In His Hot Head

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman
    HarperCollins, 503 pp, £25.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 00 711321 8

Standing on the deck of the sinking Lusitania, the American theatrical manager Charles Frohman spoke his last words. ‘Why fear death?’ he was heard to say. ‘It is the most beautiful adventure in life.’ He may have been echoing J.M. Barrie, whose ‘awfully big adventure’ had only recently chimed with children of all ages. But the immediate circumstances – shipwreck, showmanship, early death – also bring to mind the life and career of Robert Louis Stevenson, another Scottish writer who looked at human adventure as a brand of metaphysics.

Nowadays, people with a heart for proper adventure (or ‘extreme sports’) like to load themselves with equipment and dive into the ocean looking for wrecks, and it is said that the best ‘wreck dive’ in Britain is to the Salsette, which lies in 43 metres of water in Lyme Bay. Today’s rovers of the deep are often to be found barrelling down the A354 to Weymouth, from where they can set out in search of that mixture of boyish thrills and lost time that lies under the waves of the English Channel. The Salsette, a P&O steamship of 6000 tons, was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat on 20 July 1917. John Liddiard, a British diver forever in search of a new discovery, says that the Salsette is ‘the Mecca of South Coast wreck-diving. Ask any Weymouth skipper and it seems that just about every charter group wants to dive this one.’

Robert Louis Stevenson’s afterlife has proved to be an adventure about an adventurer. Friends fought over his belongings, his writings, and the meaning of his character, from the minute he died, and people have never stopped imagining that his life tells a story of human endeavour mounted in the face of impossible odds. Every squeak and turn of his prose has been sounded out for evidence of the living man. I have in my possession a letter composed on black-bordered notepaper by his cousin Maud Babington. As it happens, it is dated 20 July 1917, sent from 11 Belgrave Road the day the Salsette was sunk, but the letter has nothing to do with that. It is simply another Stevenson family encounter with the question of what Louis meant, written to a correspondent who had theories of his own. ‘Dear Mr Riches,’ the letter says,

Frank Greene, one of my nephews, was with us the other day and I told him of our discussion about ‘Will of the Mill’. He at once, without any hesitation, announced that he agreed with your reading of it. He was not content with announcing his own opinion, but evidently set to work to find internal evidence to support it. Yesterday he came again and read us a passage from Graham Balfour’s life of RLS … I think you have the life so I didn’t copy the passage. Louis must have varied in what he intended to represent in ‘Will of the Mill’ – or ‘someone has blundered.’

Looking at the first edition of the Balfour biography – itself a contentious volume, taken out of the hands of Stevenson’s mentor Sidney Colvin, who had long intended to author it – we see some remarks about Stevenson’s intention in writing the story, yet we cannot guess at Mr Riches’s postulation, only remark that ‘Will of the Mill’, like everything else Stevenson wrote, has never stopped being subject to the rigours of his readers’ self-defining critiques.

Everyone has a view of Stevenson. His father said he was ‘stupid looking’. Edmund Gosse said he was ‘as restless and questing as a spaniel’. To William Henley he was ‘more the spoiled child than it is possible to say’. Henry James loved his writing – and loved mincing around its shortcomings – but saw him as ‘an indispensable light’. To others he appeared like a wraith or a tramp or a bag of bones, a hollow-eyed, coughing wretch. Henry Adams thought he looked like ‘an insane stork’, and to the people of Samoa in the 1890s he was a king or a sort of god, Tusi Tala, ‘teller of tales’. He is variously described by witnesses as ‘intense’, ‘frail’, ‘charming’, ‘restless’, ‘limp’, ‘passionate’, ‘scruffy’, ‘boyish’, ‘keen’, ‘emaciated’, ‘preoccupied’, quite often ‘attractive’, yet more often animal-like in the sheer strikingness of his animation. ‘He has still the air and manner of a young man,’ the journalist William Archer wrote, ‘for illness has neither tamed his mind nor aged his body. It has left its mark, however, in the pallor of his long oval face, with its wide-set eyes, straight nose, and thin-lipped, sensitive mouth, scarcely shaded by a light moustache, the jest and scorn of his more ribald intimates.’

No writer of the Victorian period has had more said about his appearance. Not even Oscar Wilde, who invited such remarks. We know nothing of Meredith’s complexion or the swell of Trollope’s chest; we are left innocent about the ankle-shape of Gissing, the eyes of Mrs Gaskell. Yet we are now duty bound to inspect the Stevenson corpus. We are led to see ourselves touching his clammy magician’s hands, and almost to imagine wiping the hair from his fevered brow. People have always had a very particular, not to say caricatured, image of the physical RLS, but none of them so alert as the one he presented himself. He was a sensitive Shelleyan plant, and he studiously lost himself amid the fierce greenery of his own self-image. ‘As soon as dinner was despatched,’ he wrote of his teenage years, ‘in a chamber scented with dry rose-leaves, I drew in my chair to the table and proceeded to pour forth literature, at such a speed, and with such intimations of early death and immortality, as I now look back upon with wonder.’

Stevenson’s life has come to seem one that can offer unlimited insight into the mysteries of literary temperament, as if he, practically alone, a hothouse plant, can indicate exactly what it takes to make a human being into a literary personality. This thought is not just an adjunct of his fame, but of the way he earned it: Stevenson lived like a genius and he died like one, 12 thousand miles from home. Every aspect of his talent was clouded in Romantic ether – the cough, the dreams, the night-sweats – and determined by the hold of memory and the pulse of freedom in his Scottish heart. Paler than Chatterton, camper than Shelley, the only son of 17 Heriot Row has given the world a notion of prose style inseparable from the life of the stylist, an image of a brilliant individual stretched on the rack of his own powers of imagination and goaded to high heaven by the trials of being gifted. Stevenson’s was a life full of creative compulsions – including the compulsion to be compulsive – and more than other writers he stepped into the role, appearing always to delineate in theatrical detail what it meant to be a writer in the modern world. What it meant to be a male writer, at any rate.

The first thing we see propelling him towards the writing table is a disapproving, put-downy father, Thomas Stevenson, who had been bred by three hundred years of Presbyterian wisdom and several generations of success in the family business of lighthouse engineering to feel that Louis was merely a time-waster in a velvet jacket. That in itself might have been enough to help Louis darken the page, but he also had a nanny, the infamous Cummy, who chilled his already thin blood with tales of Covenanting horror and warnings of damnation. Marry these things with a young life of fevers and hacking coughs; endow them with a family legacy of colourful, heroic endeavour on the high seas; plant them in the vibrant shade of post-Enlightenment Edinburgh, a city of damp closes and smoky memories and national trials; then, when all is done, give the boy a poet’s sensibility and a bottle of ink. He couldn’t fail to write. Everything about him contributed to his having the most alluring prose style of his day.

The very strange thing is just how well he wrote. Stevenson might have seemed formed to conjure with shadows in his own hot head, but he also knew instinctively how to write sentences that had texture, colour, grace and music. Here he is at 15, writing a wee squib about the Pentland Rising:

Master Andrew Murray, an outed minister, residing in the Potterrow, on the morning after the defeat, heard the sounds of cheering and the march of many feet beneath his window. He gazed out. With colours flying, and with music sounding, Dalzell, victorious, entered Edinburgh. But his banners were dyed in blood, and a band of prisoners were marched within his ranks. The old man knew it all. That martial and triumphant strain was the death-knell of his friends and of their cause, the rust-hued spots upon the flags were the tokens of their courage and their death, and the prisoners were the miserable remnant spared from death in battle to die upon the scaffold. Poor old man! He had outlived all joy. Had he lived longer he would have seen increasing torment and increasing woe; he would have seen the clouds, then but gathering in mist, cast a more than midnight darkness over his native hills, and have fallen a victim to those bloody persecutions which, later, sent their red memorials to the sea by many a burn. By a merciful Providence all this was spared to him – he fell beneath the first blow; and ere four days had passed since Rullion Green, the aged minister of God was gathered to his fathers.

‘Stevenson and Sons’, the maker’s mark on Edinburgh streetlamps (a company sideline), would always remind Stevenson of his failure to add to the family pride in a way which suited them. Instead, he sought the light elsewhere, denouncing God (‘you have rendered my whole life a failure,’ his father said) and fleeing first to France and Davos then to America and the Pacific, miles away from the reek of penitence and the Scottish rain.

It looks as though Stevenson was forced into being an adventurer by the weakness of his constitution, but one of the efficiencies of Claire Harman’s biography lies in the ease with which she shows his propensity for valedictory thinking. He was truly homeless, and in Fanny Osbourne he married another homeless person. Together they were a showcase of aches and pains, and their melancholic bulletins to family and friends demonstrate that there was something culpable about their unstoppable itinerising, their competitive sniffles. Fanny was mannish and strange, though there’s no reason to suppose Stevenson didn’t love her when they first met. In a sense she was what he needed, a person to count the pills, make the bed and talk about books, another Cummy, but he never quite fathomed her need to outdo him as a ‘professional sickist’.

Harman (like most of Stevenson’s friends) finds herself unable to like Fanny, though she might prove too efficient in seeing Stevenson’s various character traits as amounting to near-gayness. Just as he had everything it might take to make a certain sort of writer, he had much, too, that might make him susceptible to the love of men, but there is no evidence that Stevenson much wanted to sleep with anyone at all. ‘With someone like Gosse,’ Harman writes, ‘who was one of the many men enchanted by Stevenson, literary collaboration was a way perhaps of enjoying a strong homoerotic frisson in a safely non-sexual way.’ She returns to this later. ‘He had the power to make other men fall in love with him,’ she writes. ‘The list of sexually ambiguous and gay men who did find Stevenson almost mesmerisingly attractive is long, including Gosse, Andrew Lang and, later, Henry James.’ In literary terms, which were the only terms properly familiar to Stevenson, ambiguity was at the heart of everything, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is less an allegory of gayness than an allegory about human ambiguity, including that which fogs around sexual desire. Harman:

What Stevenson actually ‘understood’ about Symonds’s inclinations, or Gosse’s, or, later, those of Henry James … is unclear, but the fact that he never expressed surprise, disgust or puzzlement about any other man’s sexuality indicates that he was broad-minded, imaginative and perhaps experienced enough not to count this as an area of justifiable commentary. He can’t have been unaware of the homoerotic forcefield he generated. One has to assume that he rather enjoyed it. Stevenson was a man with an insatiable appetite for attention and affection.

It’s been said before, but all good novelists are one-part hermaphrodite, if only in the privacy of their own prose. Stevenson wasn’t good at writing women: there are none in Jekyll, and only a smattering across the varied landscapes of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae. Yet his writing seldom seems to suffer from any narrowness in that regard, except, more than perhaps, in the writing of Prince Otto, a shoddy book written to complicate his reputation as the author of ‘stories for boys’. In a letter he described a character he was developing, Countess von Rosen, as ‘a jolly, elderly – how shall I say? – fuckstress’. Well, I suppose that is pretty narrow, but Stevenson’s lack of good women characters did not, weirdly, prevent his writing from having a strong flavour of femininity. Stevenson’s style could never have led him to Madame Bovary, but it could, perhaps, with a dab of perfume behind each ear, have danced over the walls of Salammbô.

For all his verses, his childhood vapours, his vagabond adventures, Stevenson’s real job was to enlarge the psychological potential of the novel. He has nothing in common with Rider Haggard or Jack London. Stevenson’s imagination was filled with the uncanny. He was always aware of his ‘unseen collaborator’, his unconscious, and his prostrations with illness were part of a larger entanglement with mortality. The illnesses will always define him, but the truth is they got better with his true rise to fame after the death of his father. Fame is a calmant to some people, and Stevenson, for all his complaints about it, loved making money from his writing and loved being a star.

Harman does not, herself, seem to have set out to write a great or definitive biography, but she understands what it takes to write a book, and her descriptions of Stevenson’s delirious sprints towards (and away from) publication are always balanced with a good sense of what surrounded and provoked them. She makes far less imaginative use than she might have of Stevenson’s collected letters, edited with enormous love by Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehew and published by Yale in 1994, so that his relations with his friends, those long-suffering close-readers and near-lusters, never achieve anything of the density in her book that Stevenson accorded them in life. Stevenson has been too well served by journalists. What he requires, and what the extant material would allow for, is a great synthesis of RLS: a finely, historically contextual two-volume biography that might seek to pack every nook and cranny of his life with meaning. That has never happened for Stevenson, and in every case his biography becomes a boy’s own story, a Stevensonian trick to match the hoodwinkings that marked his own literary career.

Stevenson made a drama of himself. He knew readers approved of that, the business of cold physicality tearing at his imagination, illness threatening his high-flying hopes of the full-blooded life. In adulthood, there wasn’t a moment when he wasn’t aware of himself as a piece of literary characterisation; he was a pretty vital construction, one of his own countless works-in-progress, and he knew how to feed himself to the public. Here is the opening to Part One of In the South Seas:

For nearly ten years my health had been declining; and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and the undertaker to expect. It was suggested I should try the South Seas; and I was not unwilling to visit like a ghost, and be carried like a bale, among scenes that had attracted me in youth and health … Hence, lacking courage to return to my old life of the house and the sick-room, I set forth to leeward in a trading schooner, the Equator, of a little over seventy tons, spent four months among the atolls (low coral islands) of the Gilbert group, and reached Samoa towards the close of ’89.

Few of Stevenson’s many biographers, caught up as they always are in the marvellous story of his origins and peregrinations, dare to suggest that the whole Pacific episode that concluded his life was a mistake. His closest friends thought so at the time, and they were right. Stevenson’s lungs might have gained some benefit from the air of the South Seas, but his writing gained nothing much. It was a wasted and an unhappy time, one that added a great deal to the myth but little to his achievement. Oscar Wilde looked on Stevenson’s predicament with gall. ‘I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer,’ he said. ‘In Gower Street Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa he wrote letters to the Times about Germans.’ His old habit of not finishing things became paralytic in the company of red-breasted cockatoos and inedible bananas, and his marriage became a swamp. FFanny gave Stevenson some of what he needed, but in giving it she claimed the right to divorce him from his friends. He was frightened of her anger and of her claims over him, and she succeeded in wrecking his confidence about the value and loyalty of those friends who had worshipped and helped him. Harman brings these matters out better than anyone else has done. Stevenson could not control his wife’s resentments, sometimes he could not even look at them, though he knew how horrible they were. When her mind was still strong, Fanny’s rages meant much less to her than to him, and he protected her against the effects of them with less regard for himself. To his dearest friends, this process spoiled and emasculated Stevenson. ‘I begin to suspect that from the first I have given him too much,’ Henley wrote. ‘So much, indeed, that he has been conscious, when I myself have not, of a momentary transfer of interest from him to myself and my own immediate griefs and troubles. Such a perception as his is too feminine to be baffled; such an affection is too feminine to be endured.’

Stevenson took Fanny’s part in an argument with Henley over plagiarism. ‘I fear I have come to an end with Henley,’ he wrote. ‘The Lord knows if I have not tried hard to be a friend to him … There is not one of that crew that I have not helped in every kind of strait, with money, with service, and that I was not willing to have risked my life for; and yet the years come, and every year there is a fresh outburst against me and mine.’ Thus, the door was closed on some of the most sustaining relationships of Stevenson’s life, and he no doubt blamed his wife in ways that it might take fifty biographies of Fanny Osbourne to unravel. Stevenson had a genius for friendship, as the eight volumes of his letters attest, and the fabric of Fanny’s mind was not of the right weave to make of her a security blanket. He must have always known something of the sort: Fanny was his fate, as much as his wife, a confusion expressed as early as 1883 – 11 years before he died – in a letter to Edmund Gosse which follows on from news of Fanny being persistently ‘out of sorts’. The letter is written from Hyères, later described by him as the only place where Fanny had been happy. ‘The devil always has an imp or two in every house; and my imps are getting lively. The good lady, the dear, kind lady, the sweet, excellent lady, Nemesis, whom alone I adore, has fixed her wooden eye upon me. I fall prone; spare me, Mother Nemesis!’

Fanny was clearly an amazing person. Everyone had a name for her. Stevenson called her ‘the Vandegrifter’, as if she were a machine that might eat him up. To Henley she was ‘the Bedlamite’. The servants in Samoa called her aitu, ‘uncanny’. To a certain Miss Boodle, a neighbour in Bournemouth, she was ‘Sine Qua Non’. As Harman points out, Henry James couldn’t get enough of Louis and Fanny’s marriage; he was fascinated by how it worked, though he had no high regard for Fanny either, calling her a ‘poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady’. As so often in these matters, it was Alice James who caught the odd, particular power of Fanny’s outsized ego. She gave one, Alice wrote, ‘the strangest feeling of being in the presence of an unclothed being’.

Living so close to a dying man, and such a famous one, cannot have helped the already precarious balance of Fanny’s mind. By the time they are imprisoned in the heat of Samoa with their giant menagerie of layabouts, family members and unhappy servants, Stevenson shows the constant nervous edginess of a man who cannot get on with his work, while Fanny slides into emotional blackness, a condition Stevenson was slow to write home about. By 1891, though, his confidence was blown, and they were sleeping in separate rooms and taking separate trips. ‘I am gay no more,’ he wrote to Sidney Colvin. Later on, he added:

At first it only seemed a kind of set against me; she made every talk an argument, then a quarrel; till I fled her, and lived in a kind of isolation in my own room … I felt so dreadfully alone then. You know about F. there’s nothing you can say is wrong, only it ain’t right; it ain’t she; at first she annoyed me dreadfully; now of course, that one understands, it is more anxious and pitiful.

Harman:

Fanny was always ‘very ill’ one way or another, and had had plenty of nervous collapses in the past, from the breakdown following Hervey’s death [her grandson] to the ‘brain congestion’ of 1879 … Fanny was withdrawn, moody, obsessive (or alternatively, shrill and alarmist); she had attacks of angina, and ‘aneurism’, and was more than ever ‘ill to manage’ … Her work in the garden became manic, not pleasurable; she disrupted the rhythm of the household by being late for every meal, and she had started to find company agitating. Increasingly, Stevenson had to excuse himself from social events, or divert them away from Vailima, to avoid potentially embarrassing scenes when Fanny was in one of these dismaying phases … She persisted in misinterpreting Louis’s motives and loyalties in order to have something substantial to disagree with him about … ‘I am broken on the wheel,’ he wrote, ‘or feel like it.’

All of this had a horrid effect on Stevenson’s pages. He struggled to write a line that he could keep, and ‘there is no doubt,’ Harman writes, ‘the last three years of Stevenson’s life were deeply unhappy.’ One should not forget the muse’s life is seldom a happy one either. Fanny could never entirely handle Stevenson’s specialness while he was alive, and her own happiness, such as it was, came alive only with his death, in a house in San Francisco where she set up a protection service to his memory.

Stevenson is the homesickee’s homesickee. He travelled the world in search of a pure breath of air, but his greatest journey was an inward one, from one small island of memory to another. In his early days he drew a map to accompany the book he was then writing, Treasure Island. If you hold the drawing at arm’s length, the island he drew is shaped like Scotland, the grand, unknowable place where the riches were buried. The day he died, Stevenson did a few hours’ work on Weir of Hermiston, a novel full of troubling Scots consciousness and harsh weather. He left it in the afternoon in mid-sentence to help Fanny make a salad. ‘It is a singular thing,’ he wrote to J.M. Barrie, ‘that I should live here in the South Seas under conditions so new and striking, and yet my imagination so continually inhabits that cold old huddle of grey hills from which we come.’ It was too early for Barrie to have written Peter Pan, but he must, in the moment of reading this final letter, have pictured Stevenson like one of the lost boys, strangely detached from the familiar world of spires and rooftops yet living somewhere in a state of perpetual childhood.