Heliotrope

John Sutherland

  • Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of Exile by Ian Bell
    Mainstream, 295 pp, £14.99, November 1992, ISBN 1 85158 457 9

Ian Bell protests his disqualifications as a biographer rather too much: ‘I have approached Stevenson in the most unscholarly way. I am a journalist, and do not pretend to be anything else.’ But Bell, as he is at pains to point out, is a Scottish journalist and it is through the privilege of shared race and place of origin that he claims a blood-intimacy denied scholars. The key to Stevenson’s personality, as Bell apprehends it, is that however far he travelled, he could never leave. Scotland came too. In the wilds of Northern California, where he and his wife spent their honeymoon as Silverado squatters, Stevenson pondered the paradoxes of being a Scot out of Scotland. Many emigrants sentimentalise the old country – not least fellow Celts like the Welsh and Irish. But the difference with Scots is that, however moist-eyed, they carry with them an undimmed recollection of how awful the place was and how right any sane person is to get out and stay out: ‘There is no special loveliness in that gray country, with its rainy, sea-beat archipelago; its fields of dark mountains; its unsightly places, black with coal; its treeless, sour, unfriendly-looking cornlands; its quaint, gray, castled city, where the bells clash of a Sunday, and the wind squalls, and the salt showers fly and beat. I do not even know if I desire to live there; but let me hear, in some far land, a kindred voice sing out, “Oh, why left I my hame?” and it seems at once as if no beauty under the kind heavens, and no society of the wise and good, can repay me for my absence from my country. And though I think I would rather die elsewhere, yet in my heart of hearts I long to be buried among good Scots clods.’

Stevenson had his first wish: he died as far from Scotland as it was possible to get before the invention of space travel (he also died before refrigeration reached Samoa – his body received a swift tropical burial in the alien clods of Mount Vaea). He was not, as was popularly supposed, detained in the South Seas by tuberculosis. His disease had been arrested some years before at Swiss and American sanatoria. Stevenson could have returned to Scotland without risk and had the money to do so in some style. As he said, he was there because ‘I simply prefer Samoa.’ More particularly, he preferred the weather. Edinburgh, he had written in an early work, when he was still a prisoner in the city, has ‘one of the vilest climates under heaven ... The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright necrological purgatory in spring.’ Five generations of Stevensons before Louis had braved the Scottish elements, designing lighthouses that defied the worst the country’s storms could throw at them. (Their most famous achievement was the Bell Rock lighthouse, a miracle of marine engineering.) Louis turned tail and ran. He was not going to be a Lighthouse Stevenson, but the family’s first heliotrope.

Nevertheless, in his last two years in Upolu, Stevenson’s mind was drawn irresistibly back to rain and Edinburgh. The closer he came to death, the more he thought of his childhood. This pull homeward and childward is reflected in the touching epigraph to his last, incomplete work. Weir of Hermiston, written among the frangipani and in the brilliant sunshine of Upolu:

I saw rain falling and the rainbow drawn
On Lammermuir. Hearkening I heard again
In my precipitous city beaten bells
Winnow the keen sea wind. And here afar,
Intent on my own race and place, I wrote.

‘I shall never see Auld Reekie,’ Stevenson wrote to his fellow Scottish novelist S.R. Crockett from Samoa in May 1893, eighteen months before his death: ‘I shall never set my foot upon the heather. Here I am until I die and here will I be buried.’ But, as he told another correspondent, his head was ‘filled with the blessed, beastly place [i.e. Scotland] all the time’. It was in these months that he conceived what would have been his greatest Scottish novel and wrote part of it down, the fragment of Weir of Hermiston.

Ian Bell – like Jenni Calder and James Pope-Hennessy – has written a biography as readable as a romance. Not that Bell surrenders anything to the romantic stereotypes that cluster round RLS. On the dark pockets of Stevenson’s life, he takes a very sober line. In reaction to Balfour’s ‘barley sugar effigy’ in his 1901 authorised biography, a school of 20th-century muckrakers has made much of the young man’s alleged roistering in the hell-holes of night-time Leith. While writing his book, Bell reports that he was ‘asked more than once if it was true that Stevenson was a pederast’. Another set of legends gives credence to a super-virile RLS, who left behind him a string of happily exhausted whores and a spawn of bastards (there have, over the years, been actual claimants). Much of this mythology draws on Stevenson’s own declaration to Sidney Colvin that he ‘never saw the prostitute yet that could resist me’. It was probably empty boasting. Bell concludes that the legends of the ‘period of Jink’ are unsubstantiated. He concedes on one page that RLS may have lost his virginity in an Edinburgh brothel – ‘many men did.’ But on the next page, Bell seems not even sure of this commonplace debauchery.

Bell similarly downplays Stevenson’s adolescent rebellion against his father. Unlike Pope-Hennessy, he does not highlight Thomas Stevenson’s agonised declaration on being told his son was an agnostic: ‘You have rendered my whole life a failure.’ When he discovered that his son was actually preaching atheism to other young men, Thomas went further: ‘I would ten times sooner have seen you lying in your grave.’ (This surely is the inspiration for the implacable Weir of Hermiston, who – had the novel got that far – would have consigned his son to the gallows.) Bell instructively stresses another, more perplexing aspect of Thomas Stevenson: his practice of rewarding Louis with gifts of money every time he committed some heinous act of rebellion. When he turned against the Presbyterian faith, Louis was given a handsome allowance. When he neglected the law he was rewarded with a thousand pounds. When he ran away to America to live in sin with a married woman old enough to be his mother the straitlaced Thomas first made as if to disown his errant son then sent a telegram: ‘Count on 250 pounds annually.’ These mixed signals suggest that, like other fathers, Thomas unconsciously admired his son for having broken free.

The aspect that Bell stresses most is not debauchery or Oedipal rebellion but chronic invalidism. The first long quotation in the book is Stevenson’s unexaggerated claim to Meredith in 1893: ‘For 14 years I have not had a day’s real health; I have awakened sick and gone to bed weary; and I have done my work unflinchingly. I have written in bed, and written out of it, written in haemorrhages, written in sickness, written torn by coughing, written when my head swam for weakness.’

Illness robbed RLS of his youth. At 20, he declared: ‘I am a man of seventy.’ He went from childhood to old age without passing through manhood. It is tempting to jump from this to W.E. Henley’s spiteful, but convincing, portrait of an emotionally retarded Narcissus: ‘Stevenson was ... incessantly and passionately interested in Stevenson. He could not be in the same room with a mirror but he must invite its confidences every time he passed it.’ He never grew up; this was the basis of the boyish charm that fascinated Henry James and all those other competent Late Victorians (Sidney Colvin, Edmund Gosse, Charles Baxter) who worried interminably about the great question, ‘what to do with Louis?’

Perhaps they need not have worried. ‘Thin legged! thin-chested!’ Louis revealed considerable ability to look after himself and boss others in his last years. He captained his yacht, was appointed honorary chief and tale-teller (‘Tusitala’) by the grateful islanders whose cause he championed in the columns of the Times, and gathered around him enough hangers-on to satisfy any Victorian paterfamilias. At various times he and Fanny had as dependents the novelist’s widowed mother Maggie, Fanny’s grown-up son Lloyd and daughter Belle, and Belle’s shiftless artist husband, Joe Strong. Anthropologists might have found the Stevensons’ tribal arrangements as interesting as those of the Polynesians. Eventually this motley troupe of Scots and Americans settled at Upolu where Stevenson, playing the laird, built what he called ‘my Abbotsford’ – the mansion Vailima. (It has recently been acquired on a 20-year-lease by the Mormons who propose to establish a museum and a chairlift to Stevenson’s tomb on the summit of Mount Vaea.)

Nevertheless, there remained in Stevenson something ineradicably childish. He was prone to tantrums – on one famous occasion throwing a bottle of wine against a restaurant wall because he found it corked. A feature that film-makers always overlook is that Hyde is portrayed in the book as dwarfish and childish in size, if adult enough in his vices. Stevenson’s solution to the Irish problem – unrestrained use of the Gatling gun – suggests that he never outgrew his Calvinist detestation of wicked Catholics. The portrait of Weir of Hermiston is magnificent, but again there is something childish in Stevenson’s combining the image of his father (the wholly un-frightening Thomas) with that of Scotland’s greatest bogeyman, Lord Braxfield, the ‘Scottish Jeffreys’.

Not many people, it must be said, would have wanted to remain locked in Stevenson’s childhood. He was the only child of a mother who found his procreation and birth so unpleasant that she developed permanent ‘weak health’ to prevent any repetition of the events. After her husband’s death Maggie Stevenson joined her son in the South Seas and astonished everyone with her shipboard vigour, even jumping in and out of her sea hammock with the agility of Jack Tar. She easily outlived her son. But during his childhood her ill-health took precedence over his. While she was cossetted, the sickly Lewis (as he was then called) was left to the charge of ‘Cummy’, the nurse who slept in his room until he was ten and who drove him into night terrors that only she could calm. Her entertainments amounted to a non-stop Hammer movie – ‘blood-curdling tales of the Covenanters’ and grisly legends of Burke and Hare. Cummy, a primitive Calvinist bigot, convinced the infant Lewis of his inevitable and imminent damnation. ‘I would fear to trust myself to slumber,’ he recalled, ‘lest I was not accepted and should slip, ere I awoke, into eternal ruin.’ According to his mother, he was ‘distressed to hear that sheep and horses did not know about God’. Cummy’s violent theology remained with him through life. In late life, on a coral island, Stevenson idly broke off a lump of ancient weathered rock and found it ‘full of pendent worms as long as my hand, as thick as a child’s finger, of a slightly pinkish white, and set as close as three or four to the square inch’. The very rock on which paradise rested was, he realised ‘part alive, part putrescent’ It was confirmation of what he already knew.

When he went for the first time to Provence the light entranced Stevenson. If he ever had a faith thereafter, it was sun worship. It was in the south that Stevenson also discovered sexual freedom. His tastes were particular. He liked married women, many years older than himself, with children, and separated from their husbands. His relationships with such women – although erotic – were low-powered sexually. His first such affair was as a callow 23-year-old with the 35-year-old Mrs Albert Sitwell. But the love of his life was Fanny Osbourne – ten years older – whom he met at the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing in the summer of 1876. Fanny had just lost a child to tuberculosis. Her quasi-maternal role in the relationship was cemented when she was called on soon after to nurse Louis through a mysterious eye infection which temporarily blinded him. It was not until three years later that Fanny secured a divorce from her scapegrace husband Sam. Earlier in their marriage he had disappeared and been thought killed by Indians. He returned, like a bad penny. After the divorce Sam disappeared again; he may ultimately have been murdered – no one knows. It is clear from The Master of Ballantrae, where Sam is represented as James Durie, that Stevenson was racked with jealousy about his predecessor in Fanny’s bed. Sam had fathered children on Fanny. Although she had pregnancy scares and what Bell assumes to have been a phantom pregnancy at the time of her menopause, the Stevensons had no children in their marriage. Fanny’s biographer, Margaret Mackay, speculates that this failure – together with Louis’s growing preference for the younger Belle – drove Fanny to the shattering psychotic breakdowns of the Samoan period. And it was a cerebral haemorrhage, presumably brought on by stress, that prematurely killed Stevenson. No biographer can know, but it seems that the later years of the marriage were anything but paradisal.

Stevenson has a centenary coming up in 1994. There will be other biographies, which may be more scholarly but will probably be less useful than Bell’s very level-headed and well-written book. Edinburgh University has a complete edition of the works in hand, and critical monographs are crowding their way through the learned presses. Presumably the ‘functionally illiterate Hollywood executives’ (as Bell calls them) and the Mormon chairlift will also do their bit to give RLS his rightful place in posterity’s sun.