What sort of man?

P.N. Furbank

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

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

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

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

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

His life, as is well known, was an endless series of (often near-mortal) physical collapses and recoveries, his ailments taking all sorts of forms, accesses of blindness, kidney infections, prostrating influenza and malaria as well as pulmonary haemorrhages. His courage and gaiety under these afflictions was a favourite theme among his admirers; but here one has a cavil. For as soon as Stevenson arose from a sickbed he would be ferociously punishing his body, doing 25-mile mountain climbs, sleeping in ditches, crossing the American continent in horrifying discomfort or (this was his honeymoon) ‘roughing it’ in a deserted silver-miner’s shack. Now, nobody asked him to do this, and it was in no particular good cause; nor did it express any joyous renewal of physical well-being, for it often made him feel terrible or even suicidal and certainly did him great harm. Risking his health evidently had virtue in his eyes for its own sake, as a form of heroic theatre. On the other hand, as one cannot help reflecting, this lust for endurance and its agonies fed into one of his finest pieces of writing, ‘The Flight in the Heather’ in Kidnapped, so after all we have no reason to complain.

The letters in the present two volumes take Stevenson through his boyhood and desultory schooling in Edinburgh; through his first years at Edinburgh University and unsuccessful attempts to train for his father’s (and grandfather’s) profession as civil engineer (the Stevensons built many of the lighthouses on Scotland’s coast); and then through a further year or two at the University, studying – or for the most part not studying – for the law. This, according to his own account, was a roistering period, much of it spent in low pubs and high talk with his cousin ‘Bob’ Stevenson.

This brings us to 1873, which for Stevenson was a year of crisis, amply described in his letters. He had so far been on very affectionate terms with his parents and, an only child with wretched health and physique, had been much indulged. The household was firmly Calvinistic, not however in a puritanical way, drinking and card-playing being allowed – though, unknown to his parents, Louis’s beloved nurse ‘Cummy’ would give him nightmares with her terrifying talk about damnation.

It so happened, however, that one day Stevenson’s father Thomas came on a document drawn up by Louis and his friends – it was the constitution of a secret society known as the ‘L.J.R.’ – calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and a rejection of the doctrines of the Established Church. It caused him to grill Louis about his religious beliefs, and when Louis frankly admitted he was a non-believer, the happiness of the household was wrecked. His father, a passionate and moody man, had been deeply wounded and shocked. He told Louis, ‘you have rendered my whole life a failure,’ while his mother lamented, ‘this is the heaviest affliction that has ever befallen me.’ Louis was overcome with misery, though in a wry way also amused, at the spectacle of his father sitting reading Butler’s Analogy in the hope of bringing the wanderer back into the fold, and his mother urging him to join Mr Nicholson’s young men’s Bible class.

During the summer he escaped to Cockfield Rectory in Suffolk, the home of his cousin Maud Babington, and there, in this impressionable mood, he fell passionately in love with the beautiful Frances Jane Sitwell – a woman ten years older than himself and surrounded with an aura of tragedy, being estranged from her husband and having recently lost one of her sons. On his return to Edinburgh he began writing to Frances Sitwell by almost every post. There was, indeed, plenty to tell her, for the family situation had grown even worse. A young relation of his, on his deathbed, had accused Bob Stevenson of being the ‘blight’ or ‘mildew’ who had corrupted Louis’s faith, and as a consequence, Thomas Stevenson forbade Bob the house. Thomas was no Theobald Pontifex, nevertheless he was a formidable man, capable of threatening to cut Louis off without an inheritance. Louis’s mother went away, and for some weeks father and son were thrown on each other’s company, quarrelling or anxiously avoiding the bitter topic. To Louis, who was fond of his father, it seemed a hopeless situation. ‘Oh dear God, I don’t know what to do – the world goes hopelessly round about me – there is no more possibility of doing, living, being anything but a beast and there’s the end of it.’ When for a couple of days there was no answer to his ramping, lamenting letters to Frances Sitwell he would decide that everything was lost and finished there too.

Bad health came to his rescue. With the doctors’ aid he was able to persuade his parents to let him spend the winter of 1873-4 in Menton, and by the time he returned the family situation had calmed down. The lavish outpourings to Frances Sitwell had continued; and when she made it plain they were not to become lovers in the physical sense, he converted her into his ‘Dearest Mother’ and his ‘Madonna’. A new chapter in his life began when, in February 1875, he struck up an acquaintance, soon to become an ardent friendship, with the poet W.E. Henley, who was receiving treatment in the Old Surgical Hospital.

In the summer of this year and the next he joined his cousin Bob among the painters at Barbizon, where, once again, he fell in love with a married woman ten years older than himself, his future wife Fanny Osbourne. All this time he had been practising to write. With the encouragement of Leslie Stephen, he had had an essay and article or two published; and during 1878 he published the stories later collected as his New Arabian Nights. In June 1878 Fanny’s husband ordered her to return to America. Louis went on a solitary walking tour in the Cévennes, celebrated in Travels with a Donkey. He may perhaps, for the moment, have given up the affair with Fanny as a lost cause; and the concluding letters in the present volumes show him, as often in these years, confused, hard up and inclined to be despondent, but as ever full of elaborate theories about himself. He wrote to Henley in April:

I don’t care, if I’m ill or well; I’ll be a good man. I’ll grow better every day, or be damned. I think I have little to be sorry for, when I look widely. I fight the fight. If people knew all that was in my mind, they would know me at least, and know besides that I have parted company with half of man and nearly half of myself.

As the dark language of this conveys, the question ‘what sort of man am I?’ was a favourite with Stevenson, but not one to which he could ever really find the answer. When in 1880 he tried to write a retrospective memoir (‘Memoirs of Himself’), he had to admit the task proved quite beyond him. ‘I have long given up all idea of autobiographical writing. Truly this is not for lack of trial; again and again have I embarked on that business, and again and again with results that I can only describe as revolting.’ The nature of the problem may be perceived from a tell-tale detail. Stevenson, writing of his childhood in the ‘Memoirs’, speaks of his ‘own small and troubled soul’, and elsewhere he speaks of ‘praying for sleep or morning from the bottom of my shaken little body’. There is a kind of rule in autobiography that an adult is off the track if he refers to his childish self as ‘little’ or ‘small’: a child thinks of himself or herself as a perfectly ordinary and proper size. Further, when Stevenson writes disgustedly that as a child, for all that he nursed heroic daydreams, he was ‘sentimental, snivelling, goody, morbidly religious’ (‘I hope and do believe I am a better man than I was a child’), he is evidently projecting back into his childhood a nagging conflict really belonging to the present time. It would present no particular problem for a child, it would constitute no conflict, to picture itself as at one and the same time the boldest slayer of tyrants or redskins and Edinburgh’s shiningest example of prayerful humility. One detects the same problem in the queer contrast between Stevenson’s accounts of himself and his cousin Bob as desperate, rakehell fellows and his earnest and improving tone when writing to Bob (October 1868) about ethics.

For a long time back my mind has been in an unhealthy state of agitation and filled with a silent shifting of squadrons, if so I may speak, that seems to shadow forth some great advance or great retreat. Let me hope the former. Among the subjects which particularly disturbed me and gave me pain was the fact that my life, though by me most keenly enjoyed was of use to no one else. A dead pandering to the senses: simply such life as we see shadowed forth in the works of Keats, who, by the way, I almost think more destructive than Swinburne.

To be lacking in self-knowledge puts one in a weak position for coping with others, as is to be seen in his climactic quarrel with Henley, which was one of the factors that encouraged him to exile himself from Britain. Fanny had published a story, ‘The Nixie’, based on an idea borrowed from Bob Stevenson’s sister Katharine de Mattos; and when Henley wrote to Stevenson saying (fairly good-humouredly) that he could not understand why Fanny had given Katharine no acknowledgment, Stevenson, who took this as an attack on himself, reacted with bewildered rage, despatching one furious letter after another, demanding a public retraction, and more or less deciding to write Henley out of his life. Because of the fever of his own feelings, he could make no real effort to think his way into anybody else’s.

The question what sort of man he was went hand in hand for Stevenson with the other question, what sort of writer he was, or would like to be; and here there was something more definite to be done. As he related himself, he ‘played the sedulous ape’ to a whole string of authors – Hazlitt, Lamb, Wordsworth, Sir Thomas Browne, Defoe, Hawthorne, Montaigne and Baudelaire – and the experiment paid off. By the time of Treasure Island he had created for himself, not only a wonderfully uncluttered narrative line, but also – benefiting from the verbal licence granted to the historical novelist – a very beautiful prose instrument, an unobtrusive but most carefully-chosen selection of ‘handsome’ words. ‘And so,’ the unschooled Jim Hawkins relates to us, ‘we set forth upon the bosom of the anchorage’ – each item in this sentence quietly replacing an everyday word or phrase with a more evocative synonym. Much of the secret of Treasure Island lies in this marriage of a sophisticated literary prose to a frankly boyish fantasy. Henry James, indeed, stakes a larger claim for its author and speaks of ‘the singular maturity of expression that he has given to young sentiments’. ‘He judges them, measures them, sees them from the outside, as well as entertains them.’ It is a brilliantly conceived apologia for Stevenson, the best that can be made, but I can’t quite manage to go along with it. It seems to me a basic mistake to tell oneself that this highly-skilled craftsman was also profound and a serious author in the Joyce or Kafka sense. Nevertheless, the world would be a poorer place without Treasure Island and Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, just as it would be without The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

But if literature was Stevenson’s salvation, when it comes to his letters the trouble is that he can never resist practising literature. He feels he must be composing expert nature descriptions, in a style more adapted to a novel; or indulging in learned whimsy (‘Sabbatic Peace was the order of the day. Cummy smiled and all faces relaxed in the genial sunshine of her favour. We envied not Lucullus his banquets’); or throwing off smart apothegms (‘After a good woman, a good book and tobacco, there’s nothing so agreeable on earth as a river’), with a gesture towards some vast fund of worldly knowledge. In a letter of 18 June 1869, he writes: ‘I know nothing so suggestive of legend, so full of superstition, so stimulating to a weird imagination, as the nooks and corners and bye-ways of such a church, as St Magnus in Kirkwall.’ It catches perfectly the note of some sedate little guidebook, composed perhaps by a local clergyman, but – one cannot help thinking – it comes very oddly from an 18-year-old youth to his own mother.

Even at the height of the crisis in 1873, the time of his agonising quarrel with his father and his falling in love with Frances Sitwell, he was already – he admitted as much to Frances – trying to turn his experience into a work of fiction. From which it presumably follows that he was keeping copies of his letters. ‘Have just stopped to make my first addition to Claire’, he writes to her on 12 October 1873 (‘Claire’ being his pet name for her). ‘I have added some few sentences out of this letter, making the meaning clearer of course and trying to better the loose expression one uses in really writing letters to dear friends’.

One sees how, with a little twist of circumstances – and certainly if it were a question of conversation rather than letters – all this egotism and phrase-making and exhibitionism, in a word the splashing, all-over-the-place quality of Stevenson’s personality, could easily be engaging and attractive and seem all part of a dazzling, life-enhancing ‘act’. But in cold print I have to confess it tends to make one fidget and sometimes groan.