It may come as a surprise to the casual reader to discover that a collected edition of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson runs to thirty-two volumes, for that same casual reader probably knows of Stevenson as an author of no more than three or four adventure novels, mainly for children, a slim volume of children’s verse, and perhaps a few essays. The casual reader is almost sure to have some remembrance of Stevenson as a gallant young man who struggled cheerfully against a life-long illness and roamed and died in the most romantic circumstances. The lack of awareness of the thirty-two volumes is probably accounted for by the over-awareness of the romantic life.
The life is the main subject of Jenni Calder’s book, although she claims it is not a biography but a life study—an attempt to explore and explain a man and a writer. The main thrust is made clear early in the work, where Calder asserts that the most important thing to emerge from a study of Stevenson’s life is that “his genius lay in who and what he was, rather than in the products of his pen.” This may seem to be a startling admission to be found in the life of a literary figure, but in the case of Stevenson it is clearly correct. Virtually every page gives testimony to the attractiveness of Stevenson’s personality. The reactions of his English literary friends to the news of his death were almost entirely in terms of the loss of a beloved, generous, and vivid personality, rather than of the loss of a talented writer and the products of his genius. That the author herself has fallen under the spell of the man is clear from the closing pages where she says that “to get to know the man is an exciting and moving experience.”
This dichotomy between man and writer, between what he was and what he did, raises a fundamental question in biography: whether the life of any writer has any importance for the outside world other than it is the life of a writer. In the broad, human sense, the life of any man, known in its well-springs and hidden places, can or even should be of interest to other men. The proper study of mankind is, after all, man. In a practical sense, however, the life of writers such as Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and Bernard Shaw is of interest or significance precisely because of their works, which can be better understood or appreciated if more is known about their lives. From the critical or scholarly point of view, if not from the theological or philosophical, the life exists for the works, which come first.
Although it may be difficult to re-create at this distance, there can be no denying the attractiveness of Stevenson the man. What he seemed to be was almost what he was. He had virtually no enemies, and he seldom quarreled with anyone. Close friends and casual acquaintances give testimony to their delight in his company. He was physically striking, with a lank frame, dark, deep-set eyes, a full brow, and a face that was mobile and lively. People from Sidney Colvin and Henry James, pillars of the literary establishment, to sea captains and Samoan natives were drawn to him. Wherever he settled, however briefly, friends and admirers would begin to arrive. By every evidence, he was, from his school days in Edinburgh on, something much more than simply a likable chap, a Scottish Dale Carnegie. He was gay and witty in conversation, charming and fun-loving in company. Both men and women fell equally under his spell; he could drink with the boys and talk with the ladies. His eccentricities of dress and manner and his mild iconoclasm were not such as to evoke fear or distrust, but only served to make him more attractive to many. Above all, he was cheerful, and sincerity shone from his striking eyes.
To all of this must be added his openness to experience, his frank delight in other people and in new adventures. Surely it is this quality that explains why he was so good with children; he shared their games, took them at their own valuation, and did not talk down to them. Calder details well this openness, and it is certainly one of the things which makes most of Stevenson’s work a pleasure to read. All who knew him commented on the life and vitality, which, while it often must have been simply Stevenson having a good time, was certainly infectious. He gloried in good talk, good wine, and exciting fellowship. Calder shows clearly, however, that there were occasional dark patches in his optimistic cheerfulness; when beset by bouts of illness and drained psychically by the demands of those about him, he could be testy and wounding. It rarely lasted long, however, nor did it happen often, and the reader is more likely to feel “Who can blame him!”
To the portrait of Stevenson must be added the coloring of his physical debility (tuberculosis or something like it) and his renowned cheerfulness and optimism in the face of such adversity. Other romantic elements in the picture would be a reputation like John Keats’ for dying young of a wasting disease (though forty-four is not very young and the disease which dogged him all his life was not what killed him), a reputation like Lord Byron’s for selflessly taking the part of a native race (although Stevenson’s actual efforts...
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