Vol. 42 No. 10 · 21 May 2020


Andrew O’Hagan on Robert Louis Stevenson and His Friends

10,998 words

RobertLouis Stevenson was always ill, that’s what people said, and in the late summer of 1884 he decided he wouldn’t return to the South of France, where he’d spent the past year and a half in a house called La Solitude. His wife, Fanny, sought the advice of his London doctors, who recommended Davos in the Swiss mountains as being cholera-free, but Stevenson fancied southern England. Fanny’s son, Lloyd Osbourne, was at school in Bournemouth. ‘It was lovely autumn weather when R.L.S. and my mother arrived,’ he wrote many years later. ‘They were in the highest spirits; everything pleased them; and they seemed not to have a care in the world.’ The air was fresh and the pine trees reminded Stevenson of Scotland, the chief territory of his imagination. They knew the winter would be a problem for him, but he got through it, coughing, feverish, staying in several boarding houses before coming into possession of a villa in the new year. Just west of the town, it was a present to Fanny from Stevenson’s parents, who were pleased to see him settled – he immediately changed its name to Skerryvore, after one of the family lighthouses. The house, a yellow brick construction with a blue slate roof, stood on a rise at 63 Alum Chine Road, with a gorge at the end of the garden that ran down to the sea. Stevenson looked from the top window and saw his characters out there: Billy Bones, Long John Silver and the emerging cast of Kidnapped. The Channel was busy with the ghosts of real seafarers, such as the smuggler Slippery Rogers, who once came to Bournemouth in a boat rowed by forty men, carrying thirty thousand gallons of Dutch brandy. For decades, the ribs of a French brig stood on the sand – evidence, it was said, of a Napoleonic invasion that never happened.

Skerryvore, 1898

Stevenson had a copy of a book by Dr Horace Benge Dobell, On Loss of Weight, Blood-Spitting and Lung Disease. Dobell had been a consulting physician at the Royal Hospital for Diseases of the Chest. ‘I have not often derived more pleasure and instruction from a book,’ Stevenson wrote to him, confessing that he felt ‘but a wreck’ and was filled with anxieties, though he believed he had been right not to go to Davos, ‘to an air charged with germs’. Already the author of vivid dream narratives, Stevenson had reason to obsess over this. ‘I am not dead,’ he wrote, ‘but devilish down with this Influenza. It has run exactly the same course as the last … I am now at the cough stage and torn simply to ribbons.’

‘Seaside mania’ was a commercial invention, a reaction to the threat of contagious diseases and unclean air in overcrowded cities. The Victorian imagination was excited by the threat of pestilence and filth, sure that smog and rats, dirty waterways and sulphurous factory smoke – all those fetid conglomerations that seemed to merge with the violence of urban life – couldn’t be prevented from snuffing out the vulnerable. Dickens had brooded over it thirty years earlier but the London fog reached its peak in the 1880s. Health resorts and watering places, with their ‘curative’ sea air and salt baths, became meccas of specialised medical care and splendid accommodation. People built sanitariums and spa hotels, they planted palm trees and erected iron piers, as if one could promenade from restoration to decline, from cheerfulness to death, without it seeming so dark or sordid a journey. The hotels were white. ‘They come here to die,’ wrote the man who laid out the gardens by the pier at Bournemouth. ‘Let us make death beautiful.’ The Royal National Sanitarium opened in 1855, followed by specialised ‘homes’ for invalid ladies, or for consumptives who invaded the town on account of the ‘salubrity of the air’. Elegant Greek and Italianate villas began to crowd the cliff front. The advertisers called it ‘an Invalid’s Paradise, full of pines, ferns and rhododendrons’. The newspapers called it ‘a metropolis of bath chairs’.

‘Remember the pallid brute that lived in “Skerryvore” like a weevil in a biscuit,’ Stevenson wrote. Yet his three years there, the only period he spent in England, were the best years of his writing life, giving rise to a group of masterpieces as well as several mysteries about his own life. In Bournemouth, Stevenson found the core of his talent. It all started with a spirited exchange in print with Henry James. In September 1884, when Stevenson was new to that oasis of convalescents, he picked up a copy of Longman’s Magazine, which carried James’s essay ‘The Art of Fiction’. He knew James only at a distance, and admired him. Stevenson, who had published Treasure Island the year before, was 33, beloved of readers and worshipped by his friends; James was 41, known mainly for The Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller, examples of the ‘international theme’ he’d mined with such singularity. He was a solitary figure, an arch-stylist who appeared to live as a ghost in the varnished rooms of his own sensibility. ‘Singleness consorts much better with my whole view of existence,’ he wrote to his friend Grace Norton. He had always been charmed by Stevenson’s style, though he felt that Stevenson was a ‘shirt-collarless Bohemian’ and something of a ‘poseur’.

James had returned to England from America and was living again in his rooms at 3 Bolton Street, just off Green Park. ‘Instead of superficial contacts with the British upper classes,’ James’s biographer Leon Edel reports, ‘James began to form friendships of a more significant kind – with members of his own class, the writers and artists of London.’ There was something in the air of the early 1880s and he began to allow it to enter his mind, an air ‘full of events, of changes, of movement (some people would say of revolution, but I don’t think that)’.

When James wrote ‘The Art of Fiction’, The Bostonians was on its way to being serialised and he had set out on The Princess Casamassima. That’s to say, having written an ‘American’ novel he was following it with a ‘London’ one: the ‘international’ theme was on hold and he had become embedded in a new way in the English capital, with an interest in what might be called the price of political idealism. He composed the essay after a brief holiday in France, where he met several old literary confrères – Daudet, Goncourt and Zola. Their discussions appear to have gripped him. ‘We take less pains with our style than the French,’ he said. ‘We are less observant; our observation is less fine, less rich in shades and refinements and delicacies.’ Zola had remarked to him that the only happiness was at the planning stage of a book. ‘I spent last evening at Alphonse Daudet’s,’ James wrote to one of his editors, ‘and was much impressed with the intense seriousness of that little group.’ When Turgenev’s death was mentioned, James felt his companions’ work was missing ‘that larger humanity’. But they were serious and honest, compared with ‘the floods of tepid soap and water which under the name of novels are being vomited forth in England’. He liked these French ‘naturalists’ – these prose ‘scientists’, these ‘reporters’ – and they may have helped him onto a new footing. Back in London he went into the streets and was keen for the first time to capture passers-by and their shadows. He was ‘oppressed and depressed’ that summer, and his essay for Longman’s grew out of all of these energies.

It was prompted by a pamphlet, originally a lecture, by Walter Besant, which made the case for storytelling as a great art, as beguiling in its deployment of technique as painting and as harmonious in its own way as music. James was fine with that, but took exception to the notion that literature should have ‘a conscious moral purpose’. He asked only for form and for psychological realism. ‘Experience is never limited and it is never complete,’ he wrote.

It is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.

Yet he’d returned from Paris with a longing for literary vitality. ‘The air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel,’ he wrote. His essay cheers young writers on, pushing them, against English habits of gossip and insularity, towards an organic wholeness in their work. He argues for fiction that is unafraid of new subject matter and multitudinous perspectives, advising writers to try ‘to catch the colour of life itself’.

In passing, he mentions a novel he found ‘delightful’, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. After reading the essay Stevenson spent the next several days writing a reply – ‘A Humble Remonstrance’ – which appeared in a later issue of Longman’s. He wanted to speak about critical and rhetorical matters, and had planned a series of London lectures, if he was ever allowed out again. His elegant reply challenges James’s notion that literature must exist as a form of truth: for Stevenson, art is a thing in itself, in some ways the opposite of things as they are. ‘To “compete with life”, whose sun we cannot look upon,’ he wrote,

whose passions and diseases waste and slay us – to compete with the flavour of wine, the beauty of the dawn, the scorching fire, the bitterness of death and separation – here is, indeed, a projected escalade of heaven; here are, indeed, labours for a Hercules in a dress coat, armed with a pen and a dictionary to depict the passions, armed with a tube of superior flake-white to paint the portrait of the insufferable sun. No art is true in this sense: none can ‘compete with life’: not even history, built indeed of indisputable facts, but these facts robbed of their vivacity and sting.

Rather than lose himself among ‘phantom reproductions of experience’, the artist must turn from the ‘dazzle and confusion of reality’ and embrace ‘a certain figmentary abstraction’. Stevenson too would like to give helpful advice to young writers. ‘Life imposes by brute energy,’ he says, ‘like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience … First each novel, and then each class of novels, exists by and for itself.’ This isn’t exactly ‘art for art’s sake’, but it’s closer to it than to Edmund Wilson’s definition of Balzac’s role, as a ‘secretary of society’.

The friendship blossomed in letters. ‘My Dear Robert Louis Stevenson,’ James wrote on 5 December 1884, telling him what a luxury it was, ‘in this immoral age, to encounter someone who does write – who is really acquainted with that lovely art’. James concluded by remarking that ‘the native gaiety of all that you write is delightful to me, and when I reflect that it proceeds from a man whom life has laid much of the time on his back (as I understand it), I find you a genius indeed.’ Stevenson replied three days later, but he might have been writing the letter all his life. He made quick both with praise and with critical matter, discussing popular views on writing: ‘They think that striking situations, or good dialogue, are got by studying life; they will not rise to understand that they are prepared by deliberate artifice and set off by painful suppressions.’ Stevenson professed to find himself ‘a lout and slouch of the first water’ next to James, whose ‘every touch surprises me by its intangible precision’. Stevenson also provided James with a view of himself at Bournemouth and with an invitation. ‘I belong to that besotted class of man, the invalid: this puts me to a stand in the way of visits. But it is possible that some day you may feel that a day near the sea and among pinewoods would be a pleasant change from town.’

Skerryvore​ was covered in ivy. I visited its ruins a few months ago, and cut some that was still peeping out from the foundations; it now sits in a jar on my desk. There was an acre of garden in 1885, and Fanny Stevenson took a lot of trouble with it, making winding paths through the bushes and beds, planting raspberries, sweet peas, tiger lilies, Indian corn and all manner of tangled vegetables. Fanny was by all accounts a pretty tangled piece of work herself, and, at some level, she wanted life in Bournemouth to fulfil a fantasy of English bourgeois life, with Louis protected, their marriage artistic, and only a chosen few allowed to visit the house. ‘It was no uncommon experience,’ Stevenson’s first biographer, Graham Balfour, wrote, ‘for a visitor who had come to Bournemouth specially to see him, to find himself put to the door, either on the ground of having a cold, to the contagion of which it was unsafe for Stevenson to be exposed, or because his host was already too ill to receive him.’ Stevenson was housebound and houseproud. ‘Our drawing-room is now a place so beautiful,’ he wrote, ‘that it’s like eating to sit in it. No other room is so lovely in the world; there I sit like an old Irish beggarman’s cast-off bauchle in a palace throne-room. Incongruity never went so far; I blush for the figure I cut in such a bower.’ Fanny was delighted with the stables, the kennel for the family dog, Bogue, and the dovecote remembered by her son. ‘Through all my memories,’ Lloyd wrote in the following century, ‘runs that melodious cooing and flutter of wings on the lawn.’ At the front entrance Stevenson placed a ‘light’ in a model of the Skerryvore lighthouse, and he put a ship’s bell in the garden. (The original lighthouse was built by his uncle Alan, 12 miles south-west of Tiree.) Fanny put benches here and there, so that Stevenson could sit on sunny days with a writing board perched on his knee.

Sir Henry Taylor, a colonial reformer and poet-dramatist, had a villa in Bournemouth; he was 84 that year. He had an eye for talent, and had once been friends with Wordsworth and Coleridge – he described them, rather memorably, wandering the hills, ‘each irradiating each’. He also knew John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and Benjamin Jowett, the master of Balliol, who – Taylor said, again memorably – was ‘nervous and still, deeply learned, a silent reservoir with a gleam’. Taylor’s daughter Una later wrote Guests and Memories: Annals of a Seaside Villa, in which she captures the medicated atmosphere of a town full of doomed bodies and restive minds. ‘Villas, hotels, boarding-houses,’ she wrote, ‘all held their sad groups of “visitors”, sick men and women, with their pathetic entourage of anxious friends: “The people we have here are divided into visitors and residents. The visitors are mostly invalids. Death is the resident.”’ The Taylors became friends with Percy Shelley, the poet’s only surviving son, who had built Boscombe Manor, a grand pile with pillared porticoes that stood not far from the beach. Shelley kept his father’s dried heart in a box. It was said to have been plucked from the funeral pyre at Viareggio. There was a shrine to him at the manor: it included not only the poet’s heart but locks of his hair and strips of clothing, as well as a little book of Sophocles that was cast up on the shore after he drowned. The poet’s thespian son added colour to the semi-recumbent life of the town; he loved to throw theatricals and parties. In a place that was dead, or at least filled with the dying, he began to collect remains, and had those of his grandparents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, transported from St Pancras Old Church in London to the cemetery of St Mary’s in Bournemouth, where they lie today with his mother, Mary.

After a number of ‘thundering influenzas’ late in 1884, the warmer months had brought a period of relative peace to Stevenson. He was dosing himself with Calomel, or mercurous chloride, a purgative that was used to treat many common ailments – Stevenson swore it was the only thing that stopped the bleeding in his lungs. His collection A Child’s Garden of Verses was published (under the title Penny Whistles) in 1885, just as Longman’s started serialising his novel Prince Otto. He was ‘peddling in a corner’, he wrote to Edmund Gosse, ‘confined to the house, overwhelmed with necessary work, which I was not always doing well, and, in the very mild form in which the disease approaches me, touched with a sort of bustling cynicism’. He was still thinking about his exchange with James on the nature of fiction. ‘I own I think the école bête, of which I am the champion,’ he wrote, ‘has the whip hand of the argument; but as James is to make a rejoinder, I must not boast. Anyway the controversy is amusing to see.’

James​ first came to Bournemouth on 18 April 1885. His part in the town’s medical theatrics was to come via his sister, Alice. The youngest of five children and a sometime history teacher, Alice James at the age of 36 suffered from frayed nerves, was possessed of fierce resentments and longings, and was powerfully neurasthenic. ‘She likes to be shut up in her sickroom,’ Henry said, ‘exercising her wondrous rigour on too small a scrap of the world.’ She had the alabaster-and-crinoline look of the giftedly unhealthy, and she quoted from the new Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: ‘The wine of life keeps oozing drop by drop, the leaves of life keep falling one by one.’

For Alice, coming to England was a farewell to familiarity, and the struggle for life – and for attention, as if there could be any difference – would turn dramatic before she reached her end. She had relied on her brothers for love and had struggled with urges to kill her father. She was at war with her body, or her body was at war with her, but her ailments found a friend, and she found a lover (perhaps), in Katharine Loring, who accompanied her to England along with Katharine’s ailing sister, Louisa. With them, Alice sailed out of Boston Harbour in November 1884; she would never see America again. For reasons to do with Alice and reasons to do with England, she found her new life – her ‘career of invalidism’, as her biographer Jean Strouse puts it – quite workable. Once her brother had installed her in rooms at 40 Clarges Street, she didn’t leave her bed for nine weeks. The doctor ordered that her back be sponged with saltwater but could find no ‘organic trouble’. Yet Alice often felt that she was dying. ‘In her responses to her doctors,’ Strouse writes, ‘Alice was in part protesting against the limitations of 19th-century psychological science. She was also registering a complaint against men in general and “great” men of science in particular. And her reactions were charged with suppressed sexuality.’ There were mornings in Clarges Street when she could not make her legs work. Doctors arrived; some were loved; all were dismissed. Her case is now judged a failure of the times. She was written off as a hysteric but argued that the main problem lay ‘in my ability to assume the receptive attitude, that cardinal virtue in women’. ‘Her illness was a form of self-assertion,’ Strouse adds, and it was soon decided that she should go to Bournemouth, where they knew how to take such things seriously. Alice liked the ‘neutrality’ of the watering place and the sense of there being something to be gained from knowing everything is lost. In a sense she was used to the end-mongering of such places, because she had lived in one, in her head, since she was very young. ‘I had to peg away pretty hard between 12 and 24,’ she would come to write, ‘“killing myself”, as someone calls it – absorbing into the bone that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.’

She wasn’t always silent, and it was the situation with Katharine Loring that drew Henry down to Bournemouth. Katharine’s sister had weak lungs, and Katharine – ‘who appears to unite’, he wrote, ‘the wisdom of the serpent with the gentleness of the dove’ – was trying to look after Louisa and Alice at the same time. Alice was driven out of her mind by the arrangement: jealousy would quite literally convulse her and she lost power in her limbs every time Katharine left to help the other invalid. Eventually, the Lorings decided to go to Switzerland for a holiday. The decision appalled Alice and she responded with a spinal condition. ‘It rather strikes me as an effect that Katharine Loring has upon her,’ Henry wrote to his brother William, ‘that as soon as they get together, Alice takes to her bed … She has now been recumbent … ever since she reached Bournemouth.’ When the Lorings left for Europe, Alice could no longer lift a teacup. Henry hired a nursing companion and together they took the train to Bournemouth from Waterloo.

Deciding he must stay in the town, James took rooms by the pier. Bournemouth to him was ugly, but he found the space conducive to work, and it was a relief to be missing the trials and demands of the London ‘season’. Still preoccupied with the conversations he’d had in Paris, he wanted to ‘do’ London. He was thinking about anarchists and class differences, both subjects for Alice, who was more political in that way than he was. While planning chapters and staring off to the Isle of Wight, he contemplated the strangeness of his sister’s social relationships and her ‘views’. Twice a day he would walk the short distance to her rooms to be with her for twenty minutes. She did not enjoy his visits. She required them, and agitated for more, but felt he belittled her, as her doctors did. ‘It requires the strength of a horse,’ she wrote, ‘to survive the fatigue of waiting hour after hour for the great man and then the fierce struggle to recover one’s self-respect.’ Her brother in turn had no great wish to live close to her, finding people more tolerable in recollection, or in art.

One day​ he set out on a walk from the town (he was a good walker), made his way up the hill and along the Poole Road and eventually arrived at the villa at 63 Alum Chine Road, where he rang the bell. Valentine Roch, the Stevensons’ servant, mistook him for a carpet dealer who had let them down. First she kept him in the vestibule, then sent him round to the side entrance. Eventually a card was handed in and James appeared before the hearth. Stevenson took to him immediately, getting out the decent bottle of claret he’d promised James in one of his letters, meeting every comment with questions, courtesies, estimations and gaieties. Stevenson still had enough of his Scots accent for listeners to be in no doubt about his origins. That first day, he sat at the end of the dining table, rolling a cigarette with his long fingers. ‘He has still the air and manner of a young man,’ the critic William Archer wrote after his own visit, ‘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.’ James noted his intensity, his affability, reminding him of his brother William at a young age. Stevenson was dressed, as he often was, in a black velveteen jacket and a red tie, with an Indian shawl over his shoulders. The dining room, which they called the blue room, had a ‘post-Morrision’ beauty, Archer wrote. Above the fireplace there was an engraving by Turner of the Bell Rock. Two Piranesi etchings were nearby, along with portraits of Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. There was a selection of blue china plates, which James admired for their colour and their secret stories. In the drawing room, multiple small tables creaked with books, and a divan of yellow cushions was surrounded by Burmese gods and plasters by Rodin (‘the Zola of sculpture’). Above a sofa hung Sargent’s portrait of the Stevensons: the novelist pacing the floor while twirling his moustache, his wife like a ghost in the corner, wearing Indian dress. (Fanny apparently defined her own likeness in advance, telling Sargent that she was ‘but the cipher under the shadow, not expecting or wishing to be taken seriously’.) The chair she sits on had once belonged to Stevenson’s grandfather and was soon to be known as ‘Henry James’s chair’. After his first visit, in the middle of April, he returned most evenings. ‘I think there is no question but that he liked Louis,’ Fanny wrote to Sidney Colvin. ‘Naturally, I have hardly been allowed to speak to him, though I fain would. He seems very gentle and comfortable, and I worship in silence – enforced silence.’ To Fanny, the bearded, portly James looked like the Prince of Wales, and she was flattered by his nightly visits.

‘My only social resource is Robert Louis Stevenson, who is more or less dying here,’ James wrote to his friend William Dean Howells. ‘He is an interesting, charming creature, but I fear at the end of his tether.’ They loved to talk of books and bookmen: Stevenson, unlike James, was an admirer of Thomas Hardy, but they agreed that Tess of the D’Urbervilles was ‘vile’. James contended that Balzac lacked distinction as a novelist but had ‘a shopful of stuff’. After his day of writing and seeing his sister, James would walk up the hill to have supper with Louis and Fanny. He came to find the talkative Stevenson intensely loveable. James was well-clad in social appreciation, yet very few of his friends could make him laugh. At this point in his life, he might have swapped a little of his gravity for a touch of zest, and Stevenson cheered him up and pushed him on as a writer. ‘The mere thought of you is better company than almost any that is tangible to me here,’ James wrote to him. Right to the end of his life, he would broach no criticism of ‘Louis’. Each writer had his own system of evocation, but they shared a fascination with narrative style and with the progress of character, marrying them to language’s brightest resources. ‘Critics and readers rarely couple the names of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson,’ Janet Adam Smith would write.

In the houses where James’s novels are a long row in the study, most of the Stevensons are up in the nursery or in the schoolroom … Yet in their lifetime the two men were linked, not only by the closest ties of personal affection, but by a common concern for the craft of the novelist, and for the whole art of literature, that was shared by very few English-speaking writers of their day.

It seems that Stevenson brought James back to his surest principle, the recovery of the past. In A Small Boy and Others, James describes that commanding force some writers can emit, ‘the revisiting light’. ‘The part of life that he cares for is youth,’ he wrote of Stevenson,

and the direct expression of the love of youth is the beginning and the end of his message … Who, among the writers of the present moment, has the quality he has, so personal, so expressive, a style renewed at each attempt? … The colour of Scotland has entered into him altogether. He is a Scotchman of the world … His productions are a fabulous gospel of enjoyment.

Stevenson would spend the day in Fanny’s garden, sitting in a chair at the top of the chine, and as the light faded he looked out for James’s arrival. On 19 May 1885, their fifth wedding anniversary, Fanny made an American supper and they invited James as the only guest. ‘Our dinner was most successful,’ Fanny wrote to her mother-in-law, ‘our guest continually asking for double helpings and breaking out into heartfelt praises of the food. It was a sort of lady’s and literary man’s dinner; everything was just as good as could be, and under each napkin was a paper with verses for each person written by Louis.’

The poem for James, ‘Who comes tonight?’, speaks of the ‘air of life, the breath of talk’, and of their greatest visitor, ‘our welcome James’. To mark their anniversary, James gave them a Venetian mirror, which was immediately given a prominent place in the blue room. Stevenson wrote a second poem for James, ‘The Mirror Speaks’, later collected in Underwoods:

Where the bells peal far at sea
Cunning fingers fashioned me.
There on palace walls I hung
While that Consuelo sung;
But I heard, though I listened well,
Never a note, never a trill,
Never a beat of the chiming bell.
There I hung and looked, and there
In my grey face, faces fair
Shone from under shining hair.
Well, I saw the poising head,
But the lips moved and nothing said;
And when lights were in the hall,
Silent moved the dancers all.
So awhile I glowed, and then
Fell on dusty days and men;
Long I slumbered packed in straw,
Long I none but dealers saw;
Till before my silent eye
One that sees came passing by.
Now with an outlandish grace,
To the sparkling fire I face
In the blue room at Skerryvore;
Where I wait until the door
Open, and the Prince of Men,
Henry James, shall come again.

They​ also shared a fairly secret subject: money. It is not unusual for writers to speak to one another about money, and it was a pressing concern. James’s books did not sell well, and Stevenson, despite his popularity, was yet to free himself from the need for parental handouts. They both worked prodigiously, selling stories, novels and essays, but they had in common a near lust for the money that might come from writing successfully for the stage. Stevenson’s involvement with it was almost over, but James’s – which would include his worst humiliation, the first night of Guy Domville – was only just beginning. Neither man’s talent was especially well suited to the theatre: they both lacked stagecraft, and shared a habit of describing at length what their audiences could neither see nor feel. ‘The stage is only a lottery,’ Stevenson admitted to his collaborator W.E. Henley, and Fanny saw that the writing of mediocre plays was exhausting him. Henley brought the producer Beerbohm Tree down to the coast to hear a reading of Macaire: A Melodramatic Farce, and Tree, by his own admission, had to stab himself in the leg with a hatpin to stop himself falling asleep. James, on the other hand, was a serious theatregoer, and showed much more respect for drama’s aesthetic promises and technical effects. It is James who would live in a more complex state of enchantment with the theatre. Early in The Tragic Muse, the young diplomat Peter Sherringham, not yet in love with the actress Miriam Rooth, notices that ‘the plastic quality of her person was the only definite sign of a vocation.’ Later, he sees that ‘she was always acting, that her existence was a series of parts assumed for the moment, each changed for the next, before the perpetual mirror of some curiosity or admiration or wonder – some spectatorship that she perceived or imagined in the people about her.’ In his preface, James writes of a difference between himself and R.L.S. on the matter:

Stevenson was to write to me, I recall – and precisely on the occasion of The Tragic Muse, that he was at a loss to conceive how one could find an interest in anything so vulgar or pretend to gather fruit in so scrubby an orchard; but the view of a creature of the stage, the view of the ‘histrionic temperament’ … affected me in spite of that as justly tenable.

The theatre reminded Stevenson of being financially moribund, and he took it, when he had to, like the tannin and glycerine he took for his cough.

Writers compose stories not always because they have lived them, but before they have, or because they can’t. Alice, and a child’s illness, its relation to a great writer’s undoing, and the terrors of a bohemian marriage, were all there in a tale James had published the previous summer, before his sister came to Bournemouth and before he ever met the Stevensons. Spoken by an impressionable young American, ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ is about a writer called Mark Ambient who lives in Surrey with his wife and their little boy, Dolcino. Ambient ‘shrank from the rigour of the London season’ and his great novel, Beltraffio, ‘was a kind of aesthetic war-cry’. His wife, who has never read his great book, engages with him in a sinister struggle for possession of their child. Not only does she cosset him and create neurosis in him – as any parent might – but she attempts to ‘shield’ him from the mysterious laxity of his father’s art. In time, when Dolcino contracts a virus, she shields him from the doctor too and he dies. For all the author’s exquisite art, he cannot fight the will of his wife or reverse the destruction she wreaks. Frank Kermode saw the tale as allegorical, ‘the life of art versus the life of evangelical conscience ending in the sacrifice of life’.

James had heard from Edmund Gosse about the unsatisfactory marriage of John Addington Symonds, about Symonds’s ‘extreme and somewhat hysterical aestheticism, the sad conditions of his life, exiled to Davos by the state of his lungs’. James immediately saw potential in the material and made a note of it on 26 March 1884. ‘Then he [Gosse] said that, to crown his unhappiness, poor S’s wife was in no sort of sympathy with what he wrote; disapproving its tone, thinking his books immoral, pagan, hyper-aesthetic, etc.’ The idea developed in his notebook: perhaps the boy in his story would become ‘a victim to the tiraillements, the heavy pressure, of his parents.’* As he wrote it, James was worrying about Alice and her entry into his English life. What would be the cost to his work of having her so near, and what would be the cost to her of having a brother so devoted to what he wrote? Every great writer has a quantity of premonition, and so the narrator of his cruel tale comes from Waterloo, just as James would, to find a noted stylist in a suburban villa surrounded by his wife and family. ‘You would easily have guessed,’ James writes of the author of Beltraffio,

that he belonged to the guild of artists and men of letters. He was addicted to velvet jackets, to cigarettes, to loose shirt collars, to looking a little dishevelled … He was just enough above middle height to be spoke of as tall, and rather lean and long in the flank. He had the friendliest, frankest manner possible, and yet I could see that he was shy … There is a kind of charm which is like a death-warrant.

Almost immediately on getting to know them, James was fascinated by the Stevensons’ marriage. He was always looking for the ‘moral’ in a marriage, seeing sick people and children as possible hostages in the marital scheme. Louis and Fanny became a subject of conversation between Henry and his sister during their twenty-minute meetings. Fanny was like ‘an appendage to a hand organ’, Alice wrote in her diary, having met her in the street on one of her infrequent outings. Despite his kindness to Fanny in person, James found her to be ‘a poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady’. Yet, to everyone’s chagrin, Stevenson continued to trust his wife’s judgment. He had a tendency to split himself in two, making an exclusive version of himself for each party and calling it his true self. It was Fanny who kept him alive, Fanny who freed him into the mountains of his own mind, but it was James, that year, who gave him the lofty approval he required. ‘He often classified [Fanny] as “other”,’ Stevenson’s biographer Claire Harman writes, ‘indeed, that was the essence of her attraction for him – addressing her jokily in letters (“Dear weird woman”, “My dear fellow”, “Dear Dutchwoman”) and describing her as “the foreign specimen” in Sargent’s portrait.’ At Skerryvore he kept as much of James for himself as he could, and James liked it that way. He was attracted to Stevenson’s vitality in the face of death, and it seems he wished it to aerate his own vision and amplify his sense of freedom when confronted with his work on The Princess Casamassima and with Alice’s overpowering stasis. The friendship gave Stevenson a number of dualities to contend with – beginning with the person of his wife – and it was no accident that he gave the initials and Christian name of Henry James to the next and perhaps most lasting of his protagonists, Henry Jekyll.

Invalids​ in Bournemouth were relatively free ‘from that state of health commonly seen at coastal towns, and which I have been accustomed to call Marine Cachexia, a condition not hitherto distinctively described or referred to in medical writings,’ Stevenson’s doctor wrote (cachexia, literally ‘bad condition’, being a wasting away of body and muscle tissue, a weakness in appetite and general deterioration in metabolism). Stevenson himself called it ‘dry rot’. While he was propped up in bed with a ‘hoast-hoast-hoast of a cough’, he read the first instalments of The Princess Casamassima as they appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. ‘I think you are going to do it this time,’ Stevenson wrote to him.

I cannot of course foresee but these two first numbers seem to me picturesque and sound and full of lineament and very much a new departure. As for your young lady, she is all there; yes, sir, you can do low life I believe. The prison was excellent; it was of that nature of touch that I sometimes achingly miss from your former work; with some of the grime, that is, and some of the emphasis of skeleton there is in nature. I pray you to take grime in a good sense … dirt may have dignity; in nature it usually has; and your prison was imposing.

James admitted in a letter to Grace Norton in May 1885 that Bournemouth had ‘the universal British fault of being cockneyfied to death’.

But the air is splendid, the views have a certain colour, and I have so much to do, all day, that I am not thrown upon the place. I have a great resource, for the evening, in the presence here of Robert Louis Stevenson, who is an old acquaintance of mine, ripening now into a friend … He is deadly consumptive, and has not for two years been out of the house; is also married to a Californian divorcée older than himself, and wears on his emaciated person, ancient seal-skin garments of hers. But his face, his talk, his nature, his behaviour, are delightful, and I go to see him every night. He looks like, and reminds me a little of, Shelley – and Tasso!

The saga of Alice and Katharine Loring took a turn not long after. After many weeks of pining, there was a ‘cataclysmic attack’ when the nurse James had brought with him for Alice suddenly quit. Her previous experience had been in a London insane asylum, but with Alice she got into a tizz: she thought Alice was manipulative and morbid, selfish and unmanageable. James was forced to look for somebody else, but then Miss Loring promised she would return in a month to relieve Henry of the burden. ‘Katharine comes back to Alice for a permanency,’ he wrote.

Her being with her may be interrupted by absences, but evidently it is the beginning of a living-together, for the rest of such time as Alice’s life may last. I think that a conviction on K’s part at bottom, beneath her superficial optimism, that it may not last long, has something to do with these arrangements – for evidently it is a kind of definite understanding between them.

Edel thinks James was not convinced that the relationship was healthy. He accepted that there was something profoundly symbiotic in their ‘understanding’, but felt that Loring did ‘more harm than good’. Jean Strouse thinks James was wrong about them: in spite (or because) of Alice’s ‘tyrannical helplessness’, Loring loved her.

‘It is between themselves,’ James wrote to his aunt. ‘I shall devote my whole energies to taking the whole situation less hard in the future than I have hitherto.’ Out of kindness, and perhaps with some effort of concentration, he never showed his sister how exasperating she was. He brought her news from the world and gave her the companionship of his endlessly inflecting mind, which was never entirely separate from hers. ‘My nerves,’ she felt, ‘are his nerves.’ Though he was frightening, he was good at brotherly devotion. The Bostonians, which he had started while living with her in Massachusetts in 1883, is a saga of American traditions, in which he sought to explore the values of the age through Olive Chancellor and Verena Tarrant, who are attended by a chauvinist, Basil Ransom. ‘The whole generation is womanised,’ Ransom says. ‘The masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow sensibilities.’ The battle, as Alice was to present it by her actions and later in her own words, was between the modern and the reactionary. James never directly aired any views about his sister’s addiction to her illnesses, nor about their possible relation to a sexual relationship with Miss Loring, but it’s there in The Bostonians. It was this book, more than any other by James, that received criticism for taking too much from life: ‘When Henry described Olive’s disappointment, loneliness and deep humiliation,’ Strouse writes, ‘he drew on what he saw as Katharine’s full possession of Alice, knowing how desolate either would feel at the defection of the other.’

Stevenson, practically imprisoned at Skerryvore, was embroiled in many of the problems of James’s conscience and James’s career, as James was with his. Their letters to each other are flirtatious – Thomas Hardy later called them ‘those two virtuous females’ – but a hint of sibling rivalry sneaked in behind the mutual admiration. Stevenson encouraged James in his commitment to the totalities of art, but the teller of ‘boys’ tales’ entertained two separate minds on the value of reality, and he let his stories take up the slack. ‘The analogy between the life of the healthy man and that of the invalid suggested an analogy between art and life,’ Frank McLynn, another of his biographers, writes. ‘Yet Stevenson could never decide which of the two should be given paramountcy: his credo to Henley – that art was his pillow, that he could live without his wife but not his art – conflicts head-on with other utterances, where he implied that only a fool would prefer art to life.’

Yet it wasn’t beyond Stevenson to offer bait to James, giving him snippets from his marriage that his friend might find useful. ‘My wife is peepy and dowie,’ he wrote, ‘two Scots expressions with which I will leave you to wrestle unaided’ (they mean ‘dour’, ‘sad’, ‘low’, ‘mournful’).

She is a woman (as you know) not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine; and she has recently laboured in this field not without success or (as we used to say) not without a blessing. It is strange: ‘we fell out my wife and I’ the other night: she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear; presently it was discovered that there were two dead combatants upon the field, each slain by an arrow of the truth, and we tenderly carried off each other’s corpses. Here is a little comedy for Henry James to write!

‘This is a fellow novelist’s observation rather than a husband’s,’ Claire Harman notes. ‘That “(as you know)” is a particularly conspiratorial touch … This was Stevenson’s way of indicating that he had seen James watching the situation – and had been doing so himself.’ Stevenson and Fanny fought a great deal. During their time at Bournemouth there was some conflict over domestic roles, as if order under Fanny presented a deterrent to Louis’s adventuring spirit while at the same time releasing him into the passive, perfumed garden of the sickroom. ‘Life at Skerryvore,’ McLynn writes, ‘marked a watershed in his life, after which his debonair talents gave way to a more sombre sensibility.’ James watched this ‘little comedy’ and turned to it to furnish the blood and guts of a novella he published just three years later.

TheLesson of the Master represents a refinement of the idea, central to ‘The Author of Beltraffio’, that a wife may be presented as no friend to an artist’s productions, while really being their only friend. The young novelist Paul Overt, a ‘student of fine prose’, is keen to learn what he can from an older writer, Henry St George. Early in the story, Overt meets St George’s wife. He ‘would never have taken the important little woman in the aggressively Parisian dress for the domestic partner of a man of letters’, James writes. Such wives were ‘not necessarily dreary’, but this fifty-year-old woman, vital in herself, is reluctant to accept that she can have been a drain on ‘the head of the profession’. But for one thing. ‘I never made him do anything in my life but once,’ she says, ‘when I made him burn up a bad book. That’s all!’ Young Overt ‘had a great desire to hear more about the book she had induced him to destroy’. The presented facts are suggestive, alighting on what love, or domestic happiness, may pose by way of a threat or an aid to artistic production. Overt is persuaded by the older writer that great art requires a sacrifice, a renunciation of domestic security, and he accepts the advice and goes abroad. When he returns, St George’s wife has died, and the head of the profession looks handsome and young – ‘as if he had still a great fund of life’ – and is engaged to be married to the woman Overt escaped from. The young man feels tricked, and yet, looking at St George, comforts himself by finding him now ‘almost banal’. James offers a final twist: maybe St George, in the midst of his new, destructive ease, will yet produce a masterpiece, showing that he knew what he was doing all along. The book that his first wife burned was, after all, ‘about myself’.

Making an approach on his own ‘selves’, Stevenson found them late in 1885 by settling on the creative panic of a certain ‘H.J.’ – Henry Jekyll. ‘I had long been trying to write a story on this subject,’ Stevenson later explained,

to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of a man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature … For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.

Lloyd Osbourne was in the house at the time. ‘For three days a sort of hush descended,’ he wrote.

We all went about, servants, and everybody, in a tiptoeing silence; passing Stevenson’s door I would see him sitting up in bed, filling page after page, and apparently never pausing for a moment. At the end of three days the mysterious task was finished, and he read aloud to my mother and myself the first draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

I listened to it spellbound. Stevenson, who had a voice the greatest actor might have envied, read it with an intensity that made shivers run up and down my spine. When he came to the end, gazing at us in triumphant expectancy and keyed to a pitch of indescribable self-satisfaction – as he waited, and I waited, for my mother’s outburst of enthusiasm – I was thunderstruck at her backwardness. Her praise was constrained; the words seemed to come with difficulty; and then all at once she broke out with criticism. He had missed the point, she said; had missed the allegory; had made it merely a story – a magnificent bit of sensationalism – when it should have been a masterpiece.

Stevenson was beside himself with anger. He trembled … His voice, bitter and challenging, overrode my mother’s in a fury of resentment … When I came back my mother was alone … Neither of us spoke. Had I done so it would have been to reproach her, for I thought she had been cruelly wrong. Then we heard Louis descending the stairs, and we both quailed as he burst in as though to continue the argument even more violently than before. But all he said was: ‘You are right! I have absolutely missed the allegory …’ And with that … he threw the manuscript into the fire! Imagine my feelings – my mother’s feelings – as we saw it blazing up; as we saw those precious pages wrinkling and blackening.

It has been suggested that Fanny was horrified by the illicit sexual power of the first version and was worried for their reputation. The story was written again in three days, rewritten and polished over the following six weeks, and published soon afterwards to consternation, horror, panic and delight. It sold forty thousand copies in Britain – and a quarter of a million pirated copies in the United States. John Addington Symonds doubted ‘whether anyone had the right so to scrutinise the abysmal depths of personality’. The novella had grown out of Bournemouth as much as Edinburgh, out of Stevenson’s domestic and psychological, sexual and medical circumstances, and it arrived in a world as a born archetype, almost a myth. ‘Mr Stevenson achieves his best effects without the aid of the ladies,’ James wrote, ‘and Dr Jekyll is a capital example of his heartless independence. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr Hyde’s fatal ascendancy they remain altogether in the wing. The gruesome tone of the tale is, no doubt, deepened by their absence.’

Yet​ every absence is evidence of a presence. Adelaide Boodle lived on the Poole Road, a ten-minute walk from Skerryvore. She was 26 years old, one of seven girls. Her uncle, the Rev. Richard George Boodle, was a graduate of Oriel College, Oxford and a friend of John Henry Newman. In 1926, eight years before her death, she wrote a tender hagiography, R.L.S. and His Sine Qua Non, which pays homage to Stevenson, that ‘animated bundle of shawls and wraps’ who welcomed her to his house, where he taught her how to write. The first time she came to Skerryvore, in 1885, intrigued that a real writer should have moved in nearby, she was so nervous she cried in the porch, which was known thereafter as ‘the Pool of Tears’.

Adelaide captures his voice – he said ‘therefer’ for ‘therefore’ – and makes light of any troubles at the house. ‘For me,’ she wrote,

everything at Skerryvore partook more or less of the nature of a transcendent game. The whole episode of this glorious friendship was, in some sense, so much too good to be true, that nothing connected with it could be treated in everyday fashion. To be welcomed to the magic circle of which the Stevensons were the centre was to be lifted out of the rut of ordinary things; to serve them in any capacity was to don a sort of magic livery, visible only to their eyes and to my own.

He and Adelaide played the piano, most often his favourite composer, Schumann. Fanny said it exhausted him, but he loved Adelaide’s singing voice, and joined her in one of his favourites, ‘Sing Me a Song of a Lad That Is Gone’: he’d written alternative lyrics to ‘The Skye Boat Song’, about Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was writing Kidnapped at the time, in a state of ‘plaguey peevishness’, and Adelaide began to help him copy the story – a brilliant, rattling tale of blackguards and Jacobites. In return he taught her the rudiments of good style. ‘Last night he was very ill indeed with a high temperature,’ Fanny told Adelaide one morning.

Suddenly he sat up, and called out for you. I thought he was dreaming; but he repeated again and again: ‘I want her to come. I think she will understand. Please send round for her at once.’ When at last I made him understand that it was the middle of the night, he consented to try to sleep again. But this morning, as soon as I was up, he returned to the subject, begging me to lose no time in sending for you.

‘Now then,’ he told her. ‘Think about the place you love best: a house, a garden, anything you choose. See it first in your own mind, then, when you get home write a short description of it.’ He told her never to let a long sentence get out of hand. And never to bother with English grammar. He was a harsh and fidgeting teacher, but he cared for words and ideas as he cared for people, only slightly more so. ‘If you want me to see your gardens,’ he said to his pupil, ‘don’t, for pity’s sake, talk about “climbing roses” or “green, mossy lawns”. Tell me, if you like, that roses twined themselves around the apple trees and fell in showers from the branches. Never dare to tell me again anything about “green grass”. Tell me how the lawn was flecked with shadows.’ Such conversations, about craft, about character, became a constant.

During the weeks of his own nightly attendance at Skerryvore, James continued to think about The Princess Casamassima, and it seems to me that his encounters with the Stevensons, as well as his trials with Alice, brought a certain ‘solidity of specification’ to his vision. The ‘illustrative flora’ of life at Bournemouth is not mentioned in the novel, but it is felt in the gentle interplay between respectability and freedom, fine feeling and hysteria. He took all this experience – which he defined in his preface as ‘our apprehension and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures’ – and ploughed on at his desk.

In the drawing room at Skerryvore, above ‘Henry James’s chair’, was a portrait of Thomas Chatterton done by Una, Henry Taylor’s daughter. The Taylors’ Bournemouth villa, ‘The Roost’, was, according to one of their guests, ‘full of intelligence, cleverness and brilliancy’, a place where Sir Henry, with his long beard and red poncho (they gave Stevenson an identical one), listened to his guests without ‘systematic opposition’. Fanny encouraged the Taylors to come for pork chops and musical evenings. The Shelleys too would visit, though Stevenson would often be too sick to come down. For obvious reasons they had a painful awareness of early death, and the Taylors shared it. ‘Even my poor Louis is a thing to admire,’ Fanny wrote to Lady Taylor, ‘marching not only happily but gaily, with a quick step towards the end of his short life.’ ‘I was uneasy at my resemblance to Shelley,’ Stevenson wrote to Lady Taylor after reading Edward Dowden’s biography of the poet. ‘I seem but a Shelley with less will and no genius; though I have had the fortune to live longer and (partly) to grow up.’ (There’s gold in that parenthesis.) Henry Taylor died in 1886, allowing Fanny to contemplate, not for the last time, the way widows must survive to take the brunt of these things.

When​ James quit Bournemouth, returning to a London tinkling with broken glass, he thought often of Stevenson and those blue evenings above the sea. He would soon move to a new apartment at 34 De Vere Gardens and place Alice and Miss Loring in a house in Hampstead. There would be continuing anxieties with Alice (‘Katharine Loring leaves England presently with her sister – who has been most of the summer at Torquay – to spend some months at San Remo. Louisa is supposed to be much better, but still requires great care’). ‘I’m often on the point of taking the train down to Skerryvore,’ James wrote after Stevenson had also left, ‘to serenade your ghosts, get them to throw a fellow a word. Consider this, at any rate, a plaintive invocation.’

Stevenson had begun to dream of finding a faraway place that might be easier on his lungs, somewhere of grotesque and potent newness, such as painters see in their mad dreams of colour. Like Gauguin a few years later, he wanted to escape from all that was artificial and conventional, the bourgeois life of Bournemouth having become to him a kind of illness in itself. ‘I feel that a great change is necessary for us all,’ he wrote. He was in two minds about it, as he was about everything, but when his father died in 1887 it seemed natural to take his mother and travel from the old world. ‘Doctors seem to think a year in Colorado would do me good,’ he wrote to Henley. And Fanny corresponded with James, by then deep in his Italian paradise and pursuing The Aspern Papers, his story of literary intrigue and the private life. ‘Dear friend,’ she wrote, telling him that a Dr Balfour had ordered Louis to warmer climes for the winter. ‘He says that Louis can never be well again, and must always be subject to haemorrhages, but that he might have much more comfortable health than he has now.’ She understood James’s interests, his love of specification and detail, and spoke to him about Stevenson’s father’s will. ‘When everything is finished up,’ she wrote, ‘I suppose there will be about twenty thousand pounds capital. All this is for your private ear. There are many stories afloat … I have written you a long scrawl, but I thought you would like to know all I could tell.’

Fanny had noticed Stevenson’s closeness to Adelaide Boodle. When his father died, the girl had soothed him. ‘You told me,’ he later reminded her, that ‘those ugly images of sickness, decline and impaired reason, which then haunted me day and night, would pass away and be succeeded by things more happily characteristic.’ ‘She always seemed to me to be damping down “internal fires”,’ Fanny wrote, ‘and ready at any moment to burst into flames.’ Fanny was understanding of such things. She gave Adelaide the task, in their absence, of looking after the doves and the pigeons, telling her to break the ponds that froze in winter so that they could drink. ‘She charged me also to keep a friendly eye upon sundry stray cats from Alum Chine,’ Adelaide wrote, ‘who, when their precarious rations ran short, were apt to haunt the garden at Skerryvore.’ With hedgehogs and a couple of dogs’ graves to keep an eye on too, Adelaide was given the name ‘Gamekeeper’ – Stevenson signing himself ‘Your Intemperate Squire’ – and for years afterwards she imagined herself to be the last of the menagerie, looking out for lonely creatures in the garden.

On 18 August 1887, Fanny went to London to prepare for the Stevensons’ passage to America. Louis was too ill to manage the train and stayed on at Skerryvore for two days on his own. He wandered through the house, hearing faint music, and sat in Henry James’s chair, feeling, he said, how his heart longed. We can’t know whether it longed for Fanny or the future, for the sunshine of Adelaide, for a life not lived, or merely for the conversation of Henry James. ‘Here I am in this dismantled house hoping to leave tomorrow,’ he wrote to Sidney Colvin, with whom he’d had a falling out, ‘yet still in doubt; this time of my life is at an end … The last day – the last evening … with a sad, but God knows, nowise a bitter heart; I wish I could say with hope.’ Several of Stevenson’s friends felt that the move to America was a mistake bred by Fanny’s jealous care, and the idea disturbed him, filling the house with echoes of old arguments and fears. The next day, when it was time to leave, Stevenson suddenly felt he loved Skerryvore and Bournemouth, and burst into tears at the door as he said farewell to the housekeeper and the maid. Adelaide gave him a paper knife. ‘The shadows were closing in upon our lives,’ she wrote, 35 years later. ‘But none who were ever made to feel at home there can believe that its far-reaching lights will fail us.’

Stevenson’s position now ‘might have daunted any man’s spirit’, Edmund Gosse wrote. He was ‘doomed to exile, in miserable health, starting vaguely across the Atlantic, with all his domestic interests rooted up … If ever a man of imagination could be excused for repining, it was now. But Louis showed no white feather.’ James had a case of champagne delivered to their stateroom on the Ludgate Hill. Stevenson was delighted by the present and by the symbolism: they were leaving society behind. They would end up far down in the Pacific, the rigours of a basic life in Samoa marking the last breach with the world of bourgeois order that he had striven to create with Fanny in Bournemouth. ‘He found, after a wonderful, adventurous quest,’ James wrote,

the treasure island, the climatic paradise that met, that enhanced, his possibilities, and with this discovery was ushered in his completely full and rich period, the time in which his genius and his character most overflowed. He had done as well for himself in his appropriation of Samoa as if he had done it for the hero of a novel, only with the complications and braveries actual and palpable.

It was a journey over life and mind that, in James’s words, ‘placed in supreme relief his affinity with the universal romantic’. There are those – I’m one of them – who suspect Samoa was bad for him, but we must be missing something, for it gave him access to new territories in himself.

Stevenson died on 3 December 1894 on the island of Upolu, in his study, where he had been working that morning on his novel Weir of Hermiston. After writing the words, ‘It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature,’ he put down his pen, and he collapsed later that day. The death that had long threatened him arrived without notice. James was inconsolable and remained that way for a long time. ‘I was haunted indeed with a sense that I should never again see him,’ he wrote, ‘but it was one of the best things in life that he was there, or that one had him … He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination.’ James was among those of us who are greatly affected by the deaths of others. He never forgot his cousin Minnie Temple, or his brother Wilky, or Alice, who ‘died in London at the age of 43, regretting only that she would not have the pleasure of knowing and reporting herself dead’.

James had 22 years to live. He would look back at Bournemouth as a time of special dreaming, a time when his sister and his friend – ailing at opposite ends of the town – drew him out and tested his love and gave him matter to dwell on. In just a few years, Robert Louis Stevenson, the singular R.L.S, would become a thing of publicity and history. For his own part, James could reach back into the vanished evenings of that time, and speak about literary vision, about the way ‘the rarest works pop out of the dusk of the inscrutable, the untracked.’ In 1916, close to his own death in Carlyle Mansions, he dictated a series of not quite coherent letters to his secretary, Miss Bosanquet. He spoke in the voice of Napoleon, addressed his late brother and sister, and ‘wandered off’, Edel writes, ‘to allude to … the great R.L.S. of those days’. There was a surge of words, a stream of consciousness, the shards of broken plates lapping up on the shore.

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Vol. 42 No. 12 · 18 June 2020

In his excellent essay about Robert Louis Stevenson and his friends, Andrew O’Hagan misconstrues a quotation from my book on Alice James (LRB, 21 May). O’Hagan writes of her brother Henry:

Twice a day he would walk the short distance to her rooms to be with her for twenty minutes. She did not enjoy his visits. She required them, and agitated for more, but felt he belittled her, as her doctors did. ‘It requires the strength of a horse,’ she wrote, ‘to survive the fatigue of waiting hour after hour for the great man and then the fierce struggle to recover one’s self-respect.’ Her brother in turn had no great wish to live close to her, finding people more tolerable in recollection, or in art.

Alice, in this letter to their brother William, was referring not to Henry but to the doctors (each a ‘great man’) who had failed all her life to solve her mysterious medical problems. The sentence preceding the one O’Hagan quotes is: ‘It may seem supine to you that I don’t descend into the medical arena, but I must confess my spirit quails before any more gladiatorial encounters. It requires the strength of a horse …’ She adored Henry, enjoyed his visits immensely, did not feel he belittled her, and, so far as I know, never referred to him sardonically as ‘the great man’.

Jean Strouse
New York

Andrew O’Hagan writes: I am a great admirer of Jean Strouse’s writing on Alice James, and there is no doubt that Alice was speaking about her doctors in the remarks quoted. However, it seems to me that her remarks about those ‘great men’ carry an inference about great men generally, not excluding those in her own fam­ily. That notion, to my mind, is supported by Leon Edel’s view that Henry kept his visits short because she was ‘easily fatig­ued’. By contrast, Edel immediately says, ‘he spent hours in happy talk with the euphoric Stevenson.’ It is probably wrong of me to draw my own conclusions about Alice’s fatigues, especially when she found such conclus­ions so fatiguing.

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