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At one point during the great fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, some citizens left off protecting their own homes and businesses to ensure the survival of a house in Hyde Street where Fanny Stevenson lived. They knew that the structure was full of the manuscripts and papers of her husband Robert Louis Stevenson, who had died a dozen years earlier, age 44, leaving the world Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, among other works.
People enjoy writing biographies of Stevenson, because they are enthusiasts of his prose style and because, on the surface at least, his short life was so full of exotic adventures. He is especially associated with the South Pacific; he made three voyages there and finally settled in Samoa, where he died. For the same reason, writers as different as Gavin Young and Richard Holmes enjoy writing following-in-the-footsteps-of travel books about him. In Robert Louis Stevenson, A Biography, Clare Harman takes a deeper look than most and a stylish one at that.
Stevenson (he changed the spelling of his original middle name, Lewis) was a Scot whose ancestors, he joked, performed "character parts in the Waverley Novels with propriety, if without distinction." In modern times, his family were designers and builders of lighthouses, a career for which he too was destined, until the urge to write overtook him. Some of his earliest successes were travel books, about which, Harman writes, he "tended to speak lightly [...] but he brought sophistication to a form that had few notable practitioners (except Heine and Sterne, both of whom he venerated). An Island Voyage turned out to be about a frame of mind, and Travels with a Donkey a cautionary tale of how much effort and artifice were involved if the middle-class Victorian wished to get 'back to nature'."
In fact, he was one of those writers who worked in every form he could think of but left a long list of works uncompleted. In his own time, he was particularly admired for his essays, and like so many in the late 19th century he never stopped believing, mistakenly, that he could make a packet writing for the stage. Certainly he was always seen as a comer, a future titan, a person to be watched. Harman describes a meeting with Thomas Hardy as "an odd convergence of 19th-century literary misfits; Hardy the backward-looking modernist (10 years Stevenson's senior, but living on till 1928); Stevenson the forward-looking traditionalist (whose early death sealed him in the Victorian age). In the summer of 1885, they were both probably eyeing each other up as to who would prove the worthiest successor to Meredith, with whom both men were friends."
What Stevenson excelled at was prose narrative, and because his books moved right along, often putting odd characters in exotic or romantic settings, he was thought to be a writer for juveniles. It was a misconception he didn't discourage. His friend Henry James spoke of Stevenson's "coquetry of pretending he writes 'for boys'." Mark Twain had the same problem. In Stevenson's case, his appearance and his weak constitution (he probably had tuberculosis but died of a brain haemorrhage) added to the perception.
Harman writes: "'Boyish' is one of the epithets most often used to describe the emaciated, excitable, irreverent Scot, and this apparent youthfulness gave his brilliance a permanently precocious air, while his apparent frailty made [women] yearn to protect him. There was, of course, an element of this in his relations with [longstanding male friends] too, all of whom felt peculiarly possessive about his friendship and jealous of the intimacy he had found in marriage." Like so many marriages, his looked improbable from the outside. When the couple first met, Fanny was married to someone else and would be so again before finally settling down with Stevenson, with whom she lived in the deserted American mining camp described in The Silverado Squatters and happily went traipsing off-frantically, almost compulsively-to places like the Marquesas.
Being upper-middle-class and well educated, "Stevenson must have seemed utterly privileged, with his deposit accounts and debentures, free board at home, run of 'a country house' at Swanston, use of a barouche and constant holidays." But the more he shared his good fortune with his friends, "the more a taint of 'rich kid' hung about him, despite the obvious fact that he was often strapped for cash himself. Edmund Gosse [the author of Father & Son] remembers him at this time as trying to obtain a third-class ticket to Edinburgh by offering the ticket clerk a first edition of Swinburne's The Queen Mother, Rosamund."
In the past as in the present, all the really interesting people are complicated, sometimes maddeningly so, and Stevenson certainly had his dark side. The Jekyll and Hyde story, Harman says, resulted from "the collaboration of his conscious and unconscious selves. The fact that the story 'came to him in a dream' was always reckoned to be of significance: by the public, for whom it augmented or validated the supernatural content of the tale; by the promoters of the Stevenson myth, for whom it proved the author had super-receptivity to inspiration; and of course by Fanny Stevenson, whose 'management' of the dream-material illustrated her own pivotal importance in the composition of her husband's works." Indeed, Fanny's management included burning an early version of the tale.
The son of Percy Shelly and Mary Shelley was a great friend of Stevenson, who became almost a member of the family in fact, and so it's hardly surprising that the themes developed in the Jekyll and Hide tale "are strongly reminiscent of Frankenstein and the Prometheus myth; there were also, as critics were ready to point out, clear echoes of Poe's art doppelgSnger story 'William Wilson' and James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, with its overlapping third- and first-person narratives and its linking of the murderous, self-licensed Robert Colwan to his demonic alter-ago, Gil-Martin. But the dissimilarities between Poe and Hogg [on the one hand] and Stevenson [on the other] are revealing, too...."
The most obvious source of gathering clouds was Stevenson's understandably acute sense of his own mortality. His removal to different continents and unfamiliar oceans was a search for a healthful climate, and hence, for a sense of peace as well. "The physical and intellectual isolation of Stevenson's years in Samoa had many effects, from the obsessive interest he began to take in Polynesian history and politics to the systematic questioning of his own methods and achievements. The new realism in his work, possibly fuelled by the difficulty he had in 'explaining' Samoa to his distant audience, was not to find many appreciators until long after his death, and he knew he had to keep turning out stories in his own manner, as it were, and not just to pay the bills."
Harman, who does the kindness of pointing out to readers just where previous writers on the subject disagree with some of her interpretations, is an engaging literary historian who has also published lives of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Fanny Burney.
No one says this out loud, but this entire field is now in what most likely will be seen as its golden age. So many fine literary biographers are practising that the genre itself is the subject of books with surprising frequency. The most alluring, eccentric and thoughtful example I've come across recently is Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography by Dame Hermione Lee, best known for her life of Virginia Woolf, though she has published on Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen and others. It's based on a series of lectures given at Princeton and combines the qualities of careful prose and vivid conversation.
Her title derives from that ridiculous special-effects nose that Nicole Kidman was somehow persuaded to wear when playing Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's film The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name. Like so many others, Lee points out that "Nicole Kidman, even with prosthetic addition and fixed scowl, doesn't look very like Virginia Woolf. She looks like Nicole Kidman wearing a nose. She appears too young for the mid-forties author of Mrs. Dalloway, let alone the 59-year-old who kills herself. And she lacks charm. I wish something of Woolf's gleeful comedy, her hooting laughter, her allure, and her excited responses to people and gossip, had been caught. (It's a mark of Kidman's talent as an actress that those possibilities were so severely excluded: she could presumably have done all that if she'd been allowed to.)"
Lee is not being a pedant. Rather, she's meditating on the role of literal accuracy in biography, for-
"most biographical facts are open to interpretation. But they do exist, and lie around biographers in huge files and boxes, waiting to be turned into story. These facts have owners: they belong to the lives of the biographer's subject and the people whom the subject knew, loved, hated, worked with or brought up, or perhaps met once in the street in passing. All these people will feel a claim over the fact that concerns them. My first experience of being on the receiving end of this was to read, in a biography of my friend Brian Moore, that I and my husband got lost on our way to visit Brian and Jean Moore at their remote house in Nova Scotia in the mid-1990s, and had to spend the night in a hotel. No such thing happened, and-although this 'fact' didn't have the slightest bearing on Brian Moore's story, except as a useful way of describing how out-of-the-way the house was-I felt a twinge of outrage and bafflement on reading it, as though a tiny part of my life had been forever traduced."
Another excellent section of Lee's book is her meditation on the biographical role of body parts that become detached from their owners and seem to carry on a separate existence-for example, Shelley's heart, Samuel Pepys's famous gallstone and Einstein's brain. She might have added Whitman's brain as well.