Dreams of Exile

Robert Louis Stevenson continues to represent the problematic relationship between popularity and serious literature. At the height of his fame in the final two decades of the nineteenth century, he appealed to the widest public, from juvenile readers to prime ministers. Ian Bell, in this his first book, takes up the cause of Stevenson’s literary genius. By stripping away exaggerated legends created in the wake of Stevenson’s early death at the age of forty-four, he presents a more plausible case for the author’s enduring contribution to literature.

Stevenson was born in 1850, the only child of a prosperous family of engineers. A frail boy, he was frequently ill, leading to an enforced isolation which sharpened his imagination, prolonged his dependence upon others, and heightened the influence of his nurse, Alison Cunningham, whose romantic Calvinism illuminated the potential horrors of failing to follow the strict code of duty required by God and the Church of Scotland. Bell shows that though Stevenson routinely and deliberately strayed from the path of middle-class respectability, he never rejected his father’s financial help or fully escaped from a sense of obligation to Scotland and his thoroughly Scottish ancestors.

Until the publication of TREASURE ISLAND in 1883, Stevenson was known principally as an essayist, a fine craftsman without original ideas. Travels occasioned by frequent illness, for example, like other routine experiences, were turned into clever descriptive narratives. Yet these and other familiar essays were common fare in the expanding periodical press of the period. Stevenson’s fame derived rather from his capable storytelling in novels such as TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED (1886), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886), and THE MASTER OF BALLANTRAE (1889), which captured the imagination of a public seeking escape from the dull routines of modern life.

Bell’s treatment of Stevenson’s life is concise and impressionistic, focusing on personal character rather than literary criticism. It carefully examines the literary influences of his wife and friends, his frequent illnesses, and his constant need for money. According to Bell, Stevenson was just entering his maturity as a writer at the time of his death, with the unfinished WEIR OF HERMISTON (1894) testifying to the steady growth of his literary skills. The author sometimes strains for effect, but his biography is at once well informed, creative, plausible and vivid, and is an excellent introduction to the life of Robert Louis Stevenson.