson, in contrast to earlier biographers (all the way back to Graham Balfour in 1901, venomously attacked by Henley for having produced a "Seraph in Chocolate" in the authorised life) who have allowed Stevenson's vivid personality to obscure a proper respect for, and treatment of, his work. She skilfully weaves an understanding of Stevenson's literary borrowings, from his use of Scottish dialect to his interest in new scientific developments, into a beautifully shaped narrative. But equally, she possesses a tenderhearted appreciation of Stevenson himself. RLS has never been portrayed with such diligence and care, and part of Harman's skill lies in her ability to match the tenor of her own commentary with salient quotations from Stevenson's letters. Her portraits of Stevenson's nearest and dearest are also unsurpassed. The tiny, formidable Fanny Osbourne, who married Stevenson in San Francisco in 1880, comes across as only mildly psychotic while exuding her strange brand of sexuality. Her son Lloyd, Stevenson's stepson, is etched in nicely as a talentless sponger: using the Stevenson name in a dubious "collaboration" on a comic novel, and subsequently, after Stevenson's death, living off the wealth of his estate, enjoying fast cars, cruises, and the Côte d'Azur.

Stevenson's literary reputation has suffered because of his mass popularity, and his tendency to be dismissed as a writer of boys' stories. However, he has never lacked champions: Graham Greene, Italo Calvino, Nabokov and Borges have all saluted him as their master. This biography, searching and sympathetic, forms the perfect companion to the eight-volume Yale edition of Stevenson's letters, which appeared a decade ago. Both will play their part in the critical reassessment of Stevenson that lies ahead.

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