The Double Life of Robert Louis Stevenson

His books still live for children and, the author argues, for adults as well
More

My principal qualification for writing about Robert Louis Stevenson is affection. He is the only author of whom I can say that I have been reading him all my life. Kidnapped was the first book I read that had chapters, and I can still recall the maroon binding and the weight of the book in my hand. At that time I lived with my parents in the valley of Glenalmond, at the edge of the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps Stevenson knew of that place, for Lord Glenalmond plays a role in his last work, Weir of Hermiston. I had only to look out the windows of our house to see the stark hills, the heather, and the bracken, the landscape so bare of hiding places, over which David Balfour and Alan Breck made their way. And in those years of genderless reading it never occurred to me that I could not go with them.

Besides being the first full-length book I read, Kidnapped was the first book whose author's name I knew. Indeed. I hadn't previously known there was such a thing as an author. Books had fallen from the bookshelves like leaves from the trees. I did not question their origins; they were absolute in themselves. But in the case of the maroon book the music of Stevenson's name impressed me. I also owned a copy of A Child's Garden of Verses. "My Shadow." with its mixture of observation and mystery, was one of my favorite poems.

Such early recognition might seem like a good thing for an author's reputation, but it is in fact part of the long process by which Stevenson's work has been devalued. That I and so many others came to his work so young has made us consider him a children's author from whom we have little to learn as adults. This opinion is one that his contemporaries would not have shared, either in his particular case or as a general rule. Victorian adults felt free to embrace so-called children's books without apology. Stevenson's father often reread The Parent's Assistant, a volume of children's stories, and Virginia Woolf records being taken to Peter Pan on her twenty-third birthday with no signs that this was a childish treat.

Like the shadow in his poem, Stevenson's reputation has waxed and waned at an alarming rate. The blaze of hagiography in which he died seems to have incited critics to special fury. F. R. Leavis, in The Great Tradition, dismissed Stevenson as a romantic writer guilty of fine writing, and the critical community in general has designated him a minor author not worthy of the serious admiration that we accord his friend Henry James. People comment with amazement that Borges and Nabokov liked his work. This year marks the centenary of Stevenson's death, and I am not alone in believing that it is time to reconsider his reputation.

Two obvious factors in Stevenson's fall from grace are quantity and fashion. The list of his publications is much longer than most people realize, but the few works by which we remember him do not constitute a recognizable oeuvre. And literary taste has swung in a direction that Stevenson disliked and did his best to avoid-namely, pessimism. While admiring the early Hardy, for instance, he hated Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and he took James to task for The Portrait of a Lady. John Galsworthy commented memorably on this when he said that the superiority of Stevenson over Hardy was that Stevenson was all life, while Hardy was all death.

There are, of course, more-crucial reasons why Stevenson's shadow has dwindled. He often falls short of our expectations of a serious novelist; his plots tend to be too simple in psychological terms and too fantastic in terms of events. The former problem stemmed partly from his theory of fiction; the latter he knew to be a fault and blamed on the tales of his childhood. Typically he worked on several projects at once, a sign of his natural prolixity but also of the difficulty he had in reaching conclusions. History, which gave him so many of his plots, was not so generous with endings, and in trying to invent them, Stevenson often either overreached the bounds of credibility, as in The Master of Ballantrae, or fell into flatness, as in Kidnapped.

The most complete account we have of his theory of fiction is contained in "A Humble Remonstrance," the essay he wrote in reply to James's "The Art of Fiction." Here we see him rebutting James's view that art should compete with life:

Man's one method, whether he reasons or creates, is to half-shut his eyes against the dazzle and confusion of reality .... Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, selfcontained, rational, flowing, and emasculate .... The novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material . . . but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant.

In fact many of his critics have brought just this charge against Stevenson: that in the pursuit of significance he departed too far from life.

I would argue that in his best work—most notably Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Weir of Hermiston—Stevenson, perhaps in spite of himself, failed to emasculate his art. He opens his eyes, and ours, to the confusion of reality, and what he shows us is something that the modern reader is vitally concerned with: the inescapable duality of our existence.

Shortly before his death Stevenson wrote,

I cannot get used to this world, to procreation, to heredity, to sight, to hearing; the commonest things are a burthen. The prim obliterated polite face of life, and the broad, bawdy, and orgiastic—or maenadic—foundations, form a spectacle to which no habit reconciles me.

He dramatized this spectacle with lyrical specificity and, as his work matured, increasing subtlety. And no one has ever described better what I saw from the window of my first bedroom.

HOW Stevenson grew to be preoccupied with duality can be seen in even a brief examination of his life. He was born on November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh. His father, Thomas, came from a line of lighthouse engineers. His mother, Margaret, was the youngest of the thirteen children of the Reverend Lewis Balfour. Louis, as the boy was called, had a formidable Scottish nanny, Cummy, who he later claimed was a major influence. By the time he was seven, the family had moved to 17 Heriot Row in the New Town of Edinburgh, a highly respectable address from which Stevenson later ventured forth to explore the more salacious neighborhoods of the city.

He began writing at an early age, dictating "A History of Moses" to his mother when he was six. Unlike me, he knew about authors and referred to himself as one. He read widely, not least history, and grew up vividly aware that Scotland was divided by both politics and temperament. The natural enmity between the cold, proper Lowland Scots and the fiery Highlanders informs much of his work.

His parents were proud of his precocious literary endeavors, but it never occurred to them that their son would be a writer, he was destined to be a lighthouse engineer. To this end Louis studied engineering at Edinburgh University—very lackadaisically, by all accounts—and accompanied his father to remote lighthouses, trips he later made use of in his work, especially Kidnapped. His parents seem to have tolerated his lack of studiousness, but in 1873 there was a terrible crisis when they discovered that Louis had lost his faith. Fortunately, they do not seem to have been aware that he also was involved with prostitutes. Partly as a result of these quarrels Louis collapsed and was sent to recuperate in the south of France. There, in a determined effort to improve his writing, he continued to play "the sedulous ape," as he described it, imitating Wordsworth, Defoe, Hawthorne, and Baudelaire, among others.

Over the next few years he wrote a number of essays, including a highly controversial one in which he took Robert Burns to task for philandering, and reached a modus vivendi with his parents. They gave him an allowance of about £80 a year, and he gave up engineering in favor of law. In 1875 he was admitted to the Scottish bar; his total earnings as a solicitor are recorded as four guineas.

The rapprochement between parents and son weathered even the scandal of Louis's marriage. In 1876, while visiting a cousin in Grez, France, Stevenson met Fanny Osbourne. She was an American, ten years older than he, and estranged from her husband. She had come to Grez with her two children, Lloyd and Belle, to recover from the death of her third child. Later Osbourne claimed that Stevenson fell in love with her at first sight. This seems to have been pure fabrication, but not long after this he visited her in Paris. Osbourne gave an odd picture of her volatile suitor "I do wish Louis wouldn't burst into tears in such an unexpected way," she wrote. He also suffered from cataracts of laughter the only cure for which, he claimed, was to have someone bend back his fingers. Osbourne and Stevenson almost certainly became lovers around this time.

In 1878 Osbourne returned to America and Stevenson, briefly, to Scotland. That autumn he was back in France, where he bought a donkey for sixty-five francs. He named her Modestine, and during their twelve-day journey in the Cévennes he reduced her value by nearly half. Later he immortalized her in Travels With a Donkey. We do not know on exactly what terms he and Osbourne had parted, but in July of 1879 she sent him a telegram. In the most romantic gesture of his life he set sail secretly for America. His account of the voyage and the subsequent train journey to San Francisco was so grim that his father persuaded him not to publish The Amateur Emigrant. By the time he reached Osbourne, in Monterey, Stevenson needed a nurse more than a wife. Their marriage, the following year, was described by both parties as taking place in extremis.

Fanny is a major battleground for Stevenson biographers, as two recent books—Robert Louis Stevenson, by Frank McLynn, and Dreams of Exile, by Ian Bell—demonstrate. Whatever came later, it seems clear that the unlikely couple were initially in love. For Stevenson, Fanny was the apogee of several significant relationships with older women. As for her, surely love was the only argument for marrying a sickly, impoverished writer. Later Fanny advertised herself as Stevenson's muse, collaborator, and nursemaid, claims that are vigorously, and often convincingly, challenged by Frank McLynn. Still, I find myself reluctant to apportion blame. Who can say who are the criminals in love? Stevenson lived with Fanny for fourteen years, and during that time wrote the works by which we know him.

For the first few years of their marriage the Stevensons shuttled back and forth between Scotland and the Continent, finally settling in 1884 in the English seaside town of Bournemouth. Louis spent much of the next three years in bed, and later described himself as having lived there "like a weevil in a biscuit." During this time he became better acquainted with Henry James, who came to Bournemouth to visit another invalid: his sister, Alice. The two passed from admiration into a friendship that survived a number of aesthetic disagreements. Why not write about women? James suggested. What about action? Stevenson urged. How different the work of each might have been if he had heeded the other.

In spite of ill health Stevenson was wonderfully productive. In rapid succession he published A Child's Garden of Verses, Jekyll and Hyde, and Kidnapped. By the time he and Fanny left Britain, in 1887, he was a well-known writer. Thomas Stevenson had died in May of that year, and with his death Louis felt free to go abroad. In August be and Fanfly sailed to America, and for a time they led an extreme version of the itinerant life that used to be common for writers. Eventually they made their way to the South Seas and Samoa, where in 1889 they bought an estate called Vailima. To the public this was the realization of the myth: the author of Treasure Island was now living on his own island.

Life at Vailima, however, was far from idyllic. Fanny, who had long suffered from nervous illnesses, became increasingly difficult, and Stevenson, though he was earning more than ever before, was worried about money. These anxieties go some way toward explaining why, in spite of his better health, so little of the work by which we remember him comes from this period. Not that he was idle—he wrote constantly, but mostly travel books and a history of Samoa, all of which provoked James to urge him not to squander his gifts.

Perhaps James was prescient. On December 3, 1894, Stevenson wrote fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon, and died in the evening. He was helping Fanny to make mayonnaise dressing, adding the oil drop by drop, when he collapsed. By dawn the following day the Samoans were at work cutting a road up the slopes of Mount Vaca with knives and axes. That afternoon his coffin was carried in relays to the summit.

TO map Stevenson's life is to produce a complex diagram in which we can see, I think, why dualism was such a central concern for him. As the bohemian child of conventional parents, as a Lowland Scot, as an invalid, as an exile, he was always living a double life, trying to be in two places, or two postures, at the same time, and nowhere more so than in his difficult relationship with his father. This relationship was for Stevenson the central dualism: his father was the prim face, he was the orgiastic foundations, and the resulting quarrel between them was simultaneously a great force and a great barrier in his work. In Treasure Island and Kidnapped he offered a preliminary solution to the quarrel by killing off the narrator's father—in the opening chapters of the former, before the novel begins in the latter. Until after Thomas's death Stevenson had trouble keeping fictional fathers alive.

Like many great writers, Stevenson was slow to discover his true subjects. "I sit for a long while silent on my eggs," he wrote. He was thirty when he began what would be his first success, Treasure Island. The genesis of the novel is revealing. The family was staying in the small Scottish town of Braemar. One rainy afternoon Stevenson drew a map of an island and began to make up a story to go with it to entertain his stepson, Lloyd. Thomas Stevenson was visiting at the time and enthusiastically contributed suggestions to his son's project. Early chapters were read aloud to the appreciative family. The novel went on to be serialized in a boys' magazine and was published as a book in 1883. It is surely no accident that Stevenson found narrative luck on the first occasion for which we have any record of his father's approval.

Stevenson's avowed aim in Treasure Island was to write a story for boys—“No need of psychology or fine writing," he said. Many readers, including James, praised the novel. Probably no one at the time, including Stevenson himself, recognized his most significant accomplishment. With the tap of Pew's cane and a few choruses of yo-ho-ho, he liberated children's writing from the heavy chains of Victorian didacticism.

One of the great pleasures of reconsidering Stevenson was rereading Kidnapped I came back to it hesitantly, nervously, expecting to take my seven-year-old self to task, and found from the beautiful, stately opening pages, wherein David Balfour leaves his home for the last time, that 1 was captivated. Alan Breck remains a wonderfully jaunty character, and I was struck afresh by Stevenson's gift for describing landscapes that both shape and reveal the actions of the characters.

Only after I closed the book did it occur to me that the story was set almost a century before Stevenson's birth. I attribute this oversight not to my obtuseness but to his genius. As he liberated children's literature from didacticism, so he liberated the historical novel from creaking obeisance toward the past. He presented the characters in a prose that is lively and lucid and, best of all, unstrained by nostalgia.

Jekyll and Hyde, the quintessential novel of a double life, was written "in a white heat" around the same time as Kidnapped, and had a long hatching period—Stevenson had known about Deacon Brodic, the eighteenth-century Edinburgh cabinetmaker on whom he based Jekyll and Hyde, since childhood. The novel, published in 1886, achieved something even better than good reviews; it became the subject of numerous sermons. Forty thousand copies were sold within the first six months, and since then the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has entered the culture.

To go back and read what Stevenson actually wrote is disorienting for several reasons. The novel is firmly in the romantic tradition wherein amazing events are reported by a dry-as-dust narrator. We tend to overlook the cold, silent lawyer Utterson who guides us through the story and who, precisely because of his reserve, is the best possible witness to the horror of Hyde. Part of our disorientation is not merely forgetfulness but the result of Stevenson's cunning design. The labyrinthine streets through which we pursue Hyde increasingly depart from the map of the known city. Slowly but inexorably we are being led into a strange country, where the relationship between Jekyll's prim white hand and Hyde's orgiastic hairy paw will be revealed. The two are not merely opposites, or alter egos. In Nabokov's helpful analogy Hyde is a precipitate of Jekyll. We might also think of him as Jekyll's son.

Critics have speculated that both Jekyll and Hyde are guilty of sexual misdemeanors. But I read the novel as essentially Scottish; the sins I attribute to Jekyll are the Edinburgh ones of secrecy and puritanism that governed Stevenson's youth and my own. Whatever the author had in mind, vagueness has served the novel well. Sin dates, and modern readers, although frustrated, we left free to imagine their own version of horror.

Between Jekyll and Hyde and Weir, Stevenson wrote several more novels, among them The Master of Ballantrae and David Balfour. The former is commonly regarded as his greatest full-length work, although the plot, about a life-long duel between two brothers, one of whom turns out to be an incubus, defeated even as staunch an admirer as André Gide. What is notable in terms of Stevenson's development as a writer is that the father remains alive through the first half of the novel and that the characters include a strong-minded, intelligent woman.

Both these promises are fulfilled in the unfinished Weir of Hermiston. Here Stevenson at last explored the quarrel between father and son and created two superb female characters. Lord Braxfleld, the notorious Scots hanging judge, was, like Deacon Brodie, a famous Edinburgh character. Stevenson became convinced that Braxfleld was his great subject, the one that would allow him to achieve the epic qualities his work to that point had lacked.

The plot combines the dazzle of reality with the, significance of art. Archie, the only son of ill-matched parents, is raised at Hermiston by his religious mother, who unthinkingly teaches him to criticize his father. After her death he moves to Edinburgh to live with his father, the judge. The crisis between them comes when Archie, now a law student, watches his father sentence a man to death.

Archie denounces the hanging as murder, and his father banishes him to Hermiston. There the older Kirstie, his housekeeper, falls in love with him, while he falls in love with her niece, the younger Kirstie. The idyllic pursuit of the latter, secret relationship is interrupted by the arrival of Frank, an lago-like figure. Frank discovers the relationship and, with the worst intentions, warns Archie against it. His advice is seconded by the older Kirstie, for very different reasons. In chapter nine we see Archie attempting to act on it.

From letters and notes we have an idea of how Stevenson imagined the remainder of the book. Frank was going to seduce the younger Kirstie. Archie would shoot Frank and be arrested. He would come to trial, and in some way—Stevenson was desperate to make this work—he would be tried by his father and condemned to death.

All this, whatever its credibility, does have the resonance of an epic. It is also Stevenson's profoundest exploration of duality. Finally he laid aside the subterfuges of the supernatural and created characters who are both in opposition to each other and at war within themselves. In his single person the judge upholds the polite face of society while remaining firmly rooted in the orgiastic foundations, and it is crucial to the tragedy that Axvhie is his father's son as well as his mother's. Here we see him describing his tangled feelings:

I will be baldly frank. I do not love my father, I wonder sometimes if! do not hate him. There's my shame; perhaps my sin; at least, and in the sight of God, not my fault. How was I to love him?... You know the way he talks?... My soul is sick when he begins with it;! could smite him in the mouth.

And yet, Archie goes on, he has asked his father's pardon and placed himself wholly in his hands. The two Kirsties also show us terrific vitality and subtlety of motivation.

That Stevenson died in the midst of this story is tragic; that he lived to write it at all is a marvel. The canon has taught us to value a body of work over a single work, but at this late date in the twentieth century, drowning in books, surely we can afford to esteem quality even when it comes without quantity. If Stevenson deserves a place in our adult lives, his reputation must, like a number of authors', rest on only a few works. As we love Shelley for Frankenstein, Di Lampedusa for The Leopard, Fournier for The Lost Domain, so we can love Stevenson for his vaulted ambition and because in those last days of his life, at least, he wrote pages worthy of that ambition and of our admiration. He worked on Weir of Hermiston intermittently from 1892 onward. The last words were dictated the morning of his death.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In