A Head Full of Swirling Dreams

The short-lived Robert Louis Stevenson was perhaps the most comprehensively accomplished writer in the English language

Robert Louis Stevenson was a ham-handed playwright, a less than minor poet, a fitful journalist, and the author of several awful novels. What might have been his crowning masterpiece was never finished; only a scrap of his most ambitious project was ever published; and he died young, just as his work was sharpening and deepening in startling ways.

Yet Stevenson, born in Scotland in 1850, and killed by a stroke in 1894 as he made a salad for dinner at his house in Samoa, also wrote a timeless classic of young-adult fiction (Treasure Island), two and a half other novels of the first rank (Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston), a classic children's book of poems (A Child's Garden of Verses), and an exceptional travel book (Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes). He was additionally a fine essayist, a prescient political reporter, a skilled social anthropologist, a maker of historical fiction in the vein of his countryman Sir Walter Scott, an early practitioner of the modernist novel, a sharp-eyed chronicler of nature and landscape, a biographer, a historian, a prolific and hilarious letter writer, a composer of deft and poignant prayers, and even the author of horror stories. He created a handful of characters who are embedded in the popular imagination and culture: the cunning and complex pirate Long John Silver, the dashing and vain Scottish rebel Alan Breck Stewart, the bipolar Everyman Dr. Jekyll.

Stevenson was twenty-three when his first magazine essay appeared, twenty-eight when his first book was published (An Inland Voyage, his report on a canoe trip in France), thirty-five when Jekyll and Hyde made him world-famous, and only forty-four when he died in the South Seas. Considering the astonishing variety of his literary achievements, we might account him the best writer our language has known—or at least the most comprehensively accomplished. That is a remarkable epitaph for a man who in his mid-twenties was known in his native Edinburgh mostly as a rake, a failed lawyer, and a "horrible atheist," as his shocked and devoutly Presbyterian parents called their only child.

Stevenson wanted to be a writer before he could write. By age six he had dictated a history of Moses to his mother. By age ten he was inventing brief plays for a miniature theater he conducted with his cousin Bob. As a youth he was playing the "sedulous ape" to Hazlitt, Lamb, Defoe, Hawthorne, Montaigne, Baudelaire, Chaucer, Ruskin, and Swinburne—writing passages in their styles after reading their books, according to his own account.

All through my boyhood and youth, I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words ... [This] taught me (so far as I have learned them at all) the lower and less intellectual elements of the art, the choice of the essential note and the right word.

At age sixteen he wrote a brief history of the Pentland Rising, a Scottish revolt against England. At seventeen he enrolled at Edinburgh University, ostensibly to study engineering, the profession in which his family had earned national renown. The Stevensons were famed especially for their adroit work on lighthouses—beloved and crucial structures in a nation with so much rugged coast. But Louis, as his family called him to distinguish him from his exuberant cousin, was soon spending his time in bars, brothels, and the shabby offices of the student debating society, where he argued about literature and politics, and began to write the ornate essays he would later collect as Virginibus Puerisque.

It was soon clear that he was no engineer. His father insisted that he pursue an orthodox profession, and Louis dutifully passed his law examinations, was called to the bar, and entered the firm of Skene, Edwards & Bilton, in Edinburgh, where he practiced briefly and badly. In 1876 he embarked on a canoe trip through France with a friend, and very soon the law and the other travails of his life in Edinburgh faded away utterly. In France he found his voice as a writer, found a climate more suitable than dank Scotland for his ravaged lungs (he had suffered from lung disease since childhood), and found the love of his life—a married woman from a farming family in Indianapolis.

They met at the Hotel Chevillon, in Grez. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, married at seventeen, was thirty-six years old that summer, traveling with her son and daughter, separated from her repeatedly unfaithful husband, and mourning the recent death of her younger son. She repaired to Grez, something of an artists' colony, where one hot night in July she met Stevenson—in a scene that would not have been out of place in one of his dashing novels.

The hotel guests were gathered for dinner at a large table in the dining room; darkness fell as wine circulated and laughter rose. Then Fanny's son, Lloyd, age eight, heard a noise outside. An instant later a thin, dusty young man vaulted lightly into the room through the window and bowed to the gaping crowd. Stevenson wrote later that he had stood long in the dark outside the window that night, staring at Fanny's face, instantly smitten; and as the scholar Richard Holmes wrote dryly, "perhaps he did." Suffice it to say that Stevenson and Fanny were soon very much in love.

Her love sparked something great in him, some firming of resolve, some confidence of voice. Until his death, eighteen years later, whether confined to bed or not, he produced 400 pages a year, his cousin Graham Balfour wrote. In just his last five years, perhaps the healthiest of his life, he wrote what his biographer J. C. Furnas estimated to be 700,000 published words—about ten books' worth of prose, poetry, political essays, and prayers. His collected works, published posthumously, ran to thirty-five volumes.

Stevenson and Fanny courted for the next three years, in France and then in America, which he crossed by train to meet her in San Francisco. (Of Nebraska he wrote with amazement, "We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression ... To one hurrying through by steam there was a certain exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon.") Fanny finally procured a divorce in 1879, and the two were married in San Francisco in 1880, when he was twenty-nine and she forty.

They then set about over the next eight years trying to find a salubrious climate for Louis, whose health continued to deteriorate. They tried Switzerland, Scotland (where he began Treasure Island one rainy day after idly drawing a map of the island to amuse his stepson), France, and England (where he became a close friend to Henry James, and wrote and rewrote Jekyll and Hyde in a week).

In these years he was furiously busy—busier, perhaps, than he might have been healthy, for when out of bed and surrounded by visitors, he was a talker of legendary wit and range. A family friend remembered the first time she heard his voice.

Suddenly from out of a dark corner came a voice peculiar, vibrating ... I listened in perplexity and amazement. Who was this ... who talked as Charles Lamb wrote? This young Heine with the Scottish accent? I stayed long, and when I came away the unseen converser came down with me to the front door ... I saw a slender, brown, long-haired lad with great dark eyes, a brilliant smile ...

It was Stevenson at age eighteen.

He characteristically wrote beautifully of talking.

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk; to be affable, gay, ready, clear and welcome ... Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk; but the imitation falls far short of the original in life, freedom, and effect ... Talk is fluid, tentative, continually "in further search and progress"; while written words remain fixed, become idols even to the writer, found wooden dogmatisms, and preserve flies of obvious error in the amber of the truth ... [talk] is, indeed, both the scene and instrument of friendship ... the gauge of relations and the sport of life ... true talk, that strikes out all the slumbering best of us ... is founded as deep as love in the constitution of our being, and is a thing to relish with all our energy, while yet we have it.

Next the Stevensons spent a year in New York and New Jersey. But America proved no better for Louis's health than Europe had, and finally—perhaps in desperation, and certainly with a devil-may-care sense that he had better savor life while he could ("I wish to die in my boots ... no more Land of Counterpane for me")—Stevenson and his family chartered a private schooner and set out from San Francisco on June 28, 1888, for the South Seas, from which he would never return.

In the South Seas Stevenson found a near paradise: his health improved to the point where he could walk and ride for hours, and putter about in his woods and gardens until joyously exhausted, and spend much of his time (when not making notes for the vast book he wanted to write about the South Seas) outdoors—heaven for a lifelong invalid.

Soon he was a landowner in Samoa, having bought some 400 acres of highland forest, and the by now extended family—Louis, Fanny, her two children, her son-in-law, her grandson, and, eventually, Stevenson's mother—settled at what Stevenson called Vailima, or Five Waters. "We ... have five streams, waterfalls, precipices, profound ravines, rich tablelands ... a great view of forest, sea, mountains, the warships ... really a noble place," he wrote to a friend.

Here, over five years, leaving home only for brief voyages to Sydney and Honolulu, Stevenson wrote some ten books. Beset by writer's cramp, he often dictated to his stepdaughter, Belle, who was amazed at his ability to invent without ever faltering over a word. And the words poured out—novels, poems, travelogues. Many were left unfinished at his death; he liked to have several projects going at once, so that he could leap from one to another when his interest waxed or waned, as the scholar Philip Callow notes in a new biography, Louis, published last spring.

Some of these works were forgettable. But two were extraordinary: The Beach at Falesá, which he called "the first realistic South Sea story," and The Justice-Clerk, which was published posthumously in 1896 as Weir of Hermiston. In Weir, Stevenson's art rose to a new pitch—drawing together his beloved Scottish countryside and history with a heroine (Kirstie Elliott) who, unlike his previous female characters (mere plot devices), was a real woman—passionate, complex, and contradictory. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Jekyll and Hyde have no real women; Weir is something else altogether, and readers of both sexes have mourned its truncation. The novelist Lettice Cooper in 1947 called it "remarkable not only for the power and grace of the execution, but for the brooding sense of destiny which gives it the quality of a Greek tragedy."

Stevenson's early death only highlighted the melodrama of his life. And his legend—Christopher Isherwood sneeringly dubbed him "the Dying Wanderer"—long overshadowed serious consideration of his work, despite such eloquent defenders as Henry James, G. K. Chesterton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, Joseph Conrad, and Jorge Luis Borges. His virtues as a craftsman were ably summed up by James ("Character, character is what he has ... [and] a singular maturity of expression that he has given to young sentiments") and Chesterton ("All his images stand out in sharp outline; and are, as it were, all edges ... The very words carry the sound and the significance. It is as if they were cut out with cutlasses"). But not until the publication of biographies by David Daiches (1947) and J. C. Furnas (1952) did Stevenson the artist of startling range begin to emerge from the colorful legend that had made him merely a popular writer of headlong adventure, as the scholar Ian Bell observed in his excellent Dreams of Exile, perhaps the best of the modern biographies.

Stevenson had flaws, of course: his female characters are generally shadows and stock pieces; he was given to longueurs; and he wrote novels with Lloyd Osbourne that are worth reading only to try to catch Stevenson flitting in and out of the generally wooden prose. As an essayist he was inclined toward homilies and sermons; as a playwright he was forgettable; as a poet he was slight except for the perfect Child's Garden and a handful of lovely elegies; and the fiction he set elsewhere than on islands British or Pacific is forced (Prince Otto, for example).

Yet in his final years he pared away mannerism and airy throwaways; his essays tautened; his fiction opened to include well-drawn women; and his nonfiction, particularly the travel accounts collected as In the South Seas, brought all his novelist's gifts to bear on island kings, criminals, and politics—especially the crushing effect of imperialism on vulnerable cultures. That might have been his greatest subject in the end, for he dearly loved Samoa and Samoans, and saw very clearly that what was happening on his chosen island was happening around the world.

"You don't know what news is, nor what politics, nor what the life of man, till you see it on so small a scale and with your own liberty on the board for stake," he wrote to Henry James in 1892, while a savage little war raged in Samoa, and he was likely to be imprisoned or deported. "I would not have missed it for much. And anxious friends beg me to stay at home and study human nature in Brompton drawing-rooms!"

His epic account of imperialism and the death of native culture in the Pacific was never finished, as his great Scottish novel was never finished. But Stevenson left varied greatness behind him: pulsing, vibrant, charming, passionate, and exuberant novels, poems, travelogues, and essays that will live for generations to come. Some of that work is laudably passed aloud from parents to children, but much is also thrillingly found by young readers on their own, when they open a book by Stevenson and walk with Jim Hawkins or David Balfour into an adventure that has long outlived the lively Scotsman who invented it, stretched out in his bed with a pen and paper and a head full of swirling dreams.