What sort of man?

P.N. Furbank

  • The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vol. I: 1854-April 1874 edited by Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehew
    Yale, 525 pp, £29.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 300 05183 2
  • The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vol. II: April 1874-July 1879 edited by Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehew
    Yale, 352 pp, £29.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 300 06021 1

According to Stevenson’s wishes, his letters were first presented to the public by his friend, the art historian Sidney Colvin. Colvin, described by Stevenson as a ‘difficult, shut up, noble fellow’, did the job reasonably conscientiously. He was, however, an arch-bowdleriser, using, as he said, ‘the editorial privilege of omission without scruple where I thought it desirable’ and painstakingly altering the novelist’s ‘bloody’ to ‘beastly’, his ‘constipation’ to ‘indigestion’ and his ‘God grant’ to ‘I only hope’. His own labours came to an end with the five volumes of letters in the Tusitala edition of 1924, since when innumerable further letters have turned up. Plenty of need, then, for a new edition, and the task was undertaken as far back as the Fifties by Bradford Booth. Indeed before his death in 1968 Booth had, with some assistance from Ernest Mehew, more or less completed it, but on what appeared to Mehew as faulty principles. Thus the present elaborate and magnificent edition, which is to run to eight volumes, is largely Mehew’s own work. One gets the impression that it could hardly have been better done, being beautifully laid out and organised, copiously and concisely annotated, and managing, by tactfully-dosed commentary, to achieve all the effect of a biography.

Ernest Mehew was in the news last year when, in the TLS, he delivered a flaming attack on Frank McLynn’s much-lauded biography of Stevenson. I must say I was with him on this, and especially over McLynn’s ludicrous vendetta against Stevenson’s wife Fanny Osbourne and her family. Perhaps there is something in the Stevenson story which gets people steamed up. I think there must be, as I have a problem of this kind myself. For the truth is – awkwardly, in the present circumstances – I find Stevenson’s personality rather maddening. As revealed in his letters he comes across to me as vain, attitudinising and self-dramatising, self-obsessed yet – to the very end – with very little in the way of self-knowledge.

I can see there must be something wrong with this reaction, and for the good reason that many people who actually knew him, including someone with so good a judgment as Henry James, found him utterly charming. The charm, if one thinks of it, must have lain in a kind of innocence, the insouciance of a born talker. He may have been all the bad things I have called him, but unaffectedly so and without calculation; if he was self-obsessed, he was unselfconsciously self-obsessed.

The effect he made on the Osbourne family, when they first set eyes on him, is suggestive. It happened in the artists’ colony at Grez near Fontainebleau in 1876. He came vaulting in through the inn window, and Fanny’s daughter Belle was instantly enchanted, deciding she had never heard such a good talker. As for Fanny, she thought him the wittiest man she had ever met – ‘only I do wish he wouldn’t burst into tears in such an unexpected way, it is so embarrassing.’ Next year she noted: ‘When he begins to laugh, if he is not stopped in time, he goes into hysterics, and has to have his fingers bent back to bring him to himself again; and when his feelings are touched he throws himself headlong on the floor and bursts into tears.’ Those who disliked him, with his velvet jackets and brigand cloaks and flood of random talk, would call him a bogus bohemian, but ‘bogus’ seems after all not the right word. The figure Belle and Fanny fell for was plainly genuine, a genuine eccentric.

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